Israel conference that sparked political row moves to Ireland

University College Cork to host controversial event British institutions seemed ‘afraid’ to touch

January 1, 2017
Israeli Separation wall
Source: Alamy

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.”

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Assistant Recruitment - Human Resources Office

University Of Nottingham Ningbo China

Outreach Officer

Gsm London

Professorship in Geomatics

Norwegian University Of Science & Technology -ntnu

Professor of European History

Newcastle University

Head of Department

University Of Chichester
See all jobs

Most Commented

men in office with feet on desk. Vintage

Three-quarters of respondents are dissatisfied with the people running their institutions

A face made of numbers looks over a university campus

From personalising tuition to performance management, the use of data is increasingly driving how institutions operate

students use laptops

Researchers say students who use computers score half a grade lower than those who write notes

Canal houses, Amsterdam, Netherlands

All three of England’s for-profit universities owned in Netherlands

As the country succeeds in attracting even more students from overseas, a mixture of demographics, ‘soft power’ concerns and local politics help explain its policy