Last week I posted Eve Garrard's resignation letter, in which she set out her reasons for leaving the University and College Union (UCU). A couple of days later I put up a post by Jon Pike that explained why he disagreed with Eve. Here I present a few thoughts of my own, prompted by Jon's response to Eve.
Some background. The issue of resignation from the union has not arisen personally for me, because when I retired in late 2003 I allowed my membership of the (then) AUT to lapse. However, in New York at the time of the first academic boycott (of Israel) resolution, I stated that, had I still been a member of the union, I would now be resigning from it (see also these follow-up posts) - as I would have done without so much as a moment's hesitation. If I'd still been in post at the time when the resolution was overturned, I would have taken up membership again; but I would long since have left the new merged union, UCU, once it became clear that the boycotters within it were determined to press the boycott case come what may, irrespective of the opinion of the membership, and that the leaders of UCU lacked the will to see to it that there was a properly democratic test of opinion union-wide. My position now remains as I stated it in April 2005: I would not, for so much as a day, remain a member of a union that had adopted an anti-Semitic policy - which I take Motion 25 to be. I disagree, therefore, with Jon's view that we should stay in the union, and I want to explain why.
I have no quarrel with the manner in which he frames the issues. He is right to say that there are tactical arguments both ways; and these cannot be decisive without access to certain, or near certain, knowledge of what the consequences of each course of action would be. This nobody can honestly claim to have. Staying in and fighting the boycotters means there is more resistance to their influence within the union. On the other hand, a mass of resignations helps to discredit and weaken the union, and to discredit the policy and attitudes that are causing the resignations.
Equally, the two-sided nature of the moral issues is well presented in Jon's post. There are important considerations in both directions, that put any conscientious trade union member in a difficult dilemma. For all my years as a university teacher, I was a member of the AUT, and I took my membership of it for granted, for the kinds of reason that Jon spells out. Being a member of the union is a way of defending the interests of those employed in the higher education sector against university or government policies that may not pay sufficient attention to, or may even negate, those interests. At the same time, most of us do not want to be members of an organization which has adopted discriminatory policies - policies, that is to say, that disadvantage some academics without a defensible reason or principle which would explain and justify why them specifically and nobody else; which target people simply because of who they are. In this case, we are talking about Israeli academics, most of whom are Jews; and, secondarily, Jewish academics within Britain whose support for Israel as a legitimate project of national self-determination, and whose identification with fellow Jews under attack, must place them in an invidious position within an organization adopting such a discriminatory policy.
There are moral arguments both ways - for staying in and for leaving - and, as Jon recognizes, there is no entirely 'clean' answer to the dilemma they set up. Stay or go, one will be breaching an important moral principle. This is often the way in life and in politics. Much depends on the weighting one gives to the competing principles, a weighting, moreover, impossible to state in terms general and valid for all situations. It will depend on precise circumstances, and on one's place within and experience of them. For Jon the duty to remain in the union and fight overrides his distaste at belonging to an organization with a discriminatory policy. Eve, for her part, last week drew the opposite conclusion; though up to that point, it should be said, she too had honoured the union-solidarity argument by doing what she could inside the UCU to combat pro-boycott opinion and to get a decision the other way. Others had come to Eve's conclusion earlier. And in general with this kind of dilemma, people reach their sticking point at different moments, so that there is a spread-out series of departures rather than one single massive rush.
Jon himself, it is to be noted, explains that a point could come where he, also, would resign - this point being if an adequately democratic test of UCU membership opinion were to go in favour of a boycott. Jon writes:
Paradoxically, one reason for staying in the union is that it is not properly democratic and representative. If it were the case that the majority of the membership agreed with and supported the policies that I object to, it would be pretty simple for me: there would be a straightforward parting of the ways...
So, for him as for Eve and others who have resigned, trade union solidarity is not an absolute principle (as he makes eloquently clear); there is a judgement of priorities to be made. I accept this - and therefore that people can conscientiously remain in the UCU to fight the boycott. I respect their reasons for doing that and wish them well in their fight. I now want to say why, were I still in university employment, I would not be part of that fight, the fight within the union, only of the fight against the boycott from outside. I want to explain the precise phenomenology of the issue for me, leading to a weighting of the competing principles that runs counter to Jon's.
A Jewish member of UCU stands, for obvious reasons, in a special position to the boycott policy. He or she is a member of a union demonstrating discriminatory intent, but this is not discrimination in general; it is directed at Jews and thereby at him or herself. Discriminatory policies aimed at anybody should, naturally, be opposed. But in opposing a discriminatory policy where they are, directly or indirectly, on the receiving end, members of the group in question face a fight with a twofold character. It is a fight against discrimination in general, to be sure. But being, in this particular case, a battle against anti-Semitism, for Jewish members it is also an argument for those who would treat them or other Jews in a discriminatory and hence demeaning way, not to do so. It is, consequently, not only a general political battle but also, in a manner of speaking, a plea to be treated by their colleagues as equals; rather than being subjected, or seeing other Jews subjected, to loyalty oaths or opinion tests in order to gain the right to the general benefits of academic cooperation.
This, for me, is the decisive point. To be a Jew in UCU today is to be, in some sort, a supplicant, pleading with the would-be boycotters and those unmoved to oppose them and deliver them a decisive defeat, pleading for Israeli academics to be accepted as having the same status as other academics world-wide, pleading that Jewish supporters of the rights of academics in the Jewish state should not be made to feel isolated in their own union, like participants willy-nilly in an anti-Semitic campaign. Well, not to put too fine a point on it, shove that. Not today, not tomorrow, and not any time. To be a supplicant Jew is not a choice I would be willing to contemplate. I should come and entreat within the UCU for the same consideration for Jewish academics in Israel and Jewish academics in Britain as are extended to academics of every other nationality? Forget about it.
There may be Jewish members of the union who do not see things in this way, and that is their right. But one of the reasons those fighting against the boycott in UCU do so is, I presume, because they are aware that it is likely to foster perceptions of just such a kind. They in turn, therefore, should not be perplexed to see Jewish members resigning. I will note, finally, why Jon's sticking point and mine aren't the same. For him, only when a democratic test of opinion within UCU shows a majority for a boycott will he leave. For me, it is enough that the membership should be aware of this taint upon the union, this poison within it, and not yet have been moved to conclude that things have gone too far and say, 'Enough, let's settle this once and for all.'