Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The threat to free speech

  • "If PEN as a free speech organization can't defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name." — Salman Rushdie, former President of PEN.
  • Today, a genuine fear of retribution for a "blasphemous" statement has subdued the will to stand up for one's own beliefs, values and the right to speak out. This fear has made most of the West submissive, just as Islam -- in both its name [Islam means "submission"] and declarations -- openly wants.
  • This time, the condemnation had not come in a fatwa from Iran's Supreme leader, but from a Western academic. If we do not reverse this trend, censorship, blasphemy laws, and all the other encumbrances of totalitarians, will return to our lives. The bullies will win.
  • If Geert Wilders and others are being accused of hate speech, then why isn't the Koran -- with its calls for smiting necks and killing infidels -- also being accused of hate speech?
  • The mere criticism of a religious belief shared by many people mainly in the Third World has been linked, with no justification, to their genuine prejudice against the inhabitants of the developed world.
Anyone who has had much to do with publishing, or anyone who cares about books and free speech, will be familiar with the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, an enduring champion of the First Amendment and the public's right to read whatever they please -- without the interference and censorship of self-appointed guardians of inoffensiveness and sexual purity.
Every year, the ALA mounts Banned Books Week, a nationwide celebration of our freedom to read. And every year it issues an unnerving list of Frequently Challenged Books. Unnerving because of the pettiness and obsession betrayed by the people who try to have books banned in local libraries, school boards, and even bookshops. For years, most of the attempts to ban books have come from fundamentalist Christian groups; the reasons have mainly been sex, offensive language, or "controversial issues," whatever they are. God forbid that anyone in the United States be exposed to "controversial issues."
This year a new note has entered Banned Books Week. Elizabeth McKinstry, a graduate student at Georgia's Valdosta State University (which earlier in April witnessed students trampling on the American flag) launched a petition about ALA's anti-censorship poster, calling it "Islamophobic." There is nothing on the poster, however, that relates in the slightest way to Islam. The poster shows the top of a woman's head, then her clothed chest and arms. She is not wearing Islamic dress on her head, and her arms and hands are bare. In front of her face, she holds what looks like a book bearing the text "Readstricted." Her eyes can be seen looking through the cover where it bears the universal symbol for "Restricted" (a red circle with a white bar). That is all.
In her petition, McKinstry writes, "This poster uses undeniably Islamophobic imagery of a woman in a niqab, appears to equate Islam with censorship, and muslim (sic) women as victims." She goes on to demand that the poster be "removed immediately from the ALA Graphics store, and the ALA Graphics Store and Office of Intellectual Freedom should apologize and explain how they will prevent using discriminatory imagery in the future." To make matters worse, she goes on to write: "Whether the poster was intentionally or accidentally a racist design, it is still racist and alienating."
Not only is this possibly an example of political correctness in overdrive, but the greater irony lies in that McKinstry is studying for an MA in library and information science; works as a library associate, and is a member of the ALA. Here we see a distortion of thinking that is grotesque: a person claiming to be "progressive," trying to ban an anti-censorship poster in an organization that works to end censorship.
* * *
PEN International is known worldwide as an association of writers. Together they work tirelessly for the freedom of authors from imprisonment, torture, or other restrictions on their freedom to write honestly and controversially. This year, PEN's American Center plans to present its annual Freedom of Expression Award during its May 5 gala to the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The award will be handed to Gerard Biart, the publication's editor-in-chief, and to Jean-Baptiste Thorat, a staff member who arrived late on the day when Muslim radicals slaughtered twelve of his colleagues. This is the sort of thing PEN does well: upholding everyone's right to speak out even when offence is taken.
This year, however, six PEN members, almost predictably, have already condemned the decision to give the award to Charlie Hebdo, and have refused to attend the gala. Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi have exercised their right to double standards by blaming Charlie Hebdo for its offensiveness. Kushner expressed her discomfort with the magazine's "cultural intolerance." Does that mean that PEN should never have supported Salman Rushdie for having offended millions of Muslims just to express his feelings about Islam?
