The University of Southampton has bowed to pressure to cancel a highly controversial conference debating the legitimacy of Israeli statehood, it has emerged today, citing “Health and safety”.
UPDATE 01/04/2015: Contrary to the statement released by the organisers of the conference on the 31st, the University maintains that the review process is still ongoing and that the only reason for potential ‘withdrawal of permission’ is health and safety of the staff, students, and public.
The University also maintains that the final decision for cancellation will be up to the organisers of the conference, despite the organisers’ statement saying that the University has withdrawn permission for the conference to go ahead.
It had drawn near universal criticism from Jewish and Israeli interest groups both in the UK and abroad, with the Zionist Federation calling it “a kangaroo court”.
According to The Jerusalem Post, The Jewish Leadership Council, Board of Deputies and the Union of Jewish Students sent a letter to the university to cancel the conference in October 2014.
Research by pro-zionist think tank the Fair Play Campaign Group has identified 80% of the 56 speakers as “anti-Israel activists”. This has lead the board of deputies to previously state:
If the conference cannot be re-structured to revise its tendentious subject title and focus on delegitimising the State of Israel, and to feature a balanced line up of academic contributors, it cannot be treated as a serious and genuine academic study and should be cancelled.
Conservative communities minister Eric Pickles has also weighed in on the debate, advising the University against holding the conference. Pickles told Jewish News:
There is a careful line between legitimate academic debate on international law and the actions of governments, and the far-left’s bashing of Israel which often descends into naked anti-Semitism.
As a result Board of Deputies VP Jonathan Arkush has headed a delegation to meet with the University’s vice-chancellor Don Nutbeam. The delegation and the vice-chancellor have agreed that the conference cannot go ahead on grounds of “Health & Safety”.
The University acknowledges that there will be several parties interested in protesting the conference, for which the security staff cannot be be provided, nor be guaranteed to control the crowds effectively.
Organisers of the conference released a 973 word statement regarding the cancellation, which repudiates this claim, as this short excerpt demonstrates:
As the law stands, the University is legally obliged to uphold freedom of speech, and- unlike in some engineering projects for example where health and safety may be the only legal obligation– the requirement of minimising risk should also fall onto the police as the agency that is entrusted with the enforcement of the law (freedom of speech) and the provision of security.
The mitigating measure should therefore include policing in addition to what the university can reasonably provide using its own security resources. We are therefore extremely dissatisfied with the risk assessment conducted by the University which seems to lack consistency…
The statement goes on to state that legal emergency measures which will prevent the university from cancelling the conference are being explored. The organisers have called for the “widest and most intense public campaign possible that would urgently encourage the university to reverse its decision”.
876 Academics from across the UK and internationally have signed a declaration of support for the conference to go ahead. The cancellation was announced only yesterday.
With the conference and perhaps Southampton’s academic integrity hanging in the balance, the University and its leadership are certain to come under a great deal of international media pressure and scrutiny in the coming days and weeks.
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