The British have been visiting Israel in large numbers.
Following on the visit by British Prime Minister David Cameron, a few weeks ago Science Minister David Willets arrived with a delegation of heads of British universities to promote new Israel- UK scientific programs and to attend the second BIRAX (Britain Israel Research and Academic Exchange Partnership) sponsored conference on regenerative medicine held at the Technion in Haifa. A group of British parliamentarians left the country following a visit to Israel and the West Bank at the end of last week, and another delegation flew in for a three-day symposium on the peace process at Ma’aleh Hahamisha.
The proactive British ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, didn’t have much time to relax, as between these visits he hosted a large group of guests to the annual British spring fair, which was held in the garden of his home in Ramat Gan last Friday morning.
The visit of the university heads was of special importance given the continuing debate at some British universities about academic boycott. While the delegation was In Israel, students at Kings College London, a major UK university, voted to pressure management to do “thorough research into KCL investments, partnerships, and contracted companies, including subcontractors that may be implicated in violating Palestinian human rights.”
Kings College is not considered, by any means, to be one of the more radical campuses with any record of anti-Israel-sponsored debate. It is the college which awarded President Shimon Peres an honorary doctorate when he visited the UK in 2008 and it is the college whose principal, Professor Rick Trainor, an outspoken opponent of boycott, headed the previous university delegation to Israel in 2007.
The decision by the students union would indicate that the public debate about Israel is taking off again, and may well come to a head if, and when, the ongoing peace negotiations break down without any positive results.
Yet despite the headlines, the academic boycott remains a great deal of hot air. The institutions, the universities, are not interested – and this was indicated by last week’s visit by very eminent and prominent British scientists as part of the ministers’ delegation – while many academic faculty and students have canceled their membership in their respective unions because of what they see as the adoption of discriminatory policies by those who are meant to represent the rights of all of their members.
The university principals see the activities of the UCU as little more than a nuisance giving British universities a bad image in the eyes of potential research colleagues throughout the world, especially in North America. Although they have been reticent about making any public statement, they wish that the unions would go back to dealing with their own affairs and putting their own houses in order before attempting to solve the problems of the world by focusing their entire attention on Israel-Palestine.
Despite this, many Israeli academics and students continue to visit, and to be made welcome, at UK universities.
Once they get over their initial unease because of the headlines, often overplayed by much of the Israeli press, they find that British universities remain places where they can study, teach or research, with few problems, barring perhaps the occasional lecture or student debate about the Middle East which may be manipulated in order to advance a particular political agenda.
As was made very clear by last week’s delegation of university vice chancellors and principals in their meeting with their Israeli counterparts, which took place at the Hebrew University, they are interested in two things only. One of these is the expansion of student exchange programs, enabling more Israeli students to come and study at British universities and developing programs which will enable more British students to take part in international programs, including those in Israel. As was pointed out at the meeting, British students travel abroad for their studies far less than foreign students come to the UK, and the university heads are keen on promoting and expanding the opportunities which will encourage their own students to participate in the globalization of higher education. Israel is one country which is clearly on their agenda.
The British universities are also eager that their faculty should undertake academic and scientific partnerships with their Israeli peers, if only because they are seeking the top scientists to collaborate with. They all recognize that Israel, despite the cutbacks in government funding for higher education and the migration of many top Israeli scientists to greener pastures in North America and elsewhere, still has some of the world’s top scientists in almost all academic fields.
While they may have their own personal positions on Israeli politics, they were in total agreement that scientific collaboration must not be prevented from taking place by any form of political boycott or intervention.
The dissonance between the image and the reality is huge. The number of Israeli students interested in visiting British universities is growing, as is the number of British faculty who are visiting their Israeli colleagues to undertake joint research or to participate in international conferences. For years, and long before the respective governments and foreign offices got involved, much important work was done by the AFI (Academic Friends of Israel) and their erstwhile director John Levy who, with a limited budget, brought about numerous visits of British academics to Israel as part of a series of highly professional seminars with their Israeli counterparts.
The first BIRAX project in regenerative medicine grew out of the earlier visit by British university heads to Israel six years ago, and it is to be hoped that the present visit will also give rise to a series of new initiatives which will bring scientists from the two countries together. Not only in the hard sciences or in medicine, but also – and specifically – within the humanities and the social sciences, given the fact that these two countries have produced some of the world’s top historians, philosophers, legal scholars and writers over a long course of history.
While the British (and for that matter the rest of the EU and the US) government are critical of Israel’s policies vis a vis the Palestinians, the West Bank and settlement construction, they do not buy into the argument that boycotts will bring about any change in the situation, and they strongly oppose such action on moral and ethical grounds.
The British ambassador to Israel and his colleague Alan Gemmel, the head of the British Council, are to be praised for their non-stop activities in promoting scientific and cultural links between the two countries.
As if it was necessary, the visiting British academic delegation has seen the richness of the Israeli academic experience and are eager to expand the links between the two countries. They invite Israeli faculty and students to study and undertake research on British university campuses, regardless of the political positioning and hot air of a small minority of activists. The reality of high-level research and studies is far stronger than the image and I would encourage my academic colleagues to take the opportunity of forging stronger links with their British counterparts.
The writer is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.