Hundreds of demonstrators march up Whitehall, in central London, as they protest against Israel’s military action in Gaza on July 19, 2014.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
LONDON – Jewish communal leaders and pro-Israel supporters here have welcomed the news that Southampton University decided to cancel a three day conference questioning Israel’s legitimacy later this month, with some privately expressing hope that the outcome would deter other UK campuses from planning similar initiatives.
The university cited safety concerns as prompting its decision to abandon support for the conference, which was to have been held on the campus April 17-19. Critics maintained that the gathering would effectively be a blatant attack on Israel’s legitimacy and give legitimacy to anti-Semitism.
But The Jerusalem Post has learned that there is some disquiet at the highest levels of the Jewish community over the way in which several organizations fought for the cancellation.
Senior leaders had clearly advised – and evidently secured the agreement of – Jewish communal organizations not to cite security as having been behind the cancellation. The country’s organized Jewish community previously objected to using this as a reason so as not to put at risk pro-Israel conferences, which often are magnets for unruly protests.
There is also “disappointment” at certain organizations for attempting to claim credit for the cancellation.
Although they were powerless to intervene, several cabinet ministers had been so angered at the prospect of the conference that they registered their views in no uncertain terms. Chief Whip Michael Gove described it as “not a conference, but an anti-Israel hate-fest,” while Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles, who has responsibility for community relations, said it would be a “one sided diatribe.” Several MPs, too, wrote to the university with their objections.
The conference was organized by Southampton University’s Law Department, headed by Israeli-born Prof. Oren Ben-Dor, a ferocious critic of the Jewish state. It was marketed as “the first of its kind,” constituting a “ground-breaking historical event... as it questioned the legitimacy in international law of the Jewish State of Israel.”
Ben-Dor had anticipated up to 300 participants to hear a series of known critics of Israel – a list headed by the former UN special rapporteur Richard Falk, who once compared it treatment of the Palestinians to the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews.
Later, he conceded that just 150 people had signed up.
Earlier last week, when he was given a private hint that the university was planning to cancel the event, Ben-Dor and several colleagues registered a strong protest over what they viewed as its capitulation to the “Israel lobby.”
In a statement, the university said its decision “has not been influenced by the content of the conference or any representations made to the university.
It is based purely on concerns about the safety of conference attendees, staff, students and the public.” The statement added that the school had carried out a thorough risk assessment and consulted closely with police.
Emphasizing its “excellent track record” in ensuring and upholding free speech, the university said it remained committed to fulfilling its legal obligations for staff, students and visiting speakers, and offered to work with organizers to find a venue for “a conference of this nature” at a later date.
Universities UK, the body that represents all 113 British universities, met with a delegation from the Jewish communal leadership last month and issued a statement making clear that universities should remain committed to a free exchange of ideas, being “a natural place where any lawful ideas can be voiced and debated.”
The body concluded that Southampton University was not unique in facing this challenge.
“The majority of events go ahead with a wide range of views expressed and debated,” the statement added, “but occasionally events have to be canceled, sometimes following external advice on security and safety.”
The press spokesman at Israel’s embassy in London welcomed the decision to cancel what he termed “this ill-conceived conference, the goal of which was to question the legitimacy of Israel – a single state in the community of nations.”
The spokesman added that this had been “a clear instance of extremist political campaigning masquerading as an academic exercise,” before pointedly commenting that it was “only right to recognize that respecting free speech does not mean tolerating intolerance.”