Israel boycott ban covering universities ‘no thought control’, says minister

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Israel boycott ban covering universities ‘no thought control’, says minister

Baroness Neville-Rolfe was responding to demands at Westminster for higher education institutions to be excluded from the scope of contentious legislation.

Oxford University (Jewish News)
Oxford University (Jewish News)

A move to ban universities from imposing their own boycotts and sanctions against Israel or other nations is “no thought control”, a Cabinet Office minister has said.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe was responding to demands at Westminster for higher education institutions to be excluded from the scope of contentious legislation.

The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill will prevent public authorities from taking unilateral action against countries, with a special protection for Israel, which has been targeted by the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.

The proposed law comes amid heightened tensions over the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza, which has led to clashes between police and pro-Palestinian protesters on university campuses in the US.

Responding to concerns over universities being covered by the Bill, Lady Neville-Rolfe said: “I don’t think sufficient weight has been given to the pressure on universities to engage in boycotts and divestment campaigns at this time.

“I am disturbed, I am sure we all are at the violence we have seen in the US over the last week… We can’t risk it in the UK and the associated intimidation of Jewish students.

“Sadly, I note we have begun to see a fresh wave of student demonstrations at our UK universities. These protesters have I understand been demanding that their universities cut financial ties with Israeli companies.”

The minister added: “There is a problem of antisemitism in universities and we need to take this small step to head off BDS.

“No one wants to inhibit freedom of students and individual academics to express their views on the conflict in the Middle East or indeed on any other difficult conflict in a civil manner.

“Universities have always been the natural home for open debate. That will continue. There is no thought control.

“We are talking about public authorities’ investment and procurement decisions and when focused on a particular country or territory.”

Arguing that the Bill struck a “reasonable balance”, Lady Neville-Rolfe said: “It bans universities from carrying out their own boycott and sanction campaigns when they are exercising their public functions of investment and procurement.

“It does not deal with the private acts of individual academics nor does it interfere with the private commercial activity of university bodies.”

She said: “This Bill will help universities remain focused on their core public duties rather than becoming agents for a pressure group.

“Indeed the Bill would discourage these campaigners demands in the first place by removing the chance of success.”

But Conservative former universities minister Lord Willetts said: “This is American legislation. This is an American culture war brought to the UK.

“And the reason why universities are in this is that in the US universities have massive endowments.”

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