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Over Protests, U.K. Union Endorses Boycott of Israeli Academics

Science  02 Jun 2006:
Vol. 312, Issue 5778, pp. 1289b
DOI: 10.1126/science.312.5778.1289b

Rejecting the advice of its own executive officer, Britain's largest university union endorsed a motion this week calling on its members “to consider the appropriateness of a boycott” of 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.

The resolution, which denounces Israel's “apartheid policies, including construction of the exclusion wall,” may not carry much formal weight: The 67,000-strong National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE), which approved it at its annual meeting on 29 May, was scheduled to go out of business on 1 June after merging 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 are concerned that it may encourage a “gray boycott.” Warns Jonathan Rynhold of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, which was targeted by an earlier boycott attempt, academics could be judged not on merit but “according to their nationality and political opinions.”

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 NATFHE spokesperson says. Several thousand U.S. and Israeli academics made public their objections in May, as did several Nobel Prize winners, including physicist Steven Weinberg of the University of Texas, Austin. The board of 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last week called the NATFHE proposal “antithetical to the role of free scientific inquiry” and asked that it be withdrawn.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 the U.K.'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.” Those guidelines rule out attempts to block the free expression of ideas and opinions. Scientific leaders drafted the policy 4 years ago in response to an earlier boycott petition—a move that failed. Last year, the U.K. Association of University Teachers, a smaller union, endorsed a boycott but rescinded it when faced with legal objections.

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