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Academic Boycott (Israel)

Volume 462: debated on Thursday 28 June 2007

We have made our position on this issue extremely clear in recent weeks, including during my recent visit to Israel, when I stated clearly that the Government fully support academic freedom and are firmly against any academic boycotts of Israel or Israeli academics. While I appreciate the independence of the University and College Union, I am very disappointed that it has decided to pass a motion that encourages its members to consider boycotting Israeli academics and education institutions. I profoundly believe that that does nothing to promote the middle east peace process—in fact, it does the reverse.

I am very grateful to the Minister for that answer. He will know from his visit to Israel that its academic institutions lead the world, especially in the fields of medicine, science, engineering and IT. Any boycott would damage higher education in the UK, as well as in Israel. What steps can he take as a Minister to ensure that there is co-operation and dialogue? Even Universities UK has said that such a boycott would be very damaging to us in Britain.

The fact that I undertook the visit to Israel very shortly after the boycott was announced, a visit on which I was very pleased to be accompanied by Professor Drummond Bone, vice-chancellor of Liverpool university, and president of Universities UK, sent out a very strong message on behalf of those institutions. Education must be a bridge between different peoples, and not a subject of conflict. We are currently working on an idea that I put forward during the visit—that we hold a seminar in London involving Palestinian, Israeli and British academics to demonstrate that education should bring people together.

I welcome what my hon. Friend has said, and applaud the fact that Professor Drummond Bone accompanied him on his visit to Israel. May I invite him to consider what it must be like for Jewish students on British campuses? They are facing a mean and nasty campaign by lecturers that could be described as anti-Semitic. Students of all religions and faiths—and none—should be welcomed on campuses. Such a campaign could damage Britain’s universities and students here, as well as our interests abroad.

I wholly agree with my right hon. Friend. The numbers of overseas students on our campuses has grown. At a time of international conflict, having students of all faiths, nationalities and belief systems working, studying and living together can only be a force for good. It is clear that Israeli academics and Jewish students feel that they have been picked out for special treatment by the boycott, whereas academics in countries without democratic institutions but with much weaker records in human rights are not proposed for boycott. We need to be steadfast on the matter, and this Government will be.

Does the Minister agree that, when so many Israeli universities are doing projects and programmes that benefit not only the Jewish people of Israel but the Druse, the Palestinians and people far beyond that, a boycott can only be detrimental and, far from bringing peace, will divide people?

I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman. During my visit to Jerusalem, I met Israeli academics at Hebrew university who were engaged in giving direct advice to the Palestinians in the occupied territories. The idea that we would want to stop that kind of co-operation bewilders me, and we should oppose it most strongly.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems with sweeping actions such as the boycott is that they affect individuals regardless of their personal views for or against the peace process? While we can understand people who take a critical view of one Government or another, they should not use a weapon that hurts individuals who might actually agree with them.

Again, I agree with my hon. Friend. I profoundly believe that in Israel and the occupied territories, there are both progressive and reactionary voices. The problem with an academic boycott is that it makes the job and the position of the progressives much more difficult and it entrenches and enhances the position of those who want to take a hard line.