Pressure is growing on Southampton University to cancel an openly anti-Semitic conference questioning Israel’s right to exist. A leading paediatrician has already handed back his degree from the university whilst two wealthy patrons have withdrawn support, and prominent lawyer Mark Lewis, who has a number of celebrities amongst his clientele, has said that he would think twice before hiring Southampton graduates.
The University has made no secret of the anti-Semitic nature of the conference, titled “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism”, describing the event on its own website as concerning “the legitimacy in International Law of the Jewish state of Israel. Rather than focusing on Israeli actions in the 1967 Occupied Territories, the conference will focus on exploring themes of Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism; all of which are posed by Israel’s very nature.”
According to the Sunday Telegraph, nearly 4,500 people have already signed a petition calling on the University to cancel the conference, due to take place in late April.
Speaking to that paper, Mr Lewis, a partner with London law firm Seddons, said “This is a one-sided conference, not a debate and I would want to raise serious questions about what students at this university are being taught and what the university believes.
“If Southampton allows teaching which does not present both sides of a case it would raise doubts in my mind about the suitability of a candidate from its School of Law. I would not look so favourably on those CVs.”
The organisers, which include Southampton law professor Oren Ben-Dor; Juman Asmail, a Southampton law graduate and Palestinian rights activist; and Southampton engineering professor Suleiman Sharkh, said that the conference will attempt to “engage controversial questions concerning the manner of Israel’s foundation and its nature, including ongoing forced displacements of Palestinians and associated injustices.”
They added “Diligent efforts, including face-to-face meetings with leading intellectuals in Israel, were made to ensure the widest range of opinions possible. Those who chose to abstain, however, cannot derail the legitimate, if challenging, academic discussion the conference will inspire.”
But the event’s critics, which include the Board of Deputies of British Jews has said that many of the speakers are well known for their opposition to Israel as a nation. Amongst the speakers is Richard Falk, the former United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories and Dr Elias Khoury, a Lebanese novelist and former member of Fatah.
“Southampton university is hosting a debate about Israel’s right to exist that would not be permissible about any other country. And by doing so it gives credence to anti-Semitic views,” Mr Lewis said. He added that, as far as he was aware, at least two major donors to the university were considering withdrawing funding; one a wealthy family, another a charitable foundation.
Also withdrawing support is Andrew Sawczenko, a highly accredited paediatrician who last week returned the Bachelor of Medicine award he gained at the university in 1987. The university said that it was “extremely saddened” by his decision.
Further pressure to cancel came in the House of Commons, where Eric Pickles, the minister for local communities called the event a “one-sided diatribe”. He told colleagues “There is a careful line between legitimate academic debate on international law and the actions of governments, and the far-left’s bashing of Israel which often descends into naked anti-Semitism.
“Given the taxpayer-funded university has a legal duty to uphold freedom of speech, I would hope that they are taking steps to give a platform to all sides.”
And the Conservative Member of Parliament for nearby Fareham, Mark Hoban, called it a “provocative, hard-line, one-sided forum that would question and delegitimize the existence of a democratic state.”
The controversial event rides in on a recent wave of anti-Semitism in Britain. 2014 saw a record number of anti-Semitic events recorded by police, while just last night six men were arrested in Stamford Hill, London for attacking a synagogue with worshippers inside.
A mob of around 20 youths, who appear to be mostly white British, descended on the synagogue in the early hours of Sunday morning, tearing prayer books apart and smashing windows. They are said to have come from a local party. Amongst the group were two girls wearing short skirts and revealing tops, who appeared to be trying to calm the situation.
One Jewish man who attempted to grab hold of one of the attackers with the intention of taking him to the police was quickly overwhelmed by other members of the gang, was beaten, and lost a tooth.
Another witness described the gang as shouting “we will kill you!” as they carried out the attack. A video from within the building, showing Jewish men holding broken chairs forming a defensive barrier, has been posted to YouTube.