Southampton University cancels anti-Israel conference over 'safety concerns'

By Naomi Firsht, April 2, 2015

Southampton University has confirmed it has cancelled a conference challenging Israel's right to exist, citing police concerns over safety.

A statement published on the university website officially withdrew permission for the conference to take place on the campus.

The statement said: “It has now become clear that the foreseeable risks to safety and public order at and near the conference venue have surpassed any practical mitigation that the University can put in place. Under the circumstances the University is obliged to withdraw permission for the conference and is following the processes set out in its Code of Practice.”

“This was not an easy decision. It was made on the basis of information from the police who say, it is probable there will be a high number of demonstrators at the event, the consequences of which could lead to incidents of public disorder, and a full assessment of the University’s ability to manage these threats to individual safety and public order. It has been made after full consultation and with the unanimous endorsement of the University Council and the University Academic Executive.”

The statement adds that the university will help the organisers find a new venue for the conference at a later date.

However Fiona Sharpe from Sussex Friends of Israel, the grassroots group which was planning to demonstrate outside the conference, said she had been in close contact with the police over the protest and that no concerns had been raised.

She said: “Sussex Friends of Israel are very pleased with the decision made by the University of Southampton to withdraw permission for the International Law and the State of Israel Conference to take place on its campus.

“At no time did the police express any concern regarding our demonstration and were quite happy to facilitate our legal right. We are aware however, that there were other groups who were planning to protest on a separate date and also those planning a counter-protest to ours.

“While we understand the position of the University in basing their decision on health and safety, we fully reject any implication or suggestion that the demonstration being organised by us gave rise to concerns regarding public disorder. At no point was this ever raised by the police with us.

“We would remind people that over that last number of weeks, the university has come under increasing pressure from politicians, community leaders, public opinion and funders, all seeking to have this conference moved. The reputation and good name of the university was clearly being damaged."

The university is now under fire from conference supporters who say they are denying them freedom of speech.

The decision to cancel comes after criticism from MPs, Jewish groups and academics who predicted that the conference would be an anti-Israel "hate-fest".

The event was organised by Oren Ben-Dor, an Israeli-born professor in the university law department, and was to feature anti-Zionist academics.

The Israeli embassy in London welcomed the cancellation. In a statement it said: "This was a clear instance of an extremist political campaign masquerading as an academic exercise, and it is only right to recognise that respecting free speech does not mean tolerating intolerance."

The Board of Deputies, which held talks with Southampton's vice-chancellor Professor Don Nutbeam said the university had made the right decison.

It said: "This conference was never about academic freedom. It represented the opposite of free speech. It was to be an international gathering of anti-Zionists who were using the cover of a distinguished university to promote their view that there should never have been a Jewish state. Communities Secretary Eric Pickles had rightly described it as a ‘one-sided diatribe’. Such events have no place at a reputable British university.

Board president Vivian Wineman said: “This was not a conference about Israel’s actions but was a one-sided hate fest to deny its very existence and the Jewish right to a state of their of own”

Vice-President Jonathan Arkush said: “The Board led the community’s united condemnation of this travesty of a conference. The organisers only have themselves to blame.”

Chief Whip Michael Gove said today: "It was not a conference, it was an anti-Israel hate-fest."

Last updated: 1:41pm, April 2 2015