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March 13, 2015 7:19 am

What’s at Stake When Anti-Zionism Aims for Academic Respectability?

avatar by Ben Cohen /

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"Israeli Apartheid Week," an annual anti-Israel initiative, in May 2010 on the University of California, Los Angeles campus. Photo: AMCHA Initiative.

JNS.orgA potentially ugly row is brewing in the United Kingdom over an academic conference, due to be held at the University of Southampton in April, which carries the title, “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism.”

Given that a sentence construction like that one will leave most people with their eyes glazed over, let’s just cut to the chase here. The real title of this conference is, “Does the State of Israel Have a Legal Right to Exist? No, Of Course it Doesn’t.”

Hence the growing volley of criticism heading in the direction of Southampton, one of Britain’s better universities. Even politicians are weighing in. Lord Leigh, a prominent member of the Conservative Party, had this to say: “It is very disappointing that a distinguished university like Southampton has organized this conference. They have never held a conference questioning the right of existence of any other country.”

Lord Leigh is absolutely correct on this point, but that won’t bother the organizers one jot. The clue as to why is in the word “exceptionalism” in the conference title. Israel, uniquely in a world that is still dominated by the nation-state system, is a state built upon violence and ethnic cleansing, and the task of academics, therefore, is to unravel the legal implication that inevitably follows: that as a sovereign entity, the Jewish state should be dismantled.

I have to admit that I’m undecided as to how serious a problem this conference is, although it’s important to note that British Jews are incensed by it, and are even circulating a petition appealing to Southampton University not to sully its good name by lending it to a motley crew of fanatical anti-Zionists.

Given that, let me offer one reason as to why we shouldn’t be overly worried. Many of the speakers have been around for what seems like an eternity—so long, in fact, that if Israel, heaven forbid, were to disappear, the immediate result for these folks would be unemployment.

I’m talking here about names like Ilan Pappe, Haim Bresheeth, and Uri Davis, Israelis who have made a career out of denouncing their former country as a racist state beyond reform. I’m talking, too, about Arab propagandists like Victor Kattan, Nur Masalha, and conference co-organizer George Bisharat of the University of California, all of whom have been pushing the “one-state” option—code for the elimination of Israeli sovereignty, and a goal that could only be achieved by exterminating and expelling the vast majority of Israel’s Jewish population—for decades. Gathering these people, along with their fellow genocidaires like Virginia Tilley, another American academic, under one roof is certainly a distasteful proposition. Yet it remains to be seen whether these voices will echo outside of the chamber that Southampton University has so kindly provided them.

Indeed, leafing through the conference program, you get the distinct sense that the proceedings could easily descend into farce. Keynoting is the veteran Princeton University professor Richard Falk, until last year the U.N. special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights, who has established himself over the years as a 9/11 conspiracy theorist, an apologist for the brutal former Gaddafi regime in Libya, and a specialist in outrageous statements such as his conclusion that the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 was a form of “resistance” to America’s “global domination.” For those and other reasons, Falk is regarded—at least outside of his ever-diminishing circle of admirers—as a lunatic whose loathing of his Jewish origins has been a public spectacle throughout his career.

Then there are the unknown names. One that caught my eye was that of Ofra Yeshua-Lyth, another Israeli and a former journalist with the Ma’arivdaily newspaper. The subject of a flattering profile on the anti-Semitic website Mondoweiss, Yeshua-Lyth introduced herself by saying, “I remember myself as a journalist explaining that a secular democratic state is actually a call for the annihilation of Israel. Today I say the same thing. It’s true, but now I support it.”

It is amazing that a conference supposedly predicated on the imperatives of international law should feature a speaker who speaks of the “annihilation” of the Jewish state like she’s ordering a cup of coffee. But that’s actually what Yeshua-Lyth was doing when she uttered that obscenity; according to the Mondoweiss contributor who interviewed her, their conversation took place in a cafe in Tel Aviv’s trendy Florentin neighborhood. While sipping her latte, Yeshua-Lyth, clearly warming to her theme, described herself as a dissident and an “opponent of the regime.” Kol Hakavod, as the Israelis might say—an easy sentiment to express when you haven’t got the Mukhabarat, or secret police, breathing down your neck. It’s also a sickeningly immoral one: barely four hours away from the bars and coffee shops of Florentin is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis since World War II—to be precise, in Syria, where the number of refugees and displaced (more than half the country) makes you wonder in despair why the Palestinian Arab refugee population created by the exterminationist war launched against Israel by the Arab states in 1948 is still the favored obsession of academics ostensibly specializing in the Middle East as a whole.

