“But 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.” – Geoffrey Alderman – Guardian – 30-April 2010
I read your recent opinion piece on the ‘own goal’ at Southampton ( last week’s Jewish Chronicle 8/4/2015) and felt I had to respond. In truth this is not my first email to you; several years ago I was present at a fascinating talk of yours on British Jewry and over the following days you helped clarify some points through email. This assistance helped me win an argument I was involved in on some issue long forgotten, but for that help I remain thankful.
However your article did disturb me, on a number of levels. I shall try to keep this as short and clear as possible.
I have spent most of the last ten years studying. Academic freedom is vital and I am one of those who was active in protesting the conference (also a vitally important right). I spend much of my time arguing Israel’s case on political forums, I have fought everything from ignorance to hard core Nazi’s, I do not shy from directly confronting positions I oppose with sound argument. Recently I challenged a well known anti-Zionist to a public debate. I firmly believe the truth is never something to be scared of.
As one that went through speaker by speaker when the programme was originally released in early March I was astonished to find that not a single ‘Zionist’ was on the list. I also spent several days going through their writing on Israel and whether they supported a boycott of Israeli goods/ Israeli culture / Israeli academics. Your article suggested of these panelists that ‘no less than forty-one appear to hold university posts across the world’ as if this is somehow important – I refer you to your own comments on Steven Sizer and his thesis being “little more than his own religious prejudices dressed up in academic guise” where you also went on to claim “Middlesex has permitted its highest research degree to be awarded in respect of a work of propaganda”. Given this, I find it odd you now seem to be saying that academia itself is too pure to have its essence questioned. Research ability does not disqualify abhorrent ideas, gross prejudice nor poisonous intent.
I also believe that the vast majority of people (myself included) asked simply for the conference to be moved, not cancelled. The work of this conference is intended and destined to be part of the armour of the BDS movement in our midst. Whether we like it or not it is part of the war against Israel and thus I believe the protest, to at least bring to light it’s obvious bias was a worthy and proper position to take. I have not met a single person who suggested that Ben Dor does not have the right to speak, nor create noise, not write papers ,nor spread his venom regardless of its poisonous nature. Had this been taking place at the local Palestinian activist group, I doubt an Israeli flag would have been seen outside in protest. It is not for us to silence anyone. The protest was about the representation of the conference itself rather than the content. As in the past you have said that someone crosses the line if they try to ‘persuade the governing body of their institution to ban contact and co-operation with Israeli universities and/or those that work in them’ it is interesting you find little issue in providing an argument protecting an entire body of academia that do precisely that.
These people are turning up at Southampton to engage in nothing other than political activism. It is to steal a quote of yours, ‘a work of propaganda’. A few years ago you wrote of Vittorio Arrigoni, that he was no ‘peace activist’; his ‘crime’ was being ‘a consummate Jew hater’, of aligning with Hamas, the ISM, assisting in breaking the naval blockade and so on.. I think it is fair to say that the majority of the panelists, all fit that description nicely. Yet, whilst you had no reservation about direct confrontation in Vitorrio’s case, you now suggest we are wrong when a whole group of Vittorio’s wish to use the cover of a University to fight against Israel. Additionally, back in 2007 you wrote on the boycott of Israel in rather dismissive terms ; as we look around us with campuses falling one by one, products removed from supermarket shelves, 1000’s of academics actively refusing to work with Israel, massive anti-Israeli demo’s and some large business divesting, I do not understand how the idea we should just sit back and try to politely argue our case is still valid; I also feel your piece in 2007 that suggests we should “do nothing more at present but sit back, relax and enjoy watching the mess that the boycotters have got the UCU into” now looks hopelessly out of tune with the events that have occurred since.
When these conference themes were put together, they were designed quite clearly to deter Zionists (you can read more about the discursive position here) and to suggest that somehow the ‘lobbyists’ should have addressed this seems highly unfair. If I were to hold a conference on rape victims and base the themes around the length of the skirt, the drunken behaviour of the victims and the issue of women being alone at night, no rape crisis centre or serious academic would choose to credit my conference with their appearance. Having said that, a conference with such a discursive position would not be given a room in any university – with or without free speech. Free speech or not, universities choose regularly to leave certain stones unturned. Would we discuss the legitimacy of Iraq and Syria (both the product of mandates) and to push the idea that ISIS have a point (against years of Western puppeteering) and a right to self-determination? Both you and I know, all the free speech in the world, would not currently allow for such discussion, merited or not. I simply do not understand how you can claim that in some way we could have academically converted this conference into something other than the organisers intended it to be when they would never have allowed this to happen.
Had Ben Dor intended to put together a true multi sided academic exercise, I have no doubt he would have created it differently and then I would argue, if he had created the conference to be a serious academic exercise, I doubt he would want to go ahead with it. This entire argument is not one of free speech at all and never was. As with your piece on Middlesex, this conference was a propaganda exercise. As such I feel we had no choice but to oppose, despite the obvious trap and inevitability of it potentially causing self-harm. I also have a question regarding your submission to this conference. You comment that you received the CFP in October, but yet were not listed in the original programme when published in March. In fact, even after my first piece on the conference and the accompanying noise, Professor Alan Johnson was added as the first clearly pro-Israeli panellist only following the accusations of bias. You were only added later. As a side note, the original call for papers was released last March, not October as you stated. But do you know why you were not on the original list? To me, it seems you were part of the belated attempt by the organisers to correct the obvious bias by ensuring token Zionist voices were heard only after the bias had been highlighted, yet your article does not reflect this possibility at all.
Finally I draw your attention back to your comments in the Guardian five years ago. If calling for the destruction of Israel is “hate speech” rather than “free speech”, how is it possible that an entire conference almost full to the brim with people who openly call precisely for this, would not be described as a conference of hate and rightfully opposed?
I look forward to your response