A lecturer at the centre of an international storm over his call for a boycott of Israeli universities has hit back at his critics.

Tom Hickey, who works in the University of Brighton's Philosophy department, persuaded the University and College Union (UCU) to pass a motion urging lecturers to reconsider working with institutions in Israel to show solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

Yesterday the group of 250 academics opposed to the idea, led by fertility expert Robert Winston and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, placed an advert in The Times denouncing the motion as "utterly inappropriate"

and warned it could create a backlash against Jewish students in Britain.

Mr Hickey, the Brighton UCU representative, said he stood by his proposal and accused his critics of hypocrisy.

He said: "It's rather interesting that Lord Bragg wanted to criticise a boycott on the grounds of freedom of speech.

"It seems to me that the hysterical onslaught trying to prevent the UCU from holding a debate on this issue represents a much stronger attempt to restrict freedom of speech."

Mr Hickey said that although he favoured a boycott, what he actually most wanted was an open debate on the issue to raise awareness.

He said: "I am willing to be convinced if someone can bring forward a strong argument.

"At the moment the argument being presented by most people is that it is inappropriate to discuss it at all. I am not willing to accept that."

He called for the boycott to protest against conditions in the Palestinian occupied territories, which he said made academic freedom for academics and students impossible.

The opponents to the boycott said it was bad for Britain, bad for academic freedom, bad for Palestine and bad for peace.

Mr Winston said: "Academics in Israel are the very people we should be working with, rather than against, if we want to promote better understanding."

Liberal Democrat Baroness Julia Neuberger said Israeli academics carried out important work with Palestinians.

Several Jewish groups have also criticised the move.

Mr Hickey said: "Once again there seems to be a confusion between the interests of all Jewish people and the interests of the Israeli state.

"This desperate attempt to label any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism is just a desperate attempt to suppress open debate of the real issues."

The UCU motion urged lecturers to "consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions".

The union's leadership will now circulate calls from Palestinians for a boycott of Israeli universities to all branches throughout the country for discussion.

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