For the third straight year, British academics have made a substantial move toward a boycott of Israeli academics. Yesterday, the policymaking congress of the U.K.'s University and College Union voted 158 to 99 to recommend to its 120,000 members that they bar academic exchanges with Israeli researchers.
The move, which will be considered over the next year, seeks to pressure Israel to improve its relations with Palestinians. If passed, the boycott could alienate Israeli scientists from a nation considered an ally of the Jewish state. In response to the vote, the British Royal Society reiterated a 5-year-old statement against such boycotts: "Moratoria on scientific exchanges based on nationality, race, sex, language, religion, opinion, and similar factors ... would deny our colleagues their rights to freedom of opinion and expression, interfere with their ability to exercise their bona fide academic freedoms, and inhibit the free circulation of scientists and scientific ideas." The British and Israeli governments have both protested the action. Two moves by British academics to establish a similar boycott occurred in 2005 and 2006. One was voted down by the union members; the other passed but was later nullified.
The move has also drawn criticism from scientists outside of the U.K. Physicist Steven Weinberg of the University of Texas, Austin, says the union's vote is "despicable" and only strengthens his convictions to avoid visiting England. Earlier this month, Weinberg had decided to cancel a trip to the United Kingdom to protest a commercial boycott of Israeli products launched in April by British journalists. That visit, slated for July, was to include a speech at Imperial College London to honor Pakistani-born Abdus Salam, a friend and colleague who received the Nobel Prize with Weinberg and Sheldon Glashow in 1979, and who passed away in 1996. "Boycotting Israel indicates a moral blindness for which it is hard to find any other explanation than anti-Semitism," Weinberg wrote in a letter to Imperial officials. "I regret that I will not have a chance to speak in praise of Salam."
Stem cell researcher Basil Hantash of Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto, California, a Palestinian-American critic of Israeli policies toward Palestinians, says he believes academic "collective punishment" is unfair and could even penalize Israeli academics who support Palestinian rights.