Israel’s “Defenders” Show Their True Colors Regarding Academic Freedom

Israel’s “Defenders” Show Their True Colors Regarding Academic Freedom

From April 17-19, the University of Southampton is scheduled to host a conference entitled “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism.” As the title indicates, the conference was always going to be controversial. (Full disclosure: I was originally scheduled to present at the conference, but pulled out a couple of weeks ago because I simply didn’t have time to prepare anything.) Indeed, the conference webpage contains the following statement by the organisers:

The conference “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility, and Exceptionalism” at the University of Southampton on April 17-19th will engage controversial questions concerning the manner of Israel’s foundation and its nature, including ongoing forced displacements of Palestinians and associated injustices. The conference will examine how international law could be deployed, expanded, even re-imagined, in order to achieve regional peace and reconciliation based on justice.  The conference is intended to broaden debates and legal arguments concerning historic Palestine and the nature, role, and potentialities of international law itself.

Participants will be a part of a multidisciplinary debate reflecting diverse perspectives, and thus genuine disagreements, on the central themes of the conference. Diligent efforts, including face-to-face meetings with leading intellectuals in Israel, were made to ensure the widest range of opinions possible. Those who chose to abstain, however, cannot derail the legitimate, if challenging, academic discussion the conference will inspire.

The conference organizers are grateful to the University of Southampton for ensuring academic freedom within the law and for taking steps to secure freedom of speech within the law. The conference organizers accept that the granting of permission for this event does not imply support or endorsement by the University of any of the opinions to be expressed at the conference.

The final paragraph is more than a little ironic — because earlier today the University of Southampton caved to pressure from right-wing “defenders” of Israel and withdrew its permission for the conference. To be sure, the University did not have the integrity to admit the real reason why it was withdrawing permission. Instead, it fell back on that time-worn excuse, “security.” (Read: Israel’s right-wing “defenders” promised to disrupt the conference if the University didn’t cancel it.) The organizers’ statement in response makes clear just how pathetic that excuse really is:

A number of risks have been identified by the police but it is very clear from the Police’s report that they are more than capable of policing the conference and ensuring the safety of university staff, speakers, delegates, students and property. However, instead of accepting this at face value the University decided to focus on the risks identified by the Police and ignore their statement about their ability to police the event – we were told the Police will never say in writing they are not able to police an event, in other words the University had doubts about the Police’s ability to do their job of upholding the law! The university claims that the Police are not able or unwilling to become too involved because the University is ‘private property’, which we find astonishing. The University is a public space, it was established by a Royal Charter and it has public roles and duties including upholding freedom of speech and to that extent it should be able to resort to police assistance in order to curb security risks to enable it to fulfil its legal obligation to uphold freedom of speech. If this is not done, if commitment to safety is not undertaken by the police, freedom of speech becomes an idle worthless notion. At no point were we given an indication that the University has indeed allowed itself the time to seek viable police assistance to supplement its own resources. Additionally, and unconvincingly, the University claims that it is now too late to put proper security arrangements in place. We do not accept that in any way as there are still 18 days left before the conference.

It will be a great shame if the conference does not go ahead as planned, whether at Southampton or at another venue. But the University’s decision does have a silver lining: it makes clear the contempt that Israel’s right-wing “defenders” have for academic freedom. They love to invoke academic freedom in the context of academic BDS, where the freedom in question is that of Israeli academics. (Regular readers know that I oppose academic BDS, and I voted against it recently at SOAS.) But when academic freedom means permitting criticism of Israel — well, then censorship is just fine. Consider the following:

Exhibit A — a letter from the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists to Southampton’s Vice Chancellor demanding the conference be cancelled:

We recognize freedom of speech and academic freedom though we submit that these freedoms do not legitimize a conference based on bias and falsehoods and maintain that a self-respecting academic institution should not hold this conference as planned.

Translation: academic freedom is fine, unless we disagree with the academic position being espoused.