So on one level, this conference is more of the same: the same speakers, the same themes, the same visceral hatred not just of the Jewish state, but of the expression of Jewish identity in nearly any form you can think of. (There is a grudging acceptance of those Jews whose sole mission is to campaign for the so-called Palestinian “right of return.”) You need only look at the output of the main conference organizer, Southampton professor Oren Ben-Dor (yep, another “ex-Israeli”) for confirmation. For Ben-Dor is known, when he is known at all, as a particularly sycophantic defender of Gilad Atzmon, the “ex-Israeli” jazz musician and writer who flirts with Holocaust denial and believes that American Jews are living proof that the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” was not the vile fabrication that most respectable historians have judged it to be.

But I’m reluctant to summarily dismiss the conference as irrelevant. The reason is simply this: Ben-Dor’s initiative aims to turn anti-Zionism from a variation of traditional anti-Semitic ideology into an academic methodology. In other words, the point of departure for this conference, as well as the writings of its participants, is that Israel’s illegitimacy must be recognized as a “fact” that is not open to debate.

Given how Middle East studies have degenerated in America in recent decades, as documented by academics like Martin Kramer, we shouldn’t be surprised if the Southampton conference repeats itself on this side of the Atlantic. And the danger lies not in the impact these ideas will have on the policy of the current and successive administrations, but in the establishment of a norm among students of the Middle East that Israel, by definition, shouldn’t be in the region in the first place.

I’ve often said that the United Nations’ notorious 1975 resolution equating Zionism with racism was never really rescinded, despite a one-line resolution that hurriedly dispensed with that formulation in 1991. The Southampton conference, along with annual events like “Israeli Apartheid Week,” is evidence that the warped, Soviet-inspired ideology behind “Zionism is racism” still remains a factor in apparently informed debate about the region. For Southampton University, therefore, the immediate issue is its academic reputation. But for the Jewish community, inside and outside of Israel, the stakes are infinitely higher.

Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily, and many other publications.

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  • Gene

    Jews need to acknowledge and articulate what these conferences actually are: pep rallies for people whose world-views have been disproved by reality. One would expect academics and “intellectuals” to be most incensed when their ideas are shown to be demonstrably wrong because that basically delegitimatizes their self-conceptions. It may also be a threat to their economic well-being.

    Similar analyses can be applied to realize why Islamists, the media, and various Rightists and Leftists are all incensed at Israel’s success: socially, militarily, technologically, culturally, and economically. On a per capita basis, Israel is at or near the top globally in each of these dimensions. That must mean Israel is doing something right — i.e., that works — while these groups advocate policies that are wrong, i.e, that routinely fail.

    There’s nothing more offensive than seeing one’s whole belief system destroyed by reality. So these groups get together to attack the source of the evidence.

  • barney rubble

    Lord Leigh, a prominent member of the Conservative Party, had this to say: “It is very disappointing that a distinguished university like Southampton has organized this conference. They have never held a conference questioning the right of existence of any other country.”

    and if Southampton had a conference questionning the existence of the Palestinian state Leigh and the Conservatives would be equally “disappointed” ?
    on no wait ! the Conservatives themselves deny the existence of Palestine !! scandal ! usual double standards

    • Walt

      Do you understand the difference between denying the legitimacy of Israel, a state that has existed for nearly 70 years and is willing to accommodate the establishment of a Palestinian state, and denying the existence of Palestine, a “state” that has never existed and which refuses to be born unless it accompanies the destruction of Israel?

      If you don’t you need to go back to grade school.

  • Your statement, “to turn anti-Zionism from a variation of traditional anti-Semitic ideology into an academic methodology,” is the most disturbing. If Jews continue to behave as badly as they do, this kind of thing can happen. I am watching the Jew-hate erupting on campuses in America. Jews handle this badly. They don’t organize to force university leaders to declare these unethical attacks on Jewish students as anti-Semitic. Hit universities in their pocketbook and I assure you there will be some change. They do not approach alumni, donors, taxpayers….those who might object to it, to stop the insanity. When there is no price to pay, there will be no change. That goes as well for self-loathing Jews like Yeshua-Lyth, who should be dealt with in some way that will give her pause and force her to reconsider her own behavior. We do nothing particularly effective though individuals like you, Mr. Cohen, write great commentaries over and over again with few suggestions of how to manage it effectively. That must get frustrating for you. It does for me. It reinforces our victimhood. I’m no victim. None of us should be.

