America's President Barack Obama has declared war on Israel. The animosity between Obama and his administration toward Israel and its newly re-elected leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been growing for years; it reached crisis point after Netanyahu's address to the U.S. Congress and news of his resounding victory in the March elections.
This does not mean that the United States, as a whole, shares this animosity or is bent on abandoning a vulnerable and beleaguered democracy to its host of violent and uncompromising predators. Polls show it does not.
But wars against Israel are nothing new. In 1947, months before the country was even declared independent, Arabs launched a war that led uninterruptedly to a full-scale conflict in 1948. Since then, physical violence -- wars and individual terrorist attacks -- against the State of Israel has been a feature of everyday life for Israelis, with Jews as the principal targets. No legally established, democratic country has ever been faced with so great a lust for its destruction and so many assaults on its people. It is singled out by a United Nations dominated by Muslim states and their allies; and now, bewilderingly, by the president of the one country on whom Israelis have always depended for moral and material support.
Of course, not even Obama is likely to wage war directly on Israel by sending in armed forces, but he is making life easier for Israel's sworn enemies, notably Iran, to think they can use their monstrous banks of armaments to launch just such an attack without fearing U.S. intervention.
As the Middle East collapses all around Israel, as jihadi factions grow bolder and more barbaric, and as Iran spreads its reach into Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, Israel has become the canary in the West's coal mine.
In addition to that, there is now the subversion of Israel's very right to exist through "lawfare," (the frivolous or malicious use of the law for political manipulation); UN Human Rights Commission distortions, and, in many ways the most chilling: the work of teachers and students in Western universities to boycott, divest from and sanction (BDS) Israel.
Followers of Campus Watch or International Academic Friends of Israel, and readers of the essays in The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel (Wayne University Press, 2015) will be only too painfully aware of the decidedly unacademic raw Jew-hatred, posing as anti-Zionism, that has spread across university campuses throughout the United States, Europe and the West, particularly in the UK, Australia, Canada and elsewhere. Hate speech, disruption of lectures, demonstrations, expulsions and grotesquely one-sided lectures, papers and books have replaced the free speech, open debate, and academic neutrality that once characterized all universities within the Western tradition.
A generation of students is growing up learning to tolerate – and consider normal -- bias, falsehood and the runaway politicization of teachers and student thugs permitting only one-sided arguments. Many members of the faculty, radical Muslim teachers, and student thugs permit only one-sided arguments. It has become unpleasant, even a risk, for pro-Israel and Jewish students, such as Daniel Mael at Brandeis University, to lift their heads above the parapet.
In the UK, anti-Israel agitation has been not as violent but just as strong as in the US; and the BDS movement has been severe in many universities. For several years, the Association of University Teachers (AUT), the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) and the (later amalgamated) University and College Union passed boycott resolutions against Israeli academic institutions and individuals. The dominance of intolerantly "liberal" teachers in British educational circles has ensured a hindrance to open and civilized debate within the higher education sector as much as have the students.
Bias and intolerance have now moved in an even more alarming direction. From the 17th to the 19th of April this year, the Law School at Britain's Southampton University had planned to host aconference entitled, "International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism." This was not an internal event, nor was it restricted to academics from the UK. Southampton University is a founding institution in Britain's Russell Group of elite universities and regularly appears among the world's top 100 universities. It has been ranked as fifth in the UK; academics working there include Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web. Its Law School enjoys a worldwide reputation as one of the best in Britain. The conference was intended to be noticed far beyond the shores of the UK.
This global reach was indicated in the list of participants signed up to deliver papers there. Of those listed to give fifty-three papers over three days, eleven were Americans, one was from Singapore, two were from Canada, eight were from Israel, seven were from the West Bank (Judaea and Samaria), two were from Ireland, one was from Lebanon, one was from Austria, one was from Australia, and one was from the Netherlands. With an international roster such as this, you are looking at a major event that had taken over a year to plan. It was clearly an attempt to legitimize a gathering of the clan of the academic anti-Israel fraternity.