Exhibit B — a Change.org petition demanding cancellation of the conference created by the Zionist Federation UK and signed by 6,500 people:

This isn’t about academic freedom. We welcome genuine and open discussion about the issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But how can you discuss anything with people who don’t even recognise your right to have a voice?

Translation: we believe in academic freedom, as long as we don’t feel too threatened by the topic.

Exhibit C: a quote from Simon Johnson, the chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, urging the conference be cancelled:

We are gravely concerned about this unbalanced, delegitimising conference, which will have a detrimental impact on cohesiveness. We have asked the vice-chancellor to reconsider…. It’s a fine line between academic freedom, which we all cherish, and delegitimisation and discrimination. This conference seems to hover around that line.

Translation: we cherish academic freedom only insofar as the range of ideas expressed are acceptable to us.

Exhibit D: a quote from Jonathan Arkush, vice-president of the Board of Deputies, urging cancellation of the conference unless it was restructured in a manner acceptable to the Board:

The Board’s central insistence will be that if this conference cannot be re-structured to revise its tendentious subject title and focus on delegitimising The State of Israel, and to feature a balanced line up of academic contributors, it cannot be treated as a serious and genuine academic study and should be cancelled.

Translation: an academic study cannot be serious and genuine if we don’t approve of the approach the academics take.

I had a particularly revealing exchange on Twitter with Arkush last week, during which I pointed out that he had no problem endorsing a recent conference entitled “We Believe in Israel,” rendering somewhat suspect his abhorrence of “tendentious subject title[s].” He responded by telling me to “[l]ook at the programme and note the wide range of opinion, including critical of Israel govt.” So I looked — and immediately realised that the opinion “widely ranged” from right to far-right to ultra-right. (See for yourself; the programme is here.) Such diversity! Apparently, by “critical of Israel govt,” Arkush meant people who don’t think Netanyahu is right-wing enough. Indeed, I asked Arkush to identify even one participant at the “We Believe in Israel” conference who supported economic BDS. His response? Crickets. I never heard from him again — for obvious reasons.

In any case, no one should be surprised that Israel’s right-wing “defenders” responded to the Southampton conference by pressuring the University to shut it down. They could, of course, have suggested pro-Israel speakers to “balance” the conference. (As the statement quoted above mentions, the organisers tried to find such speakers, with little success.) They could, of course, have allowed the conference to continue and held their own counter-conference. But either response would have required making a substantive argument in defence of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians — and they have none. At this point, Israel’s right-wing “defenders” have but two tricks left in their bag: false claims of anti-Semitism and naked censorship.

Both were on full display in their response to the Southampton conference.

Topics
Events, Featured, Foreign Relations Law, International Criminal Law, International Human Rights Law, Middle East
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Gabor Rona

Kevin,

I think your criticism is correct but a bit misdirected.

You would no doubt agree that defenders of Israel have the right to criticize, and to attempt to have the event cancelled, even if they are being hypocritical, which appears to be the case. Of course, they do not have the right to engage in threats or violence or to disrupt the conference, but it is not at all clear from your blog that they have made any such threats. I suspect nothing extreme has been threatened. Otherwise, I suppose you would have noted it and the cops might not have simply said “No biggie. We can handle this.”

The real culprit here is the University – the very institution that we rely on to advance academic thought, to protect academic freedom and to stand firm in the face of hypocritical finger pointing.

No?

el roam
el roam

Thanks for an interesting post . With all due respect Kevin, you haven’t dealt at all with a very substantial matter here (notwithstanding freedom of any kind) and it is:

The very title of that conference , as presented in that post ,and That title comprises (among others) statements like I quote :

” the manner of Israel’s foundation and its nature, including ongoing forced displacements of Palestinians and associated injustices ”

Now, one doesn’t need to be too sensitive, in order to understand, that the title, is at first place biased towards basic and fundamental illegitimacy of the Israeli state , Challenging it’s very nature, it’s foundation, and suggesting in advance it’s apparent criminal behavior towards palestinants.

This the result of unjust, intensive campaigns of radical groups, not seeking current peace and justice and fair debates, but:

Destruction, illegitimacy, and reconstruction of the history. this is indeed not a title of fair debate ahead , but of : crusade alike one .

