By Francis Elliott and Catherine Milner
Tony Blair has told Britain's Chief Rabbi that he will "do anything necessary" to stop the academic boycott of Israeli scholars at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (Umist).
The Prime Minister told Jonathan Sacks during a private meeting in Downing Street that he was "appalled" by evidence of discrimination on British university campuses, according to his aides. His comments - his first on the issue - follow worldwide protests sparked by a British academic's sacking of two Israeli scholars from her highly respected international journals. The dismissal by Mona Baker, a professor at Umist, of Dr Miriam Shlesinger and Prof Gideon Toury because of their nationality initially raised no public opposition from within British universities. But when The Telegraph revealed her actions it led to a fierce debate in this country and abroad about attitudes to Israel in British academia.
An inquiry by Umist into her actions has been in progress since then. When Rabbi Sacks raised the case, Mr Blair said its findings had to "send a clear signal" that so-called academic boycotts will not be tolerated. Umist launched its inquiry into Prof Baker's actions in July. A spokesman for the university this week insisted that the investigation was nearing completion. Mr Blair's intervention will increase pressure on the university to remove the academic from her post.
"The Prime Minister is appalled by discrimination against academics on the grounds of their race or nationality. He believes that universities must send a clear signal that this will not be tolerated," said a Downing Street aide. A spokesman for the Prime Minister confirmed that he had met Rabbi Sacks in Number 10 on October 28 and that the issue had been raised. Mr Blair is said to have told the Chief Rabbi that he took the matter "very seriously indeed". A senior Labour Party figure said that the Prime Minister had also offered to "do anything necessary" to stop academic boycotts. Officials declined to spell out exactly what the Government might do to put pressure on Umist. However, the university, which received £36.9 million in public funds last year, will be acutely aware of the approaching review of higher education funding, due to be published in January. It will also need official approval for plans to merge with the University of Manchester to create Britain's first super-university. The timing of Mr Blair's intervention is therefore clearly designed to exert maximum leverage over the institution which initially refused to take action over the affair. Umist at first claimed that because the journals from which Prof Baker had dismissed the scholars - The Translator and Translation Studies Abstracts - did not belong to the university it could not act. Prof Baker justified her action by saying: "I deplore the Israeli state. Miriam knew that was how I felt and that they would have to go because of the current situation."
Umist was forced to back down, however, after protests by academics from around the world and Estelle Morris, the then education secretary, who said that such discrimination was "completely unacceptable". A spokesman for the university said last week: "There have been reports that the case has been dropped but that is not true. The committee will return its verdict about whether Mona Baker will be able to remain in her post - or not - before Christmas."
Mr Blair's intervention will also be taken as an implicit criticism of Oxford University. The university last week refused to make public the results of its internal investigation into allegations that Tom Paulin, a poet and academic, told an Egyptian newspaper that American-born Israeli settlers should be shot dead. Mr Paulin, who lectures in English at Hertford College, remains in his post. Harvard University this week cancelled a lecture by him because the invitation had caused "divisiveness and consternation" in the prestigious American institution. Lord Janner, of the Holocaust Educational Trust, welcomed Mr Blair's intervention and said that it would be "very well received". He added: "Academics should ask themselves who is next to be boycotted."
About 700 academics worldwide have signalled their support for an academic boycott of Israel. In Britain, the calls for action have been led by Steven Rose, an Open University professor. Calls for such a boycott have been supported by NATFHE, the lecturers' union, while demands for a moratorium on the European funding of Israeli institutions have been backed by the Association of University Teachers.
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