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Posted at 1:06 PM ET, 11/16/2010

Eminent biologist cites anti-Semitism for union resignation

By Valerie Strauss

Denis Noble is an Oxford University biologist with a global reputation in the scientific community. He resigned from England’s University and College Union, saying the organization was either anti-Semitic or tolerated it.

Since 2002, there have been various attempts to boycott Israeli academic institutions and scholars in several Western countries, including England, where Noble lives. Israeli scholars have been ostracized, organizations have refused to publish or review Israeli academic papers, etc. The first major academic boycott campaign was started in England by two Jewish professors who argued that a moratorium on all cultural and research links with Israel at European or national levels was the only way to pressure the Israeli government to change its policies toward Palestinians.

Noble held the Burdon Sanderson Chair of Cardiovascular Physiology at Oxford University from 1984-2004 and is now professor emeritus and co-director of Computational Physiology. He is one of the pioneers of Systems Biology and developed the first viable mathematical model of the working heart in 1960. Here is Noble’s open resignation letter, addressed to Sally Hunt, general secretary of the union, and published in the Oxford magazine:

Dear Sally,

I joined the AUT [Association of University Teachers] nearly 50 years ago as a young assistant lecturer at University College London. When I retired from my Oxford professorship in 2004 I chose to retain my membership – although I no longer stood to gain from the union’s negotiating any improvements in salary or conditions of service – because I believe in trade unions and thought that by remaining a member I would, in some small measure, help colleagues. But the behavior of UCU [the University and College Union, which succeeded the AUT] over the past several years has made it impossible for me to continue, and I now resign my membership.

In a letter I wrote to you over a year ago, which has remained unanswered and unacknowledged, I said that UCU’s repeated conference decisions to discriminate against certain colleagues (Israelis) on the grounds of their nationality were unacceptable. Such discrimination is contrary to the universally recognised norms of academic practice, as set out (for example) in the Statutes of the International Council of Science (ICSU).

I also sent a letter as President of IUPS, which adheres to ICSU. Nobody in the world of learning can take seriously a professional organisation that purports to represent academic staff but which entertains proposals to discriminate whether it be on grounds of sex, race, national origin or other characteristics that are irrelevant to academic excellence.

Nonetheless our union has voted repeatedly in favour of such discrimination, and those who have been discriminated against are always Israelis. The wording of the discriminatory resolutions has sometimes been contorted for legal reasons, but the intention has been transparent: to hold Israeli colleagues responsible for, and punish them for, the actions of their government via a type of reasoning (guilt by association) that is never applied to the academics of any other country.

Of course, I accept that the Israeli government is guilty of human-rights violations, and I accept that the union is entitled to criticise it. But many other governments in the world are also guilty of human-rights violations, often far more egregious than those committed by Israel, and yet Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) have never been endorsed by the Annual Congress of UCU against any other country.

It is instructive to compare the motion about China adopted by Congress at its 2010 meeting with one of those about Israel. (I choose these examples because both countries have been in occupation of the territories of a different ethnic group for many years and both have encouraged their citizens to settle in the territories thus occupied).

The motion on China, while asserting that UCU “will continue to condemn abuses of human rights of trade unionists and others”, recognised “the need to encourage collegial dialogue” with Chinese institutions. By contrast, a motion on Israel approved in the same session of Congress reaffirmed its support for BDS, sought to establish an annual international conference on BDS and a BDS website, and severed all relations with the Histadrut, the Israeli counterpart to the TUC. There are many countries in the world whose governments are guilty of atrocities: there is no other country in the world whose national trade union organisation is boycotted by UCU.

I find it impossible not to ask myself why UCU exhibits this obsession with Israel. The obvious explanation – that the union is institutionally anti-semitic – is so unpleasant that I have till recently been unwilling to accept it, but I changed my mind after witnessing the fate at the 2010 Congress of the motion of my local branch (University of Oxford) about Bongani Masuku.

As you know, Masuku was invited to a meeting on BDS hosted by the union in London last December. Some months earlier, he had made a speech during a rally at the University of the Witwatersrand. This speech has been described by the South African Human Rights Commission (the body set up by the Constitution to promote inter-racial harmony after the end of apartheid) as including “numerous anti-semitic remarks which were seen to have incited violence and hatred”.

The Oxford motion debated at Congress did not allege that the union invited Masuku despite knowing his views; instead it merely invited Congress to dissociate itself from Masuku’s views. This was the minimum that UCU could be expected to do to reassure members like me that we still belong.

That this motion was rejected by a large majority makes it clear to me that the union either regards anti-semitic views as acceptable or, at least, has no objection to their being expressed in public by the national official of a fraternal trade union organisation. I do not wish to remain a member of such a union.

Yours sincerely
Denis Noble CBE, FRS



Michael Yudkin and David Smith, also Oxford scientists with global reputations, have joined their colleague in resignation, with a letter in the Oxford magazine:

Sir – Like Denis Noble, we have been a member of UCU and its predecessor AUT, for more than 40 years. Like him, we remained a member after retiring a few years ago from our University posts.

The facts set out in Denis’s letter to Sally Hunt show beyond dispute that UCU is now institutionally anti-semitic. We too have resigned our membership of the union.

Yours Sincerely
Michael Yudkin, Kellogg College
David Smith, Department of Pharmacology



Sally Hunt’s reply is also published in the Oxford magazine, as follows:

Sir - UCU has always encouraged robust debate amongst members and will continue to do so. As defenders of academic freedom all members’ opinions are welcome and their views are always treated fairly and with respect.

With regards to motions debated at our conference, it is members who propose motions and delegates who debate them and pass policy. It is the job of the union to deliver the policy members decide.

A resignation is always a cause of concern for any organisation, even in a union like UCU which is among the fastest growing in the UK. Our growth is a result of the current uncertain times, and it is vital that all academic and related staff have the protection of their union. As would be expected of an academic union, members have a broad range of views on many issues including of course Israel/Palestine.

However for the avoidance of doubt let me use this opportunity to confirm that UCU does not endorse an academic boycott of Israel and that our position of opposition to the occupation is, far from being extreme, in line with that of the TUC and most other UK trade unions.

Yours Sincerely
Sally Hunt, UCU

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By Valerie Strauss  | November 16, 2010; 1:06 PM ET
Categories:  Higher Education  | Tags:  academic boycott, academic boycott of israel, anti-semitism, boycott of israel, teachers union  
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