The university, after appeals from countless individuals and organizations, stated that it had cancelled the conference. Its organizers spent some £35,000 to ask for a judicial appeal in London's High Court, but on April 14, just days before the conference was due to start, Judge Alice Robinson refused their appeal and upheld the decision to close down the event. The university had argued (rather weakly, it must be said) that fears of violence by demonstrators and their opponents made it necessary to cancel on the grounds of security. Legally, this was probably the only option they had, but it is more than likely that, once serious objections were made and the real purpose of the conference disclosed, they decided that it the conference might well stain their reputation. Unsurprisingly, BDS supporters are already describing the cancellation as capitulation by the university to the "Israel Lobby." And the lawyer acting for the conference organizers, Mark McDonald, has already stated that they may now take their appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
This will not be the last attempt to mount an anti-Israel conference in a university, whether in the UK, Europe, or North America. On April 15, the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University (a notoriously anti-Israel institution) announced an October conference entitled, "The Gaza Strip: History, Future and New Directions for Research," supposedly as a response to Israeli "onslaughts" on the Strip. There was no mention, of course, of the "onslaught" from Gaza on Israel of the thousands of rockets that had invited Israel's response.
It seems appropriate, however, to examine the real reasons why the Southampton conference should never have gone ahead within an academic context in the first place. To begin with, look closely at the participants, at the titles of most of the proposed papers, and at the deeply unbalanced Call for Papers that served to attract Jew-haters and anti-Zionists, and to repel all but a few supporters of Israel and its right to exist.
David Collier has done thorough research on the positions held by the participants in the conference. His list is available here. To simplify matters, 45 of those listed to speak have records of active involvement in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement; some of them had already been active in direct anti-Israel work. Four appear to be neutral. The imbalance is stupendous and makes it hard to believe this conference is simply an anti-Israel and, for some speakers, an "anti-Semitic hate-fest" (as the Tory Chief Whip, Michael Gove,described it recently at London's "We Believe in Israel" conference). Some are leading figures in the movement to defeat Israel and turn it into a Palestinian state. The best known of these is Richard Falk, a professor emeritus at Princeton University and one of the most notorious and outspoken enemies of Israel today. Falk has described the 9/11 atrocity as a conspiracy by the U.S. government; blamed the Boston Marathon bombing on the United States, and condemned Israel non-stop while working for the United Nations as the UN Special Rapporteur for Palestinian Human Rights.
Others stand out for their much-publicized anti-Israel (and, frankly, anti-Semitic) views. Who has not heard of Ilan Pappé, an Israeli who now holds a professorship in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University, but who has been described as "one of the world's sloppiest historians". His book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, has been widely criticized as a biased and inaccurate work that squeezes data to fit the author's narrative, rather than using it objectively to question existing assumptions. His hatred for his own country motivates everything he writes about it.
Dr. Ghada Karmi, of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies in the University of Exeter, is a Palestinian medical doctor, an activist for the Palestinian cause, and a serial hater of Israel who has called for the destruction of the Jewish state. She has written thus about the country: "...Israel, from its inception in 1948, has been given the most wonderful opportunity to behave itself, and it clearly has not done so. It's flouted every single law, it's behaved outrageously, it's made a travesty of international and humanitarian law. On what basis should this state continue to be a member of the United Nations?" Apart from refusing to look at any combative behavior from Palestinians, or the many refusals by Palestinians to reject Israel's offer a Palestinian state, since when is a medical doctor an authority on international law?
One should look not just at the identities of the participants, but also at the titles of many of the papers they were to present. Here are a few. Do not forget to notice the strangled pseudo-academic language in which some are dressed.
- "Maximum Land, Minimum Arabs: Zionist colonization strategies in Palestine" (Nur Masalha).
- "Two Peoples, One Future?: Mutual Self-Determination After the Defeat of Actually Existing Zionism" (Brad Roth).
- "Law, Race & Resistance: The State of Emergency as Apartheid Legality" (John Reynolds).
- "Responsibilities for the Gross Human Rights Violations" (Anthony Löwstedt).
- "Can the Configuration of a political community amount to an International Crime?: reflections on Originary Apartheid, Legalism and Ethical Reflection" (Oren Ben-Dor, the conference organizer).
- "How Legitimate is Israeli Statehood? Factors and implications of the UN creation of Israel" (Ghada Karmi).
- "The Israeli Legal System: The practice and ideology of eternalizing the occupation" (Lea Tsemel).
- "The Legal Infrastructure of Domination and Dispossession: An Appraisal of Israel's Contemporary Territorial Regime in Historic Palestine" (Valentina Azarova).
- "The Case of a State that Refuses the Responsibility Inherent in Statehood" (Yoella Har-Shefi).
- "The Melting Pot of Hatred, or On the Lives of Zionist Practitioners" (Marcelo Svirsky).
- "Israel's Settler Colonialism, Stolen Childhood, and the Creation of Death Zones" (Nader Shalhoub-Kevorkian).
