The row surrounding the proposed boycott of Israeli lecturers who do not publicly oppose "Israeli apartheid policies" escalated yesterday after it emerged that thousands of international academics had signed a petition opposing the plans.
Organised by the Israeli-led International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom, the online petition calls on the 69,000 members of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (Natfhe) to reject the boycott motion when it goes before delegates at the union's annual conference, which begins in Blackpool today .
Yesterday a separate Israeli group, including both Jews and Arabs, said it was flying to Britain to brief the Natfhe conference about a new Hebrew University programme, approved last week, to grant undergraduate degrees to personnel in Shin Bet, an arm of the Israeli intelligence services, which campaigners say highlights links between Israeli academia and the occupied territories.
The Natfhe motion, to be debated on Monday, criticises "Israeli apartheid policies, including construction of the exclusion wall, and discriminatory educational practices", and "invites members to consider their responsibility for ensuring equity and non-discrimination in contacts with Israeli institutions or individuals."
Members of the national executive committee, who asked not to be named, said the resolution was likely to pass. But critics of the proposal say the union's leaders are unlikely to allow the organisation to "repeat the same mistake". Last year the smaller Association of University Teachers (AUT) voted to impose a similar boycott, but after an international backlash the decision was overturned at a specially convened conference a month later.
This year's resolution is more gingerly worded, but unlike the AUT motion, which only targeted two specific institutions, it relates to all Israeli lecturers and academic institutions and is seen as a serious escalation in the continuing row.
In a sign of the controversy's growing political significance, MPs at the Israeli parliament held an emergency meeting to discuss the UK boycott plans, which were described as a "witch hunt," and the country's education minister called on the British government to intervene.
Today's Guardian carries a letter from up to 600 academics who, although condemning "Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza", oppose a boycott. It reads: "We oppose the inconsistency of blacklisting Israelis but adopting a different attitude to academics in the ... long list of other states that are responsible for equal or worse human rights abuses ... Natfhe and AUT are currently involved in a bitter dispute with university managements over pay. This boycott proposal degrades our unity at a moment when academics need to stand together."
However, a second letter on behalf of the Federation of Unions of Palestinian University Professors and Employees describes the boycott as a "courageous initiative" and says: "Israeli academic institutions are implicated in various forms of oppression against the Palestinians. Israeli research institutes, think tanks, and academic departments have granted legitimacy to the work of academics who advocate ethnic cleansing, apartheid, denial of refugee rights, and other discriminatory policies against the Palestinians."
If passed, the resolution may be short-lived. A few days after the conference Natfhe is set to merge with the other major lecturers' union, the AUT. Any adopted resolution will thus become Natfhe policy for less than a week, and only advisory to the new union.
The International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom has organised a network of 500 academics throughout Europe and the US, lobbying colleagues against the Natfhe resolution. At the last count the group's online petition had more than 4,700 signatories worldwide. Organisers claim all signatories are lecturers. The petition says: "Academic boycott actions are antithetical not only to principles of academic freedom but also to the quest for peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict."
Emanuele Ottolenghi of Oxford University's Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies said a boycott would violate basic academic freedoms. "Asking academics to state their political opinion on a specific matter as a precondition to being accepted ... is in the best tradition of Stalinism."
But Stephen Rose, a founder of the AUT boycott campaign and a member of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine, said Israeli academics had a moral responsibility to challenge policies that were devastating the lives of thousands of Palestinians.