University and college lecturers have voted in favour of boycotting Israeli universities in defiance of their union leadership.
The surprise vote at the conference of the newly formed University and College Union (UCU) in protest at the treatment of Palestinians also brought swift condemnation from Jewish groups and Israeli academics.
Yesterday's motion condemns Israeli academics for "complicity in the occupation" of Palestine and calls for all the union's branches to be sent material from Palestinians calling for a boycott of Israeli institutions. It urges all members to "consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions".
The vote by 158 votes to 99 at the conference in Bournemouth came in spite of an earlier plea from Sally Hunt, general secretary of UCU, to reject a boycott. "I simply do not believe that the majority of UCU members support an academic boycott of Israel or that they believe it should be a major priority for the union," she said. "Most want to retain dialogue with trade unionists on all sides - not just those we agree with. It's the approach we have in Zimbabwe and Colombia."
Pressure will now be stepped up to persuade branches not to back it. Ms Hunt said afterwards: "Every member should have the opportunity to have their say." However, supporters of the boycott argued that it was the only way to convince Israelis to change their minds over the occupation and restore Palestinian rights.
The boycott would mean refusing to take part in conferences organised by Israelis. In the past, a similar call led to academics being stopped from writing for journals in the UK.
Dr John Chalcraft, of the London School of Economics, said: "A boycott will be effective because Israel considers itself part of the West: when Western civil society finally says 'enough is enough', Israelis, not to mention Western governments, will take notice. A non-violent international boycott, like that of South Africa, may well play a historic role in bringing down the Israeli system of apartheid."
Last night's vote is the first time UCU - the result of a merger of the Association of University Teachers and Natfhe, the college lecturers' union - has taken a stance on the issue. Three years ago the AUT passed a similar motion only for it to be overturned by members. Last year, though, Natfhe backed a boycott - knowing the motion would force the UCU to take a stand. Union leaders were optimistic they could head off the boycott. Last night they faced condemnation from academics and Jewish groups.
Jeremy Newmark, chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, said: "The motion is an assault on academic freedom. While the vast majority of academics do not support a boycott, this damages the credibility of British academia as a whole."
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