By Ali Abunimah / Electronic Intifada
Academics are pushing back against an effort by Israel lobby groups and UK government officials to cancel or alter a law school conference related to Palestine.
Almost 300 professors at universities in the UK and other countries have signed a statement expressing “principled and full support for the University of Southampton’s commitment to freedom of speech and scholarly debate.”
The University of Southampton has come under intense pressure over the conference “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism,” scheduled for 17-19 April.
The conference will “engage controversial questions concerning the manner of Israel’s foundation and its nature, including ongoing forced displacements of Palestinians and associated injustices,” the organizers wrote in a statement to The Electronic Intifada.
The organizers are University of Southampton law professor Oren Ben-Dor; George Bisharat, professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law; Juman Asmail, a law graduate from Southampton and Southampton engineering professor Suleiman Sharkh.
The conference “will examine how international law could be deployed, expanded, even re-imagined, in order to achieve regional peace and reconciliation based on justice,” the organizers add.
The provisional program includes presentations from a range of well-known academics and experts including University of California at Los Angeles historian Gabi Piterberg; Nur Musalha, a historian who has written extensively about Zionist plans to expel Palestinians; University of Exeter historian Ilan Pappe and Princeton University emeritus professor and former UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk, among others.
Pro-Israel media and lobby groups have been mounting an ever more shrill campaign using Islamophobic themes and casting aspersions of anti-Semitism to smear organizers and speakers.
Some have called for the conference to be banned outright, while others are urging the university to require pro-Israel speakers, on the grounds that the conference is “one sided.”
The Jerusalem Post reports that late last year, “leaders of the Jewish community, including representatives of the Jewish Leadership Council, Board of Deputies and the Union of Jewish Students” sent a letter to the university to cancel the conference.
The Post says it has “exclusively” seen “extracts” of the letter.
A Southampton spokesperson emailed The Electronic Intifada that the university “received a number of representations concerning this conference, both those expressing concerns and those in support,” but would not provide details of the organizations that had approached it.
The Electronic Intifada has filed a Freedom of Information request with the university in an effort to bring more light on the Israel lobby’s campaign against academic freedom.
Zionist Federation petition
The UK’s Zionist Federation launched a petition calling on the university to ban the conference, a demand to which several members of parliament have added their voices.
The mass circulation tabloid The Daily Express published an op-ed associating the conference with support for the notorious Islamic State militant “Jihadi John” and demanding that the government cut funding to Southampton.
The Jewish Chronicle trumpeted criticism by a former Conservative government minister and quoted Southampton mathematics professor Tim Sluckin claiming that the purpose of the conference is to “delegitimize Israel.”
Sluckin, who is also secretary of the Southampton Hebrew Congregation, said the conference “makes me feel uncomfortable as a Jew.”
Perhaps the most worrying aspect for supporters of free speech is the apparent collusion of UK government officials in the attempt to smear and suppress the conference.
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