Home inFocus Aborted Israel Boycotts in the UK

Aborted Israel Boycotts in the UK

Robert Ivker Winter 2007

In May 2007, a British union representing approximately 120,000 British college instructors and teachers voted to begin a process they hoped would lead to a total boycott of all Israeli academics and academic institutions. They cited Israel’s presence and policies in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as the impetus for their proposed ban. The boycott leaders called upon the union to “consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions.” Doggedly insisting that criticism of Israel could not be considered anti-Semitism, they drafted a resolution condemning what it described as “the complicity of Israeli academia” in the mistreatment of Palestinians and the “occupation” of their land.

The Boycott’s Beginnings

Enemies of Israel in the U.K. have attempted to launch an Israeli boycott for several years. In 2005, the Association of University Lecturers, prompted by numerous Palestinian academics, called for a boycott of two Israeli universities: Haifa University and Bar-Ilan University. Notably, Bar-Ilan was a target because it held courses in the West Bank via Ariel College. Haifa was a target in light of a controversy surrounding a student-lecturer disagreement over alleged Israeli violence against Palestinians during Israel’s founding. The proposed boycott sparked a mass outcry among Jewish groups in Britain. As Israel’s deputy ambassador in London noted, “the last time that Jews were boycotted in universities was in 1930s Germany.” In the end, the boycott was aborted, citing a need to protect academic freedom, and to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

In this most recent uproar, in May 2007, the University and College Union (UCU) proposed a boycott that was designed to effectively terminate all academic relationships and exchanges between British colleges and their Israeli counterparts. The next day, a British public service union representing over 1.3 million workers announced that it would also call for an economic and trade boycott against the Jewish state. The service union, Unison, cited Israeli “invasions” of Gaza and Lebanon, as well as the “illegal building of homes in the West Bank” as reason for their opposition to doing business with Israel. The union also called for all Palestinian refugees from 1948 to repatriate to Israel. It is worth noting that there was no call for a halt to Palestinian violence.

Shades of U.S. Divestment

The proposed boycotts in the U.K. dovetailed with increased calls in the United States for university endowment funds to divest from companies that do business with Israel. Indeed, the divestment movement was increasingly popular among leftist students and activist academics in universities across the United States.

Calls to divest were particularly fashionable on campus amidst the al-Aqsa intifada of 2000, in which the Palestinians rejected the U.S.-sponsored peace process in favor of violence. Some of the notable universities with active divestment initiatives included: Columbia, Cornell, University of California, Harvard University, MIT, University of Illinois, University of Maryland, University of Massachusetts, University of Michigan, University of North Carolina, University of Pennsylvania, University of Pittsburgh, Princeton, Rutgers, Stanford, Tufts, and Yale. A decline in the Palestinian violence, coupled with broad condemnation of divestment from Jewish and other groups in the U.S., led to the dissolution of a majority of these student divestment initiatives.

Stanford, however, is one campus that maintains an organization called Students Confronting Apartheid by Israel (SCAI). While numerous academics, on both the left and right, have rejected claims that Israel’s policies in the Palestinian territories are at all analogous to the policies of apartheid South Africa, SCAI President Nabill Idrisi seeks to model the group’s efforts after the global divestment campaign that contributed to the collapse of the South African regime. It comes as no surprise that SCAI, on their website and in discussions, cites former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s recent book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.

The U.K. Responds

While the notion of broad divestment from Israel in the U.K. never gained traction, the question of an academic boycott remained on the table. Taking the lead from his American counterparts, boycott campaign leader Omar Barghouti told The Times of London that “the Palestinian call for an institutional boycott of Israel, which is principally inspired by the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, is the most morally and politically sound resistance strategy to counter Israeli apartheid and colonial policies.”

Predictably, Barghouti’s initiative encountered vociferous opposition. Jeremy Newmark, chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, called it a “full frontal assault on … the freedoms on which British academia are based.” Leaders of British academia, including some of its most prominent professors, also condemned the concept of academic boycotts as completely anathema to what universities should stand for. In fact, nearly 300 prominent professors and academicians took out an expensive full-page ad in The Times of London to denounce the boycott. As one opponent of the boycott insisted, “the academics in Israel are the very people we should be working with.”

Israel Returns the Threat

Responding to the threats from Unison, the political leadership in Israel began to fashion its own responses to the proposed British boycott. Member of Knesset Otniel Schneller, a member of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Kadima party, stated that it was “impossible” to have economic ties with “a country that promotes such anti-Semitic policies.” Knesset member Danny Yatom of the Labor Party declared, “if a state boycotts any products of Israel, there will be retaliation the exact same way. This is not a one-way street.”

Yatom’s threat was not an empty one. Great Britain is Israel’s third largest trading partner, behind the United States and Germany. Several Knesset members mulled legislation that would more clearly label all of the $2.5 billion worth of British products imported into Israel annually. It was even suggested that such labeling might also contain a message reminding the consumer of the British boycott, if it were to be enacted.

Less formally, Israeli media began reporting that ordinary citizens started looking for ways to hit back at Britain. Some suggested boycotting the hit musical Mama Mia in Tel Aviv, while others in the trade organizations spoke of not unloading British goods from the ships on the docks in Haifa.

There was also talk of striking back at Great Britain through its stock exchange. At present, according to the Israel British Chamber of Commerce, there are 11 Israeli companies listed on the London Stock Exchange, with at least 30 more planning to go public in the future.

Another Boycott Sprouts in Brussels

While the U.K. boycott was hotly debated, another call for a boycott of Israel was taking shape in Belgium. At the headquarters of the European Union in Brussels in late August 2007, at a meeting organized by the United Nations International Conference of Civil Society in Support of Israeli-Palestinian Peace, speakers called for an economic boycott of Israel. Agitators for the boycott described Israeli policies as reminiscent of apartheid South Africa, again echoing the arguments of Carter’s Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Conference attendees were told that by their show of support “for the brave Palestinians,” they were “enabling them to continue with their resistance.”

The Brits Balk

In the end, the British boycotts of Israel (both academic and economic) sputtered. Leaders of the teachers union finally admitted that boycotting Israel was not a priority for most of its members. The organizers also admitted that they did not believe a vote to support the boycott would pass. This was followed by a legal opinion by leading lawyers in the U.K., eventually published by union leadership, which firmly stated that a boycott would be impossible to implement because it would violate British law.

While Jewish and academic groups were pleased with the announcement by the UCU that they were giving up on their boycott, the initiative is not dead in the U.K. According to UCU spokesman Dan Ashley, Britain’s National Union of Journalists is now mulling a boycott of its own, resuscitating a movement that deserves to expire.

Robert Ivker, a former journalist at the United Nations, is author of One Town’s Terror: 9/11, Iraq and Burlington, Vermont (2006).