Britain's University and College Union (UCU) announced last Friday that union leaders, after consulting with lawyers, had determined that an academic boycott of Israel probably would breach British anti-discrimination laws and the union's own guidelines.
Jewish groups, which had roundly condemned the boycott after it was first proposed at the union's annual congress in May, cheered the decision.
"The community should be emboldened by this victory and should see that we can successfully fight back and can have a real impact defending Israel's reputation," said Lorna Fitzsimons, chairwoman of the Stop the Boycott Campaign. "We will continue to win the intellectual argument, showing why any boycott of Israel is unbalanced, unfair and ignores the difficult complexities of the Middle East."
The boycott had been proposed to consider the "moral implications" of ties with Israeli institutions in light of the "denial of educational rights" to Palestinians.
After last week's determination, however, the union said it would continue to "explore the best ways to implement the non-boycott elements of the motion passed at Congress."
It was not immediately apparent what that meant.
"We remain concerned that the UCU still intends to explore ways to implement the motion, such as calling for a moratorium on E.U. research and cultural collaborations with Israel," said Ronnie Fraser, director of Academic Friends of Israel.
But union staff said the "non-boycott elements" of the resolution refer to efforts to "actively encourage and support branches to create direct links with Palestinian educational institutions and to help set up nationally sponsored programs for teacher exchanges, sabbatical placements and research."
The legal opinion that dealt the boycott its crippling blow said: "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."
It went on to say, "To ensure that the union acts lawfully, meetings should not be used to ascertain the level of support for such a boycott." As a result, the union canceled plans to hold debates throughout the country on the efficacy of the boycott.
Jon Benjamin, the chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said, "Sadly, immeasurable damage has been done to the reputation of British academics who have unfairly been associated with a policy which most of them abhor and against which increasing numbers were speaking out."
"This is a victory against the boycotters on two fronts," said Jeremy Newmark, chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council and co-chairman of the Stop the Boycott Campaign. "Firstly, the legal opinion endorses our contention that the proposed UCU boycott was a form of discrimination that had no place in a U.K. trade union. Secondly, last week's explicit admission by the main pro-boycott faction that they would have lost a ballot proved our assertion that a boycott is not supported by the vast majority of UCU members."
The turnaround by UCU is the latest victory for pro-Israel activists in their efforts to stem the tide of anti-Israeli movements among the far left in Britain.
Other union efforts to introduce Israeli boycotts over the last four years also have run aground. Boycott motions were defeated in the Association of Union Teachers in 2003, and though a motion was able to pass in 2005, it was overwhelmingly overturned at a special council of the union following an international outcry.
A boycott motion narrowly passed at the National Association of Teachers in Higher and Further Education conference in 2006, but the resolution expired with the merger of the union with the teachers' association.
This summer, the National Union of Journalists scrapped a motion to boycott Israeli goods in the wake of protests from within the union, the media industry and Jewish community leaders.
Even within the UCU, support for a boycott was hardly universal.
The original boycott motion passed by a vote of 158 to 99. Anti-boycott campaigners pointed out that a winning margin of only 59 votes for a constituency of 120,000 members was by no means representational.
At the time of the motion's passing, UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt agreed.
"I do not believe a boycott is supported by the majority of UCU members," Hunt said.
After the May vote, Britain's minister of state for education, Bill Rammell, denounced the proposal.
"The U.K. government fully supports academic freedom and is firmly against any academic boycotts of Israel or Israeli academics," Rammell said.
Jewish groups in Britain and around the world condemned the proposal. U.S. union leaders and many influential academics in Britain and abroad petitioned against the boycott.
After last Friday's decision, Hunt said she hoped the matter would be put to rest.
"I hope this decision will allow all to move forwards and focus on what is our primary objective: the representation of our members," Hunt said. "I believe if we do this we may also, where possible, play a positive role in supporting Palestinian and Israeli educators, and in promoting a just peace in the Middle East."
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