The University of Exeter has negotiated a compromise deal over a conference that has been criticised by the Jewish community
Settler Colonialism in Palestine, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, is due to take place on 3-4 October. Vice-chancellor and chief executive Sir Steve Smith said that when the event was announced on the university website, “we got some fierce letters from the Jewish community saying they were unhappy with the event and asking us to cancel it or make it more balanced”.
Well aware of the controversy that greeted the cancellation of a similar conference at the University of Southampton earlier this year, Sir Steve felt it to be a matter of principle that academics should have the freedom to put on exactly the kind of peer-reviewed conference they wanted. But he was also keen to address some of the concerns raised.
After extensive negotiations with the Jewish Leadership Council and Universities UK, Exeter has agreed to hold a separate debate – chaired by Sir Steve himself – about wider issues of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Speakers will be put forward by the university’s European Centre for Palestine Studies and the JLC – with additional input, most likely provided by student societies at Exeter, representing both “sides”. Title, format and content will all be jointly agreed.
Theo French and Hana Elias, presidents of the Friends of Palestine student society at Exeter, expressed their support for “the maintenance of academic freedom and freedom of speech, which together contribute to the constructive dialogue so badly needed in this conflict”.
Simon Johnson, chief executive officer of the JLC, commented that he was “pleased to have worked with the university on this issue and thank the university leadership for their constructive approach and their willingness to address Jewish community concerns whilst fearlessly protecting academic freedom. This approach should form a good model for future discussions on conferences which may cause controversy.”
And Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of UUK, welcomed “the constructive engagement that parties have shown in this instance, agreeing a way forward that secures freedom of speech within the law…This approach highlights the value of early engagement with all parties involved, particularly when controversial topics are under discussion.”