U.K. Jewish Academics Slam Cancellation of Conference on Israel's Right to Exist

In letter to the Jewish Chronicle, academics say The University of Southampton's decision to nix the event was 'intellectually lazy' and against academic freedom.

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Entrance sign at the University of Southampton.
Entrance sign at the University of Southampton.Credit: Screenshot

A group of 13 Jewish academics in the U.K. has slammed the recent cancellation of a controversial conference on Israel's right to exist, saying that the move by the University of Southampton was against academic freedoms and "intellectually lazy."

The conference, entitled, "International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism," would have taken place this weekend. It aimed "to explore the relatedness of the suffering and injustice in Palestine to the foundation and protection of a state of such nature," according to its website. 

A letter in Friday's Jewish Chronicle signed by the academics condemned "the pressure that has been brought to bear, in our names, on the University of Southampton," which led to the cancellation. They added that they were "deeply concerned by reports that organizations, including the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council, pressured the University to limit debate."

Critics denounced the confernce as one-sided and anti-Semitic, and a petition opposing it, sponsored by the United Kingdom Zionist Federation, garnered over 6,400 signatures. It was also condemned by the Jewish Board of Deputies, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles and several members of parliament. The University of Southampton pulled the plug on the three-day event citing health and safety concerns.

The debate's organizers, however, insisted that the local police had maintained it could control any protests and ensure the security of the event, and a petition to reinstate the conference received thousands of signatures. The High Court in London rejected an application by the organizers for a judicial review of the university's decision.

Canceling the conference, which the signatories stated would not have breached U.K. law in any way, was against academic freedoms and "intellectually lazy," the letter said.

Nixing the event "sets dangerous precedents," according to the letter. "In this instance, those precedents include legitimizing the interference and intervention of outside interest groups on campus; limiting academic debate; silencing critical voices; and setting the stage for further moves to boycott academic events and individuals. None of this is acceptable, and we feel we have a duty to stand up against this now."

They added that they were disappointed by university's decision. "We hope that the University realizes that the reported actions of some organizations in relation to this conference do not speak for all Jews, and that many of us - including those who disagree vehemently with the viewpoints of some of the conference presenters - are nevertheless dismayed by what had happened."

One of the signatories, Professor Geoffrey Alderman of the University of Buckingham, wrote in the Jewish Chronicle earlier this month that the cancellation was "an own goal" for Jews. Alderman, a historian who has specialised in England's Jewish community, lamented that he would not be able to attend the conference and make his argument for Israel's right to exist, because of "feverish lobbying by a miscellany of Jewish interests."

Other signatories include Israeli historian Professor Avi Shlaim and Dr Bernard Gowers of the University of Oxford, according to the blog of Dr Rebecca Steinfeld of the London School of Economics, another one of the signatories. 

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