The politics of disinvitation

A Cambridge don’s anti-Israel invective sits uneasily with his praise of intellectual freedom

By David Aaronovitch, February 11, 2010

There ought to be an addition to the books of etiquette on the subject of disinvitation. Invitation we know all about. You should, for example, be clear about when and where the event is to be held, as in: “Dear Professor Morris, I would like to invite you to address a meeting of the Cambridge University Israel Society at X College on Thursday February 4 at 7.30pm.” And, for those whom you might wish to attend the event: “Dear Dr/Professor/Lord/Lady/Mr/Ms Y, the Cambridge University Israel Society would like to invite you to hear the renowned historian, Professor Benny Morris, lecture on 1948 Revisited…” etc etc.

Very straightforward. As is cancellation: “We regret to announce that, for health reasons, Dr Benny Morris will be unable to join us on February 4. But we are happy to be able to tell you that Professor Geoffrey Alderman has agreed to step in.” And so on.

But new times require new forms of etiquette.Throughout the years, if an Israel society or a history club wanted to listen to a speech from a top historian of international status, it just went ahead and everybody bathed in the temporary glory of academic celebrity. Not any more, due to what might (almost fairly) be called “The Warnes Factor”. Dr CG Warnes lectures in English at St John’s College, Cambridge, specialising in post-colonial novels. But his secondary role in life seems to be the business of banning, boycotting and disinviting. And lest Dr Warnes feel that I go too far, let me allow that he is not in the least indiscriminate in whom he desires for people not to see, buy from, hear, or listen to. I can, for example, find no record of him objecting to Sudanese government figures, Chinese companies, Russian intelligence officers or Saudi princes.

Also, to be balanced, I should add that Dr Warnes is sometimes in favour of things. Last February, for example, we find him signing a round-robin in support of a student occupation of the university law faculty over Gaza. The letter is first tumescent in its pride: “as teachers, we strive to foster in our students an interrogative and transformative attitude towards the world” (and these have done their old lecturers proud in demanding that Cambridge University as an institution denounce Israel). And then it is almost tearful: “Our students have sought to remind us of a point of principled self-interest: our university –- once the nursery of Milton, Darwin and Newton — must strive vigorously and indefatigably to defend the exercise of intellectual freedom wherever it is being threatened.”

But such exercise must be qualified. At roughly the same time, Dr Warnes round-robins for the cancellation of Israel Science Days at leading museums — “the museums should cancel these unseemly events” in the aftermath of Gaza. He also writes to David Bellamy to advise him not to take part.

How, say, the Tibetan Soc is impacted by Morris’s Palestinian view is unclear

His greatest success, however, comes in the field of disinvitation. On February 1, he and a number of others wrote to the Cambridge Students Union expressing “dismay and concern about the impending visit to our campus of Israeli historian Benny Morris, who is on public record expressing highly inflammatory Islamophobic opinions.” They add: “the issue is hate speech, and the impact of a visit by this individual on the campus’ atmosphere for the student body’s minority groups.” Though quite how, say, Tibetan Soc is impacted by the over-strident and pessimistic attitude that the historian sometimes displays towards Palestinian society, is not made clear.

So, the nursery of Milton, Darwin and Newton, where the exercise of intellectual freedom must be vigorously and indefatigably defended, turns out to be far too fragile to stand the exercise of even the most elementary freedom by an Israeli historian.

Thus leading to the following from the University Israel Society: “Event Change: Thursday 4th February .We will be screening Promises (below) this Thursday instead of Professor Benny Morris’s presentation on 1948 Revisited.” Or: you are hereby cordially disinvited.

Last updated: 12:08am, April 25 2010


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