By Hannah Goff
BBC News education reporter
Academics have backed calls for a wide-ranging debate on a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.
Ms Hunt urged UCU members to reject the boycott motion
The University and College Union (UCU) was urged, at its annual conference, to consider the "moral implications" of links with Israeli universities.
The motion condemned Israel for its "denial of educational rights" to Palestinians, but opponents said a boycott would not advance their cause.
Both the British and Israeli governments condemned the move.
Ahead of the debate UCU general secretary Sally Hunt urged delegates not to support the boycott call.
Ms Hunt said she did not believe the majority of UCU members supported an academic boycott of Israel.
But the motion, which argued that "passivity or neutrality was unacceptable" in the special circumstances of the Israeli occupation, will require union branches to consider a potential boycott.
Philosophy lecturer at Brighton University Tom Hickey, who proposed the motion, described the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories as "barbaric".
"What are we to do with this? Are we to look away? If we do we make ourselves complicit in it."
He claimed that only a "handful of academics had separated themselves from collusion with the occupation", adding that justice must not be limited to home.
But those opposing the motion argued that a boycott of Israeli academic institutions would do nothing to help the plight of the Palestinian people.
Thames Valley University delegate Stephen Desmond said a blanket boycott of Israeli universities did nothing to move a two-state solution forward.
"It does not move Palestinians to a place where Palestinians have a homeland to call their own."
But London School of Economics delegate Mike Cushman said: "Universities are to Israel what the Springboks were to South Africa - a symbol of their national identity."
University of East London delegate Philip Marfleet acknowledged the issue was a "highly charged" one and explained how he was a convert to the boycott campaign.
He said he had visited universities in Israel and in the occupied territories, and that the difference between the two was striking.
While the Israeli university was functioning well, the Palestinian university he saw had been closed for 51 consecutive weeks because of arrests and incursions by Israeli forces, he claimed.
"Israeli academic freedom comes at the cost of the denial of the most basic of academic freedoms of Palestinian students," he added.
Another delegate, Sue Blackwell from Birmingham University, described how during a visit to her campus, the mayor of the Palestinian town of Ramallah had said: "People are beginning to starve now. But for Israel it is business as usual."
Journeys across the West Bank which had taken 20 minutes now took several hours because of all the army checkpoints, Ms Blackwell said.
"It is only that change on the climate of opinion which will in the end, as it did in South Africa, create a lasting and just change in the Middle East."
Jewish groups horrified
Delegates backed the motion in a card vote by 158 votes to 99, with 17 abstentions.
A full debate on the issue is now expected within UCU branches throughout the country, with the hope that a vote on a formal boycott may be held at the union's conference next year.
But the motion's proposer Mr Hickey said it would be up to the union's management to decide how this was put into action.
If a boycott was to be agreed upon it might mean UCU members being urged not to attend conferences at Israeli universities or submit articles to their journals, he said.
It would not mean Israeli academics could not come to UK campuses.
Higher education minister Bill Rammell said he was "very disappointed" at the vote.
"I profoundly believe this does nothing to promote the Middle East peace process. In fact the reverse."
The vote has also horrified the Israeli government and Jewish groups in the UK.
Israeli education minister Yuli Tamir claimed students at an Israeli college were being "bombarded by Palestinian Qassam rockets every day".
Jeremy Newmark, chief executive of the umbrella group the Jewish Leadership Council, said he would be urging Ms Hunt to ensure any steps taking the union closer to a boycott would be put to a full ballot of UCU membership.
He claimed a small group of "extreme hard-edged activists" had capitalised on a lack of leadership.