Britain's largest university lecturers' union will this week debate the introduction of an academic boycott of Israel in protest at its military crackdown in Palestinian-held territory.
The Association of University Teachers, which has 46,000 members including dons and vice-chancellors, will vote on a motion calling on it to sever "any academic links they may have with official Israeli institutions".
The motion, which was chosen for debate by a committee of the AUT, has sparked fury from academics who argue that it is anti-Semitic and should not be given a public hearing. The AUT has added insult to injury, they say, by scheduling the debate for Friday afternoon, nearing the start of the Jewish sabbath. The motion has been brought by the AUT's Birmingham University branch.
It will be proposed by Sue Blackwell, the branch vice-president and an English lecturer, after being chosen from hundreds of submissions for debate by the union's six-member council agenda committee. In all, 59 motions are due to be debated at the three-day conference in Scarborough.
The Birmingham motion reads: "In view of Israel's repeated breaches of UN resolutions and of the Geneva Conventions, council urges all UK institutions of higher education, all AUT local associations and all AUT members to review immediately, with a view to severing, any academic links they may have with official Israeli institutions, including universities."
Delegates at the meeting will also be urged not to attend conferences in Israel and to support colleagues who have allegedly been the focus of a "witch-hunt" because of their support for an academic boycott.
The union's national executive has recommended that the call for action is rejected, although it has defended its decision to debate a boycott of Israel. Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the AUT, said: "The AUT is a broad church and contains a wide spectrum of views on numerous matters. This subject will be fully debated and I am sure those who feel strongly about the issue will put forward their arguments."
Geoffrey Alderman, a former pro vice-chancellor of Middlesex University, said that he was profoundly dismayed by a potential boycott and the timing of the debate.
"I have written to the AUT president and general secretary to make my feelings known," he said, arguing that Israel was being unfairly singled out. "I am opposed to academic boycotts of any description."
The AUT vote is the latest in a series of attempts to isolate Israeli scholars in protest at its security operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In Britain, calls for an academic boycott have been led by Steven Rose, an Open University professor.
Last year, the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology was forced to hold an inquiry after The Telegraph revealed that Mona Baker, a professor, had sacked two Israeli academics from the editorial boards of two of her journals because of their nationality. A Umist inquiry into her conduct found that Prof Baker had not acted improperly under its rules because the journals she owns were not connected to the university; however, it called for a review of Umist's rules to protect the institution from being brought into disrepute in the future.
Emanuele Ottolenghi, a lecturer in Israel studies at St Antony's College, Oxford, condemned the motion as anti-Semitic and against the ethics of the academic community.
"The notion of a boycott has gone from a phenomenon involving a few extreme individuals to something approaching legitimacy. It is slowly being allowed to become mainstream," he said. "Anti-Israeli campaigners lament the fact that they are labelled anti-Semitic and make a distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. However, anti-Zionism denies an entire people the right to define themselves as a nation. They attack Israel not for what it does but for what it is."
Neville Nagler, the director general of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said he hoped the motion would be defeated. "This boycott penalises individuals who are not connected, let alone responsible, for government policy."
A spokesman for Tony Blair declined to comment on a motion that had yet to be debated but added that the Prime Minister's views were "widely known".
Last year, Mr Blair told Dr Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, that he would "do anything necessary" to stop such boycotts. Sue Blackwell, the proposer, runs a Palestinian human rights website which was criticised by the Board of Deputies earlier this year.
The board said that the website, which contains articles refering to "low-grade genocide" by Israel and a link to a website called The Electronic Intifada, was offensive and a mouthpiece for anti-Israeli groups.
Ms Blackwell said this weekend: "I deny emphatically that I am somehow anti-Semitic by bringing this motion. I have been a member of the Anti-Nazi League for many years and a campaigner for human rights. I absolutely condemn terrorism of any kind.
"I can understand that it could create bad feeling among colleagues but the boycott is aimed at institutions not individuals."
Birmingham University refused to condemn or support Ms Blackwell, although it said that it has no policy of supporting an Israeli academic boycott. A spokesman said: "The university neither endorses nor condones these views but supports freedom of speech."
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