Israel conference loses speaker over ex-UN official’s keynote

Sole remaining pro-Israel speaker claims ‘semi-hysterical’ reaction has harmed academic debate

March 22, 2017
A Israeli youth with a flag draped around his back. Star of David, Jewish.
Source: Getty

Only one pro-Israel speaker will address a controversial conference focused on the country after a leading academic boycotted the event.

Geoffrey Alderman, professor of politics and contemporary history at the University of Buckingham, is now the only pro-Israel voice billed to speak at International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Exceptionalism and Responsibility, a conference due to be held in Cork later this month, after Alan Johnson, senior fellow at the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, pulled out in protest against one of the keynote speakers.

Professor Johnson, a former Edge Hill University politics professor, claimed that the organisers’ decision to invite Richard Falk, the former United Nations rapporteur for Palestine and a long-standing critic of Israeli practices, “changes the character of the event”.

The 86-year-old emeritus professor of international law at Princeton University faced criticism earlier this month for co-authoring a UN report that claimed that Israel had established “an apartheid regime that oppresses and dominates the Palestinian people as a whole“.

However, Professor Johnson cited the Jewish American professor’s recent endorsement of what he called an “openly anti-Semitic” book by musician and writer Gilad Atzmon for his no-show.

Mr Atzmon was in the audience at a debate at the London School of Economics featuring Professor Falk on 20 March that was interrupted by Israel supporters who held up signs saying “Richard Falk: Condemned for Antisemitism” and “Richard Falk: Shame on LSE”, the Jewish Chronicle reported on 21 March.

In a statement, Professor Johnson said that he had intended to give a paper in defence of Israel’s right to exist, “but the decision to promote Falk in such a way means the character of the event has changed and I don’t think I should participate”.

His withdrawal is the latest setback for the conference, which was originally due to take place at the University of Southampton in May 2015. Southampton withdrew permission for the event, citing health and safety concerns, amid criticisms from Jewish groups and MPs that the conference would be a one-sided “anti-Israel hatefest”.

Many academics, however, expressed anger at what they saw as the pro-Israel lobby attempting to stifle free speech by calling for the conference to be scrapped.

University College Cork, part of the National University of Ireland, offered in December 2016 to host the three-day conference, which will finally take place between 31 March and 2 April.

Professor Alderman told Times Higher Education that he had “no intention of pulling out of the conference” despite coming under pressure from Jewish groups to do so.

“I imagine my opinions will not be very popular with delegates, but academic freedom is about having the opportunity to express views without fear or favour,” he said.

Professor Alderman also criticised as “semi-hysterical” those Jewish groups that had pressured pro-Israel speakers into boycotting the conference.

“If there are so few opposing views, it is the fault of a miscellany of well-meaning, but misguided, Jewish interest groups that have gone into semi-hysterical mode about this conference,” he said.

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