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March 22, 2015 4:53 pm

University Facing Backlash for Conference Questioning Foundation of Israel

avatar by Chris Coffey

The front of Avenue Campus, University of Southampton. Photo: Wikipedia.

A British university is under pressure for a conference next month that will question Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, in addition to the Jewish state’s right to exist under international law.

Organizers are calling the conference “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility, and Exceptionalism”, and plan to hold it at the University of Southampton (UK) from April 17-19th.  The conference will feature a host of anti-Israel lecturers and will specifically focus on the “the manner of Israel’s foundation and its nature.” The conference also “aims to explore the relatedness of the suffering and injustice in Palestine,” and will examine the “ongoing forced displacements of Palestinians and associated injustices.”

The conference is being organized in part by Professor Oren Ben-Dor. According to The Telegraph “Ben-Dor is Israeli born and has written that Israel is an apartheid state and has been since its inception.” CounterPunch, a website which has been accused of antisemitism, published a piece in 2007 by the Southampton professor entitled “Why Israel Has ‘No Right to Exist’ as a Jewish State.”

As first reported in The Telegraph, thousands have called on the university to cancel the conference. Over 4,800 protesters have signed a petition at calling the conference a “Kangaroo court” in which “Israel is presumed guilty of the crime of existing, while no other state is being put on trial in this way.”

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The petitioners also questioned the timing of the conference given recent attacks:

At a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise throughout Europe, it is a disgrace that a respectable university would provide a platform to legitimise the idea that the Jewish homeland – of all the countries in the world – is somehow abnormal.

The dispute over the conference is also raising issues about the University of Southampton.

Organizers said in a statement that the event “does not imply support or endorsement by the University of any of the opinions to be expressed at the conference.”

Still, a partner in a London law firm told The Telegraph that he might think differently about hiring from the university:

This is a one-sided conference, not a debate and I would want to raise serious questions about what students at this university are being taught and what the university believes. If Southampton allows teaching which does not present both sides of a case it would raise doubts in my mind about the suitability of a candidate from its School of Law. I would not look so favourably on those CVs.

Among others attacking the conference is Member of Parliament Mark Hoban, who called it “provocative.” Vivian Wineman, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said he expects the university “to take all necessary steps to ensure it does not become a platform for extremists”.

According to The Times, Joachim Schlör, director of the Parkes Institute, a center for the study of Jewish history based at Southampton University, said: “A conference that singles out Israel and invites the questioning of its very existence cannot be supported by a group of academics dedicated to the study of Jewish history and culture.”

A blog called Free Speech Southampton is attempting to drum up support for the university. It issued a statement dated March 15th commending the university’s administration for its “resolute defense of academic freedom.” The site expressed its desire that the conference “go ahead as planned.” Over 750 people have expressed support for the blog statement.

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