UK teachers union walks back decision to boycott Israel

The National Education Union (NEU), the largest large teachers union in the UK, has backtracked on a boycott of SodaStream advertisements in its union magazine, and ostensibly on other Israeli-based companies, after a member of parliament criticized the organization’s stance on Twitter.

In the January-February 2019 edition of the NEU’s Educate magazine, a letter was published complaining that the publication had run an advertisement for the Israel-based SodaStream company, saying that the NEU should support the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. In response, editor Helen Watson wrote that the magazine staff  “scrutinize our adverts to make sure they are in line with union policies and decision making,” adding “We will not be carrying adverts from SodaStream in future.”

The NEU has some 500,000 members after it merged with two other bodies, the National Union of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

The Jerusalem Post asked the NEU whether or not it had adopted a BDS platform against Israel, and if not, why the magazine was boycotting SodaStream.

The NEU’s joint General Secretary Kevin Courtney responded with an ambiguous statement, saying that the NEU “has not adopted any policy in this area” and has not boycotted goods in the past, which were “produced within Israel’s internationally recognized borders.”

Courtney said that the NEU “reserves the right to accept or decline adverts depending on their relevance to our membership and if they are in line with NEU or existing NUT/ATL legacy policy,” referring to other members of the union alliance.

Courntey noted that the union “had a policy, in line with that of [the UK’s] Trades Union Congress” of boycotting goods made in what it termed as “the illegal settlements in the occupied territories.”

MP Neil O’brien from the Conservative Party was made aware of the boycott and tweeted “Are you really banning adverts from Israeli firms in your paper?”

O’brien added that “Many of your members will be doing a good job teaching kids about tolerance and getting along with other people – please think about what message you are sending here.”

NEU’s other joint general secretary Dr. Mary Bousted wrote that the response of the editor was “made in error” and that NEU has not determined whether or not it will adopt the BDS platform, as other unions – including teachers unions – have done.

“It is not the policy to ban adverts from Israeli companies in our union magazine. The response to the letter was made in error. The has not yet developed policy in this area,” Bousted replied to O’brien.

The Deputy headteacher of the Jewish Hasmonean Primary School Daniel Gastwirth wrote to Bousted to protest against the magazine editor’s unilateral boycott, saying that he had joined the NEU’s predecessor the ATL because it dealt with education and those involved in the education sector without straying into international politics. 

“ It now seems that since we have merged with the NUT and become NEU, we have taken on extreme and one-sided policies in the international sphere that have absolutely nothing to do with the education of children here in the UK,” said Gastwirth.

“If people (members or non-members) wish to boycott certain companies for their own reasons, that is their choice. But I completely refuse to allow my union to make that decision for me. It is unethical, one-sided and frankly irrelevant to education in the UK,” he added, saying that it would be more worthwhile to engage in positive action such as helping fund coexistence projects in the region.

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