Column for the Jewish News, April 17 2015
This week I crave readers’ indulgence for returning to the painful subject of the Southampton Israel conference.
Who said this, in The Guardian, in April 2010? “To argue – as an academic or in an academic setting – that the state of Israel should be destroyed seems, to me, to amount to an incitement to genocide. That is where free speech becomes hate speech”.
And who said this in April 2015? “The decision of the University of Southampton to cancel a conference that was to have been held later this month under the auspices of its school of law amounts to a massive setback for academic freedom in this country.
The university has cited safety and security concerns. But these have arisen only because interests opposed to the subject matter of the conference (the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state) threatened to demonstrate against and (to my certain knowledge) disrupt the proceedings.
As a proud Jew and a proud Zionist, I am appalled. As a patron of the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards, I am outraged. As someone who was to have presented a paper at the conference, I am horrified.
Academic freedom is indivisible. There is no subject that cannot be discussed in a university environment. Let us hope, therefore, that the university authorities at Southampton can be persuaded even now to undergo a change of heart”.
A left-over portion of matza brei to those who guessed that the writer is the same in both cases: Professor Geoffrey Alderman, Michael Gross professor of modern history at the University of Buckingham and fellow columnist, albeit on another Jewish newspaper.
Professor Alderman may yet get his wish, expressed last Friday in his letter in the Times Higher Education supplement. For members of the law school which was staging the conference were due to mount a legal challenge in the High Court this week, and at the time of writing it was unclear when a decision would be handed down by the judges.
I am intrigued as to the role which Professor Alderman may play in these proceedings. As he has declared in his letter, he succeeded in his bid to present a paper at the conference and I can’t help wondering if this extraordinary declaration on his part has more to do with a wounded sense of amour propre than any actual allegiance to free speech. The conference proponents are complaining that the university decision not to host the conference on the grounds of safety and security is specious; yet those very same proponents, as well as Professor Alderman himself, are now arguing that physical violence was due to take place if the conference took place on university grounds. They can’t have it both ways.
Nor, for that matter, can Professor Alderman. Either “academic freedom is indivisible” or “to argue in an academic setting that the state of Israel should be destroyed…is an incitement to genocide.” One or the other, Geoffrey. Which is it? If he really believes that his paper would offset the torrent of hatred towards Israel and the central proposition of this conference, a challenge to Israel’s right to exist, then he is more naïve than I thought possible.
I mentioned earlier that Professor Alderman holds a chair in modern history endowed by Michael Gross, and from what I know of the latter he would be outraged at the professor’s determination to back this conference at Southampton University. He would be even more horrified if Professor Alderman’s letter – as it well may – becomes a tool in the hands of the conference organisers, waved as a flag to show they are well-meaning, squeaky clean academics, with not a hint of anti-Semitism tinging the proceedings.
A great many questions still surround the Southampton conference and the Jewish community is right to tread carefully in its response to it. We cannot call for an end to academic boycotts when they are targeting Israelis, and not stop to think two and three times when we are looking at a conference which targets Israel as an entity. But when a respected academic and columnist wilfully contradicts himself in public, opening up the danger that his response will be used by vicious Israel-haters, then I think a line has been crossed.