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A note about the boycott-Israel movement's latest setback, this one in the UK.

Nothing too earth-shattering, unless you like I/P stuff.

The UK's University and Colleges Union, their higher education union, has been since May creeping through a procedure for putting in place an academic boycott of Israel, in which UCU members would be encouraged to forswear working with any Israeli academic who had not been deemed sufficiently ideologically pure (through some unnamed and unknown purification mechanism). They hadn't yet called directly for a boycott, but the skids were greased to move in that direction with what was intended to be a union-financed "road show," a travelling anti-Israel Chautauqua that would wend its way from campus to campus.

Neither the union's president, Sally Hunt, nor -- by a wide margin -- the union's rank and file actually wanted such a boycott; however, a coalition of activists on the executive council forced the issue. The same group blocked calls for a vote of their own rank and file, because they knew they'd lose.

In June in the US, Lee Bollinger -- the guy who's now famous for telling Mahmood Ahmadinejad that the truth has a well-known anti-Ahmadinejad bias -- issued a statement saying, "If you boycott Israeli universities, you'll have to boycott us (i.e. Columbia) too." By August, over three hundred presidents of US universities and colleges had signed that statement; there was a full-page ad in the New York Times (don't know how much they paid for it, but that's a different story).

Today, UCU's legal counsel weighed in with an unambiguous legal opinion: such an academic boycott would be against UK anti-discrimination law and can't be implemented. The union's strategy and finance committee has put out the word: the academic boycott of Israeli universities and academics is permanently what they'd call "tabled" and what we'd call "off the table."

The anti-Israel boycott/divestment/sanctions movement in the US went off like a damp firecracker in about 2003, hit a brick wall immediately, and hasn't been heard from since; failing in the universities, they moved on to the corporations; they failed with the corporations (four years of anti-Caterpillar activism later, Cat stock had doubled in value), so they moved on to the churches; they've failed in the churches (perhaps because they had Norman Finkelstein do the talking, never the best thing). We saw them try in DailyKos, and they failed here too. And their giganto-humongo-mega-march and rally on the Capital lawn this June, on the 40th anniversary of the occupation of the West Bank, turned into a expensive and humiliating micro-event, mostly (I'd speculate) due to their failure to explicitly support the two-state solution, thereby causing most friendly critics of Israel to give it a pass rather than risk attending only to find out they were expected to march elbow-to-elbow with "Hurrah for Hezbollah" types.

In the UK, conversely, the movement is more prominent and has had a few temporary successes, the most notable being within the AUT (Association of University Teachers), predecessor to the recently reconstituted UCU. The AUT congress in 2005 voted for a boycott of two Israeli universities; the rank and file rose up in anger and dismay, called via union rules for a special session, and the boycott was overturned only a month later, before it could be implemented. Recently the AUT merged with another union, NATFHE, and in their new incarnation as the UCU proceeded to make the same mistake -- letting a small group of activists set a divisive policy the rank and file did not approve of.

What's a particularly interesting development in the UK, though, is that a few days ago -- before the UCU's decision -- the Socialist Workers Party, a revolutionary socialist party that had been in the placard-waving lead of the boycott movement, made a 180-degree turn and said that it would no longer be calling for an academic boycott.

They gave a handful of reasons -- that the left wasn't unified behind it (even Noam Chomsky, the CEO of Israel-Is-Always-Wrong Industries, opposed it), that the divisive battle was badly hurting the union, and that if everything came to a vote, The Evil and Well-Funded Zionist Machine would simply overwhelm them with its octopus tentacles.

If the radical left is starting to pull their energies out of the boycott/divestment/sanctions movement in pretty much the only area they've had anything that even remotely temporarily looked like temporary success -- the bit with academic boycotts -- then maybe what took only months in the US is finally starting to happen now in the UK: maybe that's the sound of a movement hitting a brick wall.

You can argue -- you can certainly argue, in cases like the calculating George Galloway -- that the emphasis of some figures on the UK left on trying to out-anti-Israel each other is in part a political equation. When Galloway in 2003 or so first set up the party that took him to Parliament, RESPECT, it aimed at forming a coalition between two disparate groups, socialists and Muslims. The points of unification were opposition to the war in Iraq and to anything Israel does. As you might expect, it was a marriage of not much convenience -- as Marxists asked themselves what they were doing supporting fundamentalist theocrats of the women-must-be-veiled variety and vice versa -- and the rest of the story hasn't been uplifting. (And that was before George Galloway went on "Celebrity Big Brother," but that's another story.)

It could be that the leftists of the UK are learning that being vociferously anti-Israel isn't an effective platform in itself, and that it fails as an effective rallying point to garner the Muslim vote. If true, I'd expect them to begin to look elsewhere for the next galvanizing issue du jour. God knows there are enough possibilities to choose from.

Originally posted to zemblan on Fri Sep 28, 2007 at 03:02 PM PDT.

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