Monday 30 November 2015

Freedom of speech and antisemitism on Campus

Britain's Universities have a long standing commitment to freedom of speech within the law for their students, employees and visiting speakers. But what do we mean by freedom of speech? - Whose freedom? -Does one person's freedom of speech impinge on another person's freedom of expression? 

Last Thursday the House of Lords held a two hour debate on this very topic, freedom of speech in our universities.  The debate was initiated by  Baroness Deech  and the speakers included a number of a number of University professors and a former Secretary of State for Education. Although their discussions took a wide ranging approach to the current problems on campus, several speakers used the opportunity to highlight the problems facing Jewish students on campus and the academic boycott  Israel.

Over the years my freedom of speech has been threatened  several times and as a result I have had to deal with a great deal of criticism and harassment. It was therefore very pleasing to read Lord Leigh's positive comments about the Academic Friends of Israel in the Lord's debate. When talking about the conference at University of Southampton which questioned Israel’s right to exist he said:

..."the Academic Friends of refusing to call for the conference to be cancelled or even for balance to be added to the programme. Instead, they simply chose to exercise their own right to free speech, to publicly criticise the one-sided nature of the programme, and to expose the questionable biographies of some of the speakers." 

Opening the debate Baroness Deech said that:

"Free speech is under attack because of a widespread culture of victimisation and grievance. People are fearful of the consequences if they express unpopular views and so they stay silent. Academic freedom and freedom of speech are the poorer for it. There is a pincer movement between students blocking speech they disapprove of and the operation of the many laws imposed on universities to promote and control speech." 

She continued that although our Universities legally have to provide external speakers a platform:

"Extreme but lawful views should not be repressed but challenged. But extremist speakers are not being challenged because the students themselves are silencing the challengers."

She then had harsh words for the National Union of Students (NUS) which she said:

"have invented a safe space policy, the gist of which is that students should always feel, “comfortable and safe”. Any idea that has the potential to upset students or cause discomfort is seen as a problem. Some beliefs are branded as dangerous and to be repressed. So the protection of safety for some students means that others are labelled as dangerous and hateful. The NUS wants all campus speech to be empowering, non-judgmental and non-threatening. If it is not, it will be shouted down, obstructed or banned."

The main thrust of her argument was that there are many examples of students closing down academic freedom and that lecturers and the University managements are bowing to students’ whims. In particular she noted that:

"some Israeli or Jewish students do not get to enjoy the safe space that the NUS guarantees to others."

While Jewish students are being denied the right of reply we know that University authorities are failing to block or even question the suitability of extremist  speakers. StudentRights logged 132 of these events in 2012, 145 in 2013, and 123 in 2014. The speakers featured have suggested that there is a Western war against Islam; supported individuals convicted of terrorism offences; expressed intolerance of non-believers and minorities; and espoused religious law as a method of socio-political governance – opposing democracy in the process.

What has happened the concept of learning respect for other people’s views, even when one strongly disagrees with what is being said, why is this  principle no longer acceptable on campus?

To quote  David Cameron, our Prime Minister:

“It is absolutely right that in Britain's universities, students and faculty should be able to criticise Israel, just as they can criticise any country … But it is absolutely wrong that in any of our universities there should be an environment where students are scared to express their Judaism or their Zionism freely”.

This is not a new problem as back in 2008  the then Chief Rabbi,  Lord  Jonathan Sacks urged University Vice-Chancellors:

“to take greater action to defend Jewish students who are made to feel like pariahs on campuses around the UK.”  
Rather than things getting better things are worse as Britain's University campuses have become a breeding ground for contemporary antisemitism as some student societies who identify strongly with the Palestinian cause, express their opposition to Israel by using anti-Israel rhetoric which often invokes and perpetuates antisemitic tropes. Although they may not intend to be antisemitic, the effect of their rhetoric is often to harass those students who support Israel, many of whom happen to be Jewish and closes down debate.

