Published: 22 March 2015
A ROW has broken out over plans to hold a conference at Southampton University questioning the legitimacy of Israel’s right to exist under international law.
More than 4,000 people have signed a petition on the Change.org website calling on the university to cancel the three-day event, organised by Oren Ben-Dor, an Israeli-born law and philosophy professor at Southampton, and due to take place next month.
They fear that the event, hosted by the university’s law faculty and described on its website as “groundbreaking” and “historic”, will be a platform for anti-semitic views.
The petition states: “Israel is presumed guilty of the crime of existing, while no other state is being put on trial in this way. Southampton University — this isn’t a conference. It’s a kangaroo court. Don’t let it go ahead.”
There have been threats from patrons to withdraw funding and last week a paediatrician, Andrew Sawczenko, returned his bachelor of medicine degree to the university, which said it was “saddened” by his decision.
The critics say that in a climate of rising anti-semitism in Britain, attacking the legitimacy under international law of Israel’s creation in 1948 in a conference that has no speakers appearing in support of Israel is a “disgrace”.
The university, however, has refused to back down, saying that it has a duty to protect freedom of speech.
Speakers at the conference include Richard Falk, the former UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories and an emeritus professor of international law at Princeton, and Ghada Karmi, an Exeter University research fellow whose website says she was “forced to leave her home with her family as a result of Israel’s creation in 1948”.
Those attacking the conference include the Tory MP Mark Hoban, who has called it “provocative”.
Vivian Wineman, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said he expected the university “to take all necessary steps to ensure it does not become a platform for extremists”.
The Parkes Institute, a centre for the study of Jewish history based at Southampton University, has also come out strongly against it.
Joachim Schlör, director of the institute, said: “A conference that singles out Israel and invites the questioning of its very existence cannot be supported by a group of academics dedicated to the study of Jewish history and culture.”
John Richmond, who is campaigning against the event, said: “For the first time in my life, I and other British Jews are openly questioning their safety. This conference will surely add the University of Southampton’s weight to the increasing campaign against the Jews, who represent 1% of the UK’s population and 14% of its billionaires. Were they to leave, it will not only be jobs that will leave with them.”
The row comes at a sensitive time for British universities, which have succeeded in blocking provisions in new counterterrorism legislation under which ministers could order them to ban extremist speakers.
This month, Theresa May, the home secretary, was forced to abandon her plan to threaten contempt of court proceedings against universities that failed to comply with the new policy, after opposition from the Liberal Democrats.
Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, said Southampton University should try to ensure that it invited speakers on both sides of the debate. He said: “There is a careful line between legitimate academic debate on international law and the actions of governments, and the far-left’s bashing of Israel, which often descends into naked anti-semitism.
“Given the taxpayer-funded university has a legal duty to uphold freedom of speech, I would hope that they are taking steps to give a platform to all sides.”
A university spokesman said: “The university is legally obliged to ensure freedom of speech is secured for members, students and employees of the university, as well as for visiting speakers.
“We must ensure academic staff have the freedom to question received wisdom and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions.
“The University of Southampton is not expressing an opinion in relation to the conference, International Law and the State of Israel, but is fulfilling its legal obligations.”