- "We Fight, Therefore We Are! A Muslim De-Colonial Critique of Zionist Epistemology" (Hatem Bazian).
These examples should be enough to identify the extraordinary bias inherent in the conference. The language is typical, not of balanced academic enquiry but of pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel and BDS propaganda. The university's original refusal to respond to calls to cancel, or move the conference to a more neutral venue, fell painfully short of any recognition of how damaging such a farcical event would have been (and actually has been). The administration ignored arguments that lacked bias, and argued that the conference must be allowed to take place based on considerations of free speech. And this is the argument that the conference's supporters have been using ever since, even more since the ban. But that is also false. Most of those who have appealed to the administration have asked, not for an outright ban -- which would indeed go against the principles of free speech -- but for relocation, which is quite different.
It is worth saying in passing that the Call for Papers is, in itself, a very unacademic document. Rather than analyse it in any detail, let me cite just one thing. In just three pages, the Call refers no fewer than seven times to an entity they term "historic Palestine". But the term is meaningless. There is certainly no legal definition of what is meant by "historic Palestine." The region that covers today's West Bank, Israel, Gaza, and Jordan was for centuries the southern half of the Ottoman province of Syria. In 1920, the League of Nations established a British Mandate for Palestine, and in 1922 approved a separate British administration for Transjordan. Between 1923, when the Mandate came into effect, and 1948, when the British withdrew, there was a territory known as Palestine, in which everyone – Christian, Jew and Arab -- was listed on his passport as Palestinian. Is this the "historic Palestine" to which the Call refers? Or does this include the Mandate territory of Transjordan, as the British Colonial Office suggested in 1921? Or is it a fictitious Palestine stretching back to ancient times, as the term is used by the Palestinians and their supporters themselves?
To leave this point so poorly defined makes it hard for a historian such as myself, or a legal scholar, to advance any arguments that might relate to the identity of "historic" Palestine, a name invented in the year 135 AD by the Roman Emperor Hadrian. This alone exposes the conference to a charge of academic dishonesty.
UK Lawyers for Israel, a collective of British lawyers who volunteer to use their legal skills to defend and advocate for Israel, took up the matter of the conference with the university, using arguments based on the Call for Papers. Its secretary and treasurer, David Lewis, wrote a long letter to the Vice Chancellor, in which he noted, among other things that:
It is clear from even the most cursory reading of the Call for Papers that it has been written in a way that could almost have been designed, and probably wasdesigned, to deter supporters of Israel from presenting papers at the conference. In fact we find it mystifying that this inherent bias should have escaped the University when it approved the conference. And if the University gave its approval before even seeing the Call for Papers, then it certainly should not have done so.
Analysis of the Call for Papers is difficult because large chunks of it are almost incomprehensible. But it clearly states as incontrovertible facts: that the State of Israel depended for its "initial existence" on a "unilateral" declaration of independence; that Arabs were expelled in 1947-49; that the Jewish nature of the state has profoundly affected the lives of Israeli Arabs (described as "non-Jewish Arabs who were allowed to stay"); that Jewish nationality bestows vital privileges (i.e. "constitutionally entrenched, privileged citizenship to Jews"); that there are two layers of Israeli citizenship; that there is an inherent differential between Jews and non-Jews; that Israeli settlements are illegal; that there is or was "apartheid colonisation" of the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza; that there are "constitutional challenges of equal citizenship;" and that Israel inflicts "structured suffering" on the "non-Jewish Palestinian Arabs."
The three main "pillar-themes" which the conference is intended to link repeat some of these statements. They further state or assume: that there is such a thing or place as "Historic Palestine" and that Israel exists in that place; that Israel has an "inbuilt non-egalitarian basis" and that the State of Israel is an unjust regime; and (to provide a little variety) that the United States and Australia were established as a consequence [sic] of "extreme violence towards indigenous populations."
One letter sent to this author and cited here with permission, said:
We have to hope... that the academic and legal arguments were the true factors that swayed the university authorities. It is a pity they have not admitted this openly. They have used a face-saving argument rather than confess that the conference was ill-conceived from the beginning and that they had been careless to approve it....
A precedent has been set. Israel haters who try to use the mask of academic enquiry to cover up an extreme political position must accept that the cancellation of the Southampton conference has sent out a message to universities everywhere. Ilan Pappé, Oren Ben Dor, Richard Falk, Ghadi Karmi and hundreds of other academic anti-Israel fanatics will not stop their efforts as a result. No doubt, they will intensify them. But the writing is on the wall: keep your politics out of the groves of academe.