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7.49 pm

Baroness Cox: My Lords, I warmly congratulate my noble friend on this important debate. I, too, shall focus on the proposed academic boycott by UCU, which is deeply disturbing, regardless of whether it is eventually upheld. Any form of censorship in institutions of higher education is inherently antithetical to the fundamental principle of free of speech. The academy must be the heartland of this freedom, where all ideas and the freedom to express them must be allowed, except those which violate the law. Unpopular ideas should be challenged and fallacies exposed, not silenced.

It is ironic that the proposed boycott of Israeli universities and academics would silence many who are critical of their own Government, often on grounds similar to those which prompted the proposed boycott. The double standards of the boycott are remarkable; that Israel allows criticism and demonstrates its commitment to democracy, while many neighbouring countries, which deny free and open discussion, and allow the use of hate-filled and manifestly anti-Semitic propaganda even by small children in school, are not subject to any proposed boycott by UCU.

As my noble friend reminded us, the Education Reform Act 1988 enshrines the fundamental legal requirement for academic institutions to protect freedom of speech. Under the law the police have an obligation to assist the authorities in the protection of this freedom. Will Her Majesty’s Government take all necessary steps to ensure that the academies and the police are fully aware of these obligations and fulfil them regarding this proposed boycott of Israel and on any other issues which might generate the appalling threat of censorship and denial of academic freedom in our land?

7.51 pm

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe: My Lords, I am pleased to be able to contribute to the debate. I declare an interest as chief executive of Universities UK. No form of extremism or intolerance has any place in our universities. Universities are places where free debate and interchange of ideas takes place, but that must be within a climate of tolerance and mutual respect. Universities condemn any form of harassment and intimidation.

Safety and security on campus are of paramount concern. Universities UK’s Promoting Good Campus Relations: Dealing with Hate Crimes and Intolerance was produced to give legal and practical advice on how to deal with hate crimes and intolerance on campus. Our Equality Challenge Unit is producing an update on that guidance, which has a specific focus on religious-related hate crimes, addressing, as we said we would, the sorts of issues raised by the all-party inquiry. That will be published in July. In addition, a regular programme of information and events keeps universities up to date on practical processes and legislation for the protection of all staff and students.

I stress “all staff and students” because when it comes to hate crimes and intolerance, universities do not distinguish between races or religions. Hate crimes and intolerance are simply unacceptable. It is good to see from the all-party report that this is not the experience of most Jewish students. The report provides examples where universities have reacted firmly to stamp on anti-Jewish activities on campuses. Universities have tightened both their procedures and reporting on these incidents, working with the police as appropriate.

I cannot conclude without addressing the proposed UCU boycott. Universities UK has made it clear that vice-chancellors would oppose any boycott of Israeli academic institutions. It would be absolutely contrary to the principles of academic freedom.

At the same time, academics have the right to question government policies, including those of the Israeli or other Governments, when they have legitimate concerns about those policies. Academic freedom must continue to cover both. I hope the Minister will reaffirm that. I am sure that a more detailed discussion between members of the all-party group and university representatives would be helpful.

7.53 pm

Lord Dearing: My Lords, when the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, raised the possibility of my taking part in the debate, I told her frankly that, having read the report, all I could think of saying was that I was appalled. Any discrimination, hostility or harassment of any student or academic on the basis of ethnicity, nationality, creed or race is wholly unacceptable and should not be tolerated. So also is any discrimination against any university, wherever it may be, for the policies of the Government of the country where it is domiciled.

Perhaps I may follow in his absence what the noble Lord, Lord Patten, said; this is a matter where vice-chancellors, on whose behalf the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, has spoken very encouragingly to all of us, need the support and resolution not only of chancellors but of governing bodies. If governing bodies do anything, they should stand up and make their voice and presence felt on an issue like this. I hope very much that the noble Baroness will encourage that through her channels.

