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.