The trend over the last 12 months has been for some anti-Israel speakers to make outrageous and unsubstantiated claims about Israel and Jews, some which cross the line into antisemitism yet when Israeli activists complain they are accused of attempting to shut down  discussion of Israel. Academic freedom on these terms is a one way street; it's okay for me to criticise Israel but it's not acceptable for you to defend the state. 

When the issue of antisemitism is raised, boycotters and anti-Zionists are inclined to respond  by accusing the person who raises the issue of antisemitism of doing so in bad faith, not because they are really concerned, but in a dishonest attempt to frighten people and stop them from criticising of Israel. This is known as the Livingstone Formulation.

One of the criticisms of the academic conferences at Exeter and  Southampton was that there was a lack of balance amongst the speakers. Although two pro-Israel activists were parachuted into Exeter, Universities do not have a legal obligation to provide balance at an academic conference. Although the authorities at Southampton were assured by the organisers  that it was going to be quality academic and balanced conference it turned out to be nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to give academic approval to the Palestinian narrative that the Jewish people have never had a connection with the land of Israel. That tenured academics could seriously suggest that the anti-Israel fest that was proposed had the credentials to be considered as a serious academic conference is a misuse of academic freedom.

Our Universities have a legal duty to take all reasonable steps to prevent campus rhetoric and freedom of speech not to be polluted by antisemitism. One of the problems  facing both Jewish students and University authorities is understanding when freedom of speech crosses the line into antisemitism? When does criticism of Israel cross the line into antisemitism

We all know when the line into antisemitism is crossed. The Community Security Trust, pro-Israel activists and the Jewish community all know but cannot agree on a definition. Ten years after its inception the EUMC working definition antisemitism may be the best that is available but unfortunately is not the answer.

Why is it so hard to convince people this latest form of antisemitism, a mixture anti-Zionism and anti-Israel sentiment is the real thing?  Why are  people, especially those on the Left not willing to accept our word for it when we tell them that they have crossed that line? Is it because it's not against the law to be an antisemite and there is no definition to stop them?

One of the irony's of campus life is that the National Union of Students (NUS), whose actions have created an environment of hostility and intimidation towards Jewish students by supporting BDS, adopted the EUMC definition of antisemitism at their 2007 Annual Conference and reaffirmed their support for it at their 2010 and 2013 Annual Conferences. At their  Conference in 2015, NUS pledged to fight antisemitism on campus. The reality is that it is a worthless pledge because NUS cannot on the one hand support BDS directed at Israel and on the other hand say this action is not directed at British Jews. The outpouring of hatred directed at British Jews over Israel's actions the 2014 Gaza war make a nonsense of this claim.

Trying to fight antisemitism on campus without the use of an accepted definition of modern antisemitism  only makes the job harder than it needs to be.

I would suggest that if Anglo-Jewry had a definition which it was comfortable with then the government, the media, the Universities and  the unions, would be aware what we consider to be modern antisemitism. We would then be entitled to say that if you cross that line and it must be reasonable for us to consider that you are an antisemite.

Since there isn't a consensus on what constitutes modern antisemitism how do we persuade University authorities what antisemitism is? In the meantime the anti-Israel activist will continue to say that I am not an antisemite because I say so, and I should know because I oppose antisemitism and I also know that anti-Zionism and anti-Israel sentiment are not antisemitic.

Dr. Ronnie Fraser


Academic Friends of Israel 

Monday 3 August 2015

Extremism leads to Terrorism.  Are Jewish schools exempt?

Recent press articles have equated Jewish schools with radical Muslim schools some of which promote segregation from the wider society. This is worrying but unsurprising.  About 18000 children aged 5 to 16, attend Jewish schools in the UK. The schools range from those who describe themselves as having a ‘Jewish Pluralist Ethos’ like JCOSS to Talmud Torah Tiferes Schlomoh which ‘has been branded a failing school by Ofsted, which judged it spends too much time teaching Jewish religious studies’ (Ham and High, 9 April 2015).

