An academics' union in the UK has voted to overturn its highly controversial, widely publicised boycott of two Israeli universities.

An academics’ union in the UK has voted to overturn its highly controversial, widely publicised boycott of two Israeli universities, saying it now wants to ’build bridges’ and support those ’working for peace’. 

The Association of University Teachers (AUT) revoked all existing boycotts with Israeli universities after what it described as a ’lengthy debate involving deeply held views on both sides of the argument’. This U-turn brings the AUT in line with organizations that had openly rejected the boycott, including the UK’s Royal Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).   

In a statement, AUT general secretary Sally Hunt said: ’It is now time to build bridges between those with opposing views here in the UK and to commit to supporting trade unionists in Israel and Palestine working for peace’.

The president of the Royal Society, Robert May, confirmed the Royal Society’s opposition to boycotts of scientists at Israeli universities and said such actions ’grossly violate the principles set out by the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies’.

The AAAS board of directors echoed May’s sentiments calling the boycott ’counter to the positive role of free scientific inquiry in improving the lives of all citizens of the world, and in promoting cooperation among nations, despite political differences’.

The boycott centred over two universities: Haifa, which the AUT accused of restricting the academic freedom of staff who spoke up against the government; and Bar-Ilan University, which has a college in the disputed settlement Ariel. Israeli academics who spoke out against the government were exempt from the AUT boycott, which lasted little over a month. 

Yusef Yeshurun, rector of Bar-Ilan University, hailed the AUT’s reversal a ’triumph for democracy and academic freedom worldwide, and a victory for the universal principle of academic freedom’. In a statement, the University of Haifasaid it welcomed the AUT’s retraction of the boycott, but it is ’disappointed with the AUT’s lack of remorse’ and had hoped the AUT would have offered a full apology. Fiona Salvage