Letters in today’s Guardian (April 6) highlight the growing threat to artistic and academic freedom by pro-Israel lobbyists seeking to criminalise criticism of the Zionist state.
Playwright Caryl Churchill, a leading signatory of the UK Artists’ Pledge for Palestine, noted the alarming conjunction of a threat to funding of arts institutions that decline Israeli state links and cancellation of an academic conference planned for April 17-19 at the University of Southampton after Zionist pressure.
The organisers have launched a legal challenge to the decision to cancel. See lower down this post for a message from Southampton Students for Palestine explaining the campaign to raise funds to support the challenge.
“All Charlie Hebdo?” wrote Churchill, alluding to the collective outpouring of official outrage at the murder of cartoonists in France in January. “Except when freedom of expression means freedom to criticise Israel.”
Another letter, from Professors Hilary and Steven Rose, prominent proponents of the academic boycott, said the university had “shamefully capitulated to pressure from the pro-Israel lobby”, as evidenced by the statement issued by the university authorities.
The university had initially listened to the hundreds of academics who rallied in support of the conference despite a barrage of attacks from a roll-call of Tories and Israel lobbyists, among them Communities Minister Eric Pickles, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Zionist Federation. Pickles & Co alleged that the conference was a one-sided antisemitic rant against Israel’s “right to exist” and threatened demonstrations and disruption if it went ahead. This seems to have been what forced vice-chancellor Prof Don Nutbeam to announce the cancellation on unconvincing “health and safety” grounds.
A letter the Guardian declined to publish, submitted by Tony Greenstein on behalf of J-BIG (full text at the bottom of this post) contrasted this cowardice with the fate of Danish film director, Finn Noergaard, killed at a cafe in Copenhagen in February while defending the right to debate freedom of speech.
The organisers of the three-day Southampton conference, titled International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism, had assembled an array of expert participants from around Europe, North America and the Middle East, including many Jews. If the conference programme lacked representation from Israel’s friends, it is because invitations issued by the organisers to defenders of Zionism were rejected by the recipients.
As explained by Prof Haim Bresheeth on the website of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP), Israel and its apologists are resorting to all possible means to prevent the issues addressed by the conference being aired.
One of the conference organisers, engineering professor Suleiman Sharkh, a Palestinian from Gaza, explained its importance.
“International law was responsible for our misery. It was used to legalize the theft of our homes and it continues to be used to legalize the ongoing oppression of my people by the State of Israel. The questions asked by the conference are therefore questions that I have been asking all my life. They are important questions that need to be answered.”
Account number: 26617360
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J-BIG LETTER SUBMITTED TO THE GUARDIAN
The decision of Southampton University to cancel a Conference on Israel and the State of Israel [University event questioning Israel’s right to exist is cancelled, Guardian 31st March] is a disgraceful surrender to powerful bullies. Zionist groups have a long track record of trying to ban anything they disagree with, given their inability to defend the indefensible. The normal response is to stand up to them.
It was less than three months ago that four million people and world leaders marched in France in support of freedom of speech, in the wake of the murder of the journalists of Charlie Hebdo. Amongst them was David Cameron. If Cameron was sincere he would sack Eric Pickles MP from his government for having lent his support to the call to ban an academic conference.
The use of health and safety as the pretext to cancel the conference is absurd and illogical. Is it really being suggested that Southampton University was incapable of protecting those attending the conference? The Police were quite confident they could deal with any threats.
Southampton’s charter includes a commitment to secure academic freedom. With this decision it has been shown to be worthless.
It was barely a month ago that Danish film director, Finn Noergaard, was killed [while defending the right to] debate [on] freedom of speech. The actions of Southampton University’s Vice Chancellor Don Nutbeam and the university administration in failing to uphold the basic norms of a democratic society are an act of abject cowardice. If they have any integrity left they should collectively resign.
Professor Haim Bresheeth
Professor (Emeritus) Moshe Machover
(Dr) Les Levidow