Standing up to threats: Building up Britain’s partnership

The UK is not an anti-Semitic country, and Britain’s Jewish community is proud, strong and flourishing.

UK Ambassador Matthew Gould 311 (photo credit: UK Embassy in Israel (YouTube))
UK Ambassador Matthew Gould 311
(photo credit: UK Embassy in Israel (YouTube))
Much has been written in the pages of this newspaper of late about the state of the Jewish community in the UK and about relations between the UK and Israel. Some of it has given the impression that Britain’s Jewish community is cowering from an unstoppable wave of anti-Semitism sweeping the country.
Not only is this wrong, but it offends me – both as Britain’s ambassador to Israel and as a member of Britain’s Jewish community. The UK is not an anti-Semitic country, and Britain’s Jewish community is proud, strong and flourishing. The community’s leadership is robust, and speaks up about its concerns both in public and with the government.
On Sunday, I spoke at the Jewish Living Expo in Wembley, not too far from where I grew up. It was an amazing event. There was a real buzz, with over 9,000 people coming from across the community and across the country. It was a demonstration of confidence, and of the community’s strength.
I do not pretend that the UK is free from anti-Semitism and that there are no threats to the Jewish community.
Threats to Jewish communities exist everywhere – this was brought home to us once again this week. There is no complacency within either the community or the government about the challenges, but let us not be hysterical about the situation of British Jews, nor plainly misleading about what the community and the authorities are doing about the threats that exist.
The government and police rightly take a zero-tolerance approach toward anti-Semitic attacks. We have established an interdepartmental task force on anti-Semitism bringing together nine government departments and key community bodies. It is a unique model, and is repeatedly held up internationally as the best practice, along with other British organizations such as the Community Security Trust and the Parliamentary Committee Against Anti- Semitism.
Recent surveys show consistently that Britain is among the least anti-Semitic of countries.
Last year saw a fall in the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the UK for the second year running. Britain is simply not a country where it is dangerous to be Jewish.
There has also been a caricaturing of Britain’s universities.
I despair when Israeli parents tell me they do not want their children to study in the UK because of the dangers on campus. I know why they think this way – the bad news is widely reported, while the vast majority of Jewish and Israeli students who have a great time at British universities hardly counts as news.
It is true that in a small number of our universities there is strong anti-Israeli sentiment among the students.
But these are only a small minority of Britain’s campuses.
And the prime minister has made clear that we will not tolerate intimidation or coercion on campus – and it is the job of university authorities to stop it. In 2010, there were 44 anti-Semitic incidents reported in British universities.
Two of them were violent.
This must be – and is being – dealt with. But it is just a gross exaggeration to say that all British universities have become cauldrons of anti-Semitism, or that it is no longer safe for Jews or Israelis to go to university in the UK.
Last week, I visited Manchester University to meet with the university president and to address students. I spoke to the Middle East studies faculty, the Jewish society, and a group of young British Muslims. The Middle East studies students had strong opinions, but healthy debate is what universities are supposed to be about. And it is right that people should be able to challenge Israel’s policies, just as they do the UK’s. I was grilled by the Muslim students about British policy, but they seemed genuinely pleased to know that I was Jewish – that a member of a minority could become a British ambassador. And the Jewish students told me forcefully that the campus was not anti-Semitic. They were proud of going to Manchester University, and were fed up with the negative portrayal of their university in the media.
I was also struck by the links Manchester has with Israeli universities.
Their partnership with the Weizmann Institute is a source of enormous pride. It is one of a huge number of academic links between our countries. Some British academics call for boycotts – but the facts speak for themselves.
For example, in November we held the first UK-Israel conference on Regenerative Medicine at Ben-Gurion University.
We had 60 British scientists attend, from 20 different British universities. They were there for the science, not for the politics. They were there because Britain and Israel are world leaders in regenerative medicine, and they were excited at the opportunity to collaborate with the very best in their field. Over the next five years, we aim to raise £10 million to support 15 major UK-Israel research projects through the BIRAX regenerative medicine initiative.
And this week, the British Council brought out a delegation of leading academics in the humanities from six of the country’s top universities – Oxford, University College London, Southampton, Nottingham, Queens University Belfast and Kings College London. They want to build the sort of collaboration in the humanities that we are already putting in place in science.
Our foreign secretary calls Israel a strategic partner and a friend. When I was sent as British ambassador to Israel, he instructed me to build the strongest possible relationship between Britain and Israel. And we are making real progress.
We have just announced the trade figures for 2011 – up 34 percent to a record-breaking £3.75 billion. And we are busy building a tech partnership between Britain and Israel that I believe will make a difference to both our economies – we have had a stream of ministers lead tech delegations, we have launched the UK-Israel Technologies Hub at the embassy, and we have just had the first meeting of the UK-Israel Tech Council.
The cooperation is not just on the economic side. On Iran, our countries cooperate very closely indeed. Britain has helped to lead the global campaign for tougher economic sanctions. We share a determination to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Of course, there are areas where we do not agree.
We do not agree with Israel’s approach on settlement construction for one, or on its approach to Gaza. But our relationship is strong and goes well beyond the sum of our disagreements. We can have open and frank discussions on these issues, without it meaning that our friendship is questionable or our belief in Israel is suspect.
Not everything in Britain is perfect. There are problems, and we are tackling them.
And we would rather people stopped claiming that things are much worse than they really are. I am proud to be Her Majesty’s ambassador in Israel. I am proud of Britain. I am proud to be building the strongest possible partnership between Britain and Israel.
And I am proud to be a member of Britain’s Jewish community.