Leading article: No boycott and no bullying, please

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The Independent Online

Setting in motion a boycott of a country's institutions is not a decision to be taken lightly and Israel is a very different country from apartheid South Africa. It is a democracy, for a start and, as Ronnie Fraser, delegate for Natfhe, the National Association of Teachers of Further and Higher Education, and chairman of the Academic Friends of Israel, said at last weekend's conference, academics at Israeli universities have not been silenced or sacked for criticising their government's policies towards the Palestinians. To that extent, therefore, we disagree with the motion passed at the Natfhe conference calling on all members to examine their consciences and consider whether to boycott both universities and their staff in Israel.

Several of the conference delegates complained about the ferocious e-mail campaign organised by Israeli academics and other pro-Israeli groups in an attempt to quash the motion. These were sent to union members once the motion became public. Leading officers of the union were accused of being anti-Semitic, written off as "scum" and subjected to veiled threats of violence.

Let us be clear: it is not anti-Semitic to oppose the policies of the Israeli government any more than it is anti-Christian to oppose the policies of Tony Blair. Natfhe members opposing the motion were critical of the treatment of the Palestinian people whose schools and homes have been destroyed by the Israelis. This Israeli e-mail campaign was counterproductive. Some delegates said they had been minded not to support the boycott - but later became determined that they would not be bullied by one side.

Let us remember that, when it passed the motion, Natfhe had only four days left before it merged with the Association of University Teachers to become the University and College Union. The motion will now have to be reappraised by the new union. And the AUT has history with this issue. Last year it approved a similar motion to the one that Natfhe passed last weekend but had to rescind it a few weeks later because of widespread opposition from its members to ending scientific, artistic and educational links established over many years with Israeli universities. History may well repeat itself again.