Britain's largest university union opted to go out with a bang yesterday when it urged its 67,000 members to consider boycotting individuals and institutions "that do not publicly dissociate themselves" from Israel's policies toward Palestinians. Scientific leaders around the world strongly condemned the union's action, which the union's own executive officer had advised against.
The 67,000-strong National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) adopted the resolution, which denounces Israel's "apartheid policies, including construction of the exclusion wall," on 29 May at its annual meeting in Blackpool. The resolution may not carry much formal weight, however: On 1 June the NATFHE will cease to exist as it merges into a new organization, the University and College Lecturers' Union. The boycott resolution will only be "advisory" to the new organization, according to a spokesperson.
But critics worry that it may encourage a de facto "grey boycott." Academics could be judged not on merit but "according to their nationality and political opinions," warns political scientist Jonathan Rynhold of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, which was targeted by an earlier boycott attempt.
Even before it passed, the proposal drew heavy criticism from within the union and outside. NATFHE General Secretary Paul Mackney, although a supporter of the Palestinian cause, urged members not to endorse the boycott because it had not been vetted within the union, a spokesperson for NATFHE says. Several thousand U.S. and Israeli academics made public their objections in May, as did several Nobel Prize winners, including University of Texas physicist Steven Weinberg. The board of the AAAS (publisher of Science) last week called the NATFHE proposal "antithetical to the role of free scientific inquiry" and asked that it be withdrawn.
After the vote, astronomer Martin Rees, president of Britain's Royal Society, issued a statement deploring the action, saying that "NATFHE members ... should remember that boycotts of scientists at Israeli universities grossly violate the principles set out by the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies." The guidelines rule out attempts to block the free expression of ideas and opinions and were drafted by scientific leaders 4 years ago in response to an earlier boycott petition, which failed.