Southampton cancels controversial Israel conference

Move prompts organisers to seek legal action

April 2, 2015

The University of Southampton has withdrawn permission for a controversial conference on Israel due to have taken place on campus next month – and has been greeted by a call for a judicial review.

Plans for the event, titled International Law and the State of Israel, were already on a knife-edge after attracting considerable criticism from Jewish groups and MPs, with communities and local government minister Eric Pickles describing it as “a one-sided diatribe”.

A spokesman for the university confirmed it had now decided to withdraw permission for the event but insisted this had “not been influenced by the content of the conference or any representations made to the university” but “purely on concerns about the safety of conference attendees, staff, students and the public”.

“After carrying out thorough risk assessments and consulting closely with the police, the university has concluded that due to high numbers of demonstrators expected to attend, risks to safety and public order at and near the conference venue have surpassed any practical mitigation the institution can put in place,” he added. 

“The university has, however, indicated to the organisers that it is willing to work with them to find a venue suitable for a conference of this nature at a later date.”

In response to the decision, the conference organisers issued a statement saying that they plan to “launch legal efforts at the High Court”, with barristers acting for them filing “grounds for an urgent judicial review of the decision”. Over 6,300 people have also signed a petition to the university calling on it to “uphold free speech and allow the conference on Israel and international law to proceed”.

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Reader's comments (9)