Peter Carey expressed his support, not for the satirists, but for the Muslim minority in France, speaking of "PEN's seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population." We never heard him speaking out when Ilan Halimi was tortured to death for weeks, or when Jews in Toulouse were shot. He seems to be saying that the French government should shut up any writer or artist who offends the extreme sensitivities of a small percent of its population.
Teju Cole remarked, in the wake of the killings, that Charlie Hebdo claimed to offend all parties but had recently "gone specifically for racist and Islamophobic provocations." But Islam is not a race, and the magazine has never been racist, so why charge that in response to the sort of free speech PEN has always worked hard to advance?
A sensible and nuanced rebuttal of these charges came from Salman Rushdie himself, a former president of PEN: "If PEN as a free speech organization can't defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name. What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them."
Those six have now morphed into something like 145. By April 30, Carey and they were joined by another 139 members who signed a protest petition. Writers, some distinguished, some obscure, have taken up their pens to defy the principle of free speech in an organization dedicated to free speech, and many of whom live in a land that protects it precisely for their benefit with a First Amendment.
Another irony, at least as distasteful as the one just described, took place on April 22, when Northern Ireland's leading academic institution, Queen's University in Belfast, announced the cancellation of a conference planned for June. The conference, organized by the university's Institute for Collaborative Research in the Humanities, was about free speech after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. You could not make this up. The reason given was that the institute had not prepared a proper risk assessment. Risk? Risk to what? To free speech? What a silly thought! No, it turned out to be risk of an Islamist attack in Belfast, a city long weary from terrorism. Finally, on May 1, the university reversed its decision and announced that the event will go ahead.
The following day, the University of Maryland, many miles to the west, banned a showing of the film American Sniper after complaints from Muslim students. Whether the film was good or bad, free speech was snuffed.[1]
The oddity is that today, newspaper headlines, news websites, radio and television news bulletins are packed every day with stories about the chaos in the Middle East, the threat of Iranian access to nuclear weapons, the march of ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Taliban, al-Shabaab, and dozens of other terrorist groups across the region. This year's Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket slayings, the rise of anti-Semitism across Europe (closely linked to Islamism), demonstrations filling the streets with chants such as "Hamas, Hamas Jews to the Gas," and all the other atrocities and social disjunctions that arise from the revival of fundamentalist Islam.
America and Britain have fought, with allies, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as of this writing, the United States is carrying out air strikes against ISIS in Syria.
Such news stories are not occasional, they are everyday. Stories of this kind are seldom crowded out by anything but the most important news items, such as a major airline crash or significant domestic political events. Such stories are even more visible than Cold War geopolitical new ever was, due to the immense proliferation of news outlets since the 1990s. The citizens of the U.S., Europe, Canada, Australia and (above all) Israel do not face a remote threat from a distant country, but daily threats of being blown up in their own streets almost every day. The British security services announce almost daily the likelihood of a terrorist event.
But where are the novels? Where are the Le Carrés and Ludlums, the Flemings and Clancys? The number of novels dealing with Islamist, terrorist, or state-sponsored threats to the world's stability (and hence to our own stability and safety) are so few in number, I cannot remember even one. Back to the comfort zone.[2]
This bears thinking about. Is it just a matter of fashion, or are there deeper reasons for this apparent neglect of the most important political and military issues of the present day? Is the literary issue a canary in a coal mine of much greater extent?
The answer is yes. Western culture, once built in part on the principle of free speech -- a principle enshrined in the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment and promoted in all liberal democracies -- has been weakened by attacks on the right of everyone to right to speak openly about politics, religion, sexuality, and a host of other things.
The first blow to free speech came in 1989 with demonstrations and riots over British author Salman Rushdie's controversial 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses; and fears grew when Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa calling on Muslims to kill Rushdie.
