October 05, 2006

Goldsmiths UCU deals double blow to Engage

I've had some comments that I haven't made it clear enough that what follows is about the Goldsmiths branch of the University and College Union though hopefully it will have implications for the national union and, in time, the international academic community. I've also changed the headline to include the name Goldsmiths. Now read on and enjoy!.

The zionist movement's academic wing suffered a double blow yesterday when a motion proposed by Dr David Hirsh and a Josh Cohen, seeking to keep a boycott of Israel off the union agenda in perpetuity, was defeated by 25 votes to 8 with 2 or 3 abstentions. I got my information from the Just Peace list where a post said 3 abstentions. Engage has a report on the vote where they say there were two abstentions. Lest anyone gets accused of "vicious libel" let's run with 2 abstentions. Anyway, here's the motion:
Motion for GUCU [Goldsmiths University and College] Branch Meeting

1 This branch supports those that are fighting to bring about a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine based on a withdrawal of Israeli forces and settlers from the West Bank and the Gaza strip and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

2 This branch affirms its commitment to academic freedom in both Palestine and Israel.

3 This branch particularly opposes the following two threats to academic freedom in Israel and Palestine:

i. The Israeli occupation, which routinely and sometimes with life-threatening violence, disrupts the freedom of Palestinian academics and students to study, research, teach and move around.

ii. The call for boycotts, which aim to exclude Israeli universities, or people affiliated to Israeli universities, from the global academic community, with or without some kind of political test.

4 This branch resolves to mandate its members of council to oppose at UCU council, any proposals to boycott, or to encourage a boycott, of Israeli universities or academics.

Proposed: David Hirsh

Seconded: Josh Cohen
Now see point 4. It seems to seek an outright ban on the recently formed University and College Union (UCU) from ever considering a boycott of Israel again. It doesn't merely confirm their existing policy of not supporting the boycott at the moment. Now look at the Engage report by this Josh Cohen chap:
David’s motion consisted of an affirmation of solidarity with those on both sides of the Palestinian-Israel conflict fighting for peace; a statement of opposition to the threats to Palestinian academic freedom presented by the Israeli occupation and to Israeli academic freedom by the boycott; and a commitment to mandate our delegates to UCU Council to vote against any proposals for a boycott.

Speaking briefly to the motion as proposer and seconder, we elaborated some of the points in the motion and urged the meeting not to allow a principle of punishing exclusion to drive our policy and distort the causes of peace and justice.

The main argument that the boycotters employed, in addition to the ritual and wearisome denunciations of Israeli ‘barbarism’, was that delegates shouldn't be mandated to vote any specific way on policies, but should have the opportunity to ‘listen to debate’ and make their own judgements. Omitted from this argument were, firstly, the fact that no issue has been debated more exhaustively and decisively within the union, and secondly that two of the candidates standing for nomination to Council already had an explicit position on the boycott. Equally puzzling was the claim that mandating is undemocratic – traditionally a claim employed by the political Right to weasel out of accountability to a constituency. As David asked, in what sense is it ‘undemocratic’ to demand that a delegate follow the wishes of his or her branch members?

The vote came out as: For the motion, 8, Against 25, with 2 Abstentions. Our branch, which last year declared its opposition to the boycott, voted overwhelmingly against a motion affirming that opposition.

The one nominee for Council not elected was David Hirsh. One of those elected, as I’ve mentioned, is a declared proponent of a boycott.

So: a union branch notable just a year ago for its near-unanimous opposition to the boycott has just voted down an anti-boycott motion, elected a delegation likely to support a boycott at the congress, and is left without policy on the issue.
Now, I said double blow didn't I? See that bit near the end:
The one nominee for Council not elected was David Hirsh. One of those elected, as I’ve mentioned, is a declared proponent of a boycott.
So they lost their motion and their man. Well well well.

To be continued, I'm sure.

UPDATE - continued sooner than I thought. I have just received an email copy of a circular that did the rounds of Goldsmiths prior to the vote detailed above:
Dear Goldsmiths Colleague/UCU member and please forward to others

We are writing to draw your urgent attention to a motion that is to be voted on at the next UCU branch meeting and to which we will all be bound if agreed to.

