UCU Congress 2024: Solidarity with Palestine and the Fight for Justice

Philip Inglesant reports on the significant motions and discussions at the UCU Congress 2024, highlighting the strong solidarity with Palestine and the ongoing fight for justice.

 

As we reported in our article “International Solidarity at UCU Congress 2024”, there were six motions specifically in solidarity with Palestine. These motions were scheduled towards the end of the afternoon of the first day, but, fearful that some might fall for lack of time, proposers successfully argued for them to be moved up and taken at the start of that session. As we report in another article, this meant that a motion on Ukraine slipped further down the agenda, but fortunately there was time to debate this too.

On the second day of UCU Congress, we were very privileged to receive an address by Husam Zomlot, Palestinian Ambassador to the UK. Husam Zomlot was himself born in the UNWRA refugee camp in Rafah. He spoke for over thirty minutes to a standing ovation.

A motion from the Disabled Members’ Standing Committee called for an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza, an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, and the release of Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners in Israeli gaols.

This is notable in its re-iteration of UCU’s call for an end to the occupation of Palestine, and for pairing the release of Israelis held in Gaza with the many Palestinians held in Israel.

Coming from the disability equalities strand, this motion also noted the particular vulnerabilities of disabled people. Physical or learning disabilities make it especially hard for people to comply with Israel’s frequent orders to evacuate from one supposedly safe place to another. A supportive amendment from the Women Members’ Standing Committee called for UCU to campaign for safe spaces and aid for women, children, and LGBTQ+ people, recognising the gender-based violence and degrading sexual abuse to which many women are subjected.

A composite motion from the Universities of Warwick, Liverpool, Kings College London, UCU Cymru, and the London Regional Committee noted that free speech and academic freedom are under threat for Palestinians and their supporters. All of Gaza’s universities have been destroyed, while in the West Bank there is ongoing disruption and administrative detention of students and staff. Here in the UK, several universities have intervened to censor solidarity motions by UCU branches and in at least one case UCU offices have been broken into to remove posters.

This motion noted the call by Scholars for Palestine and a tour by BRICUP, the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine. It reiterated UCU’s recognition of the importance of industrial action in bringing to an end apartheid in South Africa. It called for UCU to defend staff and student rights to demonstrate in solidarity with Palestinians and to work towards ending British universities’ involvement in the arms trade, for universities to break their ties with weapons companies supplying Israel, and to campaign for USS and other pension funds to divest from companies complicit in Israel’s crimes.

An amendment from the LBGT+ Members’ Standing Committee called for UCU to publish a statement from the Black Members’ Standing Committee on Palestine and freedom of speech. UCU’s failure to publish this statement, from one of its own equalities committees, was shameful and was one of the causes of a dispute with the Black members. This amendment was carried, but, fortunately, was no longer necessary because, under pressure, UCU did finally publish this statement.

But this motion came with a note that UCU’s legal advice is that it would be unlawful for the union to call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The composite was carefully worded, merely “noting” work by BRICUP and Scholars for Palestine. While calling for work towards ending university links with weapons companies and for USS to divest from companies, it does not call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Indeed, no fewer than six clauses from the original composite motion were ruled out of order because they either explicitly called for academic boycott of Israeli institutions or could be interpreted in that way, such as by supporting, encouraging, or affiliating to BRICUP or other pro-Palestine groups.

A motion from New City College Tower Hamlets made important points that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism, that the two-state solution is unviable, and that the current State of Israel cannot offer security for Jews based on oppression of the Palestinian people. However, a part of the motion calling for a single democratic secular state in Israel/Palestine was voted on separately and, unfortunately, was lost. If the two-state solution is unviable but UCU does not support a single democratic state then it is hard to see what kind of settlement in Israel/Palestine UCU would support.

Serious discussion on the left of what a long-term peaceful settlement might entail (other than lip-service to a two-state solution) is relatively recent. Various forms of single state remains a minority position, and there are no simple answers, so we can hope that UCU will continue to engage constructively in these issues.

