University minister: 'ignore anti-Israel hotheads'

David Willetts

David Willetts

Universities and Science Minister David Willetts has urged Britain and Israel to look beyond delegitimisation and boycott campaigns and instead celebrate the level of co-operation between the two countries.

He acknowledged that anti-Israel activity on British campuses remained a problem, but said business, academic and research links were "mutually beneficial and making real progress". The community should pay little attention to the "small number of hot-heads" promoting boycotts and instead "focus on the bigger picture", he said.

He denied that the government had not done enough in the past 18 months to tackle hate speech and remained "absolutely determined to crackdown" on it, but said the positive collaborations between Britain and Israel, on campuses and in business, outweighed the difficulties.

Mr Willetts said: "We are tackling the problem and we do understand the need to provide an environment in which all students can study in peace and without intimidatory hate speech. I do discuss this with the universities and vice-chancellors. They understand the legal obligations they have and we are working very closely with them on that.

"The number of occasions in which hate speakers are getting onto British campuses - invited by student groups - is actually going down."

Mr Willetts was speaking after leading last week's "fantastic" delegation of British digital business chiefs to Israel - his first visit to the country.

The trip included senior executives from firms including Telefonica and Vodaphone, and from TechCity, London's high-tech centre which is home to 300 companies.

Mr Willetts said: " I was very impressed by the quality of enterprise and business start-ups in Israel.

"Israeli businesses go international very early on, but they tend to get on the plane and fly to San Francisco. At the very least they should do a stop-over in London. I think Britain has been missing out.

"We have resources that Israeli businesses can really benefit from, but clearly Israel has great strengths and exciting opportunities that British businesses might want to invest in."

He said the level of academic collaboration and investment was an indication of the failure of the boycott campaign. Echoing the comments made by British ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould last month, Mr Willetts urged Israelis , and Jewish students at British universities, to keep the problem of campus hate "in perspective".

"The problem is in a small number of universities and there are a small number of hotheads who talk the language of boycott. That is completely unacceptable.

"But it is not happening - there is no academic boycott. I accept that there have been some incidents which have seen completely unacceptable behaviour affect Israeli academics and Jewish students and we are absolutely determined to crack down on that.

"I was shocked that some people in Israel think Britain is this hostile place. It is not, and our universities are not."

Last updated: 2:22pm, November 3 2011