British ambassador met Universities UK over Israel & ‘free speech’ concerns

British ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould met last month with UK university heads in a meeting that discussed Israel and the limits of ‘freedom of speech’, it has been reported…..

British ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould met last month with UK university heads in a meeting that discussed Israel and the limits of ‘freedom of speech’, it has been reported.

The meeting was held in early February with four vice-chancellors from umbrella group Universities UK, and also included representatives of at least three pro-Israel organisations: the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Leadership Council, and the Union of Jewish Students.

In a brief report two weeks ago, the topics discussed were described as “concerns over antisemitism, Israel boycotts and extreme speakers on campus.” Yesterday, more details emerged in the context of pressure on the University of Southampton to cancel a forthcoming conference.

The April gathering, ‘International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism’, has been attacked by Israel supporters seeking its cancellation. The university, meanwhile, has stated its commitment to “academic freedom, free speech” and “scholarly debate.”

According to the new report in The Jerusalem Post, the University of Southampton’s refusal to buckle under pressure was cited in the meeting between Universities UK, Gould and pro-Israel groups.

In their discussions the Jewish representatives – who included Britain’s ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould – tried to frame a debate as to where the line is crossed between freedom of speech and discourse which affects Jewish academics and students on UK campuses. The point was made that while some vice chancellors can and do try to intervene when there are specific difficulties raised with them, others tend to resort to the ‘freedom of speech’ mode which effectively bars them from considering valid representations on behalf of the Jewish community.

This stubborn commitment to freedom of speech has clearly angered Britain’s Israel lobby, but the bigger question here is why a UK ambassador was involved in the first place.

An FCO spokesperson confirmed that Gould, who leaves his position this year, attended the meeting, where participants “discussed areas of concern about anti-Semitism on campus.” According to the FCO, “both sides agreed that universities needed to provide a safe and welcoming environment for all their students, and ensure that freedom of expression within the law was upheld.”

Pressed on the justification for this specific meeting, the FCO simply replied that “part of Matthew Gould’s role involves outreach to the British Jewish Community.” The spokesperson did not elaborate on whether lobbying British universities was part of the ambassador’s remit.

Prior to taking up his post, Gould had told the Manchester-based Jewish Telegraph that “you cannot do this job [of UK ambassador to Israel] without being a passionate Zionist.” During his tenure, Gould sometimes expressed concern at Israel’s deteriorating image back home in Britain.

In 2012, Gould warned that without an end to occupation, “Israel’s support in the centre ground of British opinion will continue to ebb.” Four months ago, the ambassador affirmed that Israel was “slowly losing, bit by bit, the elite centre ground of British public opinion.”

Recent efforts to stifle academic debate are further testimony to this deteriorating image, and the impact of this trend on Israel’s die-hard supporters.