Lecturers prompted an angry response last night when they agreed to contemplate a possible boycott of Israeli universities over the "humanitarian catastrophe imposed on Gaza" and the Palestinians.
Members of the University and College Union (UCU) stopped short of voting on immediately severing links with their counterparts in Israel but instead decided to "consider the moral and political implications of education links with institutions".
About 30 of 250 delegates at the annual congress in Manchester opposed the motion from Tom Hickey, a philosophy lecturer at the University of Brighton. A similarly-worded motion passed by the union last year prompted Jewish leaders to condemn it as a "frightening assault" on academic freedom.
The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg cancelled a planned visit to the UK in protest at the boycott calls. The Stop the Boycott campaign, which is backed by the Jewish Leadership Council, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and other groups, criticised the UCU motion as "shameful" and "utterly irresponsible".
A UCU delegation visited Palestine earlier this year on a fact-finding mission as a result of last year's vote.
Mr Hickey told congress: "This motion emerges from our decision not to boycott, but to discuss the issue and organise a tour and that is what we did." He said the continuing conflict over the occupied territories was "not just about impediment but serial humiliation" of Palestinians.
Mr Hickey criticised attempts to curb debate by lecturers on the matter. "We refused to be intimidated. We will protect the union from legal threat but we will not silenced on this issue," he said.
Linda Newman, the UCU president, said that she would not advocate a boycott but supported the motion. It called for members to reflect on the "apparent complicity" of most Israeli academics in the "humanitarian catastrophe imposed on Gaza by Israel".Reuse content