Thoughts on the forthcoming Southampton Conference

Thoughts on the forthcoming Southampton conference, firstly by Ben Gidley and then by John Strawson

Ben Gidley:

In the last decade or more, working in British universities, I have witnessed the growth of a zeitgeist in which antisemitism is not taken seriously by people who, in every other way, would be regarded as exemplary anti-racists. It has become common currency among many anti-racist academics to claim that allegations of antisemitism are made in bad faith, that such allegations are a way of closing down criticism of Israel – a manoeuvre my former colleague David Hirsh has aptly named “the Livingstone formulation”.

Those of us who take antisemitism seriously – and who want the broader anti-racist movement as well as the wider academic community to take antisemitism seriously – need to make sure that we are robust but also measured in calling out antisemitism.

In an example of an accusation of antisemitism that is far from measured, Douglas Murray – in an op ed in the Express – has accused Southampton University’s forthcoming conference, International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism, of “vile and routine Jew baiting.” This kind of reckless accusation (he calls the conference “a rally of hate”) devalues the concept of antisemitism and undermines the difficult struggle to get it to be taken seriously.

Most criticisms of the conference, however, have not accused it of antisemitism directly. Rather, the accusation has been that it “is likely to result in an increase in antisemitism and tension on campus” (Vivian Wineman) or may “give credence to anti-Semitic views” (Mark Lewis). It is possible that these latter allegations may be well-founded, but if they are, I do not think that this is sufficient grounds to stifle academic debate.

The space of the university should be one in which a range of views are expressed, in which academics and students are free to criticise and indeed question the legitimacy of any or all states. The spirit of free inquiry and free debate is essential to scholarship and the pursuit of knowledge. As Geoffrey Alderman has said, “The core purpose of a university is to pursue the truth and the core methods by which truth is pursued are dialogue and disputation. These methodologies presuppose the free exchange of ideas and the freedom to promote these ideas – no matter how controversial or unpopular they may be – without fear or favour.” This is why I think that Southampton University is right not to cancel this conference organised by its Law Department, and wrong for communal institutions or donors to pressure the university to cancel it.

Those calling for the cancellation of the conference appear to fundamentally misunderstand the role of a university and the principle of academic freedom. “Given the taxpayer-funded university has a legal duty to uphold freedom of speech,” Eric Pickles wrote, “I would hope that they are taking steps to give a platform to all sides.” ““This is a one-sided conference, not a debate,” said Mark Lewis, continuing: “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.”

Such criticisms seem to confuse what goes on in the classroom – where multiple perspectives on issues should be presented – with what goes on in a conference, where scholars should be free to take a position. It is wrong to expect universities to ensure that conferences “give a platform to all sides”. For example, a conference on climate change should not be required to give a platform to climate skeptics, and a philosophy conference should not be expected to give a platform to every school of philosophy.  In fact, universities are legally obliged by the Education Act of 1986 to protect their members’ freedom of speech within the law.

To curtail the right of scholars to criticise Israel – even to deny its right to exist – without giving a platform to opposing views opens up a dangerous precedent too. The same arguments could be extended, for example, to conferences which take a critical stance towards other states and governments, including states and governments which persecute Jews or other minorities.

I would not argue that all academic speech should be defended. I am suspicious of the pious fetishisation of academic freedom or freedom of speech as an absolute right (as in the statement by the MP for Fareham, Mark Hoban, that “academic freedom is sacrosanct”, prefacing his call for that freedom to be curtailed). Thus, for example, I think racism (including antisemitism) and fascism have no place in a university; I support universities or student unions which deny a platform to fascist speakers (such as Marine Le Pen, recently hosted by students at the university where I work, I am ashamed to say.) But these cases are the exceptions and not the rule.

I am sure that I would strongly disagree with the views expressed by many of the speakers at the conference. It may be that some speakers may contribute to a climate in which antisemitism is not taken seriously. These positions, however, should be challenged through argument, and not by banning an event.

I do, though, have sympathy with Jewish scholars and students at Southampton who feel that this conference may contribute to a climate that will be uncomfortable for them – as expressed in the statement by Joachim Schlör, Director of Southampton’s Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations, that the conference “could potentially damage the spirit of dialogue and cooperation that James Parkes brought to Southampton”.

Calls for this conference to be cancelled pose a threat to academic freedom. But this threat is matched by the threat to academic freedom posed by some campus anti-Israel activists. Last year, a talk at the same university’s Optoelectronics Research Centre on the apparently un-contentious topic of optical sensors was cancelled after protests by anti-Israel activists against the Israeli scientist due to give the talk. When protests can effectively make a university a hostile environment for Israelis, even when they are there to talk about something as harmless as optoelectronics, this makes Jewish students feel vulnerable.

Intimidation, boycotts and threats to withdraw funding are all very unhealthy practices in a university. They stifle debate and prevent the production of academic knowledge, and damage community relations on campus. If we take antisemitism seriously we should criticise forms of academic speech that can encourage these practices. But we also need to think very carefully before promoting these practices ourselves in our attempt to combat antisemitism.

John Strawson:  

The Southampton Conference – A Normal Affair

I was very pleased to be asked to participate in the conference organized by the Law School of the University of Southampton, “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism.” It brings together academics and activists from Israel and Palestine as well as Europe and North America. The program contains scholars from a variety of disciplines and with radically different approaches to Palestine and Israel. That is exactly what universities should be doing in creating agendas for discussing complex and controversial issues. I was surprised to find that the conference was controversial. All the participants have specialist knowledge and experience of the issues, which they are talking about.  I am sure it will contribute to our understanding of the role of international law in the conflict: an issue of the upmost importance in the light of the diplomatic and legal initiatives of the PLO. The conference forms part of the everyday business of universities.

John Strawson

Co-director of the Centre on Human Rights in Conflict, University of East London

March 21 2015