On British boycott, Jews agree on outrage but not on best response

Jews around the world were united this week in denouncing a major British trade union’s decision to consider a boycott of Israeli universities, but they differed over how to respond to such threats.

Some want to fight fire with fire, while others were opting for an appeal to the conscience.

On the more combative side are figures like Harvard University professor Alan Dershowitz, who reportedly is advocating for legislation that would “devastate and bankrupt” British universities that refuse to do business with their Israeli counterparts.

On the other side are groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, which for now prefers to keep the controversy in the rhetorical realm by publishing a number of ads in major international newspapers branding the proposed boycott an act of anti-Semitism.

The differences emerged after the University and College Union, Britain’s largest teachers union, ignored the warnings of its secretary-general and voted May 30 to consider an academic boycott of Israeli universities.

Though most observers say the effort is likely to fail when put before the union’s full membership — four previous British attempts at an academic boycott of Israel have faltered — it nevertheless appears to have inspired other British bodies to consider similar measures.

Almost immediately after the UCU move, the country’s largest trade union, UNISON, decided to consider a boycott motion at its upcoming conference. While UCU represents 120,000 members, UNISON has more than a million.

“The UCU is just one link in the chain,” said Ronnie Fraser, director of Academic Friends of Israel. “The trade union movement is now the battleground.”

Both decisions follow a resolution in April by Britain’s National Union of Journalists condemning Israel’s “savage” attack last summer on Lebanon and calling for sanctions against the Jewish state.

With the boycott movement appearing to gain momentum, Jewish organizational officials are at odds over how to react.

Boycotts themselves have a disturbing pedigree in Jewish memory for their devastating effect on Jewish communities, perhaps most famously in Germany in 1933. The Arab boycott of Israel, too, had a severe effect on the Jewish psyche and an economic cost.

In Israel, the UCU decision was greeted harshly. Knesset member Otniel Schneller introduced a bill Monday, June 4, that would slap British imports with a label reading, “This country is involved in an anti-Israel boycott.”

Israel’s airport union reportedly was considering refusing to unload British exports. And there were reports of canceling the Tel Aviv premiere of the British musical “Mamma Mia!”

Others contemplated softer responses. The Jewish Funders Network, of which the Goldhirsh Foundation is a member, already has collected $200,000 to support exchanges with Israeli academics in the United States and Canada.

Peter Willner, executive vice president of the American Friends of Hebrew University, the American fund-raising arm of the Jerusalem institution, said his organization opposes boycotts in principle and would confine its response to issuing a news release and raising awareness in the academic community.

“The only way to stop all of this is to have the right people stand up and say we’re not going to stand for this,” Willner said. “I think boycotts are an illegitimate tool, and especially when used against the state of Israel.”

Similar efforts to isolate Israel have taken root among trade unions in Canada, South Africa and Ireland. In the United States, sporadic efforts to have universities divest from Israel have been unsuccessful.

Only in Britain has the boycott effort been endorsed by unions of university teachers and journalists — both groups, critics are quick to point out, that profess fidelity to ideals of impartiality and dispassion.

“It really does puzzle me,” said professor Malcolm Grant, president of University College London and head of the Russell Group, a coalition of Britain’s 20 largest research universities.

The coalition issued a statement calling the UCU vote “a contradiction in terms and in direct conflict with the mission of a university.” It echoed remarks by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who told Parliament on Wednesday, June 6 that a boycott is “misguided” and a threat to academic freedom.

“I don’t detect that it evidences any widespread sentiment in British society,” Grant said. “These are curious eruptions for which I can offer no rational explanation.”

Others, however, are offering theories as to why Britain has become a hotbed of agitation by boycott supporters. Fraser attributes it to a perception of the Palestinians as Third World revolutionaries and to a historic tendency among British unions to fight for the underdog.

“Anti-Zionism appears to have taken on a sharper edge in Britain because of a historic and persistent hard-left movement,” said Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

The hard left, however, is active well beyond Britain, including on university campuses in the United States. For some, the difference lies in the response of the public as much as with the efforts of boycott supporters.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that unlike in France, which has commanded much attention for its reported rise in anti-Semitism, British leaders have failed to respond firmly to anti-Jewish sentiment.

As a result, Foxman said, British media and universities are far more hostile to Jews and Israel than in France.

“There’s been a lot more leadership in France against anti-Semitism in the last five years than there has been in Britain,” Foxman said. “France has begun to realize the problem. Great Britain has not.”

JTA correspondent Vanessa Bulkacz in London contributed to this report.

Ben Harris

Ben Harris is a JTA correspondent.