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Alexandra Smith | The Guardian | 30 May 2006
An international lobby group formed last year after lecturers voted to boycott Israeli universities has vowed to oppose any renewed plans "through legal channels".
The warning from the Israeli-led International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom, a body formed at Bar-Ilan University last year after the Association of University Teachers (AUT) attempted to impose an academic boycott on Israel, came as the international outcry over Israeli sanctions today intensified.
Yesterday, the lecturers' union Natfhe voted to support a boycott of Israeli academics who fail to publicly dissociate themselves from Israel's "apartheid policies".
Presented before the close of the final Natfhe conference, the motion criticised "Israeli apartheid policies, including construction of the exclusion wall, and discriminatory educational practices". It invited members to "consider the appropriateness of a boycott of those that do not publicly dissociate themselves from such policies".
Last year, the AUT, Natfhe's sister union, elected to impose an academic boycott on two Israeli universities, before reversing its decision.
While the Natfhe resolution is more cautiously worded, it relates to all Israeli lecturers and academic institutions and is seen as an escalation in the continuing row, which is dividing academics.
Yosef Yeshurun, rector of Bar-Ilan University and chairman of the International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom, said his group would "try to attack the resolution through legal channels" , warning the boycott could hurt emerging Israeli scientists.
Prof Yeshurun said: "The decision will not have an impact on Israeli science in the near future. But you also have to take into account the long-term implications."
Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the approval of the Natfhe resolution represented "a stunning setback" for academic freedom.
"It is profoundly unjust for academics in the only democratic country in the Middle East - the only country where scholarship and debate are permitted to freely flourish - to be held to an ideological test and the threat of being blacklisted because of their views," he added.
"No one would expect a British or American professor to have to withstand such scrutiny of their political views. Yet, when it comes to Israel a different standard applies."
Criticism has also come from British academics. University College London president and provost Malcolm Grant said: "I am deeply worried by the vote at the Natfhe conference in favour of a boycott.
"I find it extraordinary that any academic union should attack academic freedom in this way. An academic boycott for political ends is in direct conflict with the mission of a university, and betrays a misunderstanding of our function.
"The effect of this resolution will not be confined to Natfhe, because it is in the process of merging with the AUT to create a new union, which will be contaminated from the outset by this resolution."
However, Lisa Taraki and Omar Barghouti, from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, and Imad Oudeh, from the Union of Al-Quds University Teachers, praised the Natfhe action in a letter to the Guardian.
They said: "Sanctions and boycotts are morally and politically sound tactics which, in the past, succeeded in bringing down the apartheid regime in South Africa. They can also be used to challenge Israel's impunity and its exceptional status as a state above the law."
Yesterday's resolution will only be official Natfhe policy until Thursday, when Natfhe and the AUT will merge to become the world's largest higher education union.