The Battle of Southampton

It all must have seemed so innocent and care-free when Oren Ben-Dor, professor at Southampton University, decided to organise a three-day conference at his place of work. An Israeli law professor, calling for papers and speakers on the subject of Israel and international law – what could be more reasonable than that?

And yet, that decision triggered what can only be termed ‘The Battle of Southampton,’ a drawn-out public campaign that found the university caught in the cross-fire between Israel supporters on one hand, and pro-Palestinians on the other. It evoked the irresistible force of anti-racism versus the unmovable object of freedom of speech. And finally, it has prompted the most remarkable victory the British Jewish community has seen in years.

You see, when Ben-Dor convened his little get-together, he had a very narrow and, in hindsight, unfortunate focus. This wouldn’t be some all-encompassing, free-wheeling debate on how the Jewish state’s actions or policies relate to global legal norms. Instead, Ben-Dor had something a bit a more “unique” in mind:

“This conference will be the first of its kind and constitutes a ground-breaking historical event on the road towards justice and enduring peace in historic Palestine. It is unique because it concerns 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.”

Ben-Dor might now wish that he had dressed this description up in some of the famously impenetrable language that the ivory towers have become notorious for. As it is, he set the scene with admirable bluntness – and then, in case you were in any doubt as to what the party line on Israel’s legitimacy would be, he followed it up with this:

“The conference aims to explore the relatedness of the suffering and injustice in Palestine to the foundation and protection of a state of such nature and asks what role International Law should play in the situation.”

So there you have it. Not a question on, say, how Israel represents the legally-protected right to national self-determination. Not how international law might be used to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so that both people’s rights are respected. How is this conference, to make an obvious Pesach joke, different to all others? Because this one would have argued that Israel’s very creation and continued existence are illegal and immoral.

In previous years, the event would probably have gone ahead without any notice. But the British Jewish community are becoming ever more concerned with the world’s irrational obsession with the Jewish state, an obsession that both reflects and promotes increasingly dangerous anti-Semitism. At a time when Syria no longer exists as a country, you want to debate the fact that Israel still does? For us, this was a tipping point.

So we raised our voices. From leading representatives, to grassroots activists, all played a role in spreading and amplifying the message that this event was bigoted, harmful – and shouldn’t go ahead. Our outrage was covered by the media, both here and abroad, with one prominent columnist dubbing the conference a “hate-fest.” Politicians gave us their backing, expressing concern for the reputation of a university that held such an ill-conceived venture. Petitions were signed, protests announced. Funders apparently threatened to withdraw their backing. One prominent alumni returned his degree in disgust.

I don’t think there was any widespread belief that we would be successful. Our main concern was to make it clear that putting an academic stamp on this kangaroo court wouldn’t go unopposed. On a pragmatic level, it might diminish the possibility of future events of this type being scheduled. On a moral one, it would show that we would not go silently into the night. We would rage (within carefully-observed legal boundaries, of course) against the dying of the light.

And then, with only a few weeks to go, Ben-Dror released an astonishing statement, announcing that the conference organisers had been warned by the university that their event was about to be cancelled. As coverage of the issue exploded, and speculation mounted, the university remained tight-lipped, stating only that the event was still “under review.”

For a moment, it appeared that Ben-Dror had played a blinder. His warning galvanised the anti-Israel brigade, whose reaction was as swift as it was hypocritical. These ardent proponents of BDS, who can’t encounter even Hebrew-speaking musicians, dancers or actors without demanding they be banned, suddenly came over all #JeSuisCharlie. The university must not succumb to external pressure by cancelling, they cried – whilst simultaneously doing everything they could to make sure it succumbed to their pressure by not cancelling.

It was a wasted effort. Southampton confirmed the cancellation, citing “safety concerns” about potential protests. (In one of the rare moments of agreement between the two sides, both pro and anti-Israel advocates saw this is a handy get-out clause, a convenient way to escape the Gordian Knot the university had found itself entangled in.) It might not have referenced our concerns, or acknowledged our criticisms. It might have inadvertently given ammunition to those who promote anti-semitic ideas about the nefarious influence of those mysterious, nebulous “Zionists” who only exist in the pages of the Protocols. But it was still a win.

