By Canceling anti-Israel Conference, U.K. Jews Scored an Own Goal

Britain's Jewish community managed to turn an otherwise marginal event at a regional university into a freedom of speech issue that is going all the way up to the High Court.

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Pro-Israel activists in the United Kingdom are celebrating what they see as a rare success in their campaign against the “delegitimization” of Israel. Earlier this month, a conference at the University of Southampton that had sought to question Israel’s right to exist was cancelled. The institution cited “health and safety” concerns; the event had proved so divisive that it felt unable to guarantee the safety of all those concerned.

Critics of the conference were jubilant. But what Israel’s supposed defenders are hailing as a victory is both a tactical and a moral defeat.

They had pulled out all the stops in months of intense campaigning against the event, titled “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism.” An online petition calling for its cancellation gathered nearly 7,000 signatures; members of parliament were recruited to decry the conference, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center said the subject matter implied “a genocidal intent.” Anglo Jewry’s main representative body, the Board of Deputies, even sent a delegation to plead with university officials, with Board President Vivian Wineman warning it was “likely to result in an increase in anti-Semitism and tension on campus.”

All this won incredible publicity for an otherwise fringe event at a provincial university, whose organizers were rather hyperbolic to claim was “a ground-breaking historical event on the road towards justice."

The truth is that such exercises in legalese are pretty pointless, no matter which side they support. Who remembers 2012’s so-called Levy Report, from a committee headed by a former Israeli Supreme Court justice, which found that Israel’s presence in the West Bank was not occupation in any legal sense? Such endeavors play to a narrow, self-referential constituency, like the legal games that aim to demonstrate how the West Bank is “disputed,” rather than “occupied” territory.

Had the Southampton conference gone ahead, views would have been exchanged amid curling sandwiches and lukewarm coffee. There would have been the usual head-nodding rejection of apartheid and colonialism. Participants would have felt very clever, and then the matter would have been over with. Now, the issue has gone all the way to the High Court, which will review a legal challenge over the university’s decision. By trying to shut the conference down, the pro-Israel campaigners allowed the organizers to frame the issue as one of freedom of speech - and by succeeding in canceling the event, they truly made it one.

Fiona Sharpe of the Sussex Friends of Israel, a lobby group that was at the forefront of this campaign, strenuously denies this. “Certain forms of speech are incitement to racial hatred,” she told me. “It was clearly not an academic conference, which needs to have a balance of views.”

However, incitement to racial hatred is a legal offense, not a matter of opinion. I tried, but failed, to find a credible security source who believed that the discourse there might break the law; in any case, I was told, the police could easily deal with any potential threat. Similarly, security experts privately dismissed claims it would somehow lead to an upsurge of anti-Semitism.

As for balance, that’s for journalism - it just isn’t a criterion in an academic conference. The conference organizers did not pretend to be impartial, although they did issue the standard call for papers (at least one representative of a pro-Israel group - Alan Johnson from BICOM - responded and was put on a panel, but had to cancel for personal reasons).

Sharpe also argued that universities had a duty to be “safe spaces” for students, but are Jewish and Israeli undergraduates really too fragile to be confronted with views that might upset them?

Those celebrating the cancellation of the Southampton event seem oblivious to the irony that events featuring Israeli speakers at British universities are frequently cancelled due to the same claims of health and safety concern. Indeed, last August at Southampton, pro-Palestinian protestors managed to prevent a planned public talk by Professor Mark Auslender, a professor of engineering sciences at Ben-Gurion University, due to speak on optical sensor use in medicine. So while those who vociferously support an academic boycott of Israel are now loudly claiming their freedom of speech has been violated, those who rail against such boycotts have themselves shut down debate.

Anglo Jewry appears to have a reflexive need to fight defensive battles they can’t win, an automatic defense of Israel that seems to come from an entirely emotional place. Over and over again I was told how simply unfair, how horribly one-sided, the whole event was. While people blinded by passionate loyalty to Israel want to frame its legitimacy as outside the bounds of any reasonable discourse, they face a struggle, especially when Israel’s own prime minister rejects the right of a Palestinian state to exist.

This is not an issue that is going to go away. On both sides of this argument, people with political agendas do not make convincing freedom of speech campaigners.