UCC conference on Israel sparks row with Israeli embassy

Plans to hold similar conference at UK university were cancelled over ‘safety concerns’

An academic conference due to be held at University College Cork which will debate the legal legitimacy of Israel has sparked a major row involving the Israeli embassy and Jewish lobby groups.

Plans to hold a similar conference in a British university just over a year ago were cancelled on “safety grounds” in the face of opposition from a range of lobby groups.

Organisers of the conference say they are standing up against the “chilling repression of academic freedom” in the United Kingdom and that Ireland is a safer location due to its “different political culture”.

The conference, called International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism, will feature speakers on various sides of the debate.

Critics – including Jewish lobby groups and some UK cabinet ministers – criticised a previous attempt to host the conference at Southampton University as an “anti-Israeli hate-fest”.

In a statement, the Israeli embassy in Dublin said it was “deeply concerned” over the latest plans and claimed activists were seeking to promote an “unbalanced agenda within academic institutions, that seeks to demonise and deligitimise Israel”.

It added: “The prejudiced approach of such ‘activists’ serves only to propagate hatred of the state of Israel and its people. It is incompatible with the values of democracy and goes against the essence of academic discussion.”

One of the organisers, UCC professor James Bowen, said the embassy’s reaction indicated a fear of any examination of how the Israeli state conforms to international law.

No approval

“Fearful of any debate on the issue, the Israeli lobby tries to prevent pro-Israel speakers from participating in such events,” he said.

Prof Bowen said one of the pro-Israel speakers – British Jewish academic Prof Geoffrey Alderman – was very pleased the conference was going ahead in Ireland.

Prof Alderman is due to deliver a paper titled: “Jews, Judaism and the Jewish state: ethnic rights and international wrongs”.

UCC, however, said in a statement to The Irish Times that it had not yet issued approval for the conference.

“The university management has issued no approval for the event, has sought information on the details of the proposed conference from the organisers and will determine its position following appropriate consideration.”

Prof Bowen said it was important to defend academic freedom, especially in the face of pressure from governments with a “vested interest in preventing examination of uncomfortable issues”.

Conference organisers include Israel-born law professor Oren Ben-Dor and Prof Suleiman Sharkh, who grew up in Gaza.