All  sensible  people would applaud the Government’s new, revised Prevent strategy on Extremism and Terrorism and would do whatever they can to support it.  Prevent concludes that extremism leads to terrorism.  We may think nothing like this would happen in our schools but recently in Israel an alleged ‘terrorist Jew’ fire bombed a Palestinian house in Duma killing a small child. It is too easy to say it simply would not happen in Britain. We cannot be complacent: firstly it might happen here, and secondly even if it doesn’t, our detractors are starting to tar us with the same brush as the Muslim extremists as was shown in a Sky News report on this subject last week by a National Secular Society spokesman 

Most of our Jewish schools strive to teach our children the value of tolerance and respect for the wider community, indeed in many Jewish schools there are non-Jewish students learning alongside the Jewish students in harmony and respect.  However the Prevent strategy has gathered evidence which shows worryingly a different picture both globally and in the UK:

‘There have been allegations that a minority of independent faith schools have been actively promoting views that are contrary to British values, such as intolerance of other cultures and gender inequality. There have also been reports that some independent faith schools have allowed extremist views to be expressed by staff, visitors or pupils..’ ( Prevent Strategy Review 10.32)

Can we in the Anglo Jewish community be certain that this does not apply to any of our independent faith schools?

The problems begins to  arise in those Jewish schools, some of which are state funded, which do not wish to teach the children to mix with the general population, often insultingly referred to as ‘goyim’. Their curriculum is limited, not including for example sex education, or Science, Music or Art in full. The School’s view is these subjects are not deemed suitable or necessary for its children. The result is that children in these schools are not being exposed to British society. Would it not be better for the children from these so called ultra-orthodox schools to be taught about all that society can offer and then educated,  having that knowledge, that as Jews they need to be circumspect as to how much it is proper for them to avail themselves of?

What is required is a dialogue with the Rabbis who run these schools, explaining just how dangerous and potentially disastrous this blinkered approach could be. Isn’t there a profound risk that extremism in the Jewish world will turn into terrorism, and then fuelled by media reports, become anti Semitism?

Our non-Jewish friends may believe us when we tell them that it is only a minority of schools who act in this way. However the figures show that as much as one in four of the 10000 primary school children in Jewish school do in fact go to schools which the majority of Anglo Jewry would consider right wing; the schools with these limited curriculums are thus failing to teach pupils all that society can offer.

Indeed such is the concern in the wider community that  the  Government’s Chief inspector of schools has only this week said that he will ensure that all schools teach the importance of British values as a “top priority” and he referred specifically to those with a large  Jewish and Muslim intake. 

We need to face up to the potential dangers and help ourselves.

Lola Fraser

Academic Friends of Israel

Thursday 9 July 2015

Pro-BDS does not mean Pro-Palestinian

The international Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) movement directed at Israel has probably found more support in Britain than in any other Western democratic society. Directed at Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, BDS is in effect antisemitic, even if that is not the intention.  The long term aim of the BDS  campaign is the replacement of the Jewish  state with a Palestinian one.  They are no different in this respect to the Arab nations who have always been unwilling to accept a Jewish presence in the region.

Since 2002 British activists have been party to this aim by initiating calls for academic, trade union, media, medical, architectural, and cultural boycotts of Israel. Britain's trade union movement which is mainly controlled by the Left, works closely with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and is a key member of their  British BDS campaign. Unions which are affiliated to and fund the PSC include Unite, Unison, the GMB, the RMT, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the UCU. The NUT is just one of several British unions using their considerable influence in the global labour movement to persuade unions in Europe and around the world  to adopt BDS. As a result relations between the largest British unions and their Israeli counterparts are probably now at their lowest point for many years because of British support for the Palestinians. 

It therefore came as a nice surprise to hear that a delegation from the Israeli union for government employees, which is part of the Histadrut,  paid a short visit to Britain at the end of June and met with the TUC  as well as their opposite numbers in the First Division Association, the union for senior civil servants. Unfortunately a meeting with the GMB had to be cancelled at the last minute. The outcome I am told was good and further visits and meetings  and now planned both in UK and Israel.

