Leeds U. cancels anti-Semitism event

Follows Muslim complaints that event is a "sell-out of academic freedom."

leeds uni 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
leeds uni 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Organizers of an event at the University of Leeds on Islamic anti-Semitism in the Middle East said at the weekend it had been cancelled by university officials at the last minute due to complaints from Muslim students, which they called a "sell-out of academic freedom, especially freedom of speech." On Wednesday morning, the university cancelled a lecture and two-day workshop that was to have begun that day - organized by the university's Department of German and given by German academic Dr, Matthias Kuentzel - on what it said were "safety grounds." Kuentzel, a Hamburg-based academic, author and associate researcher of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, had been scheduled to give a talk entitled, "Hitler's Legacy: Islamic Anti-Semitism in the Middle East." On Tuesday, the university contacted the German department and requested they change the title. The department agreed and changed it to "The Nazi Legacy: The Export of anti-Semitism to the Middle East." But on Wednesday morning, department head Prof. Stuart Taberner was called to a meeting with the vice-chancellor and head of security and told the lecture and workshop was cancelled. Dr. Annette Seidel Arpaci and Morten Hunke, two of the event's organizers, issued a statement claiming the event, which they said was "well publicized for several weeks," was cancelled simply because of pressure from Muslim students. But Leeds University director of media relations Vanessa Bridge insisted it was purely a security issue. "The decision to cancel the meeting has nothing to do with academic freedom, freedom of speech, anti-Semitism or Islamophobia, and those claiming that is the case are making mischief," she told The Jerusalem Post. "Nor are we bowing to threats or protests from interest groups. The meeting has been cancelled on safety grounds alone and because - contrary to our rules - no assessment of risk to people or property has been carried out, no stewarding arrangements are in place and we were not given sufficient notice to ensure safety and public order." Bridge said that safety procedures must be followed when "controversial" speakers speak at the university. This was done, she said, when an official from the Israeli Embassy in London spoke at the university on Tuesday. "This campus has hosted talks in recent months by controversial speakers from both sides of the Middle East conflict; most recently, when the director of public affairs for the Israeli Embassy in London, Ronit Ben- Dor, gave a talk organized by the student Jewish Society following a risk assessment and with appropriate stewarding arrangements in place. "We value academic freedom and remain committed to promoting and positively encouraging free debate, enquiry and, indeed, protest. We tolerate a wide range of views, political as well as academic, even when they are unpopular, controversial or provocative. Where meetings are potentially controversial, we have a duty to make arrangements to safeguard the safety of participants in the event, and other people within the vicinity, and to ensure that public order is maintained." Arpaci said she was shocked by the decision and maintains the university "bowed to Muslim protests." She said she has seen some of the protest e-mails, one of which said the writer found the subject "profoundly offensive" and which demanded the German department apologize to the Muslim community. "The reason the university gives for the cancellation are security concerns," she said. "But the university knew about the event at the end of last year and were providing funds for it. E-mails were sent out and posters and advertisement went up three weeks ago." "Dr. Kuentzel's talk is part of a series of scholars and artists talks at the German Department. The series is supported by a grant form the School of Modern Languages, which did not raise any issues during the grant application process." The university has insisted that its officials knew nothing about the event despite the School of Modern Languages providing the event with a grant and its being advertised on campus, with posters, flyers and e-mail alerts, three weeks before. Asked in a telephone interview about the ads for the event, Bridge said that one cannot be expected to pay attention and see the posters around campus for every event. Asked if the threatening e-mails or protests by students had anything to do with the last-minute cancellation and if academic freedom had in any way been compromised, Bridge hung up.