I hope they sue and win. Unfortunately, it is going to take legal action to force universities to properly understand how to manage controversial events. simply because I and others may disagree with the nature of he conference does not mean we have the right to use bullying tactics to shut it down. If the demonstrators are violent or disruptive to the stated aims of the conference, then it is the protestors that are in the wrong, not the organisers of controversial events. Thomas Scotto, Professor of Government, University of Essex (speaking in a personal capacity).
XXXXX.... 'Israel is still the only truly functioning democracy in the middle east' Israel was never a democracy. An ethnocracy - yes.
This was not an academic conference. It was a kangaroo court. Most of the speakers were boycotters. The 'call for papers' could have been written by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. It should never have seen the light of day. Finally the right decision - to cancel it - was made - but it should never have been allowed to get off the ground. Yes they have the right of free speech. Let them hire Friends Meeting House, Southampton. But they have no right to hold an Israel hatefest at the University. Ben Dor, the organiser, is deeply problematic.
Open Letter to Staff and Students at the University of Southampton Dear Friends, Colleagues and Students, As some of you may know, I am one of the organisers of the conference: ‘International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism’. The conference was approved by the University back in July 2014 and we followed all the procedures and collaborated fully with the University’s administration from the start. We have been transparent throughout about the nature and the aims of the conference. Some of you may wonder why I, an engineering professor, am involved in organising a law conference. The obvious answer is that understanding the law is essential to engineering and it is indeed part of our curriculum – it is a requirement of accreditation by the Engineering Council. My own research on smart electricity grids and smart metering involves understanding the legal issues that arise from the development of the technology, particularly with regards to privacy of the data collected by the smart meters and its human rights implications. Also, as many of you know, I am a Palestinian. I grew up in Gaza, but my family is originally from a town called Majdal Asqlan (now called Ashkelon by Israel). In November 1948, six months after the establishment of the State of Israel and after the wars have ended, the town was bombed and many people were killed. Those who survived were herded towards Gaza, crawling on their hand and knees in the thorny fields. Since then we have lived in squalid refugee camps. I walked around barefoot in the sand soiled by open sewage. I got my first shoes when I went to school at the age of six. International Law was responsible for our misery. It was used to legalise the theft of our homes and it continues to be used to legalise the on-going oppression of my people by the State of Israel. The questions asked by the conference are therefore questions that I have been asking all my life. They are important questions that need to be answered. However answering these questions risks exposing the true face of the State of Israel, and risks reminding the world of the uncomfortable truth about the crimes that were and continue to be committed against the Palestinian people. As a result, the pro-Israel lobby exerted huge pressure on the University, which has resulted in the withdrawal of the permission to hold the conference. The attached statement explains our point of view, and why the University’s Senior Management’s decision is wrong in law. This decision will have a direct impact on you and your freedom of speech. I am a Southampton graduate. This is my University. Studying and working at Southampton is the best thing that happened to me. It broadened my mind, it showed me that there are alternatives to violence and hatred, namely respectful debate and love. I care greatly about the University and its reputation and hence the reason for deciding, with a very heavy heart, to take legal action to reverse the decision to cancel the conference. The main press may give you the impression that this was going to be an anti-Semitic conference. This is absolutely not true. My fellow organiser, Professor Oren Ben-Dor is a Jew. We have many Jewish supporters. And I am glad that many Jews immigrated to Palestine to be in a safe haven and I welcome more Jews to live in Palestine. My main aim is to achieve justice, freedom and equality for my people to live side by side with Jews and all people in historic Palestine. I want it to be a safer haven for Jews, a safe haven for all people who live there. I hope the conference will be a small step in that direction. Finally, I want to assure you that there will be no spontaneous demonstrations or any violence from supporters of the conference as suggested by my colleague the Chief Operating Officer, Steve White. We will conduct our protests in a very dignified manner, within the law, with full collaboration with the Police and the University. I will never accept any harm to be done to the University and the wonderful people who work and study here, who keep it the fantastic place of scholarship and learning that it is. Please express your support for freedom of speech by signing the online petition. Yours sincerely Suleiman Professor Suleiman Sharkh Professor of Power Electronics, Machines and Drives. Head of the Electro-Mechanical Engineering Research Group. Engineering Sciences, University of Southampton.
Organiser’s Statement following the Vice Chancellor’s decision on 1st April 2015 As organisers of the conference ‘International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism’ due to take place on the 17th of April, we are shocked and dismayed by the Vice Chancellor’s decision, to dismiss our internal appeal, thus confirming the University’s Senior Management withdrawal of permission for the conference to go ahead on University property. The reasoning for this decision is said to be the University’s legal obligation to provide safety and security to participants, students and employees in the conference venue and all over the campus. The Senior Management claims, based on their risk assessment, that they will not be able to effectively reduce the level of residual risks to an acceptable level. Accordingly, the Senior Management judged that the health and safety risks outweigh the University’s legal obligations and duty to secure freedom of speech within the law for which the Vice Chancellor asserts an unswerving commitment. The greatest risk to health and safety that was identified by the Senior Management was that arising from a by and large peaceful demonstration against the conference and possible counter demonstrations by pro-Palestinian groups during the third day. The intelligence about extreme groups that may appear was greatly inflated. We have brought evidence to the VC from pro-Palestinian groups that they in fact have never intended to hold any demonstrations or counter protests during the conference. The general sensitivity following recent terrorist events in Europe was further misused to inflate the risks. In its risk assessment the Senior Management simply assigned a high level of residual risk despite specifying effective measures to reduce it and assurances by the Police that they are able to manage the demonstrations. Crucially, and tellingly, the Senior Management was provided with