Upon his acceptance of an honorary doctorate at Ben Gurion University of the Negev on Wednesday, December 26th, British ambassador Matthew Gould said his government rejects the implementation of academic boycotts of Israel “because we believe that boycotts divide people and reduce understanding, when what we need is to bring people together.”
Seizing the opportunity to condemn academic boycotts and to laud Israeli universities for their dedication to the highest standards of scholarship, Gould acknowledged the fact that fostering scientific and academic links between Israel and Britain “is deeply unwelcome to some, who would rather go down the route of boycott than engagement.” He said his government is opposed to that approach because it understands that “universities in Israel are places where the measure that counts is excellence, not agreement.”
“Everything we do is an expression of our values, and it is through our actions that we give voice to those values,” Gould told the assembled crowd at the university Beersheba campus. He added that academic freedom is the essential underpinning of any liberal and tolerant society that values knowledge and encourages debate.
Noting that the British Embassy had launched seven major research programs between Britain and Israel in 2012, Gould said that in 2011, a regenerative medicine initiative brought together some 200 British and Israeli academics at the university. The ubiquitous international call for an academic boycott of Israel has in the past been taken up by institutes of higher learning in the United Kingdom, but recently faced charges that such measures are motivated by blatant anti-Semitism.
In October of 2012, Ronnie Fraser, a freelance mathematics lecturer claimed before a London employment tribunal that the British trade union for academics, known as the University and College Union was “institutionally anti-Semitic.” He alleged that the union harassed him by creating a hostile environment for him as a Jew, which “derives from a culture and attitude which is informed by contemporary anti-Zionism. Complaints about anti-Semitism are met with either bald denials or accusations that the complainant is attempting to stifle legitimate debate. As a result of the role which the State of Israel plays in contemporary Jewish identity, the hostile environment necessarily has an adverse impact on Jewish members of the union, making them feel uncomfortable and unwelcome.” The claim was made on the opening day of a landmark case, which partially revolved around UCU’s resolutions concerning an academic boycott of Israel. Fraser says that this contravenes the 2010 Equality Act, which prevents discrimination on grounds of race or religion.