Calling off Israel event is setback for freedom

April 9, 2015

The decision of the University of Southampton to cancel a conference that was to have been held later this month under the auspices of its school of law amounts to a massive setback for academic freedom in this country (“Southampton cancels controversial Israel conference”, 2 April).

The university has cited safety and security concerns. But these have arisen only because interests opposed to the subject matter of the conference (the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state) threatened to demonstrate against and (to my certain knowledge) disrupt the proceedings.

As a proud Jew and a proud Zionist, I am appalled. As a patron of the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards, I am outraged. As someone who was to have presented a paper at the conference, I am horrified.

Academic freedom is indivisible. There is no subject that cannot be discussed in a university environment. Let us hope, therefore, that the university authorities at Southampton can be persuaded even now to undergo a change of heart.

Geoffrey Alderman
Michael Gross professor of modern history
University of Buckingham

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Reader's comments (1)

Geoffrey Alderman is wrong. The cancellation was correct, though not for the right reason. This was never a proper 'conference'. As Michael Gove said "It was not a conference, it was an anti-Israel hate-fest.” That was clear from the language of the ‘call for papers’ (‘racial gerrymandering’, ‘apartheid colonisation’ and all the usual bluster of the Israel bashers). This rhetoric made it clear to supporters of Israel that their ‘free speech’ would not be welcome. Professor Alderman's paper would probably have been given to an empty room. Most of the speakers were committed boycotters. The main speaker, Richard Falk, has regularly made antisemitic comments about Israel, has blamed Israel for the Boston Marathon terrorist attack and has given credence to the most extreme 9/11 conspiracy theories. Neither is the right to ‘free speech’ at a University absolute, as Professor Alderman seems to suggest. It is subject to the University's duty to eliminate harassment and foster good relations between members of different groups (section 149 of the Equality Act 2010). Universities are places of academic enquiry, not hosts for Israel hatefests. There are plenty of other venues available.