Britain's main faculty union, bowing to pressure from within its own ranks and from American scholarly groups, on Thursday abandoned a boycott of two Israeli universities.
The Association of University Teachers issued a statement after a closed-door meeting stating: "After a lengthy debate involving deeply held views on both sides of the argument, AUT's special council has today voted to revoke all existing boycotts of Israeli institutions."
The union said it would work to provide "practical solidarity to Palestinian and Israeli trade unionists and academics" and also uphold "a long and proud tradition of defending academic freedom."
The British faculty group in April announced the boycott of Bar-Ilan University and the University of Haifa, saying that the two institutions were complicit in Israel's denial of rights to Palestinians. This month, the faculty group announced that its members would get another chance to vote on the issue, which they did on Thursday.
Almost as soon as the boycott was announced, it faced harsh criticism. While some of the anger was not surprisingly from strong supporters of Israel, much of it came from academics who disagree with various Israeli policies but who called the boycott antithetical to academic freedom. In Britain, there was also a backlash, with commentators noting that the British union has not boycotted universities in some countries with terrible records on human rights and others noting that many Israeli academics are leaders in urging their government to improve the treatment of Palestinians.
The faculty union did not announce the vote totals Thursday, but the BBC reported that union members leaving the London meeting said that about three-fourths of those present voted to lift the boycott. Many union leaders who opposed the boycott to begin with said after it was announced that they missed the meeting where they could have voted against it.
Pro-boycott faculty members agreed that the wider participation in Thursday's vote changed the outcome from April's vote. "We saw people who did not come to earlier meetings there and we knew what the outcome would be," said Sue Blackwell, an English lecturer at the University of Birmingham and an organizer of the boycott effort, in an interview with the BBC. "We won the moral argument. They won the vote."
The BBC also quoted a professor who was happy that the boycott was lifted. David Hirsh of the University of London told the network: "A boycott is a tokenistic gesture which does more harm than good. The need for hard work, building links with Palestinian and Israeli academics, is less glamorous but much more important."
For a vote by a British union and involving two Israeli universities, the boycott attracted considerable attention -- most of it negative -- in the United States. Among the groups of American scholars that condemned the boycott were the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Association of University Professors, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Political Science Association, and the Modern Language Association.