    • Bella Sinensky

      As long as people are silent, this WILL go on. We must call the administrators of colleges, where these anti-Jewish, anti-Israel protests and demonstrations exist. We must call the media and complain. Go on facebook and make your thoughts and feelings known. We must write to and speak up to our elected politicians. Why are so many people silent! Do not rage or wage this war at night but in broad daylight, Fight for our people. We, the Jewish people, have the right to live and Israel has the right to exist and its people to live and thrive. Am Israel Chai!!!!!

  • When I read stories like this one where Jews are demonizing other Jews, and the State of Israel; the only conclusions that I can draw is that there is a Cancer within the Jewish community that needs to be eradicated if Israel and world wide Judaism is to survive.

    It is one thing to disagree with a political or social policy, it is another to demonize an entire people. The Jews who are represented in this article who hate Israel and the Jewish People so much deserve themselves to be ostracized and marginalized.

  • Robert Davis

    Not a single state of this planet has more rights or even equal rights to sovereignty than Israel which are supported by both the San REMO and Sevres Treaties and UN Chart article 80 which states Palestine should be given to no one else but Jews. Those who fight against Israel’s rights to exist are simply CRIMINALS WHO PLOT A GENOCIDE AGAINST JEWS which is not precisely legal. They plot also a ww3 which will end up not only in the killing of the whole arab population which is not a political mistake in itself but probably the killing of a major part of world’s population. And all that just to stop Jews keep a territory of…30,000 km2. Anti-Zyonists intent is a world wide genocide plot and only cowards and deadbrains can support them and if they do they deserve their fate.

  • Robby

    What the hell does this author mean by saying Israeli is a nation built on “ethnic-cleansing?” That is pure bull…hogwash. It’s a dirty nazi-like lie@

  • It’s rather unsettling to see “Academic” and “Respectability” in the same sentence without the disclaimer that these days they are antonymous.;)

  • ken brownsher

    How funny is this conference? The real question is when will England cease as a Western country? The most common boys name in Britain is Mohammed,does this tell you what their future holds.

    I think Israel needs to hold a conference about when will Europe become Eurabia? Most people see their demise due to immigration policies that allow Europe to be overrun with Muslim immigrants.Demographics will show that Christian Europe has no future and a violent one on the horizon due to returning Muslims who have been fighting for ISIS!Visit the cathedrals of Europe now before they are turned into mosques!!!!!
    The Dark Veil of Islam will soon cover Europe and the Dark Ages will have returned.

  • rachel robinson

    By giving this so called “conference” space it legitimizes it. This should be totally ignored, this is naked anti Semitism. I wonder why there is no such a conference about the beheading of an English journalist or the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot, but then this would not make the headlines because this is just a daily occurrence in the Moslem world.

  • citizenstat

    We can’t dare ignore this, or any other, anti-Israel academic ‘star chamber’. Their sole aim is to create an atmosphere of academic legitimacy for the tripe they spread against Israel by repeating themselves often enough in enough places so that people either pre-biased or incapable of rational thought will start to think that maybe they’re “on to something.” Informed academics, professionals, and legislators must counter and discredit this, and all forms of, disguised propagandizing!

  • Leo Toystory

    All of this BS transpires at universities, home to the sickest most dysfunctional minds on the planet. As universities have crossed the line from providing forums for the free exchange of ideas to being no more than Hamas conventions of hatred and propaganda, they no longer deserve the respect or protection usually afforded campus presentations. They, therefore ought to be disrupted in any and all possible ways. All English Jewish groups and any of their allies in English anti-islamization organizations converge on the meetings at Southampton ready to do what they must to silence these Nazis and psychopaths.

  • spktruth200
  • AlanB

    It’s not important in itself …. but the culmination of several such events and incidents is important .. plus the fact that their ‘free speech’ argument is bogus since the Israel-bashers got an Israeli speaker there cancelled recently …