I look forward to what the Minister has to say. This is a cancer. We must see it and respond to it as such.

7.54 pm

Lord Haskel: My Lords, I am speaking in this debate out of sadness—and of course with brevity—at the increasing ethnic and religious polarisation on our university and college campuses that others have described. Of course students will always self-select, but something different is happening. What is different is the radicalism of some of the polarised groups today. It makes life uncomfortable for all students, hinders their educational experience and leads to the anti-Semitism that others have described.

In a way, the Prime Minister recognised that last week when he earmarked an additional £1 million to improve and update the teaching of Islamic studies—in his words—to focus on relevant issues. Of course I welcome that, but I ask the Minister whether this updating of Islamic studies will help to reduce this polarisation and anti-Semitism. What will certainly not help is the recent college lecturers’ union’s conference call on its branches to discuss a boycott of Israeli universities. As others have said, it is a vote against absolutely everything educational institutions try to do.

Of course freedom of speech and robust debate are to be welcomed on college campuses, but the reported incidents of hate, racism and anti-Semitism are most certainly not. The answer is not to clamp down but to encourage more discussion and debate. Modern anti-Semitism has nothing to do with what Jews actually believe; it is about what they are perceived to stand for. The Institute for Jewish Policy Research, a think tank of which I have the honour to be president, is playing its part with a series of multi-ethnic seminars, where the robust debate and shared problems reduce polarisation and misperceptions. It helps students to learn to live with each other with modesty and respect—a model that could usefully be adopted on campuses.

7.57 pm

Lord Weidenfeld: My Lords, having only recently retired after nine years of chairing the board of governors of the Ben-Gurion University of Beer Sheva, I can bear witness to the friendly and effective co-operation between Israeli, Arab and, particularly, Bedouin students. Nowhere is political debate more open, and self-criticism, often in the form of revisionist history, more lively than in Israel’s universities.

Therefore, the argument that the boycott of Israel’s academic community is not an anti-Semitic gesture but only a vote of censure against the policies of the state of Israel is difficult to sustain. Why do those who are demonising and de-legitimising Israel fail to address similar protests to the embassies of Syria, Saudi Arabia or those of the many patently anti-democratic regimes in Africa? The shrill, at times unmistakeably hysterical, tones of these anti-Israel protests betoken prejudice and irrationality; indeed, they are the stuff that racist propaganda is made of. Some of the literature that I see only too often is not many steps away from the spirit of the burning of the books at German universities of the 1930s.

In the New York Herald Tribune earlier this week, the distinguished columnist Thomas Friedman, reporting on a visit to the campus of the Ben-Gurion University, describes with generous, almost wondrous, admiration the young scientists and computer engineers working on a vast variety of new models of life enhancement. Second only to the Silicon Valley, Israel’s innovators in the field of high tech are truly torch bearers of progress. Rather than stunt those people’s progress, those clamouring for action should urge their Palestinian friends in the West Bank and Gaza to end the fratricidal strife, and to sit down at the conference table and at last talk peace. Were this to be the case, I assure your Lordships that that call would not be unreciprocated.

7.59 pm

Lord Mitchell: My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of Weizmann UK. The Weizmann Institute of Science is located in Israel and is concerned with the development of basic science. It is one of the foremost institutes of its type in the world. I was there last week. The topic of the proposed UCU boycott was hot news, as noble Lords would expect.

The institute is nationally blind. Scientists come there from all over the world; some are Muslim, including Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. All that matters is the science. One professor said to me:

The proposed boycott is bad for science. It counters the very concept of science, which is about absolute truth and academic freedom. The boycott is also bad for the Palestinians and their desire for nationhood. All that it does is alienate their friends and supporters in Israel and give comfort to their enemies. They have chosen the wrong target.

