Questions and answers re the AUT boycott

by Chris Bertram on May 9, 2005

Over at Left2Right, David Velleman has posted in opposition to the AUT boycott. I’m largely in agreement with him, but in comments (and by email) he and Ralph Wedgwood ask a few questions. Since others less familiar to the UK university scene may want answers to the same ones, I’m posting them here. By the way, the current state of play is that AUT activists opposed to the boycott have garnered the 25 signatures of Council members needed to trigger an emergency session of Council to reconsider the boycott, this will take place on the 26th of May. Below the fold I append the text of a resolution I’ve co-authored for my local association, which we’ll debate on the 18th.

What is the AUT? Do all university teachers belong to it? Are there other organizations representing university teachers, or is the AUT the only (or main) one?

The AUT is the main trade union representing university teachers (and librarians and other “academic-related” staff) in the “old” universities (i.e those that weren’t polytechnics pre-1992). It does have some membership also in those universities I believe. I’ve heard varying estimates of the proportion of eligible staff who belong to the AUT, it seems to be just under a third of academic and related staff at my own university. The other union, representing the same sort of people but in post-1992 universities, and in colleges of further education is NATFHE (National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education). This is much bigger than the AUT, there is a merger proposed, and, by the way, NATFHE currently has a more aggressive anti-Israel policy than the AUT. The policy of any merged union on this has yet to be determined.

Does the AUT tend to have a political affiliation or complexion? For example, does it tend to attract membership from left-leaning academics rather than others?

Not as such, though local meetings tend to attract a higher proportion of activists than are present in the general membership and, of course, left-wing people tend to attach more importance to being a member of a union.

How was the vote conducted? What was the turnout? Is this one of those cases in which a relatively small number of activists takes advantage of low turnout to push through a resolution?

The vote was conducted at the annual AUT Council, its sovereign body. Each local association sends one representative per 150 members, and I think there were about 200 representatives in all. The specific issue of the Israel boycott was not discussed or canvassed in most local associations in advance, the representatives mostly voted their own personal opinion without reference to the views of their members. (I have so far, despite efforts, been unable to get a reliable idea of how all our representatives voted.) The vote was narrow, and, allegedly due to time constraints, only one side of the argument was properly put before the motions were put to the vote.

Will British academics be bound by the AUT boycott? Are there sanctions for those who break the boycott?

No, they will not be bound. A key question here is whether local activists who try to implement the boycott will be disciplined by university management and whether the AUT will then try to defend them, and whether the AUT membership would be willing to act in their defence. I’m sceptical, given the AUT’s inability to secure collective action on basic questions of pay and employment over the years. I’m certain that those who don’t observe the boycott will face no negative consequences whatsoever.

Here’s the motion I co-authored for my local association. It differs from the model resolution proposed for local associations by Engage . This isn’t deliberate, but that resolution was only available on the 8th May and we had to meet a 4th May (14 day) deadline for resolutions to the local AGM (18th May). Our motion was crafted so as to maximize support from among opponents of the boycott and deliberately refrains from expressing views that might be controversial among those opponents themselves.

A motion to Bristol AUT AGM (18th May)

This association regrets and deplores the resolution of the AUT Council to implement an academic boycott of Haifa and Bar-Ilan Universities in Israel. The ideals of an academic community and of academic freedom are such that a boycott of this nature could only be even contemplated after the case and the evidence for it had been searchingly examined and widely debated amongst members. Yet Council passed its resolutions on the basis of a perfunctory and one-sided debate.

The politics of the region are complex and members properly take a range of different views on the conflicts there. Moreover, it is perverse and counterproductive for British academics to seek to isolate members of the Israeli academic community, many of whom have been among the most vocal members of their society in opposing their government’s policies. To single out Israel in this manner, whilst continuing to maintain relations with universities in such countries as China and Russia, is a sign of an unwarranted selectivity.

We should also be mindful of the effect on our own members. There are a significant number of Jewish members of the Association, many of whom identify with Israel as the Jewish national homeland. We take no view here for or against Zionism. But we recognize that such members of the Association are bound to feel marginalized and excluded by this resolution. Again, only the most compelling of cases, searchingly examined and widely debated, could warrant a decision with such a side-effect. No such examination or debate took place.

Accordingly, we resolve:

(1) to reject the call to boycott Israeli universities.

