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

Alan Johnson on his recent debate with Norman Finkelstein

Professor Alan Johnson, senior research fellow for Bicom and editor of Fathom journal, writes in the JC about his recent debate with Professor Norman Finkelstein at Kings College.

He did not mention the antisemitic murders in Toulouse, Paris, Brussels or Copenhagen. Instead, he told the audience that the opinion polls that have been reporting a rise in antisemitism were stupid. How so? Well, he said, agreement with statements about Jews do not indicate antisemitism if those statements are… true.

You see, he informed the students, Jews do think they are better than anyone else and Jews do bang on about the Holocaust too much to gain sympathy (“doesn’t every sane person think that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust?” he asked, mockingly, to laughter). And so on.

The taboos fell like nine pins. “Jews are tapped into the networks of power and privilege,” he said. “You marry a Jew, it opens doors,” because Jews are “the richest ethnic group in the United States”. Maybe there was some little stigma, sometimes, directed at some Jews, but so what? It’s not nice, but it is “socially inconsequential”. In fact – he actually said this, I have the tape – it is more socially consequential to be short, fat, bald or ugly than to be Jewish. “Look,” he said, “most people carry on in life, bearing these stigmas. It’s called life. Get used to it.”

How bad was it? So bad that, during the discussion period, the press officer from the Stop the War group stood up and objected: “Hold on, we do need to take antisemitism

Read the whole article here.

David Icke pays a lot of money in damages


David Icke

While David Icke was a Green Party Principal Speaker in the late ’80s, others in the party such as David Taylor (a subsequent Principal Speaker) took the lead in raising the alarm about his conspiracy theories. The main focus of criticism was Icke’s book ‘The Robot’s Rebellion’(1), which used the well known antisemitic text ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ as a major source to repeatedly link Jews with a global elite of Illuminati.

Although Icke was no longer Principal Speaker, he was still associated with the party, not least by the media. The campaign to expose his antisemitism spread beyond the Green Party. There was some success persuading venues not to host him.

Icke retaliated by accusing David Taylor of being one of the reptile humans who were conspiring to take over the world. He also libelled one of the activists, Canadian human rights lawyer Richard Warman.

From Warman’s site:

“British conspiracy writer David Icke and co-defendants have paid Canadian human rights lawyer Richard Warman $210,000 CDN (117,000 GBP) in damages and legal costs to settle a libel action against them.

In 1999-2000, Warman had worked with various Jewish and anti-racism groups to notify public venues in Canada of discriminatory elements within Icke’s mishmash of conspiracy theories. After being provided with material from Icke’s own writings, a number of these venues withdrew permission for Icke to use their facilities in his tours.

In retaliation, Icke included false allegations in his 2001 book Children of the Matrix that Warman was seeking to suppress Icke’s purported exposure of Satanic child abuse and murder.

Warman said “This settlement exposes Icke’s argument that no one had ever sued him because his allegations were true as nothing more than a fallacy.””

Read it all.

Richard Warman

This may be less a triumph over antisemitism than a triumph over defamation, but it is very helpful in discrediting a still-popular political character with antisemitic views. And for those like David Taylor and Richard Warman who stood up to Icke on antisemitism and suffered for it, this is justice. Spread the word.

But in case you’re thinking we’re out of the woods, you should know that politically-experienced Green Party supporters are still instinctively amplifying David Icke on Twitter. And does anybody know if Steve Mason (who I love) is still leaving the Ickey bit at the end of ‘Fight Them Back’ out of his live shows? Conspiracy beliefs and their devoted adherents are the outriders for hard right thinking.


Unlinked because I don’t want this crap going even a tiny bit up the search engine rankings. Copy and paste into your browser address bar.


Image credit

50 Days in the Summer: Gaza, political protest and antisemitism in the UK

This very clear and measured report was commissioned to assist the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism. Ben Gidley, a Senior Researcher at the University of Oxford’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, explores the impact of events in the Middle East on antisemitic discourse in the UK.

It seems certain that last July’s spike in antisemitic incidents was connected to Operation Protective Edge. This report sets out to investigate trickier questions about the nature and degree of antisemitic discourse associated with protests against Israel, and the effects of the way the media reported both on the conflict and the demonstrations (p.2).

