Lord Winston: My Lords, in the absence of my noble friend Lord Turnberg, and with his permission, I beg leave to ask the Government the following Question:
What steps they are taking to support academic co-operation between universities in the United Kingdom, Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories in support of the Middle East peace process.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Lord Adonis): My Lords, before answering, perhaps I may say on behalf of the House how sad we are to hear of the family tragedy which has led to my noble friend Lord Turnberg not being in his place today. Our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family.
The Government deplore any proposals for an academic boycott. My honourable friend the Minister for Higher Education visited Israel and east Jerusalem last week and he made that clear. He also announced our intention to hold a seminar in London involving UK, Israeli and Palestinian academics to promote understanding and collaboration. This builds on much-respected work by the British Council, including the Chevening scholarships, which benefit young Palestinians and Israelis.
Lord Winston: My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Turnberg I thank the Minister for his kind condolences, which will of course be conveyed to him. I thank the Minister also for the sensitivity of his Answer on this difficult question. Does he not agree with my noble friend that to target academics in this way is not only anti-academic; it also targets the very people who are most likely to help in a liberal answer to the peace process in the Middle East?
Lord Adonis: My Lords, I could not agree more with my noble friend; his sentiments echo precisely those of Her Majesty’s Government. As my honourable friend the Minister with responsibility for universities said last week when he was in Israel:
“Not only would a boycott be inconsistent with the spirit of openness and tolerance that should inform public life. It would also be counterproductive. Education plays a vital role in developing and aiding understanding between different people. It is therefore all the more important to keep open channels of communication with academics and educational institutions in the Middle East during these difficult times”.
Given the events of the past week, I think that that becomes more true by the day.
Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, I declare an interest as a former international governor of the University of Haifa, which at that time had the highest number of Arab students of any university in Israel. I thoroughly endorse the sentiments that the Minister has just expressed. As I am sure he would reiterate, the most liberal institutions in Israel today are the universities. I am grateful to him for saying that further efforts are being made to encourage partnerships between Israeli and Palestinian universities, as that can only be to the good.
Lord Adonis: My Lords, I entirely endorse the noble Lord’s sentiments: we need to strengthen co-operation in this area. I hope that the seminar which my honourable friend intends to bring together will play a part in that process, too.
Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, last Tuesday we had a debate in this House on anti-Semitism which focused on this very question. The debate was led by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech—who unfortunately is not in her place—and everyone who spoke made the point that this boycott is unacceptable. What are the Government doing to make known to UCU and other bodies the real outpouring from this House on the issue?
Lord Adonis: My Lords, in last week’s debate I gave the clearest possible statement of the Government’s position on the proposed boycott—but, of more direct relevance, so did my noble friend Lady Warwick, the chief executive of Universities UK. She clearly stated the university world’s complete opposition to a boycott of the kind being proposed, and she informed the House in the strongest possible terms of the statements that she and Professor Drummond Bone, the president of UUK, have made in respect of it. I believe that the voice of the House was heard loud and clear in the university community last week, and my noble friend Lady Warwick will have conveyed the sentiments expressed to vice-chancellors.
Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords, without pre-empting whatever the Government may have to say later today in their Statement on Gaza, I totally support the opposition to an academic boycott and what the Minister has said about keeping lines open to the Middle East. But does he agree that there is a very stark contrast here with the way in which the Government and the quartet have boycotted the democratically elected Government who contained Hamas members and with the subsequent disastrous effect on the economy of Gaza, where 90 per cent of the population rely on food aid?
Lord Adonis: My Lords, I note the noble Lord’s views and the strength of feeling that he has represented to the House, but my noble friend Lady Royall will be making a full Statement on these issues later, and I think it is best if I leave it to her to reply.
The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the Council of Christians and Jews. Does the Minister agree that if any academic seminar is to be worth while, it needs to address at some stage the serious and complex issues that relate to the theology of land in the Middle East, most particularly in Israel? Until those issues are addressed, the fine line which exists between concerns about Israeli policy and where they begin to merge into anti-Semitism is a serious one, deserving of the most stringent academic exploration.
Lord Adonis: My Lords, I think that the right reverend Prelate has just made an opening contribution to the seminar that my honourable friend will be summoning.
Lord Mitchell: My Lords—
Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords—
The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, I think that it is the turn of the Benches behind me.
Lord Mitchell: My Lords, I express my interest as chairman of Weizmann UK. Two weeks ago, the Hebrew University awarded PhDs to its students. Among them were several Arabs, many of whom were women. Does this not show that the behaviour of the Israeli universities is very much to encourage Arabs in their midst?
Lord Adonis: My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend.