Communal organisations have condemned the decision to run an anti-Israel conference cancelled by Southampton University following furious protests from the Jewish community two years ago on a different campus, in Ireland.
University College Cork (UCC) will now host the three-day gathering, which will openly question the right of Israel to exist and make claims of ethnic cleansing.
Speakers and co-organisers of the event, which will run from March 31 to April 2, include anti-Zionist historian Professor llan Pappe, and the University of Southampton’s Professor Oren Ben-Dor, who has blamed the Jewish mindset for provoking antisemitism.
The Board of Deputies confirmed that it had made representations to UCC and to the Irish government over the decision to go ahead with the event.
Jonathan Arkush, the Board’s President, said that the Cork conference was “an anti-Israel hate-fest dressed up as an academic conference”.
The Board of Deputies and MPs including Michael Gove and Eric Pickles were among those to condemn the original plan to stage the conference at Southampton University in March 2015.
Mr Gove, who was Chief Whip at the time, then described the event as an “anti-Israel hate fest.” When he heard of the new plan to move the conference to Cork, the Conservative MP for Surrey Heath told the JC: “No other country — let alone a democracy — has its right to exist questioned in this way. Singling out Israel for this treatment is straightforward antisemitism.”
The 2015 event was postponed following widespread opposition to the event from Jewish organisations including a Zionist Federation petition containing 6,400 signatures. Southampton University announced then that they were postponing the event due to “safety concerns.” The same University rejected a second attempt to hold the conference, which is called “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism,” on their campus last year.
Now the organisers of the event to be held in Cork have openly boasted of their “excitement”. Organisers also allege that academic freedom was being stifled when it came to proper debate around Israel, with the claim, on the official website: “Recent developments in some countries – particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom – have evidenced a chilling repression of academic freedom when it comes to critique of Israeli state policy. This renders it all the more crucial to provide forums for such debate.
Outlining “themes” to be discussed at the conference the office website states: “For its initial existence, the State of Israel has depended on a unilateral declaration of statehood in addition to both the expulsion (or as some would say the ethnic cleansing) of large numbers of non-Jewish Palestinian Arabs in 1947-49 and the prevention of their return.” A declared aim of the conference is to “educate a whole new generation of young Palestinian lawyers and legal and political scholars about new possible arguments and concepts in order to use international law better”.
UCC Professor James Bowen this week praised the decision to host the event in Cork saying “academic freedom is still fairly well protected, unlike in the UK, where it seems to have come to be regarded as a disposable luxury”.
But Arieh Miller, Executive Director at the Zionist Federation last night attacked attempts to justify the staging of the conference on the grounds of academic free speech.
Mr Miller said: “Time and time again we see attempts by university departments to use the thinly veiled guise of academia to spread hate and often use lies and twisted facts to denigrate the state of Israel.
“These conferences only play into the hands of those who look to delegitimise Israel’s very right to exist.
“It is absolutely incredible that, with all of the atrocities taking place in the world not least in Syria or Yemen, Cork University has chosen to hold a conference on Israel, the one Jewish country and the only true democracy in the Middle East. “
The Cork event will feature at least two speakers who are known for their pro-Israeli views.
University of Buckingham Professor Geoffrey Alderman said that he was “very pleased the conference is going ahead, very sorry it is not going ahead in the UK”.
Although a committed Zionist who has “come under enormous [Jewish] communal pressure to pull out of this conference”, Mr Alderman said he was delighted to be delivering a paper titled “Jews, Judaism and the Jewish state: ethnic rights and international wrongs”.
Professor Alan Johnson from the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) will also appear at the event. The BICOM Senior Research Fellow told the JC: “I am attending the conference at the University of Cork in order to defend Israel’s right to exist, and to intervene in a debate among academics and students about that right. I wish to engage and challenge, to offer an alternative view, as a I did at a similar conference at Exeter University in September, instead of denouncing this event from afar.”
David Hirsh, lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths College, told the JC that he feared there was an problem whether pro-Zionist academics choose to attend or not to attend events such as the forthcoming conference.
Mr Hirsh, the founder of Engage, who campaign against academic boycotts of Israel said: “This conference normalizes, and is underpinned by, antisemitic ways of thinking. If people participate to challenge the narrative they risk legitimizing the conference; if people try to have the conference stopped they risk being portrayed as a powerful lobby closing down free speech; if people ignore the conference, the work of normalizing antisemitism goes on unhindered. This triple bind illustrates the virulence of this kind of antisemitism today.”
In a statement, the Israeli embassy in Ireland said: "We are deeply concerned by the attempts of anti-Israel activists to promote an unbalanced agenda within academic institutions, that seeks to demonise and deligitimise Israel. The prejudiced approach of such 'activists' serves only to propagate hatred of the State of Israel and its people. They are incompatible with the values of democracy and go against the essence of academic discussion."
Last year , in the aftermath of the event’s cancellation at Southampton University, organisers Professor Ben-Dor and Professor Suleiman Sharkh, who was brought up in Gaza,and lectures in engineering, launched a legal challenge over the decision to call it off. They said this was a test case for academic freedom. Lady Justice Arden, sitting in the Court of Appeal, gave permission for the hearing to be heard.
In October 2015 Exeter University staged their own conference on “settler colonialism in Palestine.” Professor Gabriel Brahm spoke at the event along with Alan Johnson.
Prof Brahm, a research fellow in Israel studies at Brandeis University, said at the time: “We took just the right course. We didn’t try to shut the conference down. We got in there and represented our views. It was very satisfying to notice when we raised good questions it made them stop and think.”
He had decided to attend because “I didn’t want to see anti-Zionism go unopposed for the umpteenth time in academia”.
The participation by Israel supporters, which some members of the Jewish community had criticised, was “part of a larger ongoing strategy” to counter anti-Israel views, he said. “We want to be setting a precedent that Zionism is a normal part of the discussion.”
There has been widespread concern about the upsurge of anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist activity at university campuses across the UK in recent years. Jewish students at numerous universities have complained that their complaints over antisemitism on campus are being ignored.