The report emphasises the importance of context in determining antisemitism. Whereas a Palestinian flag is not antisemitic if carried in a protest outside the Israeli embassy, the presence of the same flag would have a clear antisemitic charge outside a kosher deli or synagogue (p.4)

Some cases are more complex. Gidley suggests that the phrase ‘child murderers’, if directed at Israel, is ‘potentially legitimate criticism’ (p. 5). But it may trigger sensitivities due to the antisemitic blood libel trope. Inevitably there are grey areas where sincere disagreement or misunderstanding may occur.

In fact most of the placards visible at demonstrations against Israel were not antisemitic, the report concludes (p. 6). However there were some exceptions, mostly focused on familiar tropes:

Variations on the historic blood libel, malicious uses of Holocaust comparison, attributions of Jewish collective responsibility or dual loyalty, and images of Jewish power.

Many children did die in Gaza, and it’s not surprising that Israel’s critics focus on this issue. However, it’s equally unsurprising that ‘British Jews, sensitive to the use of the blood libel in triggering pogroms historically, may be likely to experience accusations of antisemitism through this lens.’ (p. 7) And, when the phrase ‘child murderers’ moves away from the street protest and is pinned onto a synagogue – then clearly the boundary has been crossed.

Holocaust comparisons are another common vector for antisemitism. ‘Holocaust inversion’ casts Israel as the new Nazis, Palestinians as the new Jews, and, just a little more subtly but hardly less offensively, Jews are blamed for not learning the correct lessons from the Holocaust (p. 8).

There’s some very precise analysis of the mechanisms at work in the cross-pollination between far left anti-Zionism and far-right antisemitism.

In many cases, anti-Israel activists in perfectly good faith recirculate material from far right provenance. Thus casual and unwitting low-level forms of antisemitism circulating in the wider culture can reinforce and draw people towards more ideological forms of antisemitism.

Presumably this re-circulation occurs without antisemitic intent, but it legitimates and normalises ideologically antisemitic discourse. Those already exposed to casual forms of Holocaust inversion in anti-Israel context are more receptive to Holocaust denial; those already exposed to casual forms of Jewish power allegation are more receptive to complex ideologically driven conspiracy theories. (p. 10)

Gidley then expands on the importance of recognizing that actions or words may have no antisemitic intent yet still be ‘objectively’ antisemitic in their impact (p. 11).

In its discussion of the media, the report emphasises the need for the Jewish press to report antisemitism responsibly, and not use hyperbole to create unnecessary tension. But it also rightly insists on the need for ‘mainstream Britiain to understand and take seriously the insecurity of the community.’ (p. 13)

Finally, a worrying tendency to overlook or dismiss accusations of antisemitism is analyzed, and identified as a particular danger when Israel receives such disproportionate scrutiny in the media, particularly the left wing media.

Book Review | Jews and the Left: The Rise and Fall of a Political Alliance – David Hirsh

This review, by David Hirsh, is published in the fathom1832718529

Social theorists sometimes enjoy treating the ‘now’ as the key turning point of history; they like it because it puts their own intellectual work of understanding centre stage. With this often comes nostalgia for a past which exists partly in their own imagination, extrapolated from a few fixed points of fact and anecdote. And it looks to a future, either rosy or apocalyptic, depending on the extent to which the theorist’s understanding is taken on board.

We tend already to have pictures in our heads of the relationship between Jews and the Left which fit comfortably with our own worldviews. Jewish conservatives tend to see the Left as a constant threat which is always tempted to position the Jews as being central to what is bad in the world; they see the Left as being ever hopeful that Jewishness itself will wither away alongside the other vestiges of oppressive society. The Jewish left, on the other hand, is nostalgic for authentic ‘Jewish values’ which, naturally, mirror its own; it pictures the Jews as being forged as a radical people by oppression and exclusion, and it emphasises a coincidence of interest between the Jews and all of the diverse oppressed in the world.

Philip Mendes’s book informs and challenges our happy processes of narrative construction with scholarly research and it offers a more detailed study of how things have actually been in particular times and places. It gives us more fixed points which discipline and shape the stories we tell ourselves; it offers us a more complex and human picture than some of us would like to assimilate into our schemas of history.