A motion from Kings College London noted the risk of escalation, with Israel’s attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus and RAF support for Israel during Iran’s counter-attack. Sadly, invasion of Rafah is no longer a threat but a reality. But there is strong international mobilisation in support of Palestine. In the UK, this motion commits UCU to endorse the University and College Workers for Palestine network, to co-ordinate walkouts, and support any members who refuse to undertake contracted duties which may involve complicity in war crimes.
Although not mentioned in the motion, U&C Workers for Palestine calls for Boycott, Disinvestment, and Sanctions, including demands that USS divest from companies that are engaged on human rights violations, such as demolition of Palestinian home and the construction of illegal Israeli settlements, which is a bit more explicit than the motion mentioned above which called for disinvestment in companies “complicit in Israel’s crimes”.

A motion from University of Brighton expressed solidarity with Palestine protests in Columbia, New York, and Yale Universities and others in the USA. At the time, there was strong state repression against these student-led encampments, with university Principals caving in to right-wing demands and overriding students’ right to freedom of speech. Since the submission of this motion, and during Congress, there were many solidarity encampments at UK universities as well.

The final motion in this section called on the UK government to establish a Gaza Family Scheme, which would enable Palestinians in Gaza to reunite with their immediate and extended family members in the UK, until it is safe for them to return. This is modelled on the Ukraine Family Scheme that already exists. It is of course shameful that different standards are applied to Ukrainians facing war and Palestinians facing even greater threats. Currently, even those Palestinians who might be eligible are unable to make an immigration application because to do so requires them to enrol their biometrics, which is impossible in Gaza and requires a dangerous and expensive evacuation to Egypt. There is also an open letter from trade unions to the Home Secretary calling for the Gaza Family Scheme, and this motion calls on UCU to sign this letter.

Palestine was also mentioned in some motions that focussed on other issues. A motion from Yorkshire and Humberside Retired Members on the crises in food, housing, health, social care, and transport noted that these crises are even more severe in countries devastated by war, including Palestine. A motion from the NEC welcomed activities to defend workers and students under threat in countries including Palestine. A motion from City and Islington College and University of Brighton called for Welfare not Warfare highlighted the ongoing slaughter in Gaza as well as Yemen, Ukraine, and elsewhere. A motion in the Education part of Congress renewed UCU’s commitment to solidarity with all people facing deadly attacks, including in Palestine.

There was a composite motion to the Higher Education Sector Conference focussed on the point mentioned earlier of attempts by some university managements to stifle support for Palestinians, including, at Queen Mary University of London, by breaking into UCU offices. Unfortunately, for reasons reported by Liz Lawrence in her article: “Reclaim UCU”, the HE Sector Conference did not take place; we hope that it will take place at a later date, as called for by several motions, but the rules of UCU do not allow it to be simply recalled once the dispute between UCU and some of its staff is settled.

UCU continues to take a lead in trade union support of Palestine, despite its ongoing legal opposition to outright boycott of Israeli institutions. However, as the genocide in Gaza and destruction of the West Bank continues there is a risk that it will drift down the agenda. Six high-profile motions is good but next year there might be fewer or further down the agenda. We need to make sure this doesn’t happen. If the immediate crisis is over there will be still more to fight for; reconstruction of Gaza, resistance to Israeli occupation in Gaza and the West Bank, full and equal rights for Palestinian Citizens of Israel. Influential forces in Israel will still have the ultimate aim of destroying Palestine.

As a final important point, while inevitably and tragically most solidarity effort is taken up with necessary campaigns against Israel’s actions, the vote on the debate on the motion around a single, democratic, secular state shows that it is time for the left to seriously consider how to secure a lasting and just peace in a future Israel/Palestine.


Please see the rest of our series on the UCU Congress 2024 here


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Philip Inglesant is a member of London Retired Members' UCU branch and formerly of Oxford University UCU

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