Many people died in riots or were murdered because of association with the book. Bookshops were firebombed in the U.S. and UK; publishers were attacked; booksellers often refused to stock the novel; editors wrote to authors like myself, asking us to decide whether some forthcoming publications dealing with Islam could be safely published, and free speech was under attack.
The most harmful blow, however, came when some Western so-called intellectuals and religious leaders condemned Rushdie and supported a ban on his novel. Immanuel Jakobovits, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, opposed the book's publication.[3] The Archbishop of Canterbury called for a law of blasphemy that would cover other religions than just Christianity, opening up the spectre that religions, even violent ones such as Islam, could be privileged above other societal actors in a democracy.[4] Sadly, this pattern of betrayal by Western thinkers has been repeated ever since.
What impact has this had? Here is a simple example: Early in 2012, a controversy stormed up in church circles in the United States. Three well-known Christian publishers, Wycliffe Bible Translators, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) and Frontiers were accused of having pandered to Muslims in their new Arabic and Turkish translations of the New Testament. The translators had replaced terms such as Father (for God) and Son to conform to the Koranic doctrine that God did not have a son and was not a father of anyone. In the Frontiers and SIL translation into Turkish, "guardian" replaces "Father" and "representative" or "proxy" is used for "Son." Such considerations did not deter earlier Bible translators into Islamic language from an honest statement of a fundamental Christian doctrine. But today, a genuine fear of retribution for a "blasphemous" statement has subdued the will to stand up for one's own beliefs, values and the right to speak out. This fear has made much of the West submissive, just as Islam -- in both its name [Islam means "submission"] and declarations -- openly wants.
Since then, the attacks from Islamists on this most basic of Western principles -- the central plank in the platform of true democracy and the feature that most distinguishes it from totalitarianism of all forms -- have multiplied, culminating in the slaughter carried out by Muslims extremists at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris on January 7, 2015.
Beneath the sporadic physical assaults lies a deeper layer of coercion: the fear lest anyone commit that apparently most unforgiveable crime of all, "Islamophobia!" It now seems that almost anything non-Muslims do may result in such accusations -- a bigotry that has also become conflated with racism. The mere criticism of a religious belief shared by people mainly in the Third World has been linked, with no justification, to their genuine prejudice against the inhabitants of the developed world. But since it is Muslims who have been allowed to define "Islamophobia," often at whim, even the mildest remarks can lead to serious accusations, lawsuits, and criminal attacks.[5]
In the case of Sherry Jones's novel The Jewel of Medina, historically "revised" to be sympathetic to Islam, Random House in 1988 cancelled the novel's publication. Its spokesperson stated that the publishing house had been given "cautionary advice not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment."[6]
This time, the condemnation had not come in a fatwa from Iran's Supreme Leader, but from a Western academic, whose identity is not known to me. On September 28, 2008, British extremist Ali Beheshti and two accomplices set fire to the house of the owner of the UK publishing company that had bought The Jewel of Medina. Fortunately, nobody was killed. But the vise of subjugation to Islamic dictats was tightening round the neck of the free world.
* * *
Rushdie knew he was being controversial; for those who protested, the attacks on him, however reprehensible, had a bizarre justification. Condemnation from Western academics, journalists, interfaith clerics, and politicians shows not how successful intimidation has become, but how timid and craven we have become. To surrender with such spinelessness can only mean that we have entered the first stages of the decline of the Enlightenment values that made the modern West the greatest upholder of human rights and freedoms in history.
Criticism of Islam and everything else will -- and should -- continue, produced by courageous writers and journalists. Certainly, we know how many times politicians in the United States and Europe have delusionally tried to persuade us that Islamist violence "has nothing to do with Islam."
