Britain's main university teachers' union said on Friday it had agreed to a Palestinian request to boycott two Israeli universities, angering Jewish students and administrators who said it could fan anti-Semitism.
Association of University Teachers (AUT) General Secretary Sally Hunt, announcing the boycott, said members are asked to avoid all academic or cultural cooperation with Haifa University and Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv.
Meanwhile, British Ambassador to Israel Simon McDonald said the British government opposes academic boycotts in general and the boycott against the Israeli universities in particular.
The AUT council voted to boycott Bar-Ilan because it runs courses at colleges in the occupied West Bank and "is thus directly involved with the occupation of Palestinian territories contrary to United Nations resolutions".
It boycotted Haifa because the university disciplined a lecturer for supporting a student who wrote about attacks on Palestinians during the founding of the state of Israel.
'A betrayal of academic principles'
The boycott, which is not compulsory, will last until Haifa "ceases its victimization of academic staff and students who seek to research and discuss the history of the founding of the state of Israel," it said.
The AUT said it voted for the boycott in response to a plea for action by a group of Palestinian academics.
British university administrators and Jewish student groups were outraged.
"It is a betrayal of academic principles -- it looks like they are moving backwards into the hatred of the past few years," Union of Jewish Students spokesman Danny Stone said.
Universities U.K., representing university executives, called the union's resolution "inimical to academic freedom, including the freedom of academics to collaborate with other academics."
Britain's community of about 10,000 Jewish students has complained that opposition to Israeli policies by student and teacher groups has fuelled anti-Semitism.
Reminiscent of 1930s Germany
The AUT's executive committee said it would look further into a call to boycott a third university, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, after claims that the institution had confiscated land occupied by Palestinian families in east Jerusalem.
The union has previously rejected calls for a boycott of all Israeli institutions but agreed on Friday to circulate a Palestinian plea for broader action to regional associations.
Palestinian Authority sources praised the initiative and expressed hope that more international groups would apply pressure on Israel.
Israeli Deputy Ambassador to the U.K. Zvi Ravner told the “Guardian” he is surprised and concerned regarding the decision by leading academic institutions in Britain to impose an academic boycott on Bar-Ilan and Haifa universities.
“The last time Jews had been boycotted in universities was in 1930’s Germany,” he said.
Anti-Defamation League Director Abraham Foxman said in response “Those who now urge a boycott of Israeli universities must know that such a boycott is an assault on the very idea of the university as a citadel of intellectual freedom and informed debate.”
Israel's Foreign Ministry said the union was guilty of hypocrisy.
"The fact that AUT chose to target Israel, the only country in the Middle East that has complete academic freedom for all segments of the population and all political streams is scandalous," the ministry said in a statement.
The ministry singled out countries such as Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia for suppressing academic freedom. The statement urged British academics to distance themselves from the boycott.