Visits such this are very unusual nowadays because of the anti-Israel stance of the British unions, yet it in the late 1960s and early 1970s it was commonplace for union delegations to visit Israel and their Israeli counterparts to travel to Britain every couple of  months.  Leading Left wingers of the time, Franks Cousins and Len Jones along with TUC General Secretary Len Murray all believed that the role of the British trade unions was to help the peace process by building relationships between the Israeli and Palestinian trade unions and not just support one side against the other as is the case today. Although the TUC is affiliated to the PSC and supports the boycott of Israeli settlement goods it is committed to a two-state solution with an independent Palestinian state living side by side with a secure Israel .

Britain's two largest unions Unite and Unison were also invited to meet the Israelis. Since they both have a long history of anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian rhetoric and  conference resolutions condemning Israel their failure to reply to the invitation may have been more than just an administrative oversight. Maybe they value their support for BDS and the PSC more than they do for the opportunity for dialogue to try and help build links between Palestinian trade unionists and Israelis?. Unison proudly says it "has been campaigning in solidarity with the Palestinian people for over 20 years", so unless there is a genuine reason for missing an opportunity for dialogue  it makes a makes a nonsense of Unison's claims  to help the Palestinians.

If Unite and Unison don't want to talk to Israelis then they should  talk to Palestinians like Bassem Eid instead rather than blindly follow the edicts of the PSC. Eid wrote in an article for the Washington Institute:
..."BDS spokespeople justify calling for boycotts that will result in increased economic hardships for the Palestinians by asserting that Palestinians are willing to suffer such deprivations in order to achieve their freedom. It goes without saying that they themselves live in comfortable circumstances elsewhere in the world and will not suffer any such hardship. It would seem, in fact, that the BDS movement in its determination to oppose Israel is prepared to fight to the last drop of Palestinian blood...."

Where is the evidence that pro-Palestinian campaigners such as the PSC, UNISON or any of the unions done anything to help improve the lives of ordinary Palestinians?  There seems to be plenty of anti-Israel rhetoric and talk of solidarity but very little else. British trade unions like Unite and Unison and the UCU appear to focus on the conflict in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine almost to the exclusion of other international issues. Over the last ten years this has involved all them in considerable costs in terms of money and resources, yet none appear to be directly involved in any aid or training programmes for Palestinians run by international trade union bodies such as the ITUC. Their support for the PSC appears to be more about the political ideology of the Far Left who want to destroy Israel than it is about helping the Palestinians.

So let's change the narrative and help the Palestinians ourselves and the first thing we can do is to ask the unions to show us exactly how all the thousands of pounds they have spent on BDS has helped the Palestinians in any material way whatsoever - pity the Palestinians - pity the poor union members whose money is being squandered on Israel hate rather than Palestinian humanitarian aid. Our second move has to be to label BDS supporters as anti-Israeli rather than pro-Palestinian.

Ronnie Fraser

Academic Friends of Israel

Saturday 6 June 2015

BDS derailed?

According to the press last week was a good one for the Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions movement (BDS) with headlines such as, "Netanyahu condemns UK students over pro-boycott vote" and "Fury as NUS leaders vote to boycottIsrael".  But if you look behind the headlines, the last two weeks have not turned out as well as the BDS movement would have expected and the options open to them are severely limited in terms of implementing the motion.

The BDS movement's joy with the students pro-boycott vote was short lived because within 24 hours of the national executive of the National Union of Students(NUS) voting to affiliate to the BDS movement, Universities UK, the umbrella body for Britain's Universities, reaffirmed its opposition to an academicboycott of Israel. What is the point of a student union now asking their University's Vice-Chancellor to support a boycott of Israel when they know what the answer will be? On top of this setback two weeks ago Britain's University lecturers trade union, the UCU Congress debated and voted for a BDS resolution only to hear the motion declared "void and of null effect."  The BDS movement will no doubt claim both the UCU and NUS votes as successes and ignore Universities UK .

Since 2003, the UCU has been trying to implement what they now call a "general pro-boycott policy directed at Israeli products and institutions, including academic institutions. " Every time they have tried to do this they have been unable to do so  because it would pose “a serious risk of infringing discrimination legislation".

