Ken Loach backs controversial Israel conference

A conference on Israeli “exceptionalism” will go ahead in Ireland this spring, organizers insisted on Wednesday. Supporters of the event – organized by University College Cork academics – include Ken….

A conference on Israeli “exceptionalism” will go ahead in Ireland this spring, organizers insisted on Wednesday.

Supporters of the event – organized by University College Cork academics – include Ken Loach, director of the award-winning movie I, Daniel Blake, and Desmond Tutu, the South African archbishop.

The conference program was released this week. Richard Falk, a former UN special rapporteur on the occupied West Bank and Gaza, will give the keynote address.

Titled “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism,” the conference was initially scheduled to take place at the UK’s University of Southampton in 2015.

But it was banned in the UK two years running, after the university came under intense pressure from government ministers and Israel lobby groups.

James Bowen, a professor in University College Cork and an organizer of the conference, told The Electronic Intifada that a venue had been secured.

He said that reports in The Irish Times last month that the conference had been canceled or postponed were false. An article about the conference was later altered, and the word “cancels” was removed from the headline.

Other speakers scheduled to participate in panels include Israeli historian Ilan Pappe; Palestinian author Ghada Karmi; Hatem Bazian from the University of California, Berkeley; noted Palestinian cartographer Salman Abu-Sitta and Israeli human rights lawyer Leah Tsemel.

Many of the speakers, including Karmi and Pappe are noted supporters of a unitary democratic state for Palestinians and Israelis.

Academic freedom

But the conference will also feature pro-Israel speakers Geoffrey Alderman and Alan Johnson. Alderman is a hard-right Zionist historian, while Johnson is senior research fellow for an Israel lobby group, the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre.

Statements of support have been posted on the organizers’ website from Noam Chomsky, Desmond Tutu, philosopher Judith Butler, former British government minister Clare Short, journalist John Pilger, campaigning lawyer Michael Mansfield and film-maker Ken Loach.

“This conference is all the more urgent given that Israel has continually broken international law with impunity,” Loach wrote. “The attacks on universities who wished to hold this conference make it all the more imperative that it should take place. It is the job of universities to defend academic freedom.”

The Board of Deputies of British Jews led the 2015 charge to have the conference banned in Southampton, claiming it was “an international gathering of anti-Zionists who were using the cover of a distinguished university to promote their view.”

The director of research at the university’s school of law wrote at the time that the cancellation occurred because of “the bullying and threats of the Israeli lobby” and that the university’s capitulation was “outrageous.”

Pro-Israel lobbyists claimed responsibility for having the original conference canceled, with one telling The Jewish Chronicle that the “health and safety” justification was a pretext.

The University of Southampton has refused to release correspondence with pro-Israel groups and others regarding the conference requested under the Freedom of Information Act by The Electronic Intifada.

The university claimed that releasing documents, even redacted, to a publication based in the United States would breach data protection provisions in UK law.