Court hearing expected next week in challenge to UK university’s ban on Israel conference

The Electronic Intifada has learned details of the court challenge filed in London on Thursday against the University of Southampton’s decision to ban a conference related to Israel.

One of the organizers of the conference – a professor who grew up as a refugee in Gaza – has said that the legal challenge was taken with a “very heavy heart,” but was essential to defend freedom of speech.

On Wednesday, the University of Southampton confirmed that it had canceled the conference, “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism,” that had been scheduled for 17-19 April.

Administrators claimed that the decision was necessary because of the high risk of protests at the event “which could lead to incidents of public disorder.”

High Court challenge

At a hearing in the High Court in London, expected to take place next week, lawyers will challenge the university’s claims.

Mark McDonald, a public interest lawyer from the chambers of Michael Mansfield QC, told The Electronic Intifada that in withdrawing permission for the conference, the university had acted unfairly. It had used the risk of disorder as pretext for “capitulation to activists and supporters of the State of Israel.”

“This is blatant censorship under the guise of a specter of campus being overrun by violent hordes, which is patently groundless,” McDonald added.

Lawyers will argue that the university presented no evidence to justify its claims, that its decisionmaking was inconsistent and that the mere fact of protests does not equate to a security risk.

McDonald, who is working on the case with co-counsel Shivani Jegarajah, pointed out that the law guarantees a right to protest and counterprotest.

The Israeli embassy in London and Israel lobby groups that had campaigned for months for the cancelation of the conference have welcomed the university’s decision.

Freedom of speech at stake

In an open letter to fellow faculty and students, conference co-organizer Suleiman Sharkh warned that if left unchallenged, the university’s cancelation of the conference “will have a direct impact on you and your freedom of speech.”

Sharkh, a professor of engineering at the university, shared the the letter with The Electronic Intifada.

In it he explains his involvement and interest in the law conference, but also provides some poignant personal background. Sharkh was born in the Palestinian coastal city of Majdal Asqalan, now Ashkelon in present-day Israel.

Palestinians in the city were forcibly expelled to Gaza well after the ceasefire that ended the 1948 war.

“In November 1948, six months after the establishment of the State of Israel and after the wars had ended, the town was bombed and many people were killed. Those who survived were herded towards Gaza, crawling on their hands and knees in the thorny fields,” Sharkh writes.

The expulsion of the town’s residents to Gaza continued until 1950.

“Since then we have lived in squalid refugee camps. I walked around barefoot in the sand soiled by open sewage. I got my first shoes when I went to school at the age of six,” he adds.

“International law was responsible for our misery,” Sharkh explains. “It was used to legalize the theft of our homes and it continues to be used to legalize the ongoing oppression of my people by the State of Israel. The questions asked by the conference are therefore questions that I have been asking all my life. They are important questions that need to be answered.”

“However answering these questions risks exposing the true face of the State of Israel, and risks reminding the world of the uncomfortable truth about the crimes that were and continue to be committed against the Palestinian people,” Sharkh states. “As a result, the pro-Israel lobby exerted huge pressure on the university, which has resulted in the withdrawal of the permission to hold the conference.”

Sharkh dismisses media and Israel lobby group claims that “this was going to be an anti-Semitic conference.” He says he hoped the meeting would be a small step “to achieve justice, freedom and equality for my people to live side by side with Jews and all people in historic Palestine.”

Sharkh, himself a graduate of Southampton, said that studying and working at the university “is the best thing that happened to me.”

It was therefore with a “very heavy heart” that he and other conference organizers had to resort to taking the university to court.

Sharkh invited students and faculty to join almost eight thousand people who have signed an online petition calling on the University of Southampton to defend freedom of speech.

Asa Winstanley contributed reporting from London.

Full text of Suleiman Sharkh’s letter

Dear Friends, Colleagues and Students

As some of you may know, I am one of the organizers of the conference: “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism.” The conference was approved by the university back in July 2014 and we followed all the procedures and collaborated fully with the university’s administration from the start. We have been transparent throughout about the nature and the aims of the conference.

Some of you may wonder why I, an engineering professor, am involved in organizing a law conference. The obvious answer is that understanding the law is essential to engineering and it is indeed part of our curriculum – it is a requirement of accreditation by the Engineering Council. My own research on smart electricity grids and smart metering involves understanding the legal issues that arise from the development of the technology, particularly with regards to privacy of the data collected by the smart meters and its human rights implications.

