A controversial university conference on Israel that was cancelled in the wake of a political row will now be held outside the UK as academic freedom in the country seems to have become a “disposable luxury”, according to a scholar at the institution now hosting the event.
In April 2015, the University of Southampton withdrew permission for a conference titled International Law and the State of Israel, owing to “concerns about the safety of conference attendees, staff, students and the public”.
The decision had followed several days of heated debate over the event; some politicians and Jewish groups branding it one-sided while many academics expressed anger at what they saw as the pro-Israel lobby attempting to stifle free speech by calling for the conference to be scrapped.
When plans for a curtailed version of the conference also fell through, said Oren Ben-Dor, professor of law and philosophy at Southampton Law School, the organisers “pursue[d] other venues not only in the UK but in Europe, with no success of convincing them to run this conference”. He suspected that other British institutions were “afraid of the claws of the Israeli lobby (although of course they would not admit that)”.
It was at this point that University College Cork (UCC) offered to step in and host the conference, now due to take place this April.
“Our interest in the themes of the conference,” said James Bowen, professor of computer science at UCC, “means that we want to see it happen, somewhere”.
Since Professor Ben-Dor was a close friend, “it was only natural for him to ask whether we would help run the conference in a country where academic freedom is still fairly well protected – unlike in the UK where it seems to have come to be regarded as a disposable luxury”.
Given the Republic of Ireland’s “different political culture”, Professor Bowen does not expect the kind of protests that greeted plans to hold the conference at Southampton.
“There is only one prominent passionately pro-Israel politician in this country,” he explained.
“He may try to impose some pressure on the university, but any orchestrated campaign against our conference will have to originate from outside this country. Attempts by foreign lobbyists to restrict academic freedom in an Irish university will not be welcome to anybody here.”
Geoffrey Alderman, professor of politics and contemporary history at the University of Buckingham, said that he was “very pleased the conference is going ahead, very sorry it is not going ahead in the UK”.
Although a committed Zionist who has “come under enormous [Jewish] communal pressure to pull out of this conference”, he is delighted to be delivering a paper titled “Jews, Judaism and the Jewish state: ethnic rights and international wrongs”.
“I will probably be unsympathetic to most of the other arguments expressed at the conference,” admitted Professor Alderman, “but so what? That is what academic freedom is about...I have my views, I am entitled to express them in public and I am deeply sorry not to be able to express them at the University of Southampton.”