British Journalists Call for Boycott of Israeli Goods

Courtesy Alan Cowell, International herald Tribune

LONDON: Britain’s biggest journalists’ union, The National Union of Journalists, has criticized Israel’s “military adventures” and has voted narrowly in favor of a boycott of Israeli goods. The vote followed calls by some British academics last year to ostracize their Israeli counterparts.

At the annual delegates meeting of the journalists’ union last Friday, a vote calling for “a boycott of Israeli goods similar to those boycotts in the struggles against apartheid in South Africa” was approved 66 to 54.

The delegates also urged Britain and the United Nations to impose sanctions on Israel.

The union has about 40,000 members, represented at the annual meeting by about 150 delegates from more than 60 branches.

The ballot did not, however, make calls for a boycott of contacts with Israeli journalists similar to previous academic efforts to ostracize Israeli university teachers.

The call for a boycott was initially part of a broader condemnation of what the union called Israel’s “slaughter of civilians” in Gaza and “savage pre-planned attack” last year on Lebanon, but the boycott was voted on separately. The condemnation of Israeli military action in Gaza and Lebanon was approved by a wider margin.

In the debate leading to the vote, some delegates argued that a call for a boycott would not help British journalists do their job in Israel. Others argued that it was not the job of a journalists’ union to get so involved in such issues.

The timing of the ballot was particularly delicate because a BBC journalist, Alan Johnston, has been held for more than a month in Gaza, making the boycott call seem one-sided. A Palestinian group claimed Sunday to have killed Johnston but the BBC said it was treating the report as a rumor.

“We had a whole separate section of the conference” devoted to Johnston’s plight, said Jeremy Dear, the union’s general secretary.

According to the union’s Web site,, the delegates voted unanimously to “keep up the urgent global campaign for Alan’s release” and criticized the Palestinian authorities for failing “to carry out their promises to do all they can to free Alan.”

Dear said there had been “some feedback,” primarily from unidentified e-mail correspondents in the United States, saying Johnston “should be put in a concentration camp” or tried for hate crimes.

He said those who supported a boycott had argued that while the union represented journalists, it still had a duty to uphold things “that are in our constitution” concerning human rights.

On the union’s conference blog, however, a critic of the vote, identified as Olivia Lang, said, “It is not going to make life easier for journalists anywhere in the world” to be seen to be taking sides. “We need to strive to maintain our objectivity when reporting,” she wrote.

The vote stirred little immediate comment in Britain, however. Jonathan Freedland, a columnist for The Guardian and The Evening Standard, who said he is a member of the National Union of Journalists, took issue in a telephone interview with the union’s decision, saying it made no distinction between Israel itself and Israeli settlements in occupied territories. “This punishes Israel proper along with settlers as if the two were the same,” he said.

Moreover, he said, “as a tactic, it strikes a raw nerve in the Jewish psyche.””You won’t win over the Jewish diaspora” with such boycott calls, he said. Last year, the largest British association of university teachers voted to encourage individual academics in Britain to sever professional contact with their counterparts in Israel. That vote echoed an appeal one year earlier by a smaller association, which first demanded a boycott of two Israeli universities and then withdrew the call under pressure from some of its members. The two associations later merged and the policy lapsed, said Trevor Phillips, a spokesman for the combined association. It will be discussed again next month, he said.