intelligence asserting that the cancellation of the conference will in itself result in similar and possibly larger demonstrations. These demonstrations would present similar, if not greater levels of risk to health and safety. It is therefore astonishing - given the University’s legal duty to secure freedom of speech within the law - that the Senior Management chose to ignore the risks to health and safety arising from the cancellation of the conference, and instead focus on the risks associated with holding it in fulfilment of its legal obligation to securing freedom of speech within the law! The Senior Management dismissed the Police’s commitment to providing protection as a supplement to what the University can reasonably provide using its own security resources despite the fact that the Police stated clearly their ability to curb such risks. Simply put, the Senior Management caved in to security risks all too easily which even if, for the sake of argument, were founded, is not justifiable. They left it till 16 days before the conference to reach this assessment and organise a response to it and now claim, unacceptably in our view, that it is too late to arrange proper protection. We feel that the Senior Management behaviour in relation to risk assessment and to providing proper response to it is symptomatic of resorting to a simple weighing process of two legal obligations. They have failed to see the virtually unconditional nature of freedom of speech and the full extent to which security argument ought not to be used to curtail it; appropriate security measures should be used to facilitate it. This shows that the Senior Management fundamentally misunderstood its duty to securing freedom of speech at this great academic institution. We have little doubt that the safety and security argument is used to rationalise the surrender by the Senior Management to political pressure exerted on it by the pro-Israeli Lobby. If the decision by the University’s Senior Management is not overturned, the University will lose its uniqueness in providing a public space for creating the kind of rupture in the public sphere that can, within the conference and beyond, generate public debate that overcomes its current uncritically accepted conventional confines. It will fail in its sacred mission to make itself a unique public space: that of guarding the linkage between truth-seeking in every discipline to the pursuit of justice within the wider political community from any political, economic or security threat. This extremely sad and short-sighted decision will send a shameful message to the University’s existing and prospective students. This decision by the Senior Management cannot be allowed to stand. The stakes for academic public space, for academic freedom and for freedom of speech are too high. The message it sends to other academic institutions and to students all over the world is grave and depressing. It will potentially make campuses obedient and depoliticised, distant and docile corporate spaces. We have therefore, with very heavy hearts, decided to mount an immediate legal challenge to urgently overturn the Senior Management’s decision, to demand that the conference is allowed to go ahead while deploying sufficient security resources including the Police, in the right way, to curb risk to health and safety and security that may arise. This decision by the University is wrong in law, wrong in morality and wrong for the University of Southampton in particular and for all academic spaces all over the country and the world generally. Two of the conference organisers are senior academics at the University of Southampton, and one of them is a graduate of the University. They are very proud to be academics at this great institution and care passionately about it. We hope that immediate legal action will help save the reputation of the University which has sadly been thrown into serious doubt by this decision. Professor Oren Ben-Dor – University of Southampton Professor Suleiman Sharkh – University of Southampton Professor George Bisharat – University of California, Hastings College of the Law Ms. Juman Asmail LLB (Soton)- Independent writer and political activist.
Sharkh says: "In November 1948, six months after the establishment of the State of Israel and after the wars have ended, the town was bombed and many people were killed." That's just not true. The war is ended on 10 March 1949 and was still well under way in November 1948. Majdal was an important centre for military action throughout. Five Arab states invaded the newly-formed state of Israel completely illegally and in contravention of UN resolution 181. A war followed that was offensive on the Arab side and wholly defensive on the Israeli side. Nine days after the commencement of hostilities (which followed the 1947-48 civil war, also initiated by the Palestinian Arabs) Egyptian ground troops entered Majdal and made it their headquarters (joined later by a second HQ at El ‘Arish in Gaza). This made the town a military target. The road link between Majdal-Faluja-Beit Jibrin was controlled by Egyptian forces, and the Majdal-Beit-Beit Jibrin road cut Israel in half. The western section of Majdal to ‘Iraq al-Manshiyya was held by a heavily reinforced Egyptian 4th Brigade. All this made Majdal and the surrounding area a logical target for military action. No army thus engaged in conflict with an enemy on its home territory would have avoided attacks. The context of Palestinian flight is that the vast majority of Arabs who left were coerced or implored by the Arab Higher Committee or the Jordanian Arab Liberation Army to do so, often enough in defiance of Israeli please to stay put. Majdal was taken by Israel on 4th-5th November without battle. If Sharkh says the bombing took place then, he is plain wrong. In fact, unlike Isdud and some other places, the inhabitants were allowed to remain in their homes, and IDF patrols were sent out into the countryside to persuade any who had fled to return in safety. In terms of international law, it is not the defenders who commit war crimes when they are fighting for their survival, which Israel was. It was Arab aggression, Arab calls for a jihad that would lead to the genocide of the Jews, and Arab military action that must be held accountable for the suffering of the Arabs in what had been British Palestine. That someone organizing a conference debating legal aspects of Israel’s creation and right to exist can present such a garbled narrative of one incident and can fictionalise and decontextualise it says much about his academic standing --- or lack of it.
I doubt the legal challenge will succeed. "Free speech" on campus is subject to the University's duty to eliminate harassment and foster good relations between members of different ethnic / racial and religious groups under section 149 of the Equality Act 2010; and by its common law duty of care to students, staff and visitors to take reasonable care to protect them from harm. Moreover the Call for Papers was written like a PSC blog - it deterred academics who support Israel. Over 80% of the speakers were boycotters.
The call for papers was a one-sided diatribe. It is clear that it deterred many speakers who would have explained Israel's right to exist. In these circumstances the conference would not be an expression of free speech, but the denial of it to many of those who do not share the views and assumptions of the organisers. The university should not have allowed the conference to go ahead on this basis in the first place and is right - indeed under an obligation - now to cancel it.