Academics back decision to press ahead with controversial conference on Israel

Dozens put name to statement criticising attempts to stop ‘lawful academic discussion’

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Over 200 academics have expressed their support to the University of Southampton for its decision to go ahead with a conference which has come under pressure from pro-Israel groups.

The conference, “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism”, is due to take place in April. It is billed as “a ground-breaking historical event on the road towards justice and enduring peace in historic Palestine” and as unique in its focus on “the legitimacy in International Law of the Jewish state of Israel”.

It has been widely criticised by organisations such as the Jewish Leadership Council, Board of Deputies of British Jews and Union of Jewish Students, with calls for it to be cancelled or incorporate a wider range of views. A number of MPs have also expressed concerns, while Eric Pickles, minister for communities and local government, has described it as “a one-sided diatribe”.

In response to this, Ben White, an author and PhD candidate at the University of Exeter, put together a statement which he said was signed by 200 academics from across the globe in less than 24 hours. This expresses concern that “partisan attempts are being made to silence dissenting analyses of the topic in question. For external pressure and interference, especially from political lobby groups and a government minister, to censor lawful academic discussion would set a worrying precedent.”

The statement goes on to commend Southampton “for its defence of free speech, while those seeking to shut down an academic conference are doing their own cause no favours”.

Asked for a comment, a Southampton spokesman referred to its obligations under the Education Act 1986 to ensure that academic staff and visiting speakers “have the freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions”.

“For the avoidance of doubt, the University of Southampton is not expressing an opinion or taking any particular standpoint in relation to the conference, ‘International Law and the State of Israel’, but is fulfilling its legal obligations,” he said.