The opposing op-ed paints a disturbing picture of attitudes within Europe toward Israel. As director of the British Council in Israel and the person charged with deepening academic relations with the U.K., it is disappointing to read, as it seems to ignore all that is good and positive between Israel and the U.K.
Recent surveys consistently show Britain to be among the least anti-Semitic of countries. To quote our ambassador in a recent Jerusalem Post article, “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 the British government and British Council remain firm in their rejection of such incidents. But these concerns must not be generalized into a judgment about the entire U.K. university and cultural scene.
The U.K. has 120 universities, and only a handful of student unions have passed anti-Israel motions. More than 8,500 Jewish students attend British universities. According to the Union of Jewish Students, 16 anti-Semitic incidents affected Jewish students, academics, student unions or other student bodies in the first half of 2011. This is down 43 percent, compared with 2010. For sure, it is 16 incidents too many, but it does not suggest an endemic problem.
The Union of Jewish Students has 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 the same from graduates returning from British universities. And Israeli alumni want to help encourage more fellow Israeli students to study in the U.K.
Britain is working hard to build academic relationships with Israel. An ambitious U.K.-Israel collaborative program in regenerative medicine aims to fund $1.6 million of research projects, fellowships and conferences over the next five years. In November 2011, working with Ben-Gurion University, we organized a U.K.-Israel conference in regenerative medicine that attracted 260 delegates, 60 of whom came from 20 British universities.
Further, we had a strong response to a new initiative in the humanities, with six British universities sending their deans of humanities to meet with counterparts in March. In the same month, four British universities took part in the launch of a collaborative network with four Arab-led colleges in the north of the country.
The visit of Southampton University to Israel in late May, other initiatives to launch joint-courses and the appetite for information about studying in the U.K. keep my team busy.
Our bilateral arts program, 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 U.K.-Israel collaboration.
Simon Kay is the director of the British Council in Israel, which works to build cultural relations between the U.K. and Israel.