British academia voted yesterday to boycott cooperation with universities in Israel in protest of Israel’s presence in the Occupied Territories. Though the vote at the first meeting of the University and College Union passed by a majority of 158 to 99, several prominent members were opposed to the decision. General Secretary to the Union, Sally Hunt, said, “I do not believe a boycott is supported by a majority of UCU members, nor do I believe that members see it as a priority for the union.” The UCU vote coincides with similar pressures from within Israel, as four Israeli academics called yesterday for the government to lift bans on Palestinian students. In a letter to the defence minister, the presidents of Ben-Gurion, Hebrew, Haifa and Technion universities, wrote, “Blocking access to higher education for Palestinian students from Gaza who choose to study in the West Bank casts a dark shadow over Israel’s image as a state which respects and supports the principle of academic freedom and the right to education.” Education Minister Bill Rammell said, “The UK government fully supports academic freedom and is firmly against any academic boycotts of Israel or Israeli academics. Whilst I appreciate the independence of the UCU, I am very disappointed.” “I profoundly believe this does nothing to promote the Middle East peace process,” he added. Meanwhile, In another vote yesterday, the UCU rejected the Education Minister’s guidelines for professors to inform the government of suspected Islamic extremism among students. Rammell said, “There is evidence of serious, but not widespread Islamist extremist activity in higher education institutions.” Hunt commented, “Universities must remain safe spaces for lecturers and students to debate all sorts of ideas, including those that some people may consider challenging, offensive and even extreme. The last thing we need is people too frightened to discuss an issue because they fear some quasi secret service will turn them in.”
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