The university that censors

The supposed inclusivity of Queen’s University is not extended to those who argue Israel has a case


The annual Belfast Festival is the child of Queen's University, one of the UK's leading "research intensive" seats of learning. The festival grew out of an enterprising undergraduate initiative in the deeply troubled 1970s; it was - as its website rightly proclaims - "a cultural oasis in a landscape dominated by political upheaval."

It has - as its website also rightly proclaims - played a pivotal role in the cultural renaissance of the city and has attracted celebrities and intellectuals from around the world.

But today this reputation for inclusiveness lies in tatters. There is now, about the Belfast Festival, a bad odour and a decidedly nasty taste.

Earlier this year, the Festival organisers decided that as part of the 2010 programme they would arrange
a discussion on "Conflict in the Middle East."

The blame for this lies squarely with Queen’s University, Belfast

Whether this was an entirely appropriate event for what is billed as "a two week long arts extravaganza" is open to question. What is not open to question is that the planned format of this discussion was fundamentally flawed. Two and only two speakers were programmed for the event. One, professor Beverley Milton-Edwards, teaches at Queen's, has written extensively on the Middle East, and is on record as having defended Hamas as an organisation simply intent on bringing order - of an admittedly Islamic variety - to the chaos of Gaza.

The other was professor Avi Shlaim, doyen of the so-called "New Historians" of Zionism, who teaches at Oxford. Professor Shlaim can justly claim to be a founding father of
the historical school that argues (with, it's true, varying degrees of intensity) that Israel was founded in 'original sin' (namely the alleged wholesale expulsion of Arabs), that there was no coordinated Arab plan to destroy the Jewish state at that time, and that the roots of the present tensions in the region are to be found in Israeli intransigence rather than in Arab obduracy.

Now a discussion of "Conflict in the Middle East" in which the only presenters were professors Shlaim and Milton-Edwards was bound to be a shade one-sided.

Late in the day the organisers of the Belfast Festival evidently came round to this view.

And so it was that on 20 September, I received an invitation to join the panel discussion.

Let's be absolutely clear on this point. "I would be delighted," Festival director Graeme Farrow wrote, "if you would join our panel."

So I cleared my diary and prepared to journey to Belfast, there (so I had thought) to present, in an atmosphere of civilised, scholarly discussion, a viewpoint radically different from that of either of my two fellow panellists.

As everyone now knows, this was not to be. Issued on 20 September, the invitation was peremptorily withdrawn on 15 October. And it was withdrawn (let's be absolutely clear on this point too) after objections from Oxford professor Shlaim and Belfast professor Milton-Edwards.

I know this because Mr Farrow told me so, in the presence of Mr Steven Jaffe (co-chair of the Northern Ireland Friends of Israel) in the lounge of the Europa Hotel, Belfast, on the afternoon of Monday 18 October, and because Professor Shlaim also told me so at a meeting he and I had at the same hotel later that afternoon.

I told Professor Shlaim what I told Mr Farrow and what I am now telling you: that I had come to Belfast to be a member of the panel that evening, and that I found the alternative Mr Farrow had offered - of a reserved seat in the audience and the privilege of asking the first question - to be an unmitigated insult.

Either I would attend as per the
invitation - to be on the panel - or
I would not attend at all.

In the event I did not attend at all.

The blame for this, and for the consequent deluge of negative publicity that has fallen upon the Belfast Festival, lies squarely with Queen's University.

It does not lie with professors Shlaim and Milton-Edwards. We can berate them (as I am sadly inclined to do) for their small-mindedness, for their lack of collegiality, even for their arrogance. But the fact that they were permitted to veto my participation in the panel was due entirely to the university administration.

The mission statement of Queen's University celebrates its promotion of "an environment of equality, tolerance and mutual respect." I was shown none of these courtesies. But - believe me - I do not weep for myself. I weep, instead, for the university and those who work and study within it.

Last updated: 10:37am, October 22 2010