Conference postponement : Statement by the orgarisers (April, 14, 2015)
BRICUP Media Release – Monday 6th April 2015
- Southampton University’s conference cancellation violates its commitment to uphold academic freedom
- ‘Health and Safety’ concern is offered as an excuse for caving in to external pressure
- Zionist groups boast of having forced the cancellation
- Conservative MPs, Cabinet Ministers and the UK’s ambassador to Israel all exerted pressure
- Legal action is being taken against the university
- BRICUP slates the move as an act of political censorship
The cancellation by the Vice Chancellor of the University of Southampton of a planned academic conference on Israel just days before it was due to take place is unprecedented. The conference on International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism, organised by two of its professors, was due to be held at the university on April 17-19. 52 speakers from 11 countries are on the programme. The conference organisers issued an open call for papers, and the programme features internationally celebrated speakers.
The British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP) has issued a statement condemning the University for allowing political pressure to determine its academic activities. This contradicts its own statutes. (See Note 4 for Statement.) Professor Jonathan Rosenhead Chair of BRICUP said “In living memory no academic conference at a UK university has been cancelled due to external political pressure. Not only pro-Israel lobby groups but also Conservative MPs and even Cabinet Ministers Eric Pickles and Michael Gove have been making outrageous allegations about antisemitism and ‘hate-fests’ without bothering to contact the organisers of the conference to seek their account of the purpose and organisation of the conference . Southampton’s decision sets an atrocious precedent that must be reversed. If not it deserves to be treated as a pariah by the rest of the academic community.”
The Vice-Chancellor Professor Don Nutbeam has claimed health and safety concerns as the reason for cancellation, citing the risk of violent clashes between demonstrators. (See Note 1.) But police expressed confidence in their ability to maintain order. Zionist groups have claimed that the Health and Safety claim is a figleaf to conceal the University’s capitulation to their demands. (See Note 2.)
Conference organisers, Professors Oren Ben-Dor and Suleiman Sharkh of Southampton University, are seeking a judicial review of the decision, and a court hearing is expected tomorrow or Wednesday.
British Committee for the Universities of Palestine – BRICUP
NOTES FOR EDITORS
– 1. The University’s statement
The university statement attempting to justify the cancellation of the Conference on grounds of ‘health and safety’ is here
– 2. Zionist pressure and its effects
In a remarkable precedent the UK’s ambassador to Israel joined with Jewish community representatives to lobby Universities UK to get the conference cancelled
Several public statements have been made which proudly claim that pressure from pro-Israeli organisations, not fear of uncontrollable disorder, was the reason for the University’s decision.
a) Jewish Chronicle online, 31 March 2015
University of Southampton officials are discussing whether to cancel the anti-Israel conference to be held on its campus later this month. A university spokesperson confirmed on Tuesday that talks over the fate of the conference were taking place. The move follows the release of a statement from the event’s organisers claiming the university was planning to withdraw over health and safety issues. In a statement it said: “The University of Southampton is in discussion with the organisers of the conference ‘International Law and the State of Israel’ about the possibility of withdrawing permission for the event to be held on campus. However, this review process is still ongoing. Any decision will be judged purely on considerations around the health and safety of our staff, students and for the general public.” The spokesperson said a final decision was not expected until Wednesday at the earliest. Board of Deputies president Vivian Wineman said: “When we had a meeting with the university vice-chancellor they said they would review it on health and safety terms. “The two lines of attack possible were legal and health and safety and they were leaning on that one.”
b) Jewish Chronicle, 2 April 2015
“. . . However Fiona Sharpe from Sussex Friends of Israel, the grassroots group which was planning to demonstrate outside the conference, said she had been in close contact with the police over the protest and that no concerns had been raised.
She said: “Sussex Friends of Israel are very pleased with the decision made by the University of Southampton to withdraw permission for the International Law and the State of Israel Conference to take place on its campus.
“At no time did the police express any concern regarding our demonstration and were quite happy to facilitate our legal right. We are aware however, that there were other groups who were planning to protest on a separate date and also those planning a counter-protest to ours.
