A recent article posted here painted a disturbing picture of attitudes within Europe towards Israel. As the Director of the British Council in Israel and therefore the person charged with deepening academic relations with the UK, it is disappointing to read what seems to ignore so much that is good and positive between the Israel and its European friends. I won’t comment on the situation in other European nations and will restrict my comments to the UK.
Recent surveys show consistently that Britain is among the least anti-Semitic of countries. To quote our ambassador in a recent article in the Jerusalem Post, “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.”
Anti-Semitic incidents and calls for boycott concern us and both the British government and the British Council remain firm in their rejection of such incidents. But these concerns must not be generalized into a judgment about the entire UK University and cultural scene. There are one 120 universities in the UK. Only a handful of student unions have passed anti-Israel motions.
There are over 8,500 Jewish students in Britain. According to the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) there were 16 anti-Semitic incidents affecting Jewish students, academics, student unions or other student bodies in the first half of 2011. This is down 43% compared to 2010. For sure, it is 16 incidents too many, but it does not suggest an endemic problem.
The Union of Jewish Students have told us that although there are some serious issues on certain campuses, the vast majority of Jewish and Israeli students have a successful and happy time on campus and would recommend their university to friends. We hear this also from graduates returning from British universities. Again, the vast majority of the reports are positive and Israeli alumni of British universities want to help us to encourage more fellow- Israeli students to study in the UK.
Let’s keep measure of perspective
Britain is working hard to build academic relationships with Israel. The ambitious UK-Israel collaborative programme in Regenerative Medicine (BIRAX) aims to fund £10M of research projects, fellowships and conferences over the next five years. In November 2011 we organized with Ben Gurion University a UK-Israel conference in Regenerative Medicine which attracted 260 delegates, 60 of whom came from 20 British universities.
We had a strong response to new initiative in the humanities with six British universities sending their Deans of Humanities to meet with counter-parts in March 2012. And in the same month, four British universities took part in the launch of a new collaborative network with four Arab-led colleges in the North of the country.
The visit of Southampton University in late May, other initiatives to launch joint-courses and the appetite for information about studying in the UK keep my team busy.
Our bilateral arts programme, BIARTS has been running for 15 years. Each year up to 50 small projects are supported with artists from a range of disciplines taking part in initiatives in both countries. This vibrant exchange is good for both our countries and demonstrates there is an appetite for cultural ties.
So let’s keep a measure of perspective. Yes there are some problems but these are dwarfed by the demand we are witnessing for UK-Israel collaboration.
Dr. Simon Kay is the Director of British Council in Israel. The British Council works to build cultural relations between the UK and Israel and to create international opportunities through education, arts, science and the English language.