Also, as many of you know, I am a Palestinian. I grew up in Gaza, but my family is originally from a town called Majdal Asqalan (now called Ashkelon by Israel). In November 1948, six months after the establishment of the State of Israel and after the wars had ended, the town was bombed and many people were killed. Those who survived were herded towards Gaza, crawling on their hands and knees in the thorny fields. Since then we have lived in squalid refugee camps. I walked around barefoot in the sand soiled by open sewage. I got my first shoes when I went to school at the age of six.

International law was responsible for our misery. It was used to legalize the theft of our homes and it continues to be used to legalize the ongoing oppression of my people by the State of Israel. The questions asked by the conference are therefore questions that I have been asking all my life. They are important questions that need to be answered.

However answering these questions risks exposing the true face of the State of Israel, and risks reminding the world of the uncomfortable truth about the crimes that were and continue to be committed against the Palestinian people. As a result, the pro-Israel lobby exerted huge pressure on the university, which has resulted in the withdrawal of the permission to hold the conference.

The attached statement explains our point of view, and why the university’s senior management’s decision is wrong in law. This decision will have a direct impact on you and your freedom of speech.

I am a Southampton graduate. This is my university. Studying and working at Southampton is the best thing that happened to me. It broadened my mind, it showed me that there are alternatives to violence and hatred, namely respectful debate and love. I care greatly about the university and its reputation and hence the reason for deciding, with a very heavy heart, to take legal action to reverse the decision to cancel the conference.

The main press may give you the impression that this was going to be an anti-Semitic conference. This is absolutely not true. My fellow organizer, Professor Oren Ben-Dor is a Jew. We have many Jewish supporters. And I am glad that many Jews immigrated to Palestine to be in a safe haven and I welcome more Jews to live in Palestine. My main aim is to achieve justice, freedom and equality for my people to live side by side with Jews and all people in historic Palestine. I want it to be a safer haven for Jews, a safe haven for all people who live there. I hope the conference will be a small step in that direction.

Finally, I want to assure you that there will be no spontaneous demonstrations or any violence from supporters of the conference as suggested by my colleague the chief operating officer, Steve White. We will conduct our protests in a very dignified manner, within the law, with full collaboration with the police and the university. I will never accept any harm to be done to the university and the wonderful people who work and study here, who keep it the fantastic place of scholarship and learning that it is.

Please express your support for freedom of speech by signing the online petition.

Yours sincerely,

Suleiman

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Comments

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Below is a link to a major speech given at a very large conference last year. The speech was headed THE LEGITIMACY OF ISRAEL but there were no worldwide protests: could this be because it was a keynote speech at Herzliya 2014 which is the major Zionist conference put on at great expense every year at Herzliya?

http://www.herzliyaconference....

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because the herzilya conference did not deal with the right of israel to exist like this one does....
it dealt with and i quote
In the international literature on legitimacy there are three conceptual parameters for
legitimacy: Legal legitimacy, Moral legitimacy and Social legitimacy. The legal legitimacy has
to do with legal validation by international bodies. The Moral legitimacy relates to
democratic legitimacy with the right of one actor to exercise power over another actor. The
Social legitimacy relates to whether the relevant group of people believes that the system is
morally or legally legitimate (Thomas, 2013).
The legitimacy of Israel's rule in the areas conquered in 1967, according to the international concepts described above is problematic relative to all of the three parameters.

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The Zionist Hearzliya conference was, as you say, about

Legal legitimacy
Moral legitimacy
Social legitimacy

Are you suggesting that if the Southampton Conference just had a title change to include the above it would be acceptable.

You are just tying yourself up in knots so
get this - Zionists no longer decide what we may or may not discuss.

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I can't believe that UK freedom of speech is been denied as a result of zionist pressure. This is an absolute travesty of justice.

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So the university is saying that it is concerned about violent Jewish fanatics and supporters coming and committing a Public Disorder offence, and that the police are incapable of handling such an incident.
Rather than be reactive to such a crime, they are pre-actively canceling on the off chance that such a crime may take place.
They are suggesting that a debate on their premises is an incitement to violence.
What a world we live in.

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.