LONDON – Faced with growing academic and public protests in advance of a planned three-day conference questioning Israel's existence, Southampton University authorities are believed to be considering canceling the event later this month on "health and safety grounds."
University sources told The Jerusalem Post that a small committee, including representatives of various key departments and its law school professors who initiated the conference, is looking at a number of scenarios. These concern the safety of participants and others on campus because of the threat that demonstrators may cause problems.
While a decision was put off, the organizers were free to reconvene their conference at any one of a number of other venues in Southampton, a major port city on the English south coast. The university would no longer be involved in its organization, should such a decision be taken.
The university confirmed it had been in discussion with the organizers of the conference, titled "International Law and the State of Israel," about the possibility of withdrawing permission for the event to be held on campus. "Any decision will be judged purely on considerations around the health and safety of our staff, students, and for the general public," a university statement said.
But the principal conference organizers, who include Nahariya-born Prof. Oren Ben Dor, were quoted on the Electronic Intifada website effectively conceding that the conference would no longer be held on the Southampton campus. And in a later comment he accused the University of using a 'fig leaf' excuse.
He maintained the university had bowed to pressure at the expense of free speech. "It's clear that security is a fig-leaf to stop the conference," he said. "It's ridiculous to say they cannot ensure the safety of the participants."
He also disclosed that the take-up to date was not as high as they might have anticipated. With just over two weeks to go, only 150 had signed up – half of what they had hoped for.
In their statement, the organizers expressed their "extreme astonishment and sadness" at being told by the university on Monday that it intended to withdraw its permission to hold the conference.
"We were told that the decision was taken on the grounds of health and safety: a number of groups may be demonstrating for or against the conference which could present risks to the safety of the participants, students and staff. The university claims that it does not have enough resources to mitigate the risks, despite a clear statement from the police confirming that they are able to deal with the protest and ensure the security of the event."
They also accused the Zionist lobby of being involved in the decision. "The security argument was used to rationalize a decision to cancel the conference that has been taken under public pressure of the Israeli lobby," the organizing professors said, adding "Freedom of speech inherently involves taking risks, and hence the presence of risk cannot be used to curtail it."
The conference organizers – which included Ben-Dor and Prof. George Bisharat, from the University of California Hastings College of the Law, and Southampton University engineering Prof. Suleiman Sharkh – said they were considering legal action against the university but would also look at finding an alternative venue.
The three-day-long conference aimed to examine "the manner in which injustice in historic Palestine" was shaped by Israel's creation, as well as constitutional bases in international law that may rectify the transgression inherent in the establishment of the Jewish state.
Jewish and non Jewish academics were joined by communal leaders in making clear such a conference, to be addressed by a number of known anti-Zionist academics, including former UN official Richard Falk, is completely unacceptable. This is not least of all because it would be seen as delegitimizing Israel, but could also be the cause of a threatening atmosphere on the campus for Jewish academics and students.
The Zionist Federation, which along with the grass roots group Sussex Friends of Israel had led opposition to the conference, had collected more than 6,500 names on a petition and some members were planning to arrange a peaceful protest demonstration outside the conference venue on its last day, April 19.
Paul Charney, Zionist Federation chairman, told the Post that the conference was never intended to be any kind of balanced, legitimate debate about Israel and international law.
"If any other country had been under discussion, if any other people were having their right to self-determination debated, this event would never have been allowed. And ignore the 'free speech' bleating from the anti-Israel lobby – the vast majority of the supporters of this disgraceful kangaroo court are ardent BDS activists."
They hoped the conference would be canceled altogether, a ZF spokesman said, adding. "We don't think that it was a valid academic discussion."
Meanwhile, along the southern coast at Brighton, Sussex University's notoriously left-wing students union voted overwhelmingly to introduce a boycott of Israeli goods and call on the university to institute an end to academic and cultural links with the Jewish state. The students also agreed to lobby for an end to all investments with Israel and to stop working with Israeli companies.
The Union of Jewish Students (UJS) unequivocally condemned the use of boycotts against Israel along with all other forms of BDS. "UJS has been supporting Jewish students at Sussex in their efforts to fight the boycott referendum and UJS will continue to support our members in the face of the BDS movement."
However Salah Eldin, a member of the Sussex Friends of Palestine society, said: "It was great seeing so much support," adding "I hope more universities in the UK and everywhere would join the BDS movement."