The UK and Israel share language links, a history (albeit chequered), a strong reputation for research and are less than six hours’ flying time apart. But when it comes to academic ties, whether joint research projects or student exchanges, there are “almost none”, according to the British ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould. Now the British Embassy in Israel and the British Council are trying to change all that.
In an effort to forge links, in 2011 the bodies launched the Britain Israel Research and Academic Exchange Partnership (Birax) Regenerative Medicine Initiative, a multi-million-pound, five-year partnership involving scientists and universities from both countries.
But such efforts will have to overcome manifold political difficulties if they are to succeed.
“An image has taken hold of British universities that they are anti- Israeli, anti-Semitic, that they are not safe for Israeli students,” Mr Gould told Times Higher Education.
“Cartoonish” perceptions of UK universities - which he stressed were not borne out in reality, according to the Israeli students he had spoken to - have been created by an “accumulation of small stories” in the Israeli media, he said.
Mr Gould mentioned an incident in 2010 involving Israel’s deputy ambassador to the UK, Talya Lador-Fresher. After she gave a talk at the University of Manchester, demonstrators climbed on the bonnet of her car and attempted to smash the windscreen.
University and College Union debates over severing relations with academics in Israel have added to the image problem, he said. In the past, the UCU congress has voted to back the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, which calls for an academic boycott of the country.
In response, the British Embassy and the British Council are launching an “ambitious strategy to persuade Israeli students to study in the UK”, added Mr Gould, who last June went on the record with the Israeli media to state that the problems at UK universities were “wildly exaggerated”.
The ambassador plans to build a coalition of people, including scientists involved in the Birax project, “who can spread the news that British universities are great places for Israeli students to go” (although he stressed that the research partnership had been set up because of its scientific merit, not for public relations purposes).
Israeli academics worked closely with colleagues in the US and Germany, but in terms of joint work with the UK, there was “almost none”, Mr Gould added. But he said that the potential for the two academies to work together was “enormous”, arguing that the relationship between the nations should not “turn exclusively” on issues such as new settlements on the West Bank.
The British Council and Mr Gould have plenty of work to do. In 2010-11, there were just 595 Israeli students in the UK, fewer than the numbers from Iraq, Botswana or Gibraltar, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
A National Union of Students online survey of 9,229 students between October 2010 and February 2011 found that 31 per cent of Jewish respondents said they had been victims of a religiously motivated “hate incident” while studying, a much higher proportion than for any other religious group.
Eric Zimmerman, academic secretary and director of research at the private Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel, agreed that there was too little student mobility between the two countries, adding that he planned a trip to the UK to set up student exchanges.
But there was a “perception that on balance UK university campuses are more hostile to Israeli students than Palestinians”, he said.
He also claimed that there was a “silent boycott” of Israeli universities in parts of the UK sector.
“A Jewish colleague [in the UK] felt unable to collaborate with us because he was afraid to damage his…position,” Dr Zimmerman added.