(by Shalom Lappin)
In their advice [pdf] to the Stop the Boycott campaign on the legal status of the UCU boycott motion (subsequently adopted by the UCU conference on May 28, 2008), Michael Beloff QC and Pushpinder Saini QC of Blackstone Chambers, London, refer to the provisions of the Race Relations Amendment Act 2003 against the creation of a hostile environment. This section of the Act defines harassment as follows:
HarassmentThe principle that the Act formulates is uncontroversial across a broad spectrum of opinion within the anti-racist consensus. People have the right to live and work in an environment in which they are not subjected to racial abuse, where such behaviour consists in expressing hostility based on race, national origin, or ethnic background (and, it should be added, religion, gender, or sexual orientation, although these are not enumerated in the Act). But while the principle is clear and commendable, its application raises serious problems of interpretation. Specifically, when is an action an instance of racist harassment, as opposed to a legitimate, if offensive, exercise of free speech?
3A. - (1) A person subjects another to harassment in any circumstances relevant for the purposes of any provision referred to in section 1(1B) where, on grounds of race or ethnic or national origins, he engages in unwanted conduct which has the purpose or effect of –
(a) violating that other person's dignity, or
(b) creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for him.
(2) Conduct shall be regarded as having the effect specified in paragraph (a) or (b) of subsection (1) only if, having regard to all the circumstances, including in particular the perception of that other person, it should reasonably be considered as having that effect.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to construct non-defeasible criteria for making this distinction in entirely general terms. There seems to be no alternative to considering particular cases on their merits in order to develop paradigms of each kind, as the basis for distinguishing classes of actions which can reasonably be construed as generating a hostile environment from those which cannot. For purposes of concreteness, let's situate the discussion in the context of university life.
Assume that a lecturer in social psychology gives a talk in which he/she purports to show that general human intelligence is largely determined by heritable racial or gender properties. This view is offensive, and it has been shown to be unsupported by serious genetic evidence. However, it is very doubtful that we can use the notion of a hostile environment here to prevent the lecturer from presenting his/her arguments, such as they are. The reasonable response is a robust critique of the empirical mistakes and errors in reasoning that infect his/her claims. By contrast, if someone presents a paper describing the members of an entire racial or ethnic group as inferior, criminal, deviant, etc., then there are good grounds for seeing this as racial abuse.
What about the boycott of Israeli academics? If an individual endorses the proposal for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, then he/she expresses a view which is misguided and, to many of us, deeply unpleasant. This does not suffice to place it in the category of harassment. However, if someone denies access to academic forums to Israelis simply because they live and work in Israel, or have Israeli citizenship, then they are not only generating a hostile environment. They are engaging in racist (in the extended sense of nationality-based) discrimination.
It is worth recalling a relevant incident in this context. In 2002 Mona Baker, then a lecturer in translation studies at UMIST, dismissed two Israelis from editorial boards of journals which she owns and publishes, because of her objections to Israeli Government policies in the occupied Palestinian territories. This was an act of blatant discrimination.
On December 16 the Guardian published a letter by five former presidents of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain (LAGB) objecting to UMIST's investigation into Baker's actions and defending her right to 'engage in political' action outside the University as an issue for [her] 'own individual judgment'. A colleague, Jonathan Ginzburg, and I published a reply the following day in which we pointed out that we are British-Israeli linguists teaching at a UK university. We asked if the authors of the letter would also endorse the right of boycott supporters to exclude us from academic activities in Britain. We received no reply to this question from the people who wrote the letter, or from our other colleagues who supported the boycott.
Shortly after this exchange another Israeli linguist teaching in the UK approached the serving president of the LAGB and asked that the Association officially distance itself from the original Guardian letter. This request was refused, and the president would not respond to further correspondence on the issue. As a result of these and related events, I and a number of other Israeli linguists in Britain experienced a deep break with the LAGB and much of the field in Britain that it represents. We were particularly struck by the fact that, while many of our colleagues privately expressed opposition or indifference to the boycott campaign, virtually none of them took a public stand against the fact that five former presidents of the LAGB spoke in their name, defending Mona Baker's right to discriminate against Israeli linguists.
