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October 25, 2007

That the University and College Union voted to boycott Israel's universities says all you need to know about its hard-left activists, argues William D. Rubinstein

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

The vote by the University and College Union - since over-turned on legal advice - to boycott Israel's universities illustrates the fact that only hard-left academics have the time or inclination to attend union meeting, argues William D. Rubinstein, professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth.

In a rare burst of common sense the University and College Union (UCU), the "trade union" for university lecturers, recently announced that, following legal advice, it would not proceed with any steps to boycott Israel's universities. It goes without saying that this is to be welcomed, although the steps leading up to this announcement have been widely misperceived by many commentators, and a word of explanation is in order.

First, there is the nature of the UCU itself. The UCU was formed a year ago by the merger of two previous academic "unions", one catering for staff at the old universities, the other for staff at the old colleges of higher education. Both were always oriented towards the extreme left, and were dominated by ideologically-committed leftists. Membership in the UCU is not compulsory, and it is believed that more than half of academics in Britain are not members of the UCU or its predecessor bodies, including most professors. I might note that I have always been a member of this union, being a good union man.

As can readily be imagined, most academics do not have the slightest time or interest in participating in the UCU. By and large, plainly, the more time an academic devotes to teaching and research, the less time he or she has to devote to boring, bureaucratic union matters, and in particular to boring meetings held at a distance at inconvenient times. Almost necessarily, by what Pareto termed the "iron law of oligarchy", the actual running of the union has fallen, and will continue to fall, into the hands of small groups of committed activists, often ideologically committed extreme leftists, who see the union as a vehicle for engaging in political extremism. Many of these are known to be overt or covert members of the Socialist Workers' Party and similar groups.

The agenda and motions passed by the UCU and its predecessor bodies have always reflected this committed radicalism. Since the Western extreme left hates Israel, and seeks to demonize it at every opportunity, it is unsurprising that Israel should be targeted by the UCU, which de facto is dominated by what Paul Johnson once called the "fascist left".

It should be noted that many of these extremists do not have the slightest interest in securing the ordinary aims of a trade union, better pay and conditions for its members. University academics are surprisingly poorly paid, with new and junior lecturers being paid a salary, probably no more than about 20-25,000, which makes it almost impossible to live at more than the poverty level in London and the south-east. Professors, even eminent ones, are paid roughly half of what a G.P. can earn.

There are obvious compensations for this, including lifetime tenure and, above all, working in a field in which one is genuinely interested and in which one does not simply live for the weekend. Nevertheless, the track record of the UCU and its predecessor bodies in securing parity with other highly skilled professionals is woeful. In part this is because most academics are seen as safe Labour voters, and hence taken for granted by Labour when it is in power and written off by the Tories when they are in power. But in part this is also because of the ideologically-driven motivations of many UCU activists.

In May the UCU at its annual conference voted by 158-99 to institute a "comprehensive boycott" of all Israeli universities. However, the UCU decided that this would have to be preceded by a series of debates between opposing advocates in major universities throughout Britain. This May resolution followed the one passed by the predecessor university union two years ago which advocated a partial boycott of two Israeli universities. It was repealed after a groundswell of opposition from its members.

There seems little doubt that the May vote reflected only the views of the extreme left-wing junta which controls the UCU, and was highly unpopular with its members. Polls have shown that up to 90 per cent of UCU members were opposed to any boycott of Israel's universities. All newspapers in Britain, including the left-wing press, have opposed the boycott, as has every frontbench politician in Parliament.

Self-evidently, any such boycott is utterly unfair if not overtly anti-Semitic. Israel's universities do not make Israeli government policy. Any left-winger who voted for such a policy should, consistently, also be in favour of boycotting Britain's universities because the British government is involved in Iraq. If they were consistent, they would be in favour of boycotting themselves. Moreover, Israel is being singled out alone for boycotting - not Burma, not Zimbabwe, and not any Islamic state where opposition to Islam is often punishable by death.

Many British academics have stated that, should the boycott of Israel proceed, they would ask to be made honorary members of one or another of Israel's universities, in order to have the UCU boycott them as well. It is certain that any UCU boycott would have sparked mass resignations from the UCU, diminishing its value to academics as a trade union still further, and placing UCU power even more emphatically in the hands of the extreme left.

The inner leadership of the UCU - that is, its professional staff including its General Secretary Sally Hunt , not the academics on its national council - realized full-well the destructive potential of the anti-Israel motion, and has broadly done what it can to head off the passing of this resolution. The legal advice it has received will, one hopes and assumes, settle the matter conclusively. If not, the UCU can expect only further turmoil and division. In this instance, common sense has, remarkably, prevailed, although one would be foolish to imagine that this is likely to be the end of the story.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth. He is the author of Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution, (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

To read William D. Rubinstein on the earlier proposed boycott of Israeli universities, see: The British Academic Boycott of Israel: How the fear of Islamist terrorism contributed to its revocation.

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