Free speech or just abuse?

April 16, 2015

My friend Geoffrey Alderman and I agree on most things, but on the matter of his academic freedom and the mock-academic conference on Israel’s right to exist at the University of Southampton, I have to differ (“Calling off Israel event is setback for freedom”, Letters, 9 April).

I value academic freedom as highly as Alderman, and I have fought more than one battle in my life to defend it as a basic principle. But I chose not to offer a paper to the conference for several reasons, the first of which was my fear that, were I to present a paper in defence of Israel as a legal state, I might be subjected to verbal abuse from some of the participants.

At least 85 per cent of those people who would have been presenting papers were identified as political activists in the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. The title of the conference and the titles of many papers were clearly motivated by political concerns. I have never encountered a more politicised conference masquerading under an academic face in my life. BDS activists have a long-standing reputation for breaking up university lectures and cultural events, screaming, shouting, using megaphones and threatening speakers in many countries. They are a shameful bunch by any standards, who deny the right of free speech to those who disagree with them while wielding it for themselves at every turn. Given their proclivity to use harsh tactics against their opponents, I could not have been sure that any paper delivered by me would not have been received with mockery, sarcasm and abusive language. I am not as thick-skinned as Alderman and did not want to put myself through this. And as someone who has long defended academic standards, I was wary of contributing to a conference that was designed to attack a decent country using political methods.

As Michael Gove has said, “It was not a conference, it was an anti-Israel hate-fest.” No self-respecting academic should have considered participation in such an event.

Denis MacEoin
Distinguished senior fellow
The Gatestone Institute

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