This would seem to be a clear case of a hostile environment. While the letter defending Mona Baker's right to dismiss Israelis from her editorial boards is obviously protected as free speech, its effect was to offer legitimation to an act of discrimination from some of the most senior people in the field, who had occupied leadership positions in its official professional association. The fact that the then president of the LAGB rejected an appeal to issue a statement indicating that the letter did not express the Association's policy permitted the authors' claim to 'speak for a large body of opinion' in the field of linguistics to stand unopposed. The relative silence of the membership gave this assertion additional credibility. What began as an expression of opinion by a group of senior linguists quickly became an ugly exercise in embarrassed silence and collaboration that alienated those of us on the receiving end from active involvement with large parts of our own field.
The real damage caused by events of this kind is their corrosive impact on the normal course of academic life. If many of our colleagues are prepared to accept a boycott of Israeli academics living in Israel and they are not willing to rule out exclusion of Israeli academics working in the UK, then how can we trust decisions on research grants, promotion, journal articles, etc? How can we interact freely with colleagues who have publicly endorsed the principle that acts of discrimination against Israeli academics are a matter for a person's 'own individual judgment'?
The recent boycott motion adopted by the UCU calls, inter alia, for its members to 'consider the moral and political implications of educational links with Israeli institutions, and to discuss the occupation with individuals and institutions concerned, including Israeli colleagues with whom they are collaborating'. This recommendation is little more than an invitation to apply a boycott to Israelis, and possibly others to whom the sponsors of the motion object, in a form to be left to the discretion of the members. It certainly makes no effort to rule out Mona Baker's implementation of the boycott, nor Andrew Wilkie's decision in 2003 to reject a PhD applicant from Tel Aviv University to his medical laboratory in Oxford because the applicant was an Israeli. This motion is, then, an action that will, regardless of intent, reinforce an already hostile environment.
Throughout the boycott controversy of the past six years attention has focused on the UCU, which has served as the primary engine of the campaign. University administrators have, for the most part, stayed clear of the discussion by issuing brief, antiseptic statements opposing academic boycotts as incompatible with the free exchange of ideas. In this way they have skilfully avoided engaging with the difficult issue of identifying and dealing with the hostile environment that the overheated debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has produced on their campuses.
Another relevant incident comes to mind. Throughout the mid- and late 1990s a number of radical Islamicist groups were active at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. One of these groups distributed incendiary propaganda against Jews, feminists, Hindus, and gays. In 1996 the administration granted it use of the main lecture hall for several meetings that included lavish praise for the suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that killed 49 Israelis between February and March of that year. A small group of Jewish students, all of them women, supported by one female Hindu student and a gay male student, organized a protest demonstration outside one of these meetings. They were physically intimidated by some of the Islamicist activists, and the police were summoned to protect them.
The morning after this event I met with the Principal and the Secretary of the College to express my deep concern that the administration was handing over use of its facilities to extremists promoting bigotry and terrorism. The Principal informed me that while the Islamicist group was indeed 'cranky', he was reluctant to turn them into martyrs by denying them a presence on campus. A proposal for banning the group was raised in the SOAS Student Union, and it was also debated in the Faculty Council. It was defeated in both forums. Eventually, after negative press coverage, the administration quietly excluded the group from use of campus facilities on procedural grounds, carefully avoiding issues of principle.
Variants of this pattern have since recurred on other campuses in the UK on a regular basis. The evasion practised by many university administrators in the face of the racist incitement of extremists who enjoy a high measure of political indulgence among arbiters of 'progressive opinion' is an expression of the deep moral cowardice that afflicts not a small part of academic life in Britain.
It should now be abundantly clear (if it wasn't before) that returning to plead the case against the boycott before the UCU on a yearly basis, in front of a cynical and dishonest executive and a largely indifferent membership, is an exercise in futility that only serves to intensify the satisfaction of the boycotters. The Union is an abject failure as an instrument of collective bargaining and industrial democracy. It is a disgrace as an organization that purports to defend its members against discrimination, given that it has allowed itself to become a leading instrument of harassment.
Ultimately, the vice-Chancellors and senior administrators of Britain's universities are charged with the responsibility of insuring that their institutions implement the Race Relations Amendment Act. It is to them that we should direct the demand that all members of the UK academic community are insured an environment free of racist exclusion, silent individual boycotts, or incitement to violence. If they are not able to provide such an environment, then it may be time to seek it elsewhere.
(Shalom Lappin, King’s College, London.)