American Jews and their allies ramped up a campaign this week against a British union promoting an academic boycott of Israel aimed at pressuring it to end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza — even as some British Jews said the union’s drive was going nowhere.
Several London community leaders warned that the American campaign could be counterproductive due to widespread antipathy toward the United States among the British public now. Others, while not denying this danger, said they welcomed the American actions as an act of solidarity with a British Jewish community distressed about its own lack of influence at the grassroots.
The American boycott opponents chose The New York Times as their venue for two separate full-page ads denouncing a resolution passed by Britain’s University and College Union last May.An ad last Sunday, sponsored by the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, featured the signatures of 57 Nobel Prize Laureates deploring “the shameful proposal of the University and College Union to boycott contact and exchanges with Israeli educators and academic institutions.” The ad condemned a similar proposal approved in June by UNISON, a public services union.
Signers of the ad included Nobel Peace Prize winners Mikhail Gorbachev, F.W. de Kerk, Betty Williams, the Dalai Lama and Wiesel himself. Among the other signers were economists Kenneth J. Arrow and Clive W.J. Granger; physicists Vitaly Ginzburg, Leon Lederman and John L. Hall; Medicine prize winners Gunter Blobel and Eric R. Kandel; and Chemistry winners Sidney Altman and Paul Berg.
Among the missing: Henry Kissinger, Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu, President Jimmy Carter, and Polish leader Lech Walesa. Wiesel, who won the Peace Prize in 1986, said his foundation emailed a text of the ad with an invitation to sign to all living Nobel Prize winners. “We gave them two weeks to reply,” he said. “They all received it. Some may have been away. Some probably didn’t sign it on principle.”
A second ad, signed by 286 college and university heads, appeared Wednesday, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee. “Boycott Israeli Universities? Boycott Ours, Too!” the ad headline blared.
The college administrators backed a June public statement by Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, denouncing the boycott proposal as “utterly antithetical to the fundamental values of the academy.”
“We do not intend to draw distinctions between our mission and that of the universities you are seeking to punish,” the statement said. “Boycott us, then, for we gladly stand together with our many colleagues in British, American and Israeli universities against such intellectually shoddy and politically biased attempts to hijack the central mission of higher education.”
Signers included presidents or chancellors of Princeton, MIT, Bard College, Barnard, Brandeis, Dartmouth, Cornell, Northwestern University, Rutgers, City University of New York, University of California-Berkeley, UCLA and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The UCU, which describes itself as Britain’s largest professional association for academics, has yet to actually vote to boycott Israeli academics or their institutions. On May 30 it approved a proposal to “consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions” because of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. It set no date for a vote on the boycott issue.
UNISON, the public service union, passed a resolution affirming that it “believes that ending the occupation demands concerted and sustained pressure upon Israel including an economic, cultural, academic and sporting boycott.” But Helen Jenner, a UNISON spokesperson, told the Jerusalem Post that the vote was not decisive. “The motion recognizes the position, but it does not commit the union to a boycott,” she said.
Rabbi Tony Bayfield, head of the UK’s Movement for Reform Judaism, said the American actions were welcome by his community. But he warned that among the wider British public, the campaign might be counterproductive.
“It’s hard to underestimate the feelings about [President George] Bush here,” he said. The American ads were likely to get mixed together with this feeling, he explained, because in the public’s mind, “Israel is irrevocably tied to America, and that’s not the most popular tie to have at the moment.”
Still, said Rabbi Bayfield, the American actions were “very comforting” for a British community feeling its “impotence and lack of influence at the grass-roots level” in the face of the resolutions.
Rabbi Bayfield and other Jewish community analysts said the union resolutions, for all their militance, embodies a paradox: relatively few academics affiliate with the UCU and it and UNISON have little influence even with their own members.
Thanks to widespread indifference to union activities among rank-and-file workers, said Rabbi Bayfield, a small fringe group called the Socialist Workers Party has been able to push through the resolutions. Muslim groups have been uninvolved. “It’s a way of promoting their revival,” he said.
Rabbi Roderick Young, the senior rabbi of Finchley Reform Synagogue, said the American support actions presented the British Jewish community with a “Catch-22.”
“It gives the boycott proponents more publicity than they would otherwise have,” he said. “It gives them enormous publicity. If no publicity were given to this union, who would have heard of it? On the other hand the Jewish community has decided this is something important to respond to.”
Jenni Frazer, an editor with the London Jewish Chronicle, also said the American actions would have “no impact, none whatsoever,” on public opinion in Britain, where the boycott proposals themselves remain “non-issues.” She said that no academic institutions had paid any attention to it, and some, such as Cambridge, had spoke out against it.
But Rabbi Bayfield, while acknowledging this, said the union resolutions were “obviously very troubling, very worrying, because it points up the sheer smallness and ineffectuality of the British Jewish community.” British Jewry remains an influential force at the “commanding heights” of UK politics, he explained. But the ability of the SWP to push its boycott resolution through the unions reflected a withering of Jewish influence at the grass-roots level. For this reason, said Rabbi Bayfield, the American campaign this week gave British Jewry a “wake-up call” on the importance of re-engaging in civil society.
One of the organizers of the college presidents ad, Graham Spanier, president of Penn State University, said he was aware that “many of my colleagues in the UK don’t support the resolution.”
“I think it’s generated a stronger reaction in the United States because we’re not accustomed to serious academic bodies taking a position like this,” he said. “We here want to make it perfectly clear this is unacceptable.
“You must speak out early on,” he said. “What will you say later on when people take your silence as acquiescence?”
- City University of New York
- Larry Cohler-Esses
- University of Illinois
- Eric R. Kandel
- Northwestern University
- Desmond Tutu
- University of California
- Betty Williams
- Kenneth J. Arrow
- Bard College
- Gunter Blobel
- Paul Berg
- Vitaly Ginzburg
- Lech Walesa
- Lee Bollinger
- Sidney Altman
- Clive W.J. Granger
- Leon Lederman
- Tony Bayfield
- Mikhail Gorbachev
- Henry Kissinger
- Social Issues
- west bank
- united states
- Nelson Mandela
- columbia university
- Jimmy Carter
- The New York Times