An interesting imbalance which Mendes describes is that while a significant minority of Jews were influential within the radical left, a substantial majority of Jews remained outside of it. Most Jews did not commit themselves to changing the world such that antisemitism, as well as other forms of injustice were eradicated; more of them embraced one variant or another of Jewish nationalism, or they emigrated to more hospitable places such as the USA, Canada or Britain, or they remained inward looking, focusing on their own religious communities. The Jews who either eschewed or performed their Jewish identities in relation to their membership of the radical left were not typical. A contemporary imbalance follows: while a large and influential proportion of left anti-Zionists are Jewish, only a very small percentage of Jews are anti-Zionists.

On the other hand, argues Mendes, the Left, broadly conceived, did have a number of contact points with the wider Jewish communities. The Left’s universalist tradition of equality coincided with the interest in emancipation of the Jews; many Jews in Europe and Russia were poor and the Left championed the poor; there was a Jewish tradition of literacy and intellectualism which fed easily into the Left and that attracted some Jews; Jews moved toward the towns and cities early and the Left was a significantly urban movement; Jews often had an ambiguous place in relation to the identities of the emerging nationalisms amongst which they lived, as did the Left, so notions of cosmopolitanism had the potential to become a shared value, as well as a source of particular hostility from the outside.

Many who have witnessed, or even experienced in themselves, the angrily disproportionate and highly emotional hostility which some instantiations of radical Jewish identity can engender towards the mainstream of the Jewish community, have wondered if there might be some psychological explanation for the phenomenon; Jews who loathe Israel, Jews who cannot smell antisemitism, Jews who long for assimilation, Jews who themselves seem to repeat or endorse antisemitic stereotypes, Jews who find justifications for the antisemitism of others; Jews whose special loathing is reserved for other Jews. Is there something about their own Jewish heritage, something within themselves, part of their own identities, which they hate? Mendes says no. He argues that these are political questions and not psychological ones and that the phenomenon of Jewish anti-Zionism requires political, not psychological analysis.

But Mendes outlines some significant and, for many Jews, deal-breaking chapters in the relationship between the Jews and the Left. There were always streams of anarchism, socialism and anti-capitalism which thought of hostility to ‘Jewish capitalism’ and ‘Jewish banking’ as being educative for the would-be socialist masses on their journey towards hostility to capitalism and banking in general. When movements came to power in Russia and Eastern Europe which described themselves as socialist, they were also pioneers of state-imposed antisemitism; the experience of Nazism did little to inoculate Communist states against antisemitism, it only drove them to articulate it in slightly different formulations. Slansky, the (himself viciously anti-democratic) President of ‘socialist’ Czechoslovakia was driven out of power by an antisemitic witch-hunt and he was found guilty of ‘bourgeois Jewish nationalism’. Stalin, towards the end of his life, was more and more committed to an outright war of annihilation against Soviet Jews, the start of which was discernible in the ‘Doctors’ plot’ trial.

In times when how we feel about the relationship between Jews and the Left is allowed more significance than it really deserves, Mendes’s book is a scholarly seam of research and measured analysis. In particular, we live in a time when young antiracists and scholars are socialised to feel that Israel, and the Jews who are held to support it, are at the very centre of all that is bad in the world. We should use this book to teach them something about the actual histories of Jews in the world and about the harm which can flow from a worldview which appropriates the image of the Jew as a universal symbol. This book substitutes fact for feeling and analysis for symbolism.

This review, by David Hirsh, is published in the fathom

Jews are allowed to talk about the Holocaust without being accused of acting in bad faith – Alan Johnson

This piece, by Alan Johnson, is published on

‘The Livingstone Formulation’ is a term coined by the academic David Hirsh to refer to the practice of responding to claims of antisemitism by alleging that those making the claim are only doing so to prevent Israel from being criticised. In other words, the Jews are accused of “playing the antisemitism card”.

On Tuesday, with the Israeli Prime Minister still on his feet addressing a joint session of Congress, the BBC’s Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen, lip curled, tweeted “#NetanyahuSpeech He acknowledges Elie Wiesel in audience. Once again Netanyahu plays the Holocaust card. Don’t repeat mistakes of the past”.

