CFI Honourary President Lord Polak CBE and Lord Leigh expressed concerns about the academic boycott campaign against Israel, and encouraged greater collaboration between academics in the UK and Israel, during a House of Lords debate yesterday.
The debate, secured by Baroness Deech DBE, gave members of the House of Lords an opportunity to discuss the importance of protecting freedom of speech in universities.
Lord Polak referred to the “environment of censorship, hostility and intimidation” that has emerged on university campuses in Britain. He criticised the NUS for demonstrating “selective discrimination” by allowing “extremist-linked organisations to speak on campuses but formally adopting boycott, divestment and sanctions – BDS – against Israel”.
He continued by praising joint research projects between Israeli and British academics and highlighted the success of BIRAX – the Britain Israel Research and Academic Exchange Partnership – an initiative of the British Embassy in Israel and the British Council in collaboration with the Pears Foundation and the UJIA.
Lord Polak underlined: “Britain, Israel and society as a whole have much to lose if this sort of collaboration is stopped. The funding of these programmes should be not only be safeguarded but enhanced”.
He asked the Minister, Baroness Evans of Bowes Park: “Does my noble friend the Minister agree with me that academic exchanges can help undermine those who wish to boycott and stifle freedom of speech? Will she confirm that Her Majesty’s Government will not only safeguard the programmes I have mentioned but extend and enhance them?”
Other notable contributions included that from Lord Leigh of Hurley, who said he “was moved to speak in this debate” partly due to the actions of his alma mater the University of Southampton in hosting an Israel delegitimisation conference in March 2015. He said: “No other nation state had ever had its right to exist questioned at Southampton University”.
Lord Leigh further stated: “Israeli professor, Mark Auslander was due to give a talk at Southampton on the subject of optical sensors: not views about the State of Israel, just views about science and technology, a field in which Israel has apparently long been a world leader. Almost unbelievably, the lecture had to be cancelled due to intimidation. This was suppression of free speech, combined with the worst of the politics of identity. Protestors were so afraid of what an Israeli might have to say about optical sensors, that they would not even hear him out. Perhaps they were interested in hearing about optical sensors, but not from an Israeli”.
Lord Leigh made the point that the attacks on freedom of speech were not limited to UK campuses: “The problem is, of course, bigger than Southampton, bigger than Israel and bigger even than anti-Semitism. It is not confined to the UK. Speakers ranging from Condoleezza Rice, the IMF head Christine Lagarde, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, have all been invited to speak at American universities and then had their invitations withdrawn due to howls of protest from students”.
He concluded that: “This House, too, can be an example. Whether it is on defence and security, the economy, welfare or public services, we strengthen our democracy by coming here and airing our disagreements, improving our arguments and bolstering our understanding. Let us hope that university campuses will allow Professor Auslander and other distinguished academics from around the world the same courtesy”.
The Minister, Baroness Evans of Bowes Park, responded to some of the points made by Lord Polak and Lord Leigh, reiterating the Government’s staunch opposition to boycotts against Israel. Baroness Evans said: “The UK Government do not support academic or cultural boycotts of Israel. Indeed, the UK has engaged in 60 years of vibrant exchange, partnership and collaboration with Israel, which does so much to make both our countries stronger”.
Click here to read the full debate.