Thanks

el roam
el roam

Kevin ,

Thanks for the comment . Yes, I do agree of course with that issue of academic freedom, and has been noted by me indeed. What I suggest at the end of the road, and as more constructive advice, is to be more: carful, delicate, love and peace seeking, reconciling, in our attitude , and stands taken by all sides .

You should know, Israelis have great complex due to the holocaust and events of such all along history, in addition to that: the geopolitical situation in the middle east is extremely tense and life threatening one , so, such words, such titles, such phrasing as presented, not only enhancing concerns but surely don’t encourage perception of peace and reconciliation, and I am sure, that if asked, the organizers of that conference , would surely declare, that those lasts , were their strict goals, but: it should be: ” well preached , well reached….. ” thanks .

Yisrael Medad

Kevin, your parody was a humorous comment on non-academics attempting to exploit an academic freedom the same participants and planners would not grant Israel (because it shouldn’t exist). Thta was your intention, correct?

Alan Sherman
Alan Sherman

The BDS Hitlerjugend continue to have fun. When will the same University hold a conference on the genetic inferiority of blacks and Muslims?

Alan Sherman
Alan Sherman

Kevin your swastika is showing. WHat happened, your momma run away with a Jew and left you behind to be raised by barnyard animals?

Professor Geoffrey Alderman
Professor Geoffrey Alderman

I am a proud Zionist and I am scheduled to deliver a paper at this conference!

EmmaP

Response.Alan, obviously just awoke from hibernation with a sore head.

David Lewis

If Kevin John Heller will just read the Call for Papers, he will see that trying to exclude pro-Israel voices is exactly what the organisers were doing. The Call for Papers was written so as to deter dissenting voices and to ensure that the conference would be overwhelmingly one-sided. You can have a conference with biased papers and biased speakers, but a biased Call for Papers is unprofessional, undermines the legitimacy of the conference, and is actually in breach of the law supporting academic freedom of speech.

ZalmiU

Kevin, whatever badge you’re wearing I loved your response to the Barnyard barb. The conference might have succeeded if it had widened the topic to include the legitimacy of other ‘occupations’ such as Cyprus, Tibet etc. Trouble is Israel is The World’s Jew and 2,000 years of being singled out for abuse is not about to change.

ATN
ATN

Professor Heller,

I agree with you and the other commentators that the event should not have been canceled by the University. It was that cancelation that made this issue about freedom of speech. Otherwise, it would have simply been, in my opinion at least, a poorly organized conference on a controversial topic. My comment to you is that is seems that you conflate the Zionist Federation, Israel’s “Defenders” and the anti-BDS movement. What the Zionist Federation did does not necessarily (without further evidence, which you have not provided) represent the actions of Israel’s “Defenders” or the anti-BDS movement.

Surely, there is overlap in these three camps, but conflating them into one giant “other” pile seems unscrupulous – and certainly unsuited to a criminal law professor such as yourself.

ATN

Deborah
Deborah

I’m trying not to chuckle at some of these remarks. The idea that anyone has to “be ore careful, delicate, love and peace seeking, reconciling, in our attitude, and stands taken by all sides,” only reinforces the idea that there is a lobby that has made headway at U of Southampton in its goal to censor the conference. This is censorship. The solution to a conference with which you disagree, including the conference’s premises, is never to shut that one down or make it “balanced.” It’s to be a political adult and take responsibility for your perspective and organize your own conference with sponsorship from the university. And for the record, I don’t blame the lobbying-they’re politicians acting politically, albeit using an anti-democratic strategy. It’s the university administrators, the political adults on campus, that should never have bowed to this silly pressure group. Here’s why-all administrators do when they bow to pressure is to injure the academic (as distinct from political) reputation of their own institution at a moment in time when few universities can afford that luxury. Whatever the lobbyists want, universities need students and faculty. Once this kind of thing gets out via social media, what is lodged… Read more »