The proposed boycott is bad for Britain. Boycotts beget boycotts. Two can play at that game, perhaps even three. Israeli academics can equally boycott the UK. If that were to happen—heaven forbid—academics in both countries would be the losers. I now hear rumblings that, if British universities boycott Israeli universities, American universities will boycott ours. Is that what the UCU wants? More to the point, is it what our universities want?

8.01 pm

Lord Moser: My Lords, I will list the points that I wanted to develop. First, a boycott would be totally misguided. It would offend against academic freedom and destroy precious bridges between academics internationally. Politically, it would help no one, contributing nothing to solving Middle East problems. I hope that the rational arguments against it will prevail within universities.

Most importantly, the report deals with the underlying evil of anti-Semitism. Sadly, we are witnessing a rising tide of that in Europe and all around us. I feel more anxious about this than I have for a very long time—not least about the shameful actions on campuses. As a lifelong academic, I feel truly ashamed at them. There are no easy solutions. We must look to vice-chancellors to play their role and, above all, to government to express in the strongest terms that anti-Semitism is an evil not to be tolerated or accepted anywhere in our multicultural society.

Perhaps most importantly, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for opening this debate. It clearly points to the need for a longer debate on another occasion.

8.03 pm

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, I also thank the noble Baroness for giving us the opportunity to comment on a current and important issue for our society. That is evidenced by the exceptionally large number of speakers tonight. Unfortunately, it means that we all need to be very brief and selective.

I congratulate the committee on a valuable report. It is often said that it is not easy to differentiate between anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic opinions. I can only say that it is really not that difficult. In my experience, you get the message very quickly. One of the challenges for all campuses is to provide an arena for open intellectual debate for students from different backgrounds and prejudices, without allowing extremist groups to exploit and subvert them. As the committee says:

Some of us watched in horror last January a chilling “Dispatches” programme filmed secretly in some mosques not known for any extremism, where visiting preachers hurled lethal invective against non-Muslims in general but Jews in particular—not Zionists, not Israel but Jews. I was struck by how many young men and boys were in those congregations. Those are the young who go on to campuses accustomed to that kind of language and thinking, which makes it all the more essential that events and activities on campus should not encourage those attitudes which, apart from anything else, can lead to terrorist activity. It is vital that the Government make it a priority to ensure that everything possible is done to prevent that poison seeping on to campuses.

What steps are the Government taking to ascertain what progress is being made on achieving good practice on campuses beyond merely, as stated in the response, encouraging UUK and the committee to co-operate on trying to achieve that?

8.04 pm

Lord Harries of Pentregarth: My Lords, like other noble Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for introducing this timely debate. I want to speak from a specifically Christian perspective and make a single point.

Relationships between Jews and Christians in this country have been totally transformed during the past 70 years. Much of that has been due to the Council of Christians and Jews, which was founded in the darkest days of the war by the then Chief Rabbi and the then Archbishop of Canterbury.

The CCJ, whose priority continues to be work against anti-Semitism in schools, universities and elsewhere, has found in its work that the most contentious issue is, as we would expect, the state of Israel. The Christian constituency itself has a very wide range of views between on the one hand Christian-Zionists, who are far more Zionist than most Jews, and those Christians whose overriding priority is solidarity with Palestinian suffering.

Church bodies—the Vatican and the reformed churches—have issued statement after statement trying to come to some kind of consensus within Christianity about its attitude. An American scholar, Paul Van Buren, summing up that range of statements, stated what he thinks is the minimum requirement. He put it in these words:

Of course there will be passionate debate in all universities about the Middle East and on the policies of the state of Israel, but it seems to me that those words of Paul Van Buren are non-negotiable for everyone taking part in that debate, Christian, Muslim or whoever. Disregard for the safety and welfare of the state of Israel is incompatible with concern for the Jewish people.

8.07 pm

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, of course criticism of Israel is legitimate and not necessarily anti-Semitic. The fiercest critics of Israel are often to be found in Israel itself, certainly in universities in democratic Israel. But criticism of Israel can be a convenient substitute for anti-Semitic sentiment, which may be the subtext of the resolution referred to, which is, in effect, a call for a boycott of Israeli universities.