The boycotters intention this time was that all UCU members would be sent "a dedicated e-mail, reminding them of (the UCU's) policy on Israel, and with a link to the PACBI (Palestinian BDS) guidelines and any misrepresentations of UCU's policy (would) be corrected publicly.” If the UCU had gone ahead and sent out such an email they would have been in breach of the legal advice they received in 2007 in which Counsel advised that: 
“It would be beyond the Union's powers and unlawful for the Union, directly or indirectly to call for or to implement a boycott by the Union and its members of any kind of Israeli universities and other academic institutions; and that the use of Union funds directly or indirectly to further such a boycott would also be unlawful."

That the motion was declared "void and of null effect" begs the question does the UCU actually have a policy supporting BDS? I would suggest not as they are  effectively neutered since the UCU cannot directly or indirectly campaign for BDS. In addition union officials such as the General Secretary cannot speak in favour of BDS when they represent the union at International bodies or rallies because to do so would leave the union in breach of their legal advice and infringe Britain's equality and discrimination legislation.

The NUS"Solidarity with Palestine" motion was passed by the NUS’s national executive committee by 19 votes to 14, a move which committed the union to affiliate to the BDS movement. The Union of Jewish Students (UJS) said that the decision  “undermines interfaith relations and suffocates progressive voices for peace on both sides”. NUS deputy vice-president, Joe Vinson  tweeted after the vote that “antisemitism is like a virus, it mutates and infects everything it touches. It's mutated into BDS and NUS is infected”.

NUS now finds itself in a similar position to the UCU and cannot actively campaign for BDS because of constitutional restraints. The motion confirms this point as it asks NUS "to develop legal advice for unions adopting BDS to defend their democratic decisions from attacks." This time, the options open to the boycotters to implement BDS in Britain are limited  and we have to be thankful for Britain's discrimination laws for not allowing them their head.

The fact that the UCU or the NUS are willing to support BDS and ignore our Universities legal duty to eliminate harassment and foster good relations between persons of different nationalities, ethnicities and religions shows what sort a society we now live in. Is it any wonder that our University campuses tend to be a breeding ground for contemporary anti-Semitism as the anti-Israel rhetoric used by pro-Palestinian supporters often invokes and perpetuates anti-Semitic tropes?  NUS  should be listening not only to the concerns of UJS about the effect on Jewish students but also their own members such as the University of Southampton Students Union who expressed real concern over escalated tension and division between student groups at the University as the result of the build up to the anti-Israel conference that was due to be held there  last April. 

Ronnie Fraser


Academic Friends of Israel

Monday 4 May 2015

The Academic Friends of Israel

Why do only 259 people "like" the Board of Deputies of British Jews?

With over 75% of the internet population in America on Facebook, social media is becoming more  and more influential in shaping opinions throughout the world and especially about Israel.  Social media also takes up a lot of one's time, as some of us are constantly checking  Facebook and Twitter for the latest news.

Later this month the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BOD) will elect a new President. The role of the Board of Deputies, which was established in 1760, is to protect Jewish life in Great Britain.  To maintain its position as the leading representative body for Anglo-Jewry, the Board of Deputies has like everyone else a website, a Facebook page and a Twitter account.  Last summer's fighting in Gaza between Israel and Hamas war highlighted how powerful a propaganda tool social media had become. For example the posting  by Amnesty International UK  "Gaza : Stop the arms, Stop the killing " had  32,000 "likes" and 13,500 retweets.  At the time I thought, "Wow, with all those retweets and "likes"  this certainly gets your message out there."  

With this in mind I looked at the number of "likes" on the Facebook pages for a selection of both pro-Israel and Pro-Palestinian  organisations. The results of my survey are certainly not a foolproof guide to their popularity and reach, as one can "like" more than one organisation and the figures can be massaged.

The number of "likes" are important because if you go to a Facebook page looking for information, a large number of "likes" could influence whether you accept or not the information displayed on the page as correct.

