The reactions to the decision were swift.
The British government at once released a statement condemning the move. In an effort to contain the damage, a statement by Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister Lord Triesman expressed the UK's regrets and called the decision “counterproductive and retrograde”. Triesman was careful, however, to add, "We also recognize the independence of the NATFHE."
Triesman served as deputy general secretary of the NATFHE union in 1984.
Israel's Education Minister Yuli Tamir slammed the NATFHE on the vote. She had already spoken last week with the British minister for higher education and asked him to step in to prevent the boycott. “The decision to boycott academic institutions is a move worthy of condemnation and revulsion,” she said. “Those who are implementing this boycott are harming academia’s freedom and turning it into a tool for political forces.”
In an appeal to the international community, Knesset Member Zevulun Orlev (NRP) wrote to parliament members in Britain, France and Germany, demanding they join with Israel in condemning the action. Orlev, chairman of the Knesset Science Committee, told his European counterparts, “This is a test of the free world. We expect you to condemn this anti-Semitic and racist decision and to help institutions of higher education in your countries tighten their cooperation with science, technology and higher education institutes in Israel.”
Professor Yehezkiel Teller, Vice Chairman of the Higher Education Council, called the decision an echo of the Nazi boycott prior to World War II. “Now Britain is politicizing academia, in opposition to every academic value accepted in the world,” he said. “This will come back at them like a boomerang,” he predicted.
Haifa University, represented by its president, Aharon Ben Ze’ev, also slammed the decision as a political move unbefitting an academic organization. “Any attempt to create ties between politics and academic research is simply McCarthyism,” he said.
Professor Yosef Yeshurun, the rector of Bar Ilan University, called the decision "negative," saying that it "destroys bridges instead of building them."
Israeli and British student groups organized campaigns against the boycott. Itay Shonshein, the head of Israel’s National Student Union, called on the British National Union of Students to protest as well.
“Students in Israel who serve in the IDF are convinced that the picture drawn by the lecturers is one-sided and unfair,” said Shonshein. He described the union’s decision as "inciting and racist."
The head of the New York-based Anti-Defamation League, Abe Foxman, also joined the condemnations. “The approval of the NATFHE resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli academics and institutions represents a stunning setback for academic freedom,” he said.
Two motions were actually voted on by NATFHE, both making reference to political issues involving relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The first called upon the NATFHE membership to help aid, protect and support PA institutions and universities, and to maintain ties with the PA. It also accused Britain of “scandalous incitement” against Hamas.
The second motion called for the boycott against "Israel’s persistent apartheid policy." The new security fence was cited as part of the "apartheid policy." In addition, the union leveled accusations of discriminatory practices in the education system.
Both motions were approved in a vote of 106 to 71, with 21 abstentions. In addition to boycotting Israeli institutions and academic professionals, union members will also no longer submit articles to Israeli research journals.
Three days before the vote, the British newspaper The Guardian printed a letter signed by more than 600 professors and other academics, urging the union to drop the motion. A petition with more than 4,700 signatures was also sent to NATFHE president John Wilkin by the Scholars for Peace in the Middle East organization, based in the U.S.
The pressure intensified the determination of union secretary general Paul Mackney to push the motion through. “I have received literally thousands of emails seeking to ‘educate’ me on the foolishness of our stance in support of the rights of Palestinians,” he said on Saturday.
“Many emails berate threats to deny academic freedom for Israeli professors but fail to mention that academic freedom in Palestine is a hollow joke,” he said. He added that more PA Arabs than Israelis have been killed since the beginning of the current intifada in September 2000, that 185 PA schools have been shelled or fired at, as opposed to ‘one Israeli school’, and that the unemployment rate is higher among PA Arabs.
“I will not be bullied into silence,” he said. Mackney denied that the boycott was an expression of anti-Semitism. “Criticizing the Israeli government does not make me anti-Semitic, any more than criticizing Bush or Blair makes me anti-Anglo-Saxon,” he added.
The union members were also urged to condemn the freeze on funds to the PA initiated by the European Union and the United States after terror organization Hamas took over the government. A number of Western nations decided to cut off funding to the Hamas-led PA government until it complies with Quartet demands to formally recognize Israel’s right to exist, renounce terrorism and uphold agreements negotiated by the previous PA government.
Union spokesman Trevor Phillips said the motions were not a call to boycott Israel, but rather to recommend to its membership that each institution and academic professional consider taking action privately.