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A delegation of Israeli academics will head to the U.K. later this month in a bid to fight a proposed boycott of Israeli universities by British academics.

Seven academics from six Israeli universities plan to meet with members of the 120,000-strong union ahead of its vote to boycott Israeli academic institutions at its annual congress in Bournemouth at the end of the month. The three-day congress is the first for the newly-formed University and College Union, a merger of the Association of University Teachers (AUT) and the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE).

In 2005, the AUT voted to boycott Bar-Ilan and Haifa universities although the decision was overturned a month later. A year ago, NATFHE passed a motion to boycott all Israeli academics who did not "publicly disassociate themselves from Israeli policies," just two days before the union merged with the AUT, thereby nullifying the resolution.

"The boycott is a form of prejudice and discrimination because it unfairly singles out Israel and demonizes us," says Dr. Jonathan Rynhold, a senior lecturer in the department of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, and a member of delegation to the U.K. "We are nowhere near the worst human rights abusers in the world. We want to present a more balanced and realistic picture of Israeli academia. When they meet us, they will see we are not a bunch of fascists."

Academic freedom

Rynhold added, "It's also important that they understand that 99.9 percent of Israeli academics from across the political spectrum are against the boycott. This doesn't mean there aren't issues that Israel needs to address about how it treats its minorities or the Palestinians, but if there's one group which keeps this on the agenda, it is academics. It's the one area where Israelis and Palestinians have cooperated on an equal basis extensively."

The Israeli group hopes to meet with pro- and anti-boycott members, as well as those who have yet to decide which way to vote, says Rynhold. "The boycott goes against the universal principle of academic freedom and various international conventions that the U.K. is party to. The advancement of academia depends on judging people by the quality of their work."

If the motion is passed, it could prevent any academic affiliated with an Israeli institution from spending sabbaticals in the U.K. and participating in conferences there, says Ofir Frankel, executive director of the International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom (IAB), which put the Israeli delegation together.

'A silent boycott'

Operating under the auspices of Bar-Ilan University, the IAB was formed by Prof. Yosef Yeshurun and Prof. Joshua Schwartz in 2005 after the British university teachers union voted to boycott Bar-Ilan and Haifa universities. It works closely with organizations abroad which oppose academic boycotts.

According to IAB member Prof. Wendy Sandler from the English department of Haifa University, a boycott will also damage the system for promotions within Israeli universities, which relies on letters of recommendation from colleagues abroad. She says that many British academics who have publicly supported the boycott sit on the boards of scientific journals and may already be adhering to a "silent boycott" of Israeli academics. "This means we can never know whether our work has been rejected on political grounds or because it does not meet the standards of the journal - whether our work is being evaluated on merit alone," she says.

Sandler, who traveled to the U.K. two years ago to try and persuade British academics to rescind an earlier boycott, describes the atmosphere there surrounding debates on Israel as "poisonous."

"What dismays me most is this aura of political correctness, which is based on a very extreme view of Israel's role in the Middle East. It intimidates people from expressing another view," says Sandler, who is originally from the U.S. "Whenever somebody spoke against the boycott of Israel, they would begin with a condemnation of Israeli policies, which I saw as a clear sign they were intimidated. They felt they would not have any credibility if they did not," she explains. "What we find in England is that no matter how outrageous the accusations are against Israel, they are believed. That's the main problem - the overall perception of Israel promoted by the media."

The Israeli delegation to the U.K. will also include Dr. Miriam Shlesinger of Bar-Ilan University who was fired by a British journal of translation in 2002 for being Israeli, and Prof. Zvi Hacohen, chairman of Coordinating Council of the Senior Faculty Associations. The group may travel to Ireland too, where 61 academics called for a boycott of Israeli institutions of higher education in a letter published in the Irish Times last year.

The proposed boycott by British academics follows a spate of other calls to boycott Israel in the U.K. Last month, 130 British doctors called for a boycott of the Israeli Medical Association and its expulsion from the World Medical Association and the National Union of Journalists voted for a boycott of Israeli goods in protest of last year's Lebanon war and Israeli "aggression" in the territories.

Several branches of the British journalists union have subsequently called for a special delegate meeting to reconsider the boycott resolution, which was originally passed by a vote of 66 to 54.