(CNSNews.com) - American Jewish organizations have welcomed a decision by the British university teachers' union to call off a boycott of two Israeli universities. The boycott caused an outcry and prompted accusations of double standards and anti-Semitism.
Proponents of the boycott invoked earlier campaigns against South Africa's system of racial segregation, which critics of Israel frequently equate with "Zionism."
The Association of University Teachers (AUT) council agreed at a special session Thursday to lift a month-old boycott against Haifa University and Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, after what it described as "a lengthy debate involving deeply held views on both sides of the argument."
The statement cited the 40,000-member AUT's support for "the struggle to maintain academic freedom whenever it is under threat."
The British government's foreign office welcomed Thursday's decision, saying it did not believe sanctions and boycotts helped the goal of encouraging Israelis and Palestinians "to take steps necessary for progress through close engagement."
The boycott, instigated by pro-Palestinian British academics who labeled Israel an "apartheid state," was supported by the Palestinian Authority and groups including the Muslim Association of Britain and Islamic students' societies.
It drew strong opposition from British university administrators and Jewish groups around the world.
The two universities were blacklisted for actions which the AUT said last month undermined Palestinian rights.
It accused Haifa of intolerance toward a politics lecturer promoting a controversial thesis on an alleged massacre of Palestinians during Israel 1948 war of independence. The lecturer, Ilan Pappe, earlier compared AUT's boycott call to the "bold and honorable stand against apartheid in South Africa."
Bar-Ilan University was accused of links to a college based in territory claimed by the Palestinians.
The two campuses said the allegations were unfounded and charged that the boycott undermined academic freedom.
In contrast to many of his peers, one prominent Palestinian academic made a public stand against the boycott last week.
Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al Quds University in Jerusalem, symbolically issued a joint statement in London with his counterpart at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, saying "problems should be resolved through dialogue, not through sanctions."
Nusseibeh, a former PLO representative in Jerusalem, has now himself become the target of a campaign by Palestinian organizations and academics who say he should be punished for breaking ranks and lose his post.
A day before the AUT met to discuss the move, Palestinian university teachers' bodies urged the British union not to lift the boycott, accusing the two targeted institutions of being "complicit in the illegal and violent occupation of Palestinian land."
Welcoming the AUT reversal, Bar-Ilan rector Prof. Yosef Yeshurun said he hoped "this unfortunate and anti-democratic tendency in Britain and elsewhere will come to an end."
Yeshurun said the anti-Nusseibeh campaign "shows that the concept of academic independence and freedom is still not fully understood in our region."
In the U.S., the American Jewish Committee (AJC) welcomed the decision, as did the Anti-Defamation League, which delivered an anti-boycott petition containing "thousands" of signatures to the AUT hours before Thursday's meeting.
AJC executive director David Harris said the AUT should apologize to the two institutions, saying "no institution should simply be permitted to withdraw a defamatory and inherently hateful boycott and act as if nothing malevolent has occurred."
Earlier, the AJC called on U.S. universities to increase ties to Israeli institutions as a response to the British boycott.
Columbia University president Lee C. Bollinger was quoted by the New York press early this month as calling the boycott an "unacceptable attack on the basic tenets of academic freedom and scholarly life."
Prof. Gerald Steinberg, who directs the program on conflict management at Bar-Ilan University, said this week the boycott was part of a "wider campaign to label Israel 'an apartheid state'."
"Like other 'great lies,' this analogy exploits and diminishes the suffering of the victims of real apartheid, and disfigures basic principles of morality," he wrote.
In an editorial last month, The Times of London called the boycott "blinkered and ill-timed" and questioned the singling out of Israel.
"How much academic freedom exists in Syria? Or Saudi Arabia? Why does the AUT not call for a ban on contacts in dozens of other countries inimical to human rights?" it said.
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