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.