Over 8,500 people have signed a petition urging the University of Southampton to reverse its decision to cancel an academic conference on International Law and the State of Israel.
The pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist organisers of the conference were told on Monday that the university had withdrawn permission to hold the conference on the grounds of “health and safety” as demonstrations for or against the conference could have presented risks to the safety of the participants, students and staff.
However, it is thought by many that the real reason for the cancellation was the pressure applied on the university by pro-Israel groups.
The petition, on change.org, reads: “We, the undersigned, urge the university to allow the conference to proceed as planned. There is ample time for any concerns regarding the safety and security of university staff, students, and conference participants to be met. The university must fulfill its legal obligation to protect free speech and academic discussion.
“To cancel the conference on such grounds shows weakness in the face of external pressure and bullying, and calls into question the University of Southampton’s commitment not only to academia and the professional activities of its own scholars, but also to the precious tradition of free speech itself.”
The origins of Israel
The conference “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility, and Exceptionalism” was due to take place on April 17-19th and would have addressed controversial questions concerning the manner of Israel’s foundation and its nature, including ongoing forced displacements of Palestinians and associated injustices.
The conference would have examined how international law could be deployed in order to achieve regional peace and reconciliation based on justice.
Almost 300 professors at universities in the UK and other countries signed a statement expressing shock at the University of Southampton’s decision. And the conference organisers said that the university used the issue of health and safety as a convenient pretext to cancel the conference.
In a statement they said: “We feel that the manner the university communicated with the police and conducted the risk assessment shows that the security argument was 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! The UK Government and many other governments have refused to give in to attempts by Islamic extremist to stop the publication of pictures of Prophet Mohammad despite serious risks of violence. The correct response by the governments was to confront and contain that violence and not to cancel the publication of these pictures by Charlie Hebdo and others.
“This is a sad decision for freedom of speech and for historic Palestine (which includes what is now the Jewish State of Israel and the 1967 Occupied Territories) and ALL the people who live there.
“We will explore legal emergency measures to prevent the University from cancelling the conference, to reverse its decision and to properly collaborate with the police so that the demonstrations can be managed. In addition we call for the widest and most intense public campaign possible that would urgently encourage the university to reverse its decision and which would allow the conference to go ahead.”
According to the Electronic Intifada (EI) website, pro-Israel media and lobby groups have been mounting a campaign using Islamophobic themes and casting aspersions of anti-Semitism to smear the organizers and speakers.
Some have called for the conference to be banned outright, while others have urged the university to require pro-Israel speakers, on the grounds that the conference would be “one sided.”
The Jerusalem Post reported 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 UK’s Zionist Federation launched a petition calling on the university to ban the conference, a demand to which several members of parliament 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.”
But perhaps the most worrying aspect for supporters of free speech, according to EI, 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.