Education letters: UCU's Palestine stance

Thursday 12 June 2008 00:00 BST

Lorna Fitzsimons misstates the position of the University and College Union regarding Israeli universities ("The UCU is wasting time and money" EDUCATION & CAREERS, 5 June 2008. There was no boycott motion debated at congress. Linda Newman, outgoing president of UCU, explicitly stated this in seconding the Palestine motion, saying she would not have supported it if it were.

The motion was supported by an overwhelming majority of congress, including boycott supporters, many opposing the boycott and more who are undecided. What united the people voting in favour was their anger at Israel's continued occupation of Palestinian territories; the constant disruption in the daily lives of Palestinian lecturers and students, making normal university life impossible; and the involvement of many academics in Israeli universities as members of the Israeli army enforcing the occupation and in research contributing to the maintenance of it.

The motion does not refer to nationality: it includes non-Israelis working in Israeli universities and excludes the many Israelis working abroad. That Mr Rammell was similarly misinformed does not strengthen Ms Fitzsimon's case. The motion addressed two main issues: the institutional position of Israeli universities; and Ariel College, set up within an illegal settlement on land criminally expropriated and with an academic mission to support the still-expanding settlement programme.

I have not seen the legal opinion the union received and was calling for its publication long before Fitzsimons asked for this. I have, however, read the Stop the Boycott opinion and, even as a non-lawyer, can see it is riven with weak logic and poor argument: it is not a dispassionate account of the law, it is an advocacy brief making the best of a weak case. It rests on a series of dubious extrapolations of the type: if A is true and A were to lead to B and B to C and C is illegal then A is illegal, but throughout, neither the initial postulate not the chain of causality stand up to scrutiny.

The union is not "sanctioning discrimination and harassment of its own members, based on their passport or affiliations" and no evidence is given for this assertion. If we saw the UK Government applying pressure to the Israeli government to end the occupation it might not be necessary for UCU to take the lead, but we see no such pressure.

Mike Cushman, LSE UCU delegate to congress

The UCU's outgoing president, Linda Newman, who seconded the motion on Palestine, is not paid to promote any particular interest in the Middle East. Neither am I, as a member of the UCU's national executive, as a tutor, or as mover of the motion. We both supported the proposal though one of us is opposed to an academic boycott, while the other is persuaded of its efficacy. This was not a boycott motion.

Our response to Fitzsimons would have registered that the motion called for the provision of information to our members, and an invitation to them to reflect on the appropriateness of continued formal links with Israeli academic institutions that are complicit in the occupation. Opposition to barbarity, colonisation and educational discrimination is not just an appropriate activity for a trade union, it is a duty of trade unionists, and particularly for those in education. A commitment to justice does not dissolve at the edges of one's sectional interest, at the boundaries of one's institution, or at the frontiers of one's country

Tom Hickey by email

If Lorna Fitzsimons joined the trade union movement "to combat bullying and harassment in the workplace" she should be fighting for the rights of Palestinians to be relieved of the bullying and harassment that is state policy in Israel, the illegal and brutal occupier of Palestine. Palestinian lecturers have to contend with bullying, harassment and humiliation on their way to work. Their students contend with the same treatment on their way to university. Lecturers and students have been imprisoned without charge and students from Gaza have been barred from taking studying in Europe and America for no good reason. Israel also has policies that discriminate against its own Palestinian citizens. These are reasons why the UCU has discussed what it can do to support lecturers under occupation.

She talks about dialogue as the only way to bring about positive change, but the evidence of dialogue with Israel since Annapolis is clear for all to see. Israel talks peace but practises war, land theft and dispossession. It has no interest in a dialogue for peace but a dialogue for submission and capitulation. It will not get its way with the brave Palestinian people.

What is needed is a campaign of pressure on Israel that will bring it to its senses. This will include boycotts, divestment and sanctions. The example of South Africa is there to see. Would apartheid have ended through dialogue alone?

Kamel Hawwash, Birmingham

Few academics will be impressed by Lorna Fitzsimons's pot pourri of misrepresentation and special pleading. Far from driving a wedge between two peoples, the UCU motion seeks a viable political settlement which diplomacy has failed utterly to deliver.

Far from blocking dialogue, the UCU motion has helped provoke debate. Far from hijacking the union, supporters of the motion advance by persuasion and claims of conscience. What Fitzsimons cannot admit is that the motion's supporters have scrupulously observed union democracy, and steadily grown in number as UK academics increasingly recognise the horrors that their colleagues in Palestine face.

Dr John Chalcraft, lecturer, Department of Government, London School of Economics and Political Science


Susan Bassnett is right to say private universities on the Continent attract top academic staff, but this is also the case in the UK ("It's time for the bold universities to go private", 29 May). Most recently, Professor Barry Rider, former director of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, joined BPP law school as director of LLM programmes.

So what is attracting top academic staff to private instructions here in the UK? It is the "innovation and creative thinking" Ms Bassnett says is impeded in state-funded institutions. The opportunity to design and deliver programmes in a dynamic, professional and creative environment, programmes that engage with employers, and at an institution that treats students as clients rather than a nuisance, is a major attraction for those teaching at the UK's leading state -funded institutions. We are at the beginning of a sea change in higher education.

Peter Crisp, Dean Law School chief executive, BPP College of Professional Studies

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