Sicht vom Hochblauen

Evelyn Hecht-Galinski

Did Israel lobby “bullying and threats” push Univ. of Southampton to cancel conference?

by Ali Abunimah

Organizers of an academic conference on Israel are proceeding with an urgent legal challenge after the UK’s University of Southampton today confirmed that it has canceled the event.

As The Electronic Intifada reported on Tuesday, university officials told organizers that they intended to withdraw permission for the conference.

But the university did not publicly confirm the cancelation until today, when it issued a statement citing “the foreseeable risks to safety and public order at and near the conference venue” as a justification for shutting it down.

The conference, “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism,” had been scheduled for 17-19 April.

Police: the university’s decision

“This was not an easy decision,” the university states, adding that it “was made on the basis of information from the police who say it is probable there will be a high number of demonstrators at the event, the consequences of which could lead to incidents of public disorder.”

But speaking to The Electronic Intifada today, a spokesperson for Hampshire police seemed to distance the force from the cancelation: “it’s very much a university decision … the decision to cancel the event is definitely the university’s decision.”

A statement posted on the Hampshire Constabulary website today in response to enquiries from The Electronic Intifada confirmed that the force had been asked by the university to “provide a view on security” for the conference.

Organizers have previously rejected such claims as a pretext for succumbing tointense political pressure from Israel lobby groups and their supporters in government.

“Bullying and threats”

A number of the university’s own faculty have publicly condemned the decision.

“It seems to me outrageous that you seem to have allowed the bullying and threats of the Israeli lobby to prevent the perfectly lawful and legitimate exercise of free speech and academic debate,” Professor David Gurham, director of research for the University of Southampton School of Law, wrote in a letter to the university’s vice chancellor Don Nutbeam.

“I understand that the police had reported that they would be perfectly able and willing to deal with any security concerns at the event: this ought to be good enough,” Gurham added.

A report in The Jewish Chronicle on Tuesday lent weight to organizers’ suspicions that concern for safety was an excuse.

Board of Deputies of British Jews president Vivian Wineman told the Chroniclethat “When we had a meeting with the university vice-chancellor they said they would review it [the conference] on health and safety terms.”

“The two lines of attack possible were legal and health and safety and they were leaning on that one,” Wineman added.

The Board of Deputies is one of a number of Israel lobby groups that have lobbied for the conference to be canceled.

Legal challenge

Lawyers acting for the organizers are expected to file an application this week forjudicial review of the university’s decision.

In a statement posted today, conference organizers revealed that an internal appeal of the decision had been rejected by the vice chancellor, prompting them to take the battle to the courts.

“This decision by the university is wrong in law, wrong in morality and wrong for the University of Southampton in particular and for all academic spaces all over the country and the world generally,” the organizers say.

“We hope that immediate legal action will help save the reputation of the University which has sadly been thrown into serious doubt by this decision.”

Israel embassy welcomes cancelation

Sussex Friends of Israel and the Israeli embassy welcomed the university’s decision to suppress the conference.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews also welcomed the cancelation. “This conference was never about academic freedom. It represented the opposite of free speech,” the group told The Jewish Chronicle.

“It was to be an international gathering of anti-Zionists who were using the cover of a distinguished university to promote their view that there should never have been a Jewish state,” the Board of Deputies said. “Such events have no place at a reputable British university.”

Growing outcry

Meanwhile, there is a growing international outcry over what looks to many like yet another example of freedom of speech and academic freedom being suspended when it comes to the question of Palestine.

There are now almost seven thousand signatures on an online petition urging the university to “uphold free speech” and allow the conference to proceed.

More than 900 academics from all over the world have signed on to a statement in support of the conference.

A growing number of scholars have also written individual and group letters to Southampton protesting its decision.

The letters from academics – including those from Southampton itself, the University of London colleges Goldsmiths and SOAS, Irish professors with the group Academics for Palestine and others – have been posted online.

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