(2) to call on the AUT nationally to reverse its policy, which we deplore.

(3) to call on the AUT National Executive to call an emergency or extraordinary meeting of Council to discuss this policy.

(4) To take no measures locally to implement the current national policy on this matter.

(5) to deplore the fact that AUT Council made such a decision on the basis of a perfunctory and one-sided debate.

{ 8 comments }

1

Michael Otsuka 05.09.05 at 3:58 am

Chris,

_The vote was conducted at the annual AUT Council, its sovereign body. Each local association sends one representative per 150 members, and I think there were about 200 representatives in all._

188 people voted for or against the boycott at the council meeting. So I imagine you’re right that there were about 200 representatives at that meeting, since there probably weren’t many abstentions. It might be worth mentioning, however, that the total number of elected representatives is around 300 (which is the number one gets when one divides the overall membership of roughly 48,700 by the figure of 150 members per council representative and then adjusts for the fact that local associations need to send whole numbers of representatives).

2

abb1 05.09.05 at 6:07 am

I don’t see why this matter should have anything whatsoever to do with Zionism or Jewish members and what they may identify themselves with. Especially the word ‘Zionism’ – it’s understood differently by different people and in different contexts.

By including it into your motion you’re only encouraging demagogues, seems to me. The Engage thing is even worse in this respect.

3

Russkie 05.09.05 at 7:11 am

By including it into your motion you’re only encouraging demagogues, seems to me. The Engage thing is even worse in this respect.

I actually agree w/ abb1 on this.

The AUT boycott is ostensibly about certain policies of Israeli universities. Blackwell & co. are almost certainly motivated by a fervent “anti-zionism”, but there’s no need to address their wacky conspiratorial views since it’s not at all relevant to the AUT resolution.

4

Chris 05.09.05 at 7:21 am

The motion says

We take no view here for or against Zionism.

So we don’t address the content of anyone’s views. The reason for saying what we do say is that it is bad politics to trample on the commitments of an important section of the membership unless there is a really compelling moral case for so-doing. No such case has been demonstrated.

5

Russkie 05.09.05 at 8:15 am

The reason for saying what we do say is that it is bad politics to trample on the commitments of an important section of the membership unless there is a really compelling moral case for so-doing.

Saying what is said is actually likely to make people feel that their “commitments” have been slighted. I find it disturbing that in the course of defending Israel from some horribly unfair treatment you are putting the legitimacy of “Zionism” into question (ie. treating it as a casually debatable issue) and thus seeming to concede something to Blackwell.

6

Chris 05.09.05 at 8:33 am

I’m sorry that you don’t agree with me the reasonable people can disagree about Zionism. However, I observe that many people whom I consider reasonable do in fact disagree (as they disagree on other matters such as abortion.) Given that people who disagree about Zionism can, nevertheless, agree that this boycott should be opposed, it seems sensible to take that question off the table. Hence, I repeat “We take no view here for or against Zionism.”

I’m glad to say that none of the various people with whom the text was discussed in advance felt themselves slighted by that formulation. Perhaps only people in the habit of leaving intemperate and extreme comments on blogs would take it that way.

7

Russkie 05.09.05 at 9:01 am

I’m sorry that you don’t agree with me the reasonable people can disagree about Zionism.

I’m not sure how you got that from what I wrote.

I’m glad to say that none of the various people with whom the text was discussed in advance felt themselves slighted by that formulation. Perhaps only people in the habit of leaving intemperate and extreme comments on blogs would take it that way.

What’s more likely is that British academic environments are much more hostile to Israel than the ones with which I’m familiar in the US.

If the boycott is in fact overturned, Blackwell will claim a victory in having further “opened up the discussion” about Israel’s legitimacy – and she won’t be entirely wrong.

8

JayAnne 05.09.05 at 1:25 pm

Chris

The motion was only passed (I assume) because of the “non-debate” and the fact that LAs hadn’t (it seems) circulated it to their members. I’ve only been in 2 AUT LAs. One never circulated Council details (but that will have changed), the other always did. Shouldn’t people be trying to get their LA execs to circulate as much information before Council as they can?

BTW, I doubt the AUT will support anyone who tries to implement the boycott before the special Council, as Sally Hunt immediately issued a statement advising members not to implement it pending a check on contractual implications (which as AUT members’ contracts vary so widely, would take some while…).

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