Constructive engagement or supporting a ‘hatefest’?

Not everybody is impressed by a new “model” for conferences addressing controversial themes fashioned after outrage over an event about the Israel-Palestine conflict

September 27, 2015
Hands ripping up paper agreement

Criticism has greeted the agreement reached between the University of Exeter, the Jewish Leadership Council and Universities UK about a controversial conference on Israel.

The compromise will see the conference on Settler Colonialism in Palestine, which attracted considerable concern within the Jewish community, go ahead as planned from 3 to 4 October, although the JLC will be allowed to put forward two speakers to act as first respondents. This will now be followed up by a separate event – chaired by Exeter vice-chancellor Sir Steve Smith – where the Israel-Palestine conflict will be debated by people representing a wide spectrum of views.

Simon Johnson, chief executive officer of the JLC, praised the university for its constructive engagement and the compromise as “a good model for future discussions on conferences which may cause controversy”.

Yet one commentator on the JLC website described the event as “an Israel hatefest…Being ‘allowed’ to nominate two academics simply gives the hatefest a seal of approval”. Another argued that “simply by taking part we are endorsing the conference, which should be halted on academic grounds for its one-sided approach”.

Broader issues of academic freedom were raised by Geoffrey Alderman, professor of politics and contemporary history at the University of Buckingham.

“Provided a conference doesn’t advocate violence,” he said, “however odious I think it is, the greater principle is the right to espouse controversial opinions without fear. Their right to hold a conference critical of Israel is my right to hold a conference supporting Israel.” He was also “troubled by the imprimatur given to this bizarre arrangement by Universities UK and trumpeted as a model – I hope to God it isn’t a model”.

Even if the Jewish Leadership Council was contacted by Exeter, continued Professor Alderman, “it showed poor judgement for them to get involved”, since they were not an academic body and it could set a dangerous precedent.

Furthermore, the academics nominated by the JLC “are going to be regarded as lackeys, place persons of the JLC – they will go into the conference hall wearing the label of a stooge. I would be ashamed to attend an academic conference on that basis. I go to a conference as Professor Geoffrey Alderman, not as the nominee of any organisation.”

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