An umbrella group representing Britain’s universities on Wednesday distanced itself from a decision by the country’s student union to boycott Israel a day earlier, saying it was “firmly opposed” to the embargo on the grounds that it contradicts the principle of “free exchange of ideas.”
Universities UK, which represents 133 British universities, said in a statement that it wanted to make clear its rejection of the boycott passed by the UK’s National Union of Students, joining official London in speaking out against the vote.
“Given the reported perception in Israel that UK universities support an academic boycott, the board of Universities UK wishes to confirm its previously stated position that it is firmly opposed to any academic boycott of Israeli universities,” the statement read.
The student vote, part of a larger Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement targeting Israel, was harshly condemned in Jerusalem, with at least one official threatening to take action against those who boycott the country.
Universities UK said it is “committed to the free exchange of ideas between universities and between academics, regardless of nationality or location.”
“The board therefore firmly opposes academic boycotts on the basis that they are inimical to academic freedom, including the freedom of academics to collaborate with other academics.”
However, the group also said academics should not be punished for speaking out against Israeli policies.
“The board also confirms its view that all universities must uphold, in the interests of free expression of ideas, the fundamental right of academics to question national and international policies,” Universities UK said.
On Tuesday the UK National Union of Students passed a motion to join worldwide efforts to boycott Israel over what it called Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights.
The motion explicitly aligns the union with the Palestinian-led BDS campaign that protests Israel’s continued control over the West Bank and East Jerusalem, land that the Palestinians want for a future state.
The NUC’s Executive Council passed motion 518, dubbed “Justice for Palestine,” with 19 members voting in favor, 12 against and three abstaining.
After the vote, the British Embassy in Israel downplayed the decision, which it said did not reflect London’s position.
“The British Government firmly opposes calls to boycott Israel,” Deputy Ambassador Rob Dixon said in a statement immediately after the vote. “We are deeply committed to promoting the UK’s trade and business ties with Israel, as part the flourishing partnership between the two countries. The reality is one of rapidly strengthening links between British and Israeli universities in science and academic cooperation. As David Cameron has said, the UK Government will never allow those who want to boycott Israel to shut down 60 years worth of vibrant exchange and partnership that does so much to make both our countries stronger.”
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the student union of being hypocritical for singling out the Jewish state while it rejected an earlier motion to condemn the Islamic State group.
“They boycott Israel but they refuse to boycott ISIS. That tells you everything you want to know about the BDS movement,” the prime minister said using acronyms for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and Islamic State, the radical terror group that has established a self-styled caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, speaking in the Knesset during a debate about the BDS movement, accused the boycott supporters of having an anti-Semitic agenda aimed at delegitimizing Israel.
“A large-scale campaign of delegimization against Israel, and against its existence as the national state of the Jewish people, is currently being waged,” she said. “This campaign, based as it is on disinformation, lies and threats, seeks to portray Israel as the source of all evil on earth, as anti-Semitism portrayed the Jews in the past.”
“This is anti-Semitism in a new guise,” she said. “The symptoms are the same. The old anti-Semitism dehumanized the Jews. Now it is doing the same thing to the Jewish state.”
The NUC is the UK’s umbrella student organization for some 600 higher education institutions representing 7 million students.
Universities UK is the representative organization for British universities and describes its mission as being “the definitive voice for all universities in the UK.” The organization’s governing board is made up of 24 elected members.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.