U.K. University Cancels Conference Debating Israel's Right to Exist

Conference organizers accuse the University of Southampton of giving in to pressure and violating the principle of free speech.

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A conference on Israel's right to exist has been cancelled by the University of Southampton due to health and safety concerns, the Guardian reported on Tuesday.

News of the cancellation by the university, which was due to host the event, was announced by one of the organizers, law and philosophy professor Oren Ben-Dor, a former Israeli.

The university acknowledged that it was considering cancelling the event but said no final decision had been taken.

Ben-Dor accused the university of bowing to pressure at the expense of free speech. “It’s clear that security is a fig-leaf to stop the conference," he said. "It’s ridiculous to say they cannot ensure the safety of the participants.”

Due to take place in May, the conference was promoted as a unique event "because it concerns the legitimacy in international law of the Jewish state of Israel.”

Critics, however, denounced it as one-sided. 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.

Ben-Dor, who organised the conference with Prof George Bisharat, from University of California Hastings College of the Law and Southampton University engineering professor Suleiman Sharkh, said the organizers were considering legal action against the university but would also consider finding an alternative venue.

About 150 people had signed up to attend, though Ben-Dor said he was expecting up to 300.

Several pro-Israel academics had been invited to speak at the conference but had declined, he said.

According to an online petition against the cancellation, "To cancel the conference on such grounds shows weakness in the face of external pressure and bullying, and calls into question the University of Southampton's commitment not only to academia and the professional activities of its own scholars, but also to the precious tradition of free speech itself."