That much is clear from the fury of the Pro-Palestinian mob, their anger at this apparent act of grand censorship temporarily blanking from their collective memory the many, many times Israeli speakers have been forced off campus, often due to very real physical risk. Trying to spin some sense of consolation out of an unprecedented loss, one arch-BDSer has accused the pro-Israel community of over-reaching, of showing its desperation by now trying to simply ban any discussion of Israel whatsoever.

So here’s a clarification of the issue, for all these fair-weather champions of academic freedom. Yes, in theory, a university has the right to hold a conference on anything it likes – but in reality it wouldn’t. It wouldn’t hold a conference on any other country’s right to exist, for example. In most cases, this is because such a debate would be a huge waste of time and money. Should France exist? Or China? These countries are so solid, so established, that you as might as well be debating the existence of rain, or love, or the colour blue. It makes as much sense, or difference, to debate whether New Zealand should exist as whether Old Zealand should.

(One of the media outlets that really went to town on emphasising how freedom of speech was being crushed by “the Israel lobby” was the Putin-linked Russian news site RT, which is strange given that Russia is about as well known for freedom of speech as it is for not being anti-semetic. But again with the hypocrisy – given the risks you take for criticising Putin, I’d hate to see what the reaction would be to a conference devoted to arguing Russia should be dissolved.)

But there’s also a whole raft of countries who do not take their existence for granted, who have experienced independence only recently. Zionism was not the only movement of national liberation in the 20th century, Jews not the only group who had to struggle for self-determination. I’m sure there are any number of Serb supremacists who would love to convene a scholarly discussion on why Kosovo should be subsumed back into Serbia. There must be many old school racists with unpalatable views on how much better it would be if certain African countries went back to being colonies. Nonetheless, no reputable university would schedule events along these lines.

This is also, ironically, true of the debate surrounding the creation of a Palestinian state, the current flavour of the month in European diplomatic circles. There are numerous reasons one could muster to argue against a state of Palestine being birthed – lack of coherent national identity, inability to function due to competing governments, absence of territorial contiguity, high likelihood of being a failed state, certitude of immediate conflict with at least one of her neighbours, etc. But I can’t imagine a university would hold a conference framed in these negative terms, implicitly endorsing that such a state would be a disaster. And I don’t believe for one second the Palestinian Lobby would let it pass without protesting either.

In Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent account in The Atlantic of his travels through Europe he paints a bleak picture of our community’s future on this continent, and one doesn’t necessarily need to accept his pessimistic conclusions (spoiler alert: keep that spare suitcase packed) to wince in recognition. But in amongst all the heart-breaking anecdotes, there was one choice quote from David Cameron, Britain’s Prime Minister, that really resonated:

“As well as the new threat of extremist Islamism, there has been an insidious, creeping attempt to delegitimise the state of Israel, which spills over often into anti-Semitism. We have to be very clear about the fact that there is a dangerous line that people keep crossing over. This is a state, a democracy that is recognized by the UN, and I don’t think we should be tolerant of this effort at delegitimisation. The people who are trying to make the line fuzzy are the delegitimisers.”

On this occasion, it was the anti-Israel brigade who over-reached, who tipped over into such blantant anti-Zionism as to be unacceptable to a much wider number of people than they could ever have anticipated. Cameron’s fuzzy line of delegitimisation became our battle line, and it’s a battle I’m glad we won.

About the Author
Paul Charney is chairman of the ZF (the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland). The ZF is the UK’s grass roots activist organisation for Israel. Each year the ZF initiates events, ranging from lobbies of Parliament to events on campuses to empower Jewish students to stand up for Israel in hostile environments. As Israel is constantly subjected to campaigns in the press to delegitimize its existence, the Zionist Federation continues to stand at the forefront to ensure the dynamic future of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.