Academics are pushing back against an effort by Israel lobby groups and UK government officials to cancel or alter a law school conference related to Palestine.
Almost 300 professors at universities in the UK and other countries have signed a statement expressing “principled and full support for the University of Southampton’s commitment to freedom of speech and scholarly debate.”
The University of Southampton has come under intense pressure over the conference “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism,” scheduled for 17-19 April.
The conference will “engage controversial questions concerning the manner of Israel’s foundation and its nature, including ongoing forced displacements of Palestinians and associated injustices,” the organizers wrote in a statement to The Electronic Intifada.
The organizers are University of Southampton law professor Oren Ben-Dor; George Bisharat, professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law; Juman Asmail, a law graduate from Southampton and Southampton engineering professor Suleiman Sharkh.
The conference “will examine how international law could be deployed, expanded, even re-imagined, in order to achieve regional peace and reconciliation based on justice,” the organizers add.
The provisional program includes presentations from a range of well-known academics and experts including University of California at Los Angeles historian Gabi Piterberg; Nur Musalha, a historian who has written extensively about Zionist plans to expel Palestinians; University of Exeter historian Ilan Pappe and Princeton University emeritus professor and former UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk, among others.
Pro-Israel media and lobby groups have been mounting an ever more shrill campaign using Islamophobic themes and casting aspersions of anti-Semitism to smear organizers and speakers.
Some have called for the conference to be banned outright, while others are urging the university to require pro-Israel speakers, on the grounds that the conference is “one sided.”
The Jerusalem Post reports that late last year, “leaders of the Jewish community, including representatives of the Jewish Leadership Council, Board of Deputies and the Union of Jewish Students” sent a letter to the university to cancel the conference.
The Post says it has “exclusively” seen “extracts” of the letter.
A Southampton spokesperson emailed The Electronic Intifada that the university “received a number of representations concerning this conference, both those expressing concerns and those in support,” but would not provide details of the organizations that had approached it.
The Electronic Intifada has filed a Freedom of Information request with the university in an effort to bring more light on the Israel lobby’s campaign against academic freedom.
Zionist Federation petition
The UK’s Zionist Federation launched a petition calling on the university to ban the conference, a demand to which several members of parliament have added their voices.
The mass circulation tabloid The Daily Express published an op-ed associating the conference with support for the notorious Islamic State militant “Jihadi John” and demanding that the government cut funding to Southampton.
The Jewish Chronicle trumpeted criticism by a former Conservative government minister and quoted Southampton mathematics professor Tim Sluckin claiming that the purpose of the conference is to “delegitimize Israel.”
Sluckin, who is also secretary of the Southampton Hebrew Congregation, said the conference “makes me feel uncomfortable as a Jew.”
Perhaps the most worrying aspect for supporters of free speech is the apparent collusion of UK government officials in the attempt to smear and suppress the conference.
Last week, Conservative cabinet minister Eric Pickles warned the University of Southampton against “allowing a one-sided diatribe.” According to Jewish News, this made Pickles, who is Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, “the most senior politician yet to intervene” over the conference.
Last December, Pickles’ department issued a report promising “government action on addressing anti-Semitism.” But as The Electronic Intifada reported, the government document “conflates anti-Semitism with criticism of the State of Israel” and misrepresents the Palestinian call for the academic boycott of Israeli institutions.
Pickles has consistently conflated “anti-Semitism” with solidarity for Palestinians. He has for instance condemned the London Borough of Tower Hamlets for “flying a Palestinian flag.” London municipalities have a long tradition of international solidarity, especially during the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.
The Jerusalem Post also revealed that in February, UK ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould met with UK university heads to discuss the limits of “freedom of speech” relating to Israel.
According to the Post, the University of Southampton’s refusal to cave in over the conference was a topic of discussion in the meeting.
Ben White writes for Middle East Monitor that the university’s “stubborn commitment to freedom of speech has clearly angered Britain’s Israel lobby, but the bigger question here is why a UK ambassador was involved in the first place.”
The UK Foreign Office confirmed to White that the meeting had taken place but as White notes, the government spokesperson “did not elaborate on whether lobbying British universities” on behalf of Israel “was part of the ambassador’s remit.”
The organizers have rejected accusations that the conference is “one sided.”
“Diligent efforts, including face-to-face meetings with leading intellectuals in Israel, were made to ensure the widest range of opinions possible,” the organizers wrote in their statement.
“Those who chose to abstain, however, cannot derail the legitimate, if challenging, academic discussion the conference will inspire.”
The organizers also say that are “deeply grateful for the University of Southampton’s commitment to freedom of speech and expression, which should set an example for universities worldwide.”
But the university has been more circumspect. Its spokesperson assured The Electronic Intifada that it “is legally obliged under the Education (No. 2) Act 1986, to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the university, as well as for visiting speakers.”
“We must ensure that academic staff have the freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions.”
University appeasing critics?
But in what looks like an attempt to appease critics, the spokesperson adds that “For the avoidance of doubt, the University of Southampton is not expressing an opinion or taking any particular standpoint in relation to the conference, ‘International Law and the State of Israel,’ but is fulfilling its legal obligations.”
Universities often endorse conferences and take strong stances in favor of various kinds of research on human rights, economic, medical or environmental issues.
For instance, University of Southampton Vice-Chancellor Don Nutbeam enthuses about a new research collaboration between his institution and the insurance company Lloyds Register.
But Southampton’s statement about the Israel conference follows an emerging pattern among universities that have come under attack for research or advocacy in relation to Palestinian rights: administrators assert their minimum obligations on free speech grounds while distancing themselves from the content, as if believing that Israel should be held accountable under international law were something odious and offensive.