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University of Southampton buckles under pressure over Israel conference

A conference at the University of Southampton on the right of Israel to exist has been cancelled and the organisers have accused the university authorities of bowing to pressure from supporters of Israel at the expense of free speech.

The conference, due to take place later this month, described itself as “unique because it concerns the legitimacy in international law of the Jewish state of Israel”, but Zionist critics condemned the conference as one-sided in the proposed discussions, which included Palestinian rights activists and Jewish opponents of Israel. Among the critics were the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Zionist Federation UK and a number of MPs, including the Tory communities secretary, Eric Pickles, who said there should be a platform for all sides, claiming that “the far-left’s bashing of Israel…often descends into naked anti-semitism”.

One of the organisers, Oren Ben-Dor, a professor of law and philosophy at the university, had been told by the university authorities that the conference would not be allowed because of ‘health and safety’ concerns, though a final decision had yet to be taken. The professor said: ” It is very clear that the health and safety issue was not serious. The real reason was political pressure. The controversial nature of the conference is precisely where (the principle of) freedom of speech leads – that’s where the commitment to freedom of speech is tested”. The professor, who grew up in Israel, but has denounced it as an “apartheid state” and voiced support for an academic boycott of the country said organisers were considering legal action, but would also consider an alternative venue.

The professor continued: “The notion of offence is not enough to consider something to be censored. Living in a free society means you should be able to hear something unpalatable to you.”

Others due to appear at the conference included Richard Falk, a Jewish American academic and former UN special rapporteur who once compared Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian Arabs to the Third Reich’s treatment of Jews.

In response, a spokesman for the university said: “The University of Southampton is in discussion with the organisers of the conference… about the possibility of withdrawing permission for the event to be held on campus. Any decision will be judged purely on considerations around the health and safety of our staff, students and the general public.”

You can read more about political forces running riot in the Middle East and the historical context of their modern-day form in this wide-ranging essay.