Cutting through the bullshit.

Saturday, 29 September 2007

'Majestic impartiality'

Back in May, Britain’s University and College Union (UCU) conference decided to hold a series of discussions among members about the call by Palestinian unions for a boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions. UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt opposed the motion and immediately distanced herself from conference’s decision.

Now, a UCU press release dated yesterday reveals

the union’s ‘strategy and finance committee unanimously accepted a recommendation from UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, that the union should immediately inform branches and members that:

· A boycott call would be unlawful and cannot be implemented

· UCU members' opinions cannot be tested at local meetings

· The proposed regional tour cannot go ahead under current arrangements and is therefore suspended.

While writing this, I note that Mark Elf has already reported this over at Jews sans frontières.

The union’s legal advisors opine,

'It would be beyond the union's powers and unlawful for the union, directly or indirectly, to call for, or to implement, a boycott by the union and its members of any kind of Israeli universities and other academic institutions; and that the use of union funds directly or indirectly to further such a boycott would also be unlawful…to ensure that the union acts lawfully, meetings should not be used to ascertain the level of support for such a boycott.'

This backdown is troubling for a couple of reasons.

First of all, my suspicion is that the basis of the legal advice is the Race relations act (1976). I also suspect that the interpretation, whether of the Race relations act or whatever, relied upon the tendentious legal reasoning of such eminent luminaries as Harvard Professor of Torture, Alan M Dershowitz. It would be bad enough if the union accepted such a bogus interpretation, and I sincerely hope that UCU members will challenge this decision on the part of the bureaucracy. The refusal even to cite the legislation they base their advice on suggests a lack of confidence. But what’s really frightening is that they could be right. Even though the arguments Dershowitz and Julius present that hold all Jews responsible for Israel’s crimes are themselves antisemitic, they are meeting with broader and broader acceptance. The EU Monitoring Commission’s ‘Working definition’ of anti-Semitism makes precisely the same anti-Semitic assumptions. While it has no legal standing as yet, it appears to be increasingly influential and could be part of the basis for a judgement, even if it is not yet formally adopted. Indeed, such judgements could lead to formal adoption. That would expose virtually any proPalestinian or antiZionist activity to the risk of prosecution. Note that it is not just carrying out the proposed boycott, nor even just calling for it or furthering it, that the UCU’s legal team have determined would be illegal. They reckon it would put the union on the wrong side of the law just to ‘ascertain the level of support’ for the boycott.

The other thing is that the union bureaucrats had no compunction about publicly overturning a conference decision without reference to the members. Doubtless the officials have a responsibility to advise the members of the probable consequences of any action they decide to take. But in a democratic union, where the officials are accountable to the members they are supposed to represent, it would be up to the members whether to accept the risk.

Apart from that, it signals an unnerving proclivity on the part of the officials, widely observed among union bureaucrats everywhere, to want to ‘play by the rules’. ‘The law’s the law’, after all. But in reality, the law comprises the rules that the ruling class prefers. Whenever industrial struggle slackens, the bosses hurry to claw back any gains we’ve made in the past. Nor are they ever satisfied. Whenever the government enacts or amends legislation to reduce or threaten our employment, our conditions, or our pay, the employers call for more ‘certainty’ that they can sack us at will and the like. So when our officials tell us we can’t take such and such an action because we have to be ‘smart’ and ‘beat them at their own game’, all it really means is that they are content to lose. The important thing for them is to restrain any rank and file action or initiative that could challenge their credibility as intermediaries. So unless members stand up for their decisions, suspect legal advice will continue to trump them.

To paraphrase Anatole France, The law, in its majestic impartiality, forbids the bosses along with the workers to organise in the workplace, mount industrial action, or discuss an academic boycott of Israel in union branch meetings.

(Thanks to John E Richardson of JAZ for the link to the UCU media release.)


  1. Related story: you may recall that here in the US, Lee Bollinger initiated an "open letter" of university presidents and chancellors condemning the UCU resolution (described as "advancing a boycott"), that is apparently going to appear as an advertisement in the New York Times. It basically states that the undersigned will consider their own universities "boycotted" as well, should any boycott be implemented. Now the only way to make sense of this is to assume that a "counterboycott" is being threatened.

    A couple weeks ago our chancellor here at UIC sent out mass email describing all the recent accomplishments - more, better studetns etc.... and that she signed that open letter/ad. I was confused - after all, before she commits the campus to some threatened action, I would at least have expected some debate. My questions in that regard were answered with an "I only signed this for me personally" and "I discussed it with the Senate executive committee". Maybe we are on a "campus of new type"?

    And all this supposedly in defence of the "free exchange of ideas".

  2. Thanks for your comment, christian, it's nice to know you're still reading my stuff.

    I mentioned what I think is the same thing in blog posts on 1 and 14 June, but thought it was a Dershowitz initiative. That 'Scholars for Peace in the Middle East' petition now has 11,340 signatures. They're aiming for 15,000. They're very proud of all the Nobel laureates and University presidents who have signed onto this stupid kneejerk gesture.

    I can imagine how distressing it must be when your employer tries to implicate your whole university in it. But then, a university isn't a democracy - it's a business!

    My union, such as it is, recently distributed a bulletin in the workplace about some erosions of our workers' compensation entitlements. The bosses went ballistic at the infringement of freedom of association. Go figure.

  3. I'm sure it was inspired by Dershowitz, but I believe his initiative you blogged on was about individuals. This is about institutions. Apparently, the open letter appeared as an AJC ad in the NYT on August 8th, and if one can believe our chancellor, there will be another, two-page ad, with even more signatures, on October 16. Although maybe now the legal bullying has worked I don't know if they are going to go ahead with it. The Bollinger statement can be found here. the ad states in addition, regarding the signees: "This statement has been endorsed by the following college and university presidents and chancellors and applied to their own campuses."

  4. PS: Sorry for clogging up the comments, but the President of Ithaca college did an amazing thing: she actually informed herself, finding out no boycott had been passed yet, and announced that should one be passed, she would discuss the matter with the College. What's the over/under on her being removed from office?

  5. I must have confused those initiatives. The Bollinger/AJC advert certainly does appear to commit the institutions. Thanks for clearing that up.

    Now the AJC is gloating about the UCU executive calling off the discussion. It never ceases to horrify me that the AJC and Bollinger and Dershowitz can go all bombastic, trot out the same old myths and out of context 'facts', kit them out in the shoddiest transparently bogus 'reasoning' imaginable, and excoriate their opponents without apparently any embarrassment, or even loss of credibility!

    Obviously there's no danger of clogging my comments, but even if there were, comrade, you'd be welcome!

  6. According to Alex Callinocos, writing in (British) Socialist Worker, '...over the summer UCU head office had consulted the solicitor Anthony Julius, Princess Diana's divorce lawyer.' (Hat tip to James O in a comment on Jews sans Frontieres.)

    If Callinicos is right, that would explain how the UCU managed to come up with such a tendentious interpretation of the legislation.

    Julius, it will be recalled, coauthored an article in the Times that inadvertently made a case in favour of the boycott, while claiming to do the opposite. They also redefined antisemitism to suit their own agenda, '...injurious things said to or about Jews or the Jewish State...'

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