Academics at King's College, Cambridge, have split over a decision to turn down Edward Said, the distinguished Arab-American intellectual, for an honorary fellowship.
One senior fellow at the college, a locus for leftwing radicalism, said they believed the award would have been "provocative" - fuelling a belief of some dons that Professor Said had been rejected because of his outspoken criticism of Israel.
The provost, Patrick Bateson, was one the signatories to a letter to the Guardian calling for a moratorium on cultural and research links with Israel until it abides by UN resolutions and opens "serious peace negotiations" with Palestinians.
But two college fellows, Melissa Lane and Peter Lipton, signed a rival petition opposing the boycott as an "improper and immoral act of collective punishment". They are said to have spoken up against Prof Said at a meeting of fellows last month. Dr Lane declined to speak to the Guardian and Professor Lipton did not return messages.
Fellows on all sides have refused to speak on the record about the row after the provost ruled it should be kept private.
Prof Said, the Palestinian-born professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, in New York, is an internationally lauded but contentious figure. Last year he had a planned lecture at the Freud Society in Vienna cancelled after members were shown a photograph of him ready to throw a stone at an Israeli guardhouse on the Lebanese border. Prof Said said it was a "symbolic gesture of joy" at the end of Israel's occupation of Lebanon. The Freud Museum in London then asked him to give the lecture there.
Prof Said was a member of the Palestine national council from 1977 to 1991 but has also criticised heavily Yasser Arafat's leadership. His book, Parallels and Paradoxes, based on conversations with his friend, the Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim, is being published in Britain in March.
One fellow said awarding Prof Said the fellowship would have broken with college tradition, because they are normally given to fellows or former students of the college. But he added: "It would have been provocative - a lot of people thought he's a controversial figure, it would have been even more pointed if we were going to ignore our own procedures.
"Some people thought he is a person of literary distinction who has some connection with the college in the past. But not either being a student or a fellow, it would be thought it would be sending a signal which is frankly not a signal the college would want to send. In a fellowship of 100 or more, people have different views."
Other fellows denied that Prof Said not having attended the college as either fellow or student was a barrier to his appointment. Prof Said has been a regular visitor to King's and was hosted by the college last term when he was visiting lecturer at the university's centre for research in the arts, social sciences and humanities.
One academic said there had been confusion about whether Prof Said could be nominated direct to congregation, or whether names should be discussed first by the representative council. "This is a private college, this is a club," one fellow said. "I will not be happy if anyone actually discusses it outside the fellowship. We don't want our dirty linen aired in public." But he added: "I have very strong opinions about it."
Others said Prof Said had been put forward by Ian Donaldson, an English professor. He did not respond to the Guardian's attempts to contact him. The college refused to comment.
Colwyn Williamson, coordinator of the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards, criticised the decision. "It's clearly inconsistent with the whole idea of academic freedom to penalise in this way someone who is critical of Israel's conduct in Palestine. It is part of a pretty systematic campaign against all critics of Sharon and company."
But Geoffrey Alderman, vice-president of academic affairs at the American InterContinental University in London, said: "It's not that they have withdrawn an offer. It's in their gift, it's their prerogative, it's an honorary degree. King's college is a private body."