Why The Conference On Israel's Legitimacy Cannot Go Ahead

The situation in the Middle East is one that has often been a source of fierce debate. There are several reasons why Southampton’s attempt to weigh in on this is […]

The situation in the Middle East is one that has often been a source of fierce debate. There are several reasons why Southampton’s attempt to weigh in on this is a pointless and offensive endeavour.

From the 17th to the 19th of April, the University of Southampton will play host to various speakers and academics who will attempt to “diagnose the legal position with regard to the nature of Israel”. They will, to put it simply, tell all those in attendance that the state of Israel has no right to exist.

The conference has drawn the attention of various Jewish community leaders, and even high-ranking politicians. The Conservative peer Lord Leigh said that “it is very disappointing that a distinguished university like Southampton has organised this conference. They have never held a conference questioning the right of existence of any other country”, while the Chief Executive of the Jewish Leadership Council said that he was “gravely concerned about this unbalanced, delegitimising conference, which will have a detrimental impact on cohesiveness”.

The very name of the conference, “International Law And The State Of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility And Exceptionalism”, raises issue of bias. The organisers are suggesting that the existence of Israel is something which can be debated. They do not see Israel as a state, contrary to international law; they see it as a theory. Debating the existence of any other state would most likely be met with ridicule, why not Israel?

The organiser is a professor at the University, Oren Ben-Dor. He is an ex-Israeli, who has been nothing short of vocal in his criticism of Israel in the past. There is nothing wrong with criticism in itself, but the way in which Prof. Ben-Dor has gone about it is somewhat questionable.

In a 2008 article for the newsletter Counterpunch (which has been referred to as “Anti-Zionist radical left-wing” by the Anti-Defamation League and others), Prof. Ben-Dor talks of signing a petition to prevent the ‘Silencing of Gilad Atzmon”.

This is seemingly harmless, until you look further into Atzmon himself. His charming remarks include such gems as “I’m not going to say whether it is right or not to burn down a synagogue, I can see that it is a rational act”, and “the holocaust narrative, in its current form, doesn’t make any historical sense”.

Prof. Ben-Dor has also referred to Israel as an “arrogant and self-righteous Zionist entity” in another article for Counterpunch. The list of speakers has been released, and the anti-Israel bias is overwhelming. Let it suffice to say that if the conference shares the viewpoint of its organisers, it is likely to descend into shamelessly biased Israel-bashing, bordering on thinly-veiled antisemitism.

Free speech is one of the most important pillars of our society. People should have the right to criticise the actions of others if they feel they are wrong; it is the best way to maintain a balance of opinion. But this comes with a crucial condition: that others have the right to defend themselves. It is here that the University’s conference falls short.

The very nature of the conference means that there will be a lack of balance. Academics who share the same opinion (namely that Israel is a ‘big bad wolf’  which must be stopped)  will gather to pat each other on the back, preaching to the choir and inciting a rally-like anti-Israel atmosphere. How this can be supported by the University of Southampton, an institution with close ties to several Jewish bodies such as the Parkes Institute, can allow this to go ahead, is baffling.

We are left with two courses of action:

  1. Cancel or move the conference. In its current form, the conference will merely serve to circulate biased opinions and decrease social cohesion, and showing support for this will only reflect poorly on the University.
  2. Alter the title and format of the conference. It is currently masquerading as an intellectual debate, when its intrinsic bias means it will never be such a thing. If the University will not cancel the conference altogether, they must demand that the views of both sides of the debate are equally represented.

The University of Southampton is an institution of education, not indoctrination. As such, we must allow the views of those on both sides of every debate to be represented, so that those fortunate enough to attend are able to make free and informed choices. Southampton must not be allowed to become a platform for hatred, and this conference must be stopped or changed to ensure that this is achieved.

If you also believe that the conference should not be allowed to go ahead, you can sign a Change.Org petition here.