el roam
el roam

Deborah , With all due respect , you have missed the point , and almost totally . In my comments , I haven’t dealt at all with justification or unjustness for censorship ( although I could , and I had do …. ) . but : rather with the idea , that the title of that conference , seems totally illegitimate . It does challenge the nature , and the very foundation of the Israeli state . When one is challenging the nature , and the very foundation of certain entity , he claims indeed that : Nothing can change nothing !! the existence , the nature , the genes born by that entity are flawed , are illegitimate , are corrupt . To remind you Deborah : The state of Israel , has legal international foundation basis , no one can’t challenge it !! over and moreover : The Israeli state is the state of jews , that is how legally has been founded . jews , for purpose then of : judaisme per se , to be incorporated into a state or alike , And no one can legally and actually challenge that configuration . Now : Once… Read more »

Max
Max

I’m impressed by the way Mr Heller avoided the thrust of this point:

“If Kevin John Heller will just read the Call for Papers, he will see that trying to exclude pro-Israel voices is exactly what the organisers were doing. The Call for Papers was written so as to deter dissenting voices and to ensure that the conference would be overwhelmingly one-sided. You can have a conference with biased papers and biased speakers, but a biased Call for Papers is unprofessional, undermines the legitimacy of the conference, and is actually in breach of the law supporting academic freedom of speech.”

Would Mr Heller have us believe that the presence of one self-described ‘proud zionist’ means that the Call for Papers was not prepared in an unprofessional manner that undermines the ‘legitimacy’ of the conference?

Yaniv
Yaniv

The comparison between a wholesale boycott of every Israeli based on nationality only, and the demand to shut down a particular conference with very offensive title and CFP is nothing but bizarre.

That said, I agree that the University of Southampton shouldn’t have closed the conference. Those who feel that another radical gathering in the UK would undermine the legitimacy of the state of Israel are wrong. In Israel itself, such conferences take place, once in a while. These days the law denies them the right to have the meetings in a public facility for free, but other than that there are no limitations whatsoever.

el roam
el roam

Yaniv , You should know , such conference , as titled and presented , is basically illegal in Israel and many other states : In Israel , you can have an ” affair ” with the “shabac” ( home security agency ) why ?? Because the shabac , is obliged to investigate and prevent, any action scamming under the legitimacy and the democratic principles or constitutes of the Israeli state ( article 7 or the shabac law ) . You should know, that every state almost in the world , forbids any radical act, harming and jeopardizing foreign ties with a friendly state. and so let’s start with Israel ( the law derives basically from common law ) : Article 121 of the Israeli penalty code, forbids explicitly any act jeopardizing and harming ties between Israel and friendly state. And so , characteristic provision in common law ( articel 59 penal code ( chapter 4.02 Defamation of foreign personages etc…) dictates so : ” any person who , without such justification or excuse as would be sufficient on the defamation of a private person , publishes in any manner whatsoever anything tending to degrade , revile or expose to hatred… Read more »

Stephen Bellamy
Stephen Bellamy

Arkush as bent as it gets. Offer him 10 quid bent or 20 quid straight and he’ll take the ten.

Yaniv
Yaniv

El Roam,

Here is an example for such a conference

http://zochrot.org/en/keyword/45338

No matter what is your interpretation of the law, criminal prosecution in Israel in speech cases is very rare. This case is not an exception.

Moshe
Moshe

This was a convention of Israel haters and boycotters, not a genuine academic conference. The inclusion of 2 or 3 token Zionists (eg Geoffrey Alderman) does not change that. The university administration should never have allowed the event to happen. Belatedly they made the right decision but had to hide behind ‘health and safety’.

Anti-Zionists are free to hire a venue for their meetings. But a Law Faculty of a UK University should not be hosting their Israel hate events.

el roam
el roam

Yaniv ,

Thanks for the link , yet , nothing specific there , many links , with no specific issue related to the current discussion .

Yet: the occurrence of something, doesn’t degrade by no means the right interpretation of the law. Every day, millions of offenses take place, can’t deviate from the right standards of behavior and norms.

