By columnist Jenni Frazer
During our seders, many of us will have questions about freedom. Freedom for our people who escaped from Egypt; freedom for 21st century Jews to live in peace; and, inevitably, freedom of speech and the power of language.
Last week I was involved in a Twitter spat with an Israeli-based journalist who – naively in my view – thought that the fuss being made over the projected Southampton University conference about the legal basis for Israel was just that – a fuss. Many participants, he opined, were of Jewish background or Israeli. “We have conferences like this in Israel,” he wrote, “and academics who believe this; why is that a problem for academics to debate?” I tried explaining to this person – whose blushes I will spare by not identifying him – that the conference was going to be a hate-fest, full of people who associate with dyed-in-the-wool antisemites.
I also tried to tell him that it was disgraceful that a mainstream university like Southampton should host such a conference, and that the very fact of its doing so lent a credibility to the narrative which needed treading on before it became the norm. It’s unlikely that I convinced him, since Israelis, as we know, always know better than diaspora Jews, grubbing along in our self-imposed ghettoes.
I don’t suppose this journalist would even flicker at the reminder that last August, this very university prevented an academic speaking. He was a professor in engineering sciences at Ben-Gurion University, Mark Auslender, who had been due to speak about optical sensors and their use in health care. Professor Auslender’s “crime” was to be an Israeli, and thus his planned address, at the invitation of Southampton’s Optoelectronics Research Centre, was cancelled.
Those who have been most outspoken about the opposition to the Southampton conference – organised, inevitably, by an Israeli-born academic, Professor Oren Ben-Dor – have complained of an attack on freedom of speech.
On Tuesday, a petulant froth of an email was posted by the organisers, who charged Southampton with caving in to “bullying, threats, lobbying and censorship” as they announced that the university had decided not to host the conference.
According to the organisers, whose whining would be almost funny if it weren’t so extraordinarily hypocritical, the university declined to host the event because of concerns about counter-demonstrations and the ability of the police to provide security.
This move, apparently, “rationalised a decision to cancel the conference under public pressure from the Israel lobby. “Freedom of speech involves taking risk, and hence the presence of risk cannot be used to curtail it”, they trumpeted.
And best of all: “This is a sad decision for freedom of speech and for historic Palestine (which includes what is now the Jewish state of Israel and the 1967 Occupied Territories) and ALL the people who live there.” Well, well. The biters bit. It’s taken some time – and it’s not over yet, because Ben-Dor and his mates are now threatening “legal emergency measures” to get the university to reverse its decision to cancel the conference – but it does seem as though Southampton has seen sense.
Freedom of speech, that precious commodity, wasn’t raised as a teaspoon of a thought when poor Professor Auslender was prevented from speaking last August. No freedom of speech protection for him, no rush to the barricades by Professor Ben-Dor to complain.
It’s a wonder that Ben-Dor himself isn’t subject to a boycott, since Professor Auslender was not permitted to give his address because he is an Israeli academic. Presumably Ben-Dor has found a way around this. Now the conference organisers, who wail that they feel “disempowered and marginalised”, are on the back foot. On Sunday, perhaps feeling the stormclouds gathering, columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown complained of opponents of “freedom of expression and academic discourse”.
Writing in the Independent, categorising the projected conference as “scholarly deliberations” and the opponents as “agitators”, she declared: “Hamas is a wicked and dangerous force in the Middle East. But Israel is now more wicked and dangerous”.
I somehow doubt that. For grinding self-publicists whose very point is to say something shocking, ignoring them may be the best policy. But as far as the Southampton event was concerned, ignoring it wouldn’t have helped.
It was not an issue of academic freedom or legitimate criticism. It was questioning whether Israel has the right to exist. If my dopey Israeli colleague doesn’t get that and its unacceptability, he’s in the wrong job.