If  you or your organisation have a large number of "likes" you can be a force to be reckoned with. On the other hand if the number of "likes" on your page is minimal you are in trouble especially if you are a large organisation.

This is what I found, it's not a complete survey but it raises a number of questions.(figures downloaded on 26 April 2015)

Pro-Palestinian organisations

Palestine Solidarity Campaign                   397,000 "likes"   
The Stop the War  campaign                     112,000 "likes"
Friends of Al Aqsa                                      351,000 "likes"
War on Want                                                29,000 "likes "

Pro-Israel organisations

Sussex Friends Of Israel                             14,500 "likes" 
Campaign Against antisemitism                   7,100  "likes"
Zionist Federation                                        2,000  "likes"
Jewish Leadership Council                             422 "likes"
The Board of Deputies of British Jews            259 "likes"

My first reaction to these figures was to question whether the figures for both the pro-Palestinian and the Anglo-Jewish organisations are genuine, as there is such a disparity between the two.  Could it be true that only 259 people "like" the Board of Deputies  and that the number of people who "like" the Palestine Solidarity Campaign  (PSC) are  more than the total number of Jews in Britain. Then I looked again at Amnesty International UK and found that they only have  235,728  "likes". This poses the question are the PSC's figures genuine or not? Is it realistic to say that they have more supporters and reach than Amnesty International UK ? If these figures are correct and the PSC has more support than Amnesty International  then we are in serious trouble- who is responsible for dealing with this? Who should? Are the people who "like" them mainly Muslims or the general public? I am no lover of Amnesty International but what does this say about British society today?

According to the PSC annual review, "The number of people ‘linking’ PSC on Facebook rose from 60,000 before summer with 18.6 million people being reached in one week alone." Was increase in the number of "likes" solely the result of the Gaza war? If you wanted information about Israel and the war last year you didn't go to the Board of Deputies website but elsewhere.

Are the  259 "likes" for the Board of Deputies a reflection of them being out of touch with Anglo Jewry and social media?  The  Jewish community certainly thought last summer that the BOD did very little to support them and Israel. Why do the Sussex Friends of Israel, have more "likes" than the rest of the community organisations combined? Why is it pro-Israel grassroots  groups such as  Sussex Friends Of Israel and the Campaign Against Antisemitism, both of whom stepped up to the plate last summer when the leaders of Anglo Jewry dithered,  have a significant presence on the Facebook  and Twitter and are able to react to events with direct action?

Consider this, 2,378 people like the Facebook page of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. That's  nearly ten times as many as the UK in a country with only 70,000 Jews  as compared to 280,000 in Britain. 

When it comes to Twitter,  Anglo-Jewry seems to have got their act together a lot better, the PSC has 20,000 followers, the BOD 6000, the JLC 4000 and the Sussex Friends of Israel 8300. 

How is it that the BOD can have 6000 followers on Twitter and only 259 "likes" on Facebook, it doesn't make sense? What I do know is that Facebook and Twitter are very powerful tools when it comes to getting your message across and standing up for Israel. Could it be something to do with the fact that the BOD's primary role is to defend the rights of the Anglo-Jewry and Israel comes a poor second?  They need to acknowledge that the two are inextricably entwined. Maybe they also need a better understanding of how social media works and the need to react immediately?  Whatever the reason the new President of the Board of Deputies will have his or her work cut out to ensure the BOD more actively supports Israel  on social media when the next conflict erupts and they need more than 259 people  to "like" the Board's Facebook page.

Ronnie Fraser
Academic Friends of Israel

Monday 13 April 2015

The Academic Friends of Israel

History shows that to do nothing leaves us vulnerable 

I have heard the argument many times that by opposing anti-Israel events on campus that all one is doing is giving publicity to  pro-Palestinian marginal fringe events.  Are the many attempts to implement an academic boycott of Israel made by my trade union, the UCU, which myself and fellow trade unionists opposed, marginal events that we should not have bothered about. Was it wrong to  oppose the UCU's decision to dissociate itself from the EUMC working definition of  antisemitism ? I still hear it said that I was wrong to take the UCU to court  for alleged institutional Antisemitism, yet those same voices were silent at the time. It's always a judgement call between choosing which issues to oppose in a big way and  those to ignore.  I would hope we get it right more often than we get it wrong. Victories are rare and should be celebrated regardless of how they are achieved.

