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June 14, 2007

Boycotts, Israel, Trade Unions and Labour

Posted by Jeremy Black

The boycott of Israel by the university academics' Union will have little practical impact. Yet, argues Prof. Jeremy Black of Exeter University, it is still a deeply troubling and dangerous step.

One of the happy consequences of having resigned over twenty years ago from the Association of University Teachers (AUT) has been that I heard only indirectly, if at all, about the activities, not to say antics, of the Union. I resigned in response to the Union's support for the miners' strike, support that I thought inappropriate in every respect, not least because I predicted that it would lead to the demise of the local coal industry (I taught at Durham from 1980).

Happily, universities were not closed shops so bar some occasional abuse from colleagues, most of whom then were members of the Union, I was able to be largely oblivious of the Union. The sole problem was at times of proposed or actual industrial action because that tended to focus on exam boycotts, a course of action that, aside from being unfair to students, also wrecks the marking of those (the majority) who ignore the strike call as you need the marks from all of the papers in order to provide the student with an aggregate grade. These boycotts do not do wonders for relations between staff, but, over the years, this has become a less serious issue, first, as Union membership has declined and, secondly, because you get used to ignoring and seeking to circumvent and undermine boycotts, just as I have got used to crossing picket lines when students "strike" and, more seriously, when ancillary workers do so.

In my own university, Exeter, where I have held the Established Chair in History since 1996, the Union is particularly weak. For years, it has proved very difficult to find anyone to agree to be an officer in the branch, and the last national exam "inaction" revealed that the majority of the Union members were unwilling to support Union policy; the variations by subject were very interesting.

As a result, the proposal by the Union, now the Universities and Colleges Union, for a national boycott of academic links with Israel might seem to be an inconsequential interlude or an unintentional joke. Given that most academics in the old universities are not actually members of the Union, and that membership is even more limited among those who are, in the jargon, "research-active", let alone senior, it is unlikely that peer-group pressure is going to be much of a factor. Indeed, in my entire career, I have only personally come across two British academics who support the boycott, and one of those, a one-time Union activist, is retired.

Does it matter then? Even if it comes off, and that is still unclear, the boycott will have very limited impact. Indeed, it will serve, rather, to underline the marginality of the Union. Unfortunately, the proposal, nevertheless, is of consequence. This is not so much because of its results in practice, at least immediately so, as due to the significance that may be attached to it. It is not understood abroad, nor indeed in Britain, that the Union is unrepresentative and weak. As a consequence, there will be a perception that the boycott is of wider significance than is in fact the case. Moreover, it is possible that this boycott, as part of a wider process, will acquire a normative character, or, at least, shift the parameters of normative debate. This clearly is an objective of the boycott and of those who criticise Israel. The boycott is designed to encourage further boycotting and is part of a wider process, with another unrepresentative Union, that for journalists, taking a similar path.

Shifting the norms can risk creating an atmosphere in which the pluralism of opinion that is crucial to democracy is limited, and even closed down. The impact of boycotts therefore will be more strongly felt in Britain than in Israel or any other country. This closing down of pluralism raises the question not solely of the appropriateness of trade unions calling for boycotts but also of the dangers that such a practice may lead to. The academics do not really count, but if a major union such as Unison was to sponsor a boycott then the situation could be much more serious. Indeed, in these circumstances, the votes leading to boycotts may lead to a pseudo-plebiscitary system.

The unions also remain powerful in Labour, as the election for the deputy-leadership indicates. The Party has failed to respond to the challenge posed by the boycott. Given the links between the Party and the unions, this is a serious issue and one that repays discussion, not least as the unions are likely to be more influential under Gordon Brown.

Boycotts of Israel also raise the issue of anti-Semitism. Indeed, speaking in the USA, the question of whether opposition to Israel is related to anti-Semitism is frequently raised. From my very limited experience, the answer is in part yes and in part no. Much of the criticism is specifically of Israeli occupation of territories conquered in 1967, and part of that is voiced by Jews, matching the debate within Israel, a point that is not always sufficiently appreciated.

However, some of the criticism of Israel is of a different character and there is an anti-Semitic component. This point should not close down discussion but it needs to be borne in mind, and those who are critical of Israel have an obligation to show that they are avoiding anti-Semitism.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. He is the author - amongst much else - of The Slave Trade (Social Affairs Unit, 2007) and A Short History of Britain (Social Affairs Unit, 2007).


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The idea of a boycott against one country's academics is profoundly collectivist. Why should academics be punished for the actions of their government?

Posted by: Alex Singleton at June 17, 2007 10:14 PM
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