My 50-year membership of the Labour Party has given me some experience of how well organised groups on the hard left, such as the Socialist Workers Party, can have a disproportionate influence on policy by exploiting what the old Communist Party called “useful idiots”—often well meaning progressives in wider solidarity groups. The UCU resolution is of course an empty gesture. Serious academics will continue to seek partnerships with Israeli academics. Why? Because they value excellence, and Israeli universities are in the premier league of worldwide universities. There are more than 300 collaborative projects between British and Israeli academics under EU auspices. Is it serious or, rather, gesture politics to expect UK academics to withdraw?

This is like the proposed resolution calling on Unison to boycott trade unions in Israel. The truth is that the Israeli trade unions are by far the freest in that region and often very critical of their Government. The truth is that the Israeli academics are by far the freest in the region and include some of the fiercest critics of Israeli government policy. It is thus absurdity on stilts to promote a boycott of the only free universities and the only free trade unions and, apparently, to ignore the more serious abuses of human rights elsewhere.

The teachers’ union leads; it is hardly surprising that many students follow, and not only Islamists, hard-left groups and BNP supporters.

Academic freedom and open intellectual exchange are part of the idea of a university. Surely, notwithstanding this glaring example of the trahison des clercs in the union resolution, vice-chancellors should be vigilant, robust and consistent in combating examples of anti-Semitism on campuses, and the Government, in the spirit and letter of their response to the report, should give them full support when they do so.

8.10 pm

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I thank noble Lords for allowing me to speak in the gap. A predecessor of mine called Foley, in the service in which I was once, saved the lives of many Jews in Germany in 1939. He is honoured for it in Israel to this day. He would have supported as strongly as I do, and most passionately, what has been said in this most admirable debate in the cause of academic freedom.

8.11 pm

Lord Grabiner: My Lords, I am also grateful for the opportunity to speak in the gap, as rapidly as I can. I declare an interest as chairman of the governors at the London School of Economics. The director of the LSE, Sir Howard Davies, promptly rejected the UCU resolution, and that appears clearly and firmly on the front of the website. The Russell Group did the same thing. On these occasions I believe that it is vital to be vigilant. Like the noble Lords, Lord Patten and Lord Dearing, I also hope that the Minister will actively encourage the governing bodies of all universities to reject this poisonous resolution of the UCU.

8.12 pm

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, there is no doubt that as tensions in the Middle East have risen, there has regrettably been a recent increase in anti-Semitic behaviour. However, we must remember that verbal attacks on certain things done by certain people of Jewish background are not all anti-Semitic in nature. I believe that where people are doing the wrong thing, we should be free to say so without fear of being called anti-Semitic if those people happen to be Jewish. We should criticise the behaviour, not the person or their background. But as the report said,

People, including student bodies, should mind their language. The noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, quoted one of the most important statements in the report:

I support the recommendations of this valuable report and hope the Government can find ways of implementing them. However, we should remember that vice-chancellors are not in full control of everything that goes on in their campuses. Many speakers are invited or refused a platform by student organisations, not the university, and it can be difficult to know what goes on behind closed doors. This is where the NUS can help, as the noble Lord, Lord Patten, said.

We on these Benches firmly condemn genuine anti-Semitism, indeed all racism. We are opposed to the UCU’s proposed boycott of Israeli academics. I agree with UUK, which states in its briefing for this debate:

I abhor the idea of limitations on legitimate academic freedom within the reasonable limits I have already mentioned. Academic campuses must provide the fora for critical thinking and the exchange of ideas, but with that freedom comes the responsibility for all academics to make measured and accurate assessments of the actions of governments and to avoid gratuitous attacks and extreme language that may offend or inflame. Universities should teach people to think critically, not criticise unthinkingly.

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