Mr Bowen’s idea is that when an Israeli leader mentions the Holocaust he is being tricksy, manipulative, acting in bad faith, “playing a card” to get narrow advantage in contemporary politics, not really expressing a genuine thought about the Holocaust itself or a genuine fear about a second, nuclear, Holocaust.

And that idea, of the Bad Faith Jew, is unmistakably dripping in the assumptions and myths of classic antisemitism.

Mr Bowen did what only the antisemitic extremists used to do, reduce the invocation of the Holocaust to a common sense indicator of ‘Zionist’ bad faith and something to disdain.

Well, the Holocaust happened. It happened to the Jews. And now the Jews are threatened again by a genocidal regime. These are facts.

Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promised to “wipe Israel off the face of the earth”.

On 23 July 2014, the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenai wrote: “This barbaric, wolflike & infanticidal regime of #Israel which spares no crime has no cure but to be annihilated.”

Benjamin Netanyahu had every right — nay, a duty — as Israel’s Prime Minister, to remind the world what happens when we appease murderous tyrannies that promise genocide against the Jews.

To sneer and attack him for doing so, to dismiss his words as “playing the Holocaust card”; well, it was a bloody disgrace.

Shame on you, Jeremy Bowen.

Prof Alan Johnson is a Senior Research Fellow at Bicom

This piece, by Alan Johnson, is published on

SOAS is not boycotting Israel – Colin Shindler

This piece, written by Colin Shindler, is published on

The Qatari-owned website Al Araby proudly proclaimed that “SOAS becomes the first UK university to boycott Israel”.

This was patently untrue. It was not “SOAS” the institution that voted – not the governing body, not the administration, not even formally the lecturers’ union, but an invented “SOAS community”. Anyone could vote who wanted to – including the SOAS cleaners and security guards.

The results of the student-led BDS referendum by this “SOAS community” demonstrated that 74 per cent of students did not vote for the motion- and this stretches to 86 per cent if the distance-learning students are included.

SOAS is unusual in London colleges in that its first-class programmes rightly attract many students from the Arab and Islamic worlds – and they would understandably vote for BDS.

It is patently untrue that the school has backed a boycott

On the other hand, the administration itself is neither pro-nor anti-Israel, but strongly defends freedom of expression and the right to a different narrative. When there were calls to ban a series of lectures by Tel Aviv University academics, which coincided with Operation Cast Lead in 2009, the SOAS administration steadfastedly refused to capitulate.

While Israel is certainly not the flavour of the month at SOAS, the institution is also one of the leaders in Israel studies in this country and is the headquarters of the European Association of Israel Studies.

Attending SOAS forces Jewish students to examine their Jewish identity and their relationship to Israel. They emerge stronger and better informed than their elders and peers. Many SOAS students leave to work for Jewish and Israeli organisations, including the Zionist Federation and the Israel Embassy.

Even so, selective outrage about the Israeli presence on the West Bank has instigated saturation coverage by the SOAS unions for many years. The local lecturers’ union was formerly a stronghold of the far left Socialist Workers Party. The SWP founder, Yigael Gluckstein, opposed conscription into the British Army to fight Nazism in Mandatory Palestine in the 1940s. His approach followed the Trotskyist line that World War II was a conflict between two rival imperialisms – one as bad as the other.

Such convoluted thinking has characterised other campaigns. It is therefore not surprising that there has been union silence at SOAS on the Charlie Hebdo killings as well as the Syrian tragedy.

The referendum organisers’ congratulatory self-deception at the results masks the inability of the BDS movement to make a breakthrough in changing the political reality in Israel.

Successive right-wing governments are elected. Periodic conflicts with the Islamists continue. The settlement drive moves forward. And BDS advocates preach the same mantra.

BDS has been very successful in attracting celebrities to its standard who bemoan the Palestinian plight. But public relations is not public reality. It entrenches positions and reinforces the politics of stagnation that is debilitating for Israeli and Palestinian alike.

Colin Shindler is an emeritus professor at SOAS. His book The Rise of the Israeli Right will be published by Cambridge University Press later this year

This piece, written by Colin Shindler, is published on

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