One thing is certain with the Jewish community, that in spite of what happens regardless of the outcome you will get criticised after the event for your actions by people who kept quiet when the battle was taking place. A prime example of what I mean is happened this last week after the Southampton University cancelled their law conference to discuss Israel's legal and moral right to exist.

Instead of celebrating a victory, we have been accused  by critics who were silent  when the campaign  was underway of scoring an own goal by asking for the event to be cancelled; that freedom of speech is double-edged sword that can  be used against us in the future.

To those to whom this was a marginal event and should have been ignored, I say you don't truly understand what this event was all about and why it was so vigorously opposed. The conference was planned as an anti-Israel, anti-Zionist BDS event masquerading as a serious academic conference and was nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to give academic approval to the Palestinian narrative that the Jewish people have never had a connection with the land of Israel.

The organisers, Southampton Law Professor Oren Ben-Dor and Professor George Bisharat from the University of California, are both committed to the delegitimisation of the State of Israel. Not only does it appear that Ben-Dor ,an anti- Zionist Israeli, used the law department at Southampton to promote his own view; the elimination of Israel, but by dedicating  the conference to a Palestinian international lawyer Henry Cattan, who himself did not accept the existence of the Jewish state,  Ben Dor  was hoping that by publishing the book of its proceedings and using Southampton University's good name and reputation he would have a seminal work to give credibility to aims of the conference to delegitimise the State of Israel.

What many people have overlooked or maybe didn't even know is the long standing connections that Anglo-Jewry has with Southampton University and the Parkes Institute which in itself is sufficient reason to oppose the conference. The archives of the Institute contain sections dealing with Antisemitism, the Holocaust, Zionism and  the foundation of the State of Israel  as well as the papers of former Chief Rabbis and Jewish communal organisations. The Parkes Institute was established  by the Reverend Dr James Parkes who campaigned against all forms of antisemitism during the 1930s and on behalf of the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust. That a conference calling for the delegitimisation of the Jewish state was to be held on the same campus as the Parkes Institute that was established to oppose antisemitism is an insult to the work of the Institute, Anglo-Jewry and those who died in the Holocaust.

Freedom of speech is another matter and cannot be dismissed in a few lines. The University of Southampton, in this instance, thought that freedom of speech trumped its duty of care to provide a hostile-free environment for both Jewish students and Jewish members of staff. The aim of BDS is to create worldwide solidarity against Israel which includes silencing Israeli speakers and supporters on campus. This is nothing new as the tactic of attempting to disrupt campus events which include Israeli speakers in order to get them cancelled has already been used many times. Yes,  we complain about the infringement of our freedom of speech but from now on I would hope Universities  will learn from what has happened at Southampton when asked in future to host an Israel/ Palestine event or conference. Southampton's procedure for due diligence does not appear to have been sufficiently robust. 

The 'call for papers' for the conference was written in such a way as to deter academics who support Israel from presenting a paper at the conference. While a 'call for papers' itself  does not have to be written in completely neutral language, it should at the very least invite and encourage dissenting papers. But this call was written in a way that by its very terms precluded the possibility of a dissenting voice.

Southampton has a duty of care under the law to secure freedom of speech on campus .By making a prejudiced 'Call for Papers' qualified people were prevented from presenting papers  which under these circumstances could be considered in breach of the right of freedom of speech.

Why did nobody at Southampton question or realise that the true purpose of this conference was  the delegitimisation of the State of Israel? One reason could be that there has been a general acceptance of the language of delegitimisation in every day discourse so that those senior academics who approve such conferences and know nothing about the Israel -Palestine conflict or the issues surrounding the way Israel is criticised and see nothing untoward.