There have been many attacks and murders already. Perhaps the best known of these -- until the Charlie Hebdo murders -- was the murder of Dutch film-maker, Theo van Gogh, on November 2, 2004. Van Gogh had directed a short film called Submission, written by Muslim dissident Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who had worked extensively in women's shelters in the Netherlands, where she had observed that most of the women were Muslim. Van Gogh's killer, a 26-year-old Dutch-Moroccan named Mohammed Bouyeri, now serving a life sentence, has described democracy as utterly abhorrent to Islam. (This view, for anyone who cares about the continuation of the West, is held by many Muslims. For them, democracy, made by man, is illegitimate, compared to shari'a law, made by Allah, and therefore the only form of government that is legitimate.) In court, Bouyeri said that 'the law [shari'a law] compels me to chop off the head of anyone who insults Allah and the prophet."
The threat of murder has become ever more real. It is no longer possible to dismiss death threats from Muslims as the work of "lone wolves," "deviant personalities," or attention seekers. It is the use of death threats that has given radical Muslims the power to deter most writers, film-makers, TV producers, and politicians from tackling Islamic issues. The threat of calling people "racist" as a tool for suppressing critical voices has cast a dark shadow over normal democratic life. Some have died for free speech about Islam; others have faced ostracism, imprisonment, flogging and the loss of a normal life. [7]
Salman Rushdie lives under constant guard. Molly Norris, an American artist who drew a cartoon of Mohammed and proposed an "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day," has lived in hiding since 2010. On advice from the FBI, she changed her identity and cut off all links with family and friends. The Dutch politician Geert Wilders has been tried for "hate speech," barely acquitted, and is now being tried for "hate speech" again.
These are just a few of the casualties who have paid a heavy price for their willingness to treat Islam as any of us might treat other subjects or other faiths. No Christian scholar will be tried for arguing that the Gospels contain contradictions, no Reform Jew will be arraigned for criticism of ultra-Orthodox beliefs, no politician will be brought before the law for denouncing the ideologies of Communism or Fascism. You can say that Karl Marx was misguided or that a U.S. president is terrible, and on and on, without dreading for a moment an assassin's footfall or being locked up for your remarks.
Theo van Gogh (left) was murdered by an Islamist because he made a film critical of Islam. Salman Rushdie (right) was lucky to stay alive, spending many years in hiding, under police protection, after Iran's Supreme Leader ordered his murder because he considered Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses "blasphemous."
Incidents such as these or UK Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband's promise to make Islamophobia a hate crime (without even defining Islamophobia) illustrate the most dangerous result of Islamic agitation and asserted victimhood: it has caused us to turn on ourselves, to abandon our commitment to free speech, open academic enquiry, and the readiness to question everything -- the very qualities that have made us strong in the past. When Western so-called intellectuals such as Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash condemn a Muslim apostate such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali for her criticisms of radical Islamism, or when Brandeis University withdraws its offer of an honorary degree for Ms. Ali when Muslim students object, we see our intellectual foundations shake. [8]
It is also necessary to ask, if Geert Wilders and others are being accused of hate speech, then why isn't the Koran -- with its calls for smiting necks and killing infidels -- also being accused of hate speech?
If we do not reverse this trend of submission, censorship, blasphemy laws and all the other encumbrances of totalitarianism will return to our lives. The bullies will win, and the Enlightenment will fade and pass away from mankind. Political correctness and shari'a law will rule. How tragic if a senseless fear causes us to do this to ourselves.
Denis MacEoin is a lecturer in Arabic and Islamic Studies. He has an MA in Persian, Arabic and Islamic Studies from Edinburgh University, a PhD in Persian Studies from Cambridge (King's College) and an MA in English Language and Literature from Trinity College, Dublin.

[1] If you are old enough to remember the Cold War, you will also recall the remarkable outpouring of literary engagement with the issues it provoked. Not just dissident narratives like Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago or novels such as his One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, but the many spy thrillers by mainly British authors like John Le Carré, Len Deighton, Ian Fleming (the creator of James Bond), and many others, Trevor Dudley-Smith ('Adam Hall'), and Jack Higgins. Later, several Americans came to match the popularity of their British counterparts: Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum, Nelson DeMille, and others. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union as a threat, Cold War themes rapidly died out.
