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Polly Curtis and Matthew Taylor, and Conal Urquhart in Tel Aviv | The Guardian | 23 April 2005
A leading union voted yesterday to boycott two Israeli universities which it accused of being complicit in the abuse of Palestinians in the occupied territories.
The Association of University Teachers voted to sever links with Haifa and Bar-Ilan universities, and said it would consider boycotting a third.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews called the vote "blinkered, irresponsible and dangerous".
Jocelyn Prudence, who heads the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, told the Guardian: "This would appear to run contrary to contractual law, race and religious discrimination law, and academic freedom obligations, which are built into the contracts of staff in pre-1992 universities."
Sue Blackwell, a lecturer at Birmingham University who co-wrote the motion, said she was overwhelmed by the result at the AUT's annual conference in Eastbourne.
"We now have a boycott against a quarter of the universities in Israel, and we intend to continue the fight," she said. "I am proud today to be a member of a union that is prepared to stand up for human rights around the world."
In recent weeks, the debate has focused international attention on the union, which represents 48,000 lecturers in mostly pre-1992 universities.
Last night the deputy Israeli ambassador in London, Zvi Ravner, told the Guardian that he was amazed and disturbed by the AUT's decision.
"Are they really intending to boycott the Palestinians and the Israeli Arabs who study and work in these institutions, or are they really calling for a boycott of Jews?" he asked.
"The last time that Jews were boycotted in universities was in 1930s Germany."
Danny Stone, of the Union of Jewish Students, urged the government to establish an inquiry into extremism on campuses - among students and staff.
However, sources in the Palestinian Authority welcomed "a gesture of solidarity with the Palestinian people", and hoped that "more international groups will put pressure on Israel".
Omar Barghouti, a founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, said: "The taboo has been shattered at last. From now on, it will be acceptable to compare Israel's apartheid system to its South African predecessor."
The AUT claimed Haifa University had restricted the academic freedom of staff who spoke out against government policies. Bar-Ilan was boycotted because of its links to a college in the disputed settlement of Ariel. Both institutions have contested the allegations.
The Israeli ministry of for eign affairs said: "This decision is misguided and unbalanced in the extreme.
"The fact that the AUT is dealing with Israel in a critical way when it is the only country in the Middle East where there is genuine academic freedom is indeed perverse."
Many of the 200 representatives at yesterday's conference reported receiving dozens of emails, letters and faxes from around the world.
Delegates voted to reject their union executive's call to postpone the vote on the two universities. But they did delay a decision on the Hebrew University, which was accused of evicting Palestinian families from their homes to build dormitories.
The Guardian understands that Jewish academics had been in contact with the AUT executive, and had received assurances that the Israeli position would be put forward and the executive would push for dialogue rather than a boycott.
However, a full debate was suspended when time ran out, threatening to edge the issue off the agenda for the day.
Yesterday, Sally Hunt, the AUT's general secretary, refused to comment but issued a statement promising members advice on the boycott.
Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, condemned the boycott.