LONDON – The University of Southampton, which has organized a three-day conference in mid-April expected to be vehemently critical of Israel, has been accused of hiding behind the cloak of academic freedom to justify ignoring all concerns about the contents of the event.
Jewish communal leaders are becoming increasingly angered by what say is a “head in the sand” approach since news of the conference emerged toward the end of last year to legitimate representations calling for it to be canceled.
The conference, “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism,” is, according to the university’s law school, “the first of its kind and constitutes a ground-breaking historical event on the road towards justice and enduring peace in historic Palestine.”
Claiming to be unique because it concerns the legitimacy in international law of the Jewish State of Israel, its organizers stated that rather than focusing on Israeli actions in the territories occupied in 1967, the conference will focus on exploring themes of “Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism;” all of which – they maintain – “are posed by Israel’s very nature.”
A better indication of the agenda emerges in the literature for the gathering, claiming it aims to “explore the relatedness of the suffering and injustice in Palestine to the foundation and protection of a state of such nature and asks what role international law should play in the situation.”
Southampton law and philosophy professor Oren Ben-Dor is behind the event.
The Nahariya-born Ben-Dor has supported academic boycotts of Israel universities, once claiming that those on the Israeli Left who oppose them are “sophisticated accomplices to the smothering of debate.”
He has written about alleged apartheid in Israel and bias in its education system, and examined the “ethical and legal challenges facing Palestine.”
“The occupation that should be debated, but is not, is the occupation of the whole of Palestine,” not just the territories conquered in 1967, he once wrote.
A letter written late last year by leaders of the Jewish community, including representatives of the Jewish Leadership Council, Board of Deputies and the Union of Jewish Students, extracts of which have been exclusively seen by The Jerusalem Post, left Prof. Hazel Biggs, head of the University of Southampton’s Law School, in no doubt of the strength of feelings about the conference.
They wrote that normally, all would defend – unreservedly – the right of any university group to express critical and dissenting views. The proposed conference appeared, however, “to surpass the acceptable,” and that based on title and advertised speakers “it sets out explicitly to question the very legitimacy of a member state of the UN.”
Doing so, would be “a perverse, existential attack on a state” they wrote, and they accused Southampton’s Law School of “being used as an academic platform to advance not just legitimate Palestinian national rights, to which we have no objection, but rather to blacken, demonize and delegitimize the very right of existence of the State of Israel.
“What other state in the global community of nations – democratic or tyrannical – is ever subjected to such a critique? The Conference causes us great concern and distress. It will undoubtedly trouble greatly the members of the UK Jewish community,” they wrote.
Hosting of such an unbalanced conference, the Jewish leaders warned, would have “damaging consequences for student welfare and community relations on campus,” and might well affect the attractiveness of the School of Law for future UK and international students.
They concluded by saying they could not believe that the university and the law school wished to be party to “such a notorious campaign of denigration,” and asked the university to reconsider holding the event as the participants could have spent their time more constructively “addressing legal aspects of peace-building and reconciliation than engaging in such adult ‘agit-prop’ which advances merely a sectional and wholly partisan viewpoint.”
Biggs, according to sources, pointedly turned down their appeal, claiming that while the title of the conference raised an important question, the conference itself would “take no explicit perspective.”
She added that while the program was in the final stages of preparation, if the Jewish Leadership Council or the Board of Deputies of British Jews wanted to recommend suitable academic speakers, “the conference organizers were happy to receive their nominations.”
This reply was far from acceptable to the Jewish community and the Post can now disclose that Southampton’s unhelpful stance was cited at a private meeting held last month between top communal leaders and four vice chancellors from Universities UK, an umbrella group representing all UK university heads.
In their discussions the Jewish representatives – who included Britain’s ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould – tried to frame a debate as to where the line is crossed between freedom of speech and discourse which affects Jewish academics and students on UK campuses.
The point was made that while some vice chancellors can and do try to intervene when there are specific difficulties raised with them, others tend to resort to the “freedom of speech” mode which effectively bars them from considering valid representations on behalf of the Jewish community.
It is understood that in Southampton’s case (its vice chancellor was not among the four in the Universities UK delegation), the university’s authorities have received around a dozen letters from Jewish organizations and correspondence from several members of Parliament asking the law school to cancel the event.
But a source close to the Jewish delegation told the Post on Tuesday that it was clear that Southampton was “not going to budge” and possibly that other factors may have intervened, not least of the revenue from a three-day event held during a vacation.