Borderline Views: Freedom of speech at the University of Southampton

Once again, the anti-Semitism card has been used when it is not clear that this is always the right strategy.

April 13, 2015 23:10
Anti-Israel protest

Protesters call for boycott of Israel [file]. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The decision last week by the University of Southampton in the UK to cancel the upcoming international conference on the topic of International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism, following intense pressure by the local Jewish community, has raised more questions than it has solved. The conference organizers have now taken the university to court, arguing that the decision was political, and that the university caved into what the organizers describe as a powerful Jewish lobby who have acted against the interests of academic freedom by silencing voices with which they do not agree.

For their part, the Jewish community campaign, spearheaded by the Academic Friends of Israel (AFI) organization, argue that it was the holding of the conference which was the negation of academic freedom.

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The organizers, they argue, set out to define their political position from the outset, namely that the existence of the State of Israel was not legitimate.

The fact that many invitees who held a contrasting pro-Israel position were on the original guest list was, in the view of the AFI, nothing more than a smokescreen designed to portray a picture of balance and an attempt to gain legitimacy, when no balance was intended.

The reason given by the university for canceling the conference was on the grounds of safety – not academic freedom or balance. The university managers stated that they had received letters from interested groups that had stated their intention to demonstrate against the conference and to disrupt the proceedings and, as such, the university felt it was unable to guarantee the safety of the speakers and the invited guests.

This is somewhat ironic given the fact that a few months previously at the same university, an Israeli professor had a seminar canceled due to the intention of pro-Palestinian groups to demonstrate against his presence on campus. The university has been able to turn to issue of safety into a convenient excuse to cancel both these events, when it is clear to any outside observer that the real reason has a lot more to do with politics.

The conference program was clearly imbalanced.

Rather than setting out to discuss the legal context of state legitimacy in general, the titles and the speakers of the presentations appear to have been chosen according to a preset determination that the State of Israel is not a legitimate entity. No balanced discussion of the legal underpinnings of the State of Israel, no comparative framework within which other states are analyzed along similar lines, no noted scholars of international law or jurisprudence to offer an alternative position.

The organizers claim that they did invite lecturers to present an alternative position, including representatives of the Israel embassy, but that these turned them down. Had they, so the organizers argue, agreed to attend, the final conference program would have been more balanced.

If they lose their court appeal, the organizers have stated that they will simply hold the event elsewhere – and it is to be assumed that there will be no shortage of venues which will agree to host the meeting.

Given the immense media coverage that has accompanied the pressure to have the conference canceled, it can be expected than when it is eventually held, it will attract much more publicity and participation than would otherwise have been the case, raising questions concerning Israel’s legitimacy among many more people.

In the wake of the cancellation there has now been a counter-petition, signed by thousands of people including many senior academics and professors at the university and throughout the world who had no prior connection to, or interest in, the conference, protesting what they see as an attack on academic freedom.

One of the strangest letters of protest was that published in the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) by a Jewish, strongly pro-Zionist professor, Geoffrey Alderman from the University of Buckingham, who had agreed to participate at the conference. He argued that the decision to cancel was indeed an abrogation of academic freedom and had nothing to do with safety issues. Among Alderman’s other credentials is the fact that he is the only British academic who declares himself to be an adjunct professor at the West Bank College of Ariel. With tongue in cheek, the organizers could argue that their inclusion of an adjunct professor of Ariel in the conference program is a sign of their attempt to achieve balanced debate – although in reality they were probably ignorant of the fact.

For the Jewish community and the political activists, the cancellation of the Southampton conference is seen as a victory. But it is the Jewish community which is now being accused, in numerous letters and opinion columns, of clamping down on freedom of speech and silencing all those with whom they do not agree.

Once again, the anti-Semitism card has been used when it is not clear that this is always the right strategy.

In their decision to cancel the conference, Southampton did not make mention of issues relating to freedom of speech or anti-Semitism. Two years ago, a labor tribunal threw out a case which had been brought against the UCU (University Teachers Trade Union, who have been at the forefront of actively sponsoring pro-boycott motions) for practicing anti-Semitism against its members. Then too, the Jewish community didn’t come out of the case looking very good and there were many voices within the community of the opinion that the case should never have been brought in the first place.

If the community comes out of the campaign looking worse than when it went in, winning a battle but losing a war, perhaps we should be asking ourselves questions concerning the correct strategy to use and whether this needs to be reassessed at all levels – the Jewish community, the Israeli government and among academics themselves.

Perhaps the resources which are now being poured into the anti-BDS campaign could be better used in promoting new scientific collaborative projects, new scholarships for Israeli scholars, and ensuring that Israeli science remains among the most sought after by the top universities and international research funding authorities. There is no better answer to BDS than showing a constant growth in the global exposure of Israeli science and innovation – along the example set by BIRAX in Britain.

It is sad that a university such as Southampton, the home to the most important Anglo Jewish archives (the Parkes Archives), a university which just three years ago sent a delegation of leading academics in the social sciences and humanities to investigate new collaborative research partnerships with their Israeli counterparts, should have allowed itself to be dragged into the mud of the political debate. The last thing Southampton wanted – unlike other UK universities such as Exeter, SOAS or Bradford, where the debate about Israel/Palestine has always been intense – was to be part of a court case, raising questions concerning its academic integrity.

At the end of the day this episode strikes at the very heart of what we mean when we loosely use the terms “academic freedom” and “freedom of speech” as a universal principle. It cannot be applied to one side of the argument only – where we agree with you it is academic freedom, but where we disagree with you we will silence you. The recent attempts to prevent some Israeli lecturers from appearing on campus has now boomeranged in the faces of the organizers, and everyone is now being accused of attempting to silence the other.

Some of the British universities have invited this mess by not taking an active stance to ensure that all groups and all views are represented in an environment of tolerance and open discussion, even when the views held by protagonists are diametrically opposed.

No one can deny that there has been a growth in anti-Israel sentiment on many campuses in recent years and even if this has not affected any major research or scientific collaborations, many Jewish and pro-Israel faculty and students feel uncomfortable and, in some cases, even threatened by the lack of protection for their own academic freedoms.

University authorities have not done enough during the past decade to ensure real academic freedom of speech and balanced debate on campus. It behoves universities throughout the world to learn the lesson of what has taken place at Southampton, to ensure freedom of speech to all, not only to those we agree with but, even more importantly, to those with whom we disagree – be they Palestinian, Israeli, Jewish, Muslim or any other shape or color.

The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. In 2013 he was awarded the OBE for promoting scientific cooperation between the UK and Israel. The views expressed are his alone.

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