According to the press last week was a good one for the Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions movement (BDS) with headlines such as, “Netanyahu condemns UK students over pro-boycott vote” and “Fury as NUS leaders vote to boycott Israel”.  But if you look behind the headlines, the last two weeks have not turned out as well as the BDS movement would have expected and the options open to them are severely limited in terms of implementing the motion.

The BDS movement’s joy with the students pro-boycott vote was short lived because within 24 hours of the national executive of the National Union of Students (NUS) voting to affiliate to the BDS movement, Universities UK, the umbrella body for Britain’s Universities, reaffirmed its opposition to an academic boycott of Israel. What is the point of a student union now asking their University’s Vice-Chancellor to support a boycott of Israel when they know what the answer will be? On top of this setback two weeks ago Britain’s University lecturers trade union, the UCU Congress debated and voted for a BDS resolution only to hear the motion declared “void and of null effect.”  The BDS movement will no doubt claim both the UCU and NUS votes as successes and ignore Universities UK .

Since 2003, the UCU has been trying to implement what they now call a “general pro-boycott policy directed at Israeli products and institutions, including academic institutions. ” Every time they have tried to do this they have been unable to do so  because it would pose “a serious risk of infringing discrimination legislation”.

The boycotters intention this time was that all UCU members would be sent “a dedicated e-mail, reminding them of(the UCU’s) policy on Israel, and with a link to the PACBI (Palestinian BDS) guidelines and any misrepresentations of UCU’s policy (would) be corrected publicly.” If the UCU had gone ahead and sent out such an email they would have been in breach of the legal advice they received in 2007 in which Counsel advised that:

“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.”

That the motion was declared “void and of null effect” begs the question does the UCU actually have a policy supporting BDS? I would suggest not as they are  effectively neutered since the UCU cannot directly or indirectly campaign for BDS. In addition union officials such as the General Secretary cannot speak in favour of BDS when they represent the union at International bodies or rallies because to do so would leave the union in breach of their legal advice and infringe Britain’s equality and discrimination legislation.

The NUS “Solidarity with Palestine” motion was passed by the NUS’s national executive committee by 19 votes to 14, a move which committed the union to affiliate to the BDS movement. The Union of Jewish Students (UJS) said that the decision  “undermines interfaith relations and suffocates progressive voices for peace on both sides”. NUS deputy vice-president, Joe Vinson  tweeted after the vote that “antisemitism is like a virus, it mutates and infects everything it touches. It’s mutated into BDS and NUS is infected”.

NUS now finds itself in a similar position to the UCU and cannot actively campaign for BDS because of constitutional restraints. The motion confirms this point as it asks NUS “to develop legal advice for unions adopting BDS to defend their democratic decisions from attacks.” This time, the options open to the boycotters to implement BDS in Britain are limited  and we have to be thankful for Britain’s discrimination laws for not allowing them their head.

The fact that the UCU or the NUS are willing to support BDS and ignore our Universities legal duty to eliminate harassment and foster good relations between persons of different nationalities, ethnicities and religions shows what sort a society we now live in. Is it any wonder that our University campuses tend to be a breeding ground for contemporary anti-Semitism as the anti-Israel rhetoric used by pro-Palestinian supporters often invokes and perpetuates anti-Semitic tropes?  NUS  should be listening not only to the concerns of UJS about the effect on Jewish students but also their own members such as the University of Southampton Students Union who expressed real concern over escalated tension and division between student groups at the University as the result of the build up to the anti-Israel conference that was due to be held there  last April.