[2] There have been several films such as The Siege or the more recent American Sniper, and TV shows such as Homeland and the BBC's award-winning drama The Honourable Woman. In 2014, a new drama appeared on BBC America and is due to play in the UK this April: The Game is set in the 1970s and tells a story of spies fighting the Cold War.
[3] The Times, 4 March 1989.
[4] Michael Walzer, "The Sins of Salman," The New Republic, 10 April 1989.
[5] The most notorious of the many cases involving perceptions of blasphemy started November 25, 2007, when an English kindergarten teacher at a school in Sudan, Gillian Gibbons, was arrested, interrogated and finally put in a cell at a local police station. Her crime? She had allowed her class of six-year-olds to name their teddy bear "Muhammad." From this innocent mistake, matters got worse for Gibbons. On November 26, 2007, she was formally charged under Section 125 of the Sudanese Criminal Act, for "insulting religion, inciting hatred, sexual harassment, racism, prostitution and showing contempt for religious beliefs." Sudan's top clerics called for the full measure of the law [death] to be used against Mrs. Gibbons; and labeled her actions part of a Western plot against Islam.
On November 29, she was found guilty of "insulting religion" and was sentenced to 15 days' imprisonment and deportation. The next day, approximately 10,000 protesters, some of them waving swords and machetes, took to the streets in Khartoum, demanding Gibbons's execution.
In the end, Gibbons was released from jail and allowed to return to Britain. But her case put the fear of savagery in many people's hearts, as they recognized that it take nothing more than a slip of tongue to bring down death on oneself.
In yet another irony, Sherry Jones, an American writer who said she wanted to bring people together, wrote a novel entitled The Jewel of Medina, a story of the romance (if that is the word) between the Prophet Muhammad and his child bride A'isha, who came to be his most beloved wife. This was a noble project designed to show that Westerners are not all "Islamophobes," and written in sentimental prose to reassure Muslims of Jones's warm feelings towards their prophet. Random House bought the story for a large fee. Influenced by the leading apologist for Muhammad, the anti-historian, Karen Armstrong, Jones even bowdlerizes the tale, delaying consummation of the marriage until A'isha had fully attained puberty (despite what the Islamic historians tell us, which is that marriage was apparently consummated when A'isha was nine).
A publication date in 2008 was set and a nationwide tour planned – a promotion few new authors get. But neither Jones nor one of America's oldest and biggest publishing houses had reckoned with the fallout from The Satanic Verses.
[6] Cited Nick Cohen, You Can't Read this Book, rev. ed., London, 2013, p. 72.
[7] Danish author Lars Hedegaard has suffered an attack on his life and lives in a secret location. Kurt Westergaard, a Danish cartoonist, has suffered an axe attack that failed, and is under permanent protection the of intelligence services. In 2009, Austrian, a politician, Susanne Winter, was found guilty of "anti-Muslim incitement," for saying, "In today's system, the Prophet Mohammad would be considered child-molester," and that Islam "should be thrown back where it came from, behind the Mediterranean." She was fined 24,000 euros ($31,000) and given a three-month suspended sentence. In 2011, Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff, a former Austrian diplomat and teacher, was put on trial for "denigration of religious beliefs of a legally recognized religion," found guilty twice, and ordered to pay a fine or face 60 days in prison. Some of her comments may have seemed extreme and fit for criticism, but the court's failure to engage with her historically accurate charge that Muhammad had sex with a nine-year-old girl and continued to have sex with her until she turned eighteen, regarding her criticism of it as somehow defamatory, and the judge's decision to punish her for saying something that can be found in Islamic sources, illustrates the betrayal of Western values of free speech in defense of something we would normally penalize.