The aim of the motion being put to the GUCU (Goldsmiths Branch of the University and College Union newly formed through the amalgamation of the Association of University Teachers and NATFHE - The University & College Lecturers' Union) is pre-emptively to block the possibility of any action being taken by UCU, now or in the future, which would confront the state of Israel and its academic institutions on the basis of their behaviour. The implication of such a motion is that no boycott or similar action could be pursued in any other context, regardless of political urgency, moral legitimacy or ethical conscience.

Letting this motion pass would mean tying the union's hands for perpetuity in regard to political activities undertaken in solidarity with colleagues in other countries and on the basis of our commitment to equality, dignity and the pursuit of free intellectual activity. In the light of the Israeli state's continued assaults on the rights and livelihoods of Palestinians in general, and Palestinian academics in particular, as well as its recent wanton assault on Lebanon, the argument of this motion is unacceptable. As detailed below, the attempt to dress up the pre-emptive refusal of any boycott with references to `academic freedom' is morally and ethically untenable.

We therefore call for this anti-democratic motion to be unequivocally rejected, and for a serious and open debate to take place with regard to the union's policy vis-à-vis the Israeli state and its academic institutions, as well as regarding any political and solidarity actions collectively undertaken by UCU with respect to other countries and other institutions.

1. The proponents of the motion bolster their arguments with reference to the concept of `academic freedom'. But the freedom to publish, research and teach without undue state interference should not be interpreted as a blanket license for academics (as opposed to civil servants, or others whose livelihood depends on the state) to collude or comply with systematic violence and disregard for human rights, equality and justice – including but not limited to those of their counterparts in Palestine who are suffering the long-running attempt by the Israeli state to undermine any form of independent Palestinian civic, political or intellectual life. To argue that academics, and, more importantly, academic institutions are absolved of responsibility simply by the fact of being academics is a serious misuse of the notion of `academic freedom'.

2. Similarly, it is only a distorted and immoral understanding of `academic freedom' which would permit one to equate or put on the same level, as this motion does, the systematic onslaughts against the academic and physical life of Palestinian academics, with the discomfort experienced by Israeli academics were the international academic community to decide to boycott any official or financial relationship with the institutions in which they work. The current predicaments of Palestinian academics and Israeli academics are simply not comparable, and while our union should be sensitive to the problems and pressures experienced by our Israeli colleagues, solidarity with our Palestinian colleagues is a primary and urgent concern.

3. The proponents of the motion have objected to the link with the South African boycott in two (disconnected, and even incoherent) ways: firstly, by arguing that the South African boycott was not effective, secondly, by stating that the `democratic' nature of the State of Israel falsifies its characterisation as an apartheid state. The first point is disputable, especially as arguments about the inefficacy of the boycott concentrate on financial matters, while eschewing its political and moral impact. As for the second argument, it is based on the utterly untenable premise that we can separate Israel (which in any case does not treat all of its citizens equally) from the Occupied Territories. To say that the occupation and its array of brutal and humiliating measures (from theft of resources and collective punishments to political assassinations) is something going on `outside' of Israel's `democracy' ignores the fact that the occupation and `politicide' of the Palestinian people has been the ongoing policy of the State of Israel, the same state that both funds and is in key respects ideologically and materially sustained by its academic institutions.

4. We believe that institutional boycotts (for example, a moratorium on European funding for Israeli scientific and research programmes) are entirely legitimate and moral forms of action, which our new union can support. Though their tactical efficacy should be discussed, and the nature of their implementation poses important political issues, they cannot be tarred with the brush of prejudice, racism or anti-Semitism. We oppose unequivocally the immoral and ingenuous way that the charge of anti-Semitism has been tacitly or explicitly deployed in an attempt to silence critiques of the systematic abuses of human rights and contraventions of international law by the State of Israel.

Voting against the motion below (see especially point 4) on Wednesday 4 October is not a vote for the boycott but a VOTE AGAINST A SELECTIVE PROTECTION OF ISRAEL FROM BOYCOTT.

By allowing the motion to go through, we will be selectively protecting Israel from boycott and, hence, tacitly consenting to the violence perpetrated against Palestinian civilians and more recently Lebanese civilians.
We haven't heard the last of this.


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