Largest academic union in UK passes key motions for Palestinian rights

Coming right on the heels of the recent vote by the largest student union in Europe to support the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement — which called for “thorough research into [the University of London Union’s] investments and contracts” with companies guilty of “violating Palestinian human rights” as set out by the Palestinian Boycott National Committee (BNC) — the University and College Union (UCU) in the UK adopted important motions during its annual congress on May 29-30 that support human, civil and educational rights for Palestinian students and academics and freedom of speech on UK campuses.

PACBI, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel — which is part of the BNC — reported in a press release that UCU is “the largest trade union and professional association for academics, lecturers, trainers, researchers and academic-related staff working in further and higher education throughout the UK.”

During the congress, the UCU stated that

… In keeping with its tradition of support for Palestinian rights and in maintaining effective pressure on Israel to abide by international law, the UCU congress adopted the following motions: 

Threats to academic freedom in Israel and Palestine

Congress notes:

  1. Israel’s continued illegal occupation of Palestine and daily oppression of Palestinian teachers and students
  2. the restrictions on the free movement of Palestinian Academics within the Occupied Territories and crossing between the Territories and Israel and on foreign travel
  3. Israel’s ongoing construction of settlements
  4. the current witch-hunting of Israeli academics, civil rights campaigners and NGOs who are deemed to be damaging Israel’s economic interests by their political activities
  5. the recent alarming moves in the Israeli Knesset to penalise Israeli academics who support boycott action or even just provide information which may assist boycotts; this law will lay academics open to fines of £5000 with ‘no need to demonstrate that injury was done’ and to unlimited damages if losses are caused.
  6. the petition from 155 Israeli academics expressing their ‘unwillingness to take part in any type of academic activity taking place in the college operating in the settlement of Ariel’, calling Ariel an illegal settlement whose existence contravenes international law and the Geneva Convention.

Congress deplores these attacks on the academic freedom of our Palestinian and Israeli colleagues.

Congress instructs NEC [National Executive Committee] to:

  1. circulate to all members
    • the call by the Israeli academics
    • the PACBI call for academic and cultural boycott of Israel
    • information about the current legislation passing through the Knesset threatening heavy fines and other penalties on Israelis taking non-violent action against the occupation.
  2. seek a delegation to meet the Israeli Ambassador to raise our concerns
  3. press the Foreign Office to protest to the Israeli Government
  4. raise the issue with Education International and press them to seek similar action by all affiliates
  5. publicise these threats and our actions in response.


Motion to support Dr. Ahmad Qatamesh

In addition to these motions passed by the UCU, the congress also supported a motion to have the union’s General Secretary call on the Israeli government to “end the use of administrative detention” and highlighted the case of Palestinian academic and writer Ahmad Qatamesh. Qatamesh was arrested by Israeli forces in April, and remains jailed in indefinite administrative detention. The UCU’s motion stated that:

Congress expresses its condemnation of this fundamental breach of human rights, instructs the General Secretary to raise the matter urgently with the FCO [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] and the Israeli Embassy, and agrees to circulate the Amnesty appeal for Dr Qatamesh to all members, urging them to write to MPs and the Israeli embassy calling for Qatamesh to be either released or charged and given a fair trial.


Motion criticisizing EUMC’s “working definition” of anti-Semitism “being used to silence debate” on campus

Additionally, the UCU carried a motion concerning the working definition of the term “anti-Semitism” in the context of the definition put forward by the EUMC (European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia). 

The UCU’s motion stated:

Congress notes with concern that the so-called ‘EUMC working definition of antisemitism’, while not adopted by the EU or the UK government and having no official status, is being used by bodies such as the NUS [National Union of Students] and local student unions in relation to activities on campus.

Congress believes that the EUMC definition confuses criticism of Israeli government policy and actions with genuine antisemitism, and is being used to silence debate about Israel and Palestine on campus.

Congress resolves:

  1. that UCU will make no use of the EUMC definition (e.g. in educating members or dealing with internal complaints)
  2. that UCU will dissociate itself from the EUMC definition in any public discussion on the matter in which UCU is involved
  3. that UCU will campaign for open debate on campus concerning Israel’s past history and current policy, while continuing to combat all forms of racial or religious discrimination.





Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).