Academics are supposed to be intelligent people  yet I despair when they hide behind the shield of "freedom of speech" or "academic freedom" saying it's their right to say what they like even when they say something offensive. But when I respond and say that as a Jew I find what has been said is offensive I am told I am wrong or I am using Antisemitism to close down the debate.  Where is my "freedom of speech"?  It is my right as a Zionist and a Jew to say "I find the discussion of Israel's right to exist at this conference anti-Zionist and Antisemitic."  

History shows us that to do nothing as the critics suggest  leaves us vulnerable and  will not affect the final outcome. Consider the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 or  the pogroms in Russia in the 1880s or what happened in Germany before the Holocaust. What I know from my thirteen years experience gained campaigning against BDS and antisemitism on campus is that if you choose your battles and build a strong determined campaign, the opposition will either move onto a softer target or act in a more measured way.

Thursday 2 April 2015

The Academic Friends of Israel

Statement from the Academic Friends of Israel regarding the conference at Southampton University
The Academic Friends of Israel are very pleased  that Southampton University has withdrawn its permission for the International Law and the State of Israel Conference to take place on its campus.
Their decision was the result of the University coming under increasing pressure over the last month from politicians, the leaders of the Jewish community, grass roots activists, funders and the general public, all of whom were seeking to have this conference either moved or cancelled.
This event was promoted by an anti-Zionist, Israeli Jew whose aim is the elimination of the State of Israel.  He intended  it to be a three day conference of like minded anti-Israel activists with only a token pro-Israel representation, masquerading as a serious academic conference. The reality was that it was nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to give academic approval to the Palestinian narrative that the Jewish people have never had a connection with the land of Israel.
In deference to the principle of freedom of speech, we did not call for the cancellation of the conference  nor for a more balanced program. All we asked for was that the University of Southampton have the conference relocated from its premises so that the University and the Parkes Institute can regain their credibility  and reputation and not appear  to give their approval to Antisemitism.
This win was achieved not only because of the fantastic support received both from the UK and abroad but also because the Jewish community worked together in this  campaign.  In particular we would like to give a big thank you to the 4000+ supporters who signed our petition.
This is a victory for common sense. 

Tuesday 24 March 2015

The Academic Friends of Israel

Please sign the petition opposing the 'Antisemitic' Israel conference at Southampton University

Southampton University, one of 24 members of the British Russell Group of Institutions which have distinguished themselves as research-led universities of international quality  is to hold a conference on the 17-19 April 2015 questioning both the legal and moral right of the state of Israel to exist.

The conference "International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy,Responsibility and Exceptionalism" is described by the organisers as “the first of its kind and constitutes a ground-breaking historical event ... it is unique because it concerns the legitimacy in international law of the Jewish State of Israel.” 

The event will be addressed by over 80 academics from Universities around the world, including the USA, Britain, Australia and Israel. The organisers, who include Southampton law professor Oren Ben-Dor and George Bisharat, professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law;  have said that the conference will “engage controversial questions concerning the manner of Israel’s foundation and its nature, including ongoing forced displacements of Palestinians and associated injustices.” Ben-Dor and Bisharat have committed themselves in the past to the delegitimisation of the State of Israel and its replacement with a Palestinian State.

The majority of speakers at this one-sided conference support a boycott of Israel include Richard Falk, the former United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories and  anti-Zionist Israeli academic Ilan Pappe.  

Criticising Israeli policies is acceptable in debate, but denying its right to exist veers into Antisemitism.  As French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared: “Antisemitism, this old European disease…hides itself behind a fake anti-Zionism.”  It discriminates against the Jewish people, denying them the right to self-determination which is enshrined in international law. Such historic prejudice lies behind much BDS activity.

In deference to the principle of freedom of speech, The Academic Friends of Israel are not calling for cancellation of the conference.  Nor are we calling for a more balanced program. Such bigotry cannot be balanced.

Please sign our petition which calls on the University of Southampton to distance itself from the upcoming conference by removing it from campus, in order to avoid giving the event credibility and official approval to bigotry and Antisemitism.