“While we understand the position of the University in basing their decision on health and safety, we fully reject any implication or suggestion that the demonstration being organised by us gave rise to concerns regarding public disorder. At no point was this ever raised by the police with us.
“We would remind people that over that last number of weeks, the university has come under increasing pressure from politicians, community leaders, public opinion and funders, all seeking to have this conference moved. The reputation and good name of the university was clearly being damaged.”
c) Zionist Federation Weekly Update, 2 April 2015
The ZF put significant effort into raising awareness about the conference, including promoting a petition that gained over 6,500 signatures. The weeks of campaigning were mirrored and supported by a broad coalition of Jewish communal organisations, each of whom played a significant role in putting pressure on the university. While the official statement cites concerns about public protests, we believe that the negative publicity prompted by the campaigning played a significant role in the university’s decision. We’d like to thank everyone who signed and shared our petition, and all the groups and individuals who raised their concerns about this event.
– 3. The Conference organisers’ statement
The organisers have contested the University’s account of the cancellation in all respects, and call for the Conference’s reinstatement.
– 4. BRICUP Statement
Pro-Israeli organisations deal unprecedented blow to British freedoms
The Vice-Chancellor of Southampton University has cancelled a major academic conference just days before it was scheduled to take place: a decision without precedent in British higher education. The conference, on International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism, was to be held on campus on 17-19 April with 53 scholars and practitioners from 11 countries due to speak. However on 30 March Professor Don Nutbeam, the Vice-Chancellor, announced his decision to cancel the conference on grounds of ‘health and safety’, citing the risk of violent clashes between opponents and supporters of the conference. Hampshire police, who submitted a risk assessment to the University, have not backed up this assertion. “[I]t’s very much a university decision … the decision to cancel the event is definitely the university’s decision”, a spokesperson affirmed on 3 April. The organisers of the conference, who include two senior members of the faculty, have gone to court to seek a judicial review of the Vice-Chancellor’s decision. What is not in doubt is that the University has come under intense pressure to cancel the conference from both pro-Israel organisations and Conservative members of parliament, including the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles.
Pickles’ intervention is as confused as it is alarming. Thus he muddles criticism of Israel with antisemitism, when he lectures Southampton University on the need to respect “people’s right to freedom of religion”. He also warned the University against “allowing a one-sided diatribe.” This shows a deep misunderstanding of academia. Academic events are not required to balance the views of speakers, whether on scientific topics such as climate change, or on political topics such as FGM, Iran’s access to nuclear power, or the future of the Crimea. The conference organisers issued an open call for papers in order to secure qualified speakers regardless of their political views. Far from seeking to organise an “anti-Israel hate-fest”, as Chief Whip Michael Gove put it , the University itself affirms that it has been “impressed by the commitment of the organisers to include a broad spectrum of views”. This readiness of politicians to tell a British university how it should organise its academic debates is extremely disturbing.
These interventions are doubly suspect since they have operated in lock-step with active interference by pro-Israel organisations, which have once again sought to suppress free speech and free assembly wherever Israeli policies and actions are likely to be questioned. The Zionist Federation of Great Britain acknowledges that it devoted “weeks of campaigning … mirrored and supported by a broad coalition of Jewish communal organisations, each of whom played a significant role in putting pressure on the university.” It actually credits them with persuading the university to cancel the conference: “While the official statement cites concerns about public protests, we believe that the negative publicity prompted by the campaigning played a significant role in the university’s decision.” (Zionist Federation Weekly Update, 2 April 2015)
So too does Vivian Wineman, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who told the Jewish Chronicle, “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”. If Mr Wineman is to be believed, the vice-chancellor’s use of ‘health and safety’ grounds was merely a pretext for his decision to cancel the conference which he took for other reasons.
Whatever the truth, it is becoming starkly clear that the actions of the pro-Israel lobby in the UK are now calling into question both the British tradition of non-interference in university affairs, and even the principles of free speech and free assembly.