Legal bid to save anti-Israel Southampton conference rejected

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Jewish Chronicle, April 16, 2015

Plans to hold a conference questioning Israel’s right to exist have been scrapped after a legal challenge by its organisers was rejected.

Professors Oren Ben Dor and Suleiman Sharkh applied for a judicial review after Southampton University said it would not host the conference this weekend because of security concerns over planned demonstrations.

High Court judge Alice Robinson rejected the application, agreeing the university was right to cancel the event after consulting police.

At a hearing at the Administrative Court in London on Tuesday, she said: “Whether or not security can be dealt with by the university was a matter for the university. The event assessment [by police] makes clear that it was a private event and that it was for the university to put in place adequate security measures.”

The court heard that police were concerned about the risk of terrorist attack at the conference and made reference to the recent antisemitic attacks in Europe.

Grassroots group Sussex Friends of Israel had planned to demonstrate during the three-day conference. Judge Robinson said if large numbers from the Jewish community came to protest they could become a target for terrorist groups.

In her judgement she said: “There is no dispute that the current threat level is severe and there have been terrorist attacks in the last 12 months associated with concerns about Israel, Palestine and the Jewish people. In my judgement those concerns are plainly relevant in this case and were quite properly taken into account.”

She also ordered the claimants to cover some of the university’s costs.

Following the hearing, the organisers revealed that attempts to find an alternative venue had failed and that the conference would not take place.

In a statement, they said: “Our painstaking efforts to locate a private venue have also not borne fruit. We have exhausted all possible venues in Southampton, from private to community owned spaces. Several venues confirmed our booking initially as an alternative, and then cancelled.

“It is with great regret, therefore, that we must postpone the conference.”

They were considering an appeal against the judge’s decision, they said.

In court, Mark McDonald, who represented the organisers, argued that police were well equipped to handle any security concerns, highlighting links made in the police report between grassroots group Sussex Friends of Israel and far-right protest movement English Defence League.

“The event assessment says there is intelligence that SFI have been working with the EDL. As a consequence members of EDL could come to the demonstration. They don’t know how many people will turn up, but only five or six are expected – it’s extremely manageable.”

Mr McDonald refuted claims of a risk of terrorist attack. He said: “When there is a high profile event you have to be extra vigilant but no more so than at any other institution. There is no direct link with the threat of terrorism at this conference.”

Edward Capewell, who represented the university, said the decision taken by the university vice-chancellor, Professor Don Nutbeam, did not constitute a ban. It was rather a “postponement decision” as the university did not feel it could provide the sufficient security in time for the start of the event.

SFI denied it has any connection to EDL. The group’s executive member Fiona Sharpe told the JC: “We have had no relationship in any way with EDL. They approached us to say they wanted to demonstrate at Southampton. We didn’t respond to any of their contact and forwarded all contact to the police.”.

SFI received an email from the Hampshire police public order commander after the hearing saying the police recognised SFI have always distanced itself from EDL and that the police did not suggest in its report that SFI would agree with any support offered by EDL. The police apologised for any distress caused to SFI.