Southampton University has withdrawn permission for a controversial conference questioning Israel’s right to exist to be held on its south-coast campus, claim the event’s organisers
THE TELEGRAPH, 31 March 2015
By Patrick Sawer and Jonny Paul
The University of Southampton is understood to have withdrawn permission for the three-day conference to be held on its campus in the face of criticism from opponents who described it as “giving legitimacy to anti-Semitism”.
Critics said the conference – International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism – would be a ‘one-sided’ exercise in Israel-bashing and more than 6,000 people signed a petition calling on the university to cancel it.
One of its most respected former alumni returned his degree in protest and at least one major patron of the university was said to have been considering withdrawing funding.
Organisers describe the conference as “the first of its kind and constitutes a ground-breaking historical event … it is unique because it concerns the legitimacy in international law of the Jewish State of Israel.”
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Getty Images)
The university’s own website advertising the conference, originally planned for April 17 to 19, made no secret of the fact that the event would question both the legal and moral right of the state of Israel to exist, stating:
“It concerns the legitimacy in International Law of the Jewish state of Israel. Rather than focusing on Israeli actions in the 1967 Occupied Territories, the conference will focus on exploring themes of Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism; all of which are posed by Israel’s very nature.”
But in a sudden turnaround the university has apparently told the conference’s organisers that the event could no longer go ahead on safety grounds, after fears that demonstrators would try to disrupt the event, clashing with Pro-Palestinian activists expected to demonstrate in support.
Southampton University (Alamy)
In a statement on Tuesday the conference organisers, who include Professors Oren Ben-Dor and Suleiman Shark of University of Southampton, and Professor George Bisharat, of University of California, Hastings College of the Law, said: “It is with extreme astonishment and sadness that we have to inform you that the University of Southampton has told us earlier yesterday [Monday] that it intends to withdraw its permission to hold the academic conference on International Law and the State of Israel.
“We were told that the decision was taken on the grounds of health and safety: a number of groups may be demonstrating for or against the conference which could present risks to the safety of the participants, students and staff. The University claims that it does not have enough resources to mitigate the risks, despite a clear statement from the Police confirming that they are able to deal with the protest and ensure the security of the event.”
The organisers said any decision to cancel the event was a blow against free speech and that Southampton was using ‘health and safety’ and as excuse.
“The security argument used to rationalise a decision to cancel the conference that has been taken under public pressure of the Israeli Lobby. It is quite simply unbelievable that the University cannot ask the Police to handle the risk of demonstrations. Freedom of speech inherently involves taking risks, and hence the presence of risk cannot be used to curtail it,” added the statement.
On Tuesday morning Southampton University said it had yet to make a final decision about the conference, but said that its status was “under review”.
A spokesman said: “The University of Southampton is in discussion with the organisers of the conference ‘International Law and the State of Israel’ about the possibility of withdrawing permission for the event to be held on campus. However, this review process is still ongoing. Any decision will be judged purely on considerations around the health and safety of our staff, students and for the general public.”
But the expected decision was welcomed by groups who feared the conference would justify attacks on Israel itself and on Jews around the world.
Fiona Sharpe, co-chair of the Sussex Friends of Israel, said: “Our aim had been to exercise our freedom of speech by exposing its bigoted, one-sided, politically motivated nature; it was not an academic conference but a gathering of Israel-haters and boycott activists. While we did not seek to subdue free speech, we are pleased it will no longer be able to hide behind the veneer of respectability and academia, which also threatened to severely damage the university’s reputation.”
Douglas Murray, associate director of the Henry Jackson Society, said: “The event at Southampton University was not an academic conference but a rally of bigots. The proposed line up consisted only of people dedicated to the delegitimising and destruction of the state of Israel.
“No academic conference on Pakistan, for instance, founded just a year before Israel – would consist solely of discussion on whether it should have been created and how to end it.”
The Board of Deputies of Jewish Deputies had urged Southampton University to cancel the event. Its president, Vivian Wineman, said: “It is formulated in extremist terms, has attracted toxic speakers and is likely to result in an increase in anti-Semitism and tension on campus.”
One prominent lawyer said he would think twice before hiring someone from the south coast university. Mark Lewis, who has represented a string of celebrity clients, said he would look “unfavourably” at CVs sent by graduates of Southampton.
And Andrew Sawczenko, one of the few consultants accredited in both General Paediatrics and Paediatric Gastroenterology, returned the Bachelor of Medicine he received in 1987 to vice chancellor Professor Don Nutbeam, in protest.
At the same time, however, more than 850 academics from universities around the world signed a statement in support of the university’s stance, saying that the themes of conference “are entirely legitimate subjects for debate and inquiry” and that to call for it to be scrapped is an attack on free speech and academic freedom.
It added: “We are very concerned that partisan attempts are being made to silence dissenting analyses of the topic in question. For external pressure and interference, especially from political lobby groups and a government minister, to censor lawful academic discussion would set a worrying precedent.”