Britain's Minister of State for Universities and Science has sought to dispel misperceptions that UK universities were boycotting their Israeli counterparts, or that the UK is an "unfriendly or hostile place" for Israeli students.
During a visit yesterday to Jerusalem's Hebrew University, David Willetts said that such perceptions were to blame for a marked decline in the number of Israelis choosing to study in the UK.
Meeting at the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus with leaders of UK and Israeli academia, Willetts "emphatically" clarified "that there are no boycotts of Israeli academics, or Israeli students, or British-Israel academic exchanges. Those would be completely wrong, and there is no [UK] university that is boycotting Israel."
"When I try to make sense of the decline of numbers of Israeli students coming to study in Britain, I worry that part of it is the perception in Israel that Britain is an unfriendly or hostile place."
Yet in fact, he explained, the reality is very different.
"What we know from the measures that are taken is that, fortunately, Britain is one of the European countries that scores best on having very, very low anti-Semitism," he said. "Any individual example of anti-Semitism is unacceptable, but we pride ourselves on being an open and tolerant society."
The Minister invited participants to explore ways to encourage a greater exchange of students and closer academic and research links between Israel and the UK. He suggested that "we need to change perceptions [of British attitudes to Israel]" and "build closer research links and academic exchanges, which will also lead to student exchanges.”
Willetts also met with Israeli Minister of Education, Rabbi Shai Piron (Yesh Atid), and officials from the Hebrew University.
The President of the Hebrew University, Prof. Menahem Ben-Sasson, lauded Willetts for his efforts to increase "academic and research cooperation" between the two countries, which he said was "a hallmark of the strong UK-Israel relationship" in general.
"We continue to see a healthy appetite for collaboration between our universities, which leads not only to joint research but also to improved understanding between our nations. Through initiatives such as the Britain-Israel Research and Academic Exchange (BIRAX) program, we are continuing to strengthen our ties for the benefit of Britain, Israel and the world," Ben-Sasson continued, and expressed hope that
British anti-Israel activists have often been at the forefront of the campaign pushing for boycotts against Jewish businesses in Israel. On the same day as Willett's visit to the Israeli capital, the UK's Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) announced that it would push for an international boycott of the Israeli Association of United Architects (IAUA).
UK university campuses in particular are often cited as hotbeds of anti-Israel sentiment, but a recent Arutz Sheva report suggested that organized anti-Israel activity by students may be on the decline.