I remind you, the very legitimacy of the Israeli state, its legal foundation, not only challenging issues like: behavior, action, wrongdoing, refugees, re-settlement right (of return) occupation and so forth…..With that, no one, including the legislator here , has no problem.

But claiming ” en plein air” head on, that this state founded on an illegal basis , Well, I am very acquainted with the on going in Israel, such thinking, should be unusual, and for much less than that, people got paid for it , notwithstanding the very high degree of freedom of speech, reining in Israel, yet , in every state in the world , there is a limit to it while dealing with very extreme cases like here.

Thanks

Harvey
Harvey

Response…
I must be missing something here . Proponents of BDS , a device to close down all interaction with Israel , including actions such as disruption to the Israeli philharmonic orchestra , theatre and dance troupe , vandalising Israeli food products and of course silencing Israeli academics and politicians when invited to speak on campus etc . These same people now have the temerity and rank hypocrisy to cry foul play when confronted with the self same tactics . Suppressing freedom of speech is a two way street . BDS should expect more of the same .

Susan
Susan

Response…el roam: You say that the state of Israel has “legal international foundation basis”, implying that the conference would be “illegal”. This isn’t strictly true since Israel declared it’s “independence” in May 1948 based on the 1947 UN partition plan. However, Israel had already incorporated more land than was allowed to it under that plan as pat of the state of Israel. There are other other complications such as the fact that the League of Nations no longer existed, that which had created the British Mandate and doubtless more, so things are not as simple as you assume. As for article 21 concerning jeopardising friendly relations with a foreign friendly state, hasn’t Mr Netanyahu been doing a lot of that of late?

Susan
Susan

Response…Kevin JH: I really enjoyed reading your piece although I definitely differ from you as regards academic boycott. First of all because, unlike the case of South Africa, the boycott is not a blanket one in that it targets institutions not individuals; this means that Israeli academics are not impeded from attending foreign academic institutions and presenting their papers as individuals: it is only when they most definitely appear as representatives of their institutions, which in turn, are complicit with the government of Israel in multi-faceted ways as, it seems, all Israeli universities are. I agree that what is good for the goose is good for the gander, which is why support the academic boycott. Palestinian students have been prevented from taking up scholarships in foreign universities because they have been unable to obtain exit visas from Israel, (one of the multitude of prices of occupation) many others have been prevented from leaving Gaza to go and study in the occupied West Bank and still others, such as Palestinian Americans have been deported after having accepted teaching positions in Palestine. During the uprising in 2000, universities were closed (for two years I believe) and scholars had to be taught and… Read more »

el roam
el roam

Susan ,
Thanks for your comment . You can of course criticize the behavior of the Israeli state, you can argue that it has looted territories more and more, So in terms of freedom of speech, no problem!! not at all !!

But both under oath : when one is dealing with : ” nature ” and : ” foundation ” you deal with basic illegitimacy . Do you really want to raise here a certain challenge to the very basic right of the Israeli state to exist ?? not concerning it’s legitimate borders or boundaries ,but basic one ?? you don’t expect me to bother further ……. it would be definitely unreasonable !!

Thanks

Harvey
Harvey

Response…The Academic Friends of Israel Statement from the Academic Friends of Israel regarding the conference at Southampton University The Academic Friends of Israel are very pleased that Southampton University has withdrawn its permission for the International Law and the State of Israel Conference to take place on its campus. Their decision was the result of the University coming under increasing pressure over the last month from politicians, the leaders of the Jewish community, grass roots activists, funders and the general public, all of whom were seeking to have this conference either moved or cancelled. This event was promoted by an anti-Zionist, Israeli Jew whose aim is the elimination of the State of Israel. He intended it to be a three day conference of like minded anti-Israel activists with only a token pro-Israel representation, masquerading as a serious academic conference. The reality was that it was nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to give academic approval to the Palestinian narrative that the Jewish people have never had a connection with the land of Israel. In deference to the principle of freedom of speech, we did not call for the cancellation of the conference nor for a more balanced program. All… Read more »