[8] This backing away from our Enlightenment values has been documented and criticized by many writers, notably Paul Berman in his 2010 The Flight of the Intellectuals, Britain's Douglas Murray in Islamophilia (2013), or Nick Cohen in You can't read this book (2012)

Full article on Southampton

Here's my full Gatestone piece about the Southampton conference.

  • A generation of students is growing up learning to tolerate -- and consider normal -- bias, falsehood, prejudice, and the runaway politicization of teachers and student thugs permitting only one-sided arguments.
America's President Barack Obama has declared war on Israel. The animosity between Obama and his administration toward Israel and its newly re-elected leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been growing for years; it reached crisis point after Netanyahu's address to the U.S. Congress and news of his resounding victory in the March elections.
This does not mean that the United States, as a whole, shares this animosity or is bent on abandoning a vulnerable and beleaguered democracy to its host of violent and uncompromising predators. Polls show it does not.
But wars against Israel are nothing new. In 1947, months before the country was even declared independent, Arabs launched a war that led uninterruptedly to a full-scale conflict in 1948. Since then, physical violence -- wars and individual terrorist attacks -- against the State of Israel has been a feature of everyday life for Israelis, with Jews as the principal targets. No legally established, democratic country has ever been faced with so great a lust for its destruction and so many assaults on its people. It is singled out by a United Nations dominated by Muslim states and their allies; and now, bewilderingly, by the president of the one country on whom Israelis have always depended for moral and material support.
Of course, not even Obama is likely to wage war directly on Israel by sending in armed forces, but he is making life easier for Israel's sworn enemies, notably Iran, to think they can use their monstrous banks of armaments to launch just such an attack without fearing U.S. intervention.
As the Middle East collapses all around Israel, as jihadi factions grow bolder and more barbaric, and as Iran spreads its reach into Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, Israel has become the canary in the West's coal mine.
In addition to that, there is now the subversion of Israel's very right to exist through "lawfare," (the frivolous or malicious use of the law for political manipulation); UN Human Rights Commission distortions, and, in many ways the most chilling: the work of teachers and students in Western universities to boycott, divest from and sanction (BDS) Israel.
Followers of Campus Watch or International Academic Friends of Israel, and readers of the essays in The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel (Wayne University Press, 2015) will be only too painfully aware of the decidedly unacademic raw Jew-hatred, posing as anti-Zionism, that has spread across university campuses throughout the United States, Europe and the West, particularly in the UK, Australia, Canada and elsewhere. Hate speech, disruption of lectures, demonstrations, expulsions and grotesquely one-sided lectures, papers and books have replaced the free speech, open debate, and academic neutrality that once characterized all universities within the Western tradition.
A generation of students is growing up learning to tolerate – and consider normal -- bias, falsehood and the runaway politicization of teachers and student thugs permitting only one-sided arguments. Many members of the faculty, radical Muslim teachers, and student thugs permit only one-sided arguments. It has become unpleasant, even a risk, for pro-Israel and Jewish students, such as Daniel Mael at Brandeis University, to lift their heads above the parapet.
In the UK, anti-Israel agitation has been not as violent but just as strong as in the US; and the BDS movement has been severe in many universities. For several years, the Association of University Teachers (AUT), the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) and the (later amalgamated) University and College Union passed boycott resolutions against Israeli academic institutions and individuals. The dominance of intolerantly "liberal" teachers in British educational circles has ensured a hindrance to open and civilized debate within the higher education sector as much as have the students.
Bias and intolerance have now moved in an even more alarming direction. From the 17th to the 19th of April this year, the Law School at Britain's Southampton University had planned to host a conference entitled, "International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism." This was not an internal event, nor was it restricted to academics from the UK. Southampton University is a founding institution in Britain's Russell Group of elite universities and regularly appears among the world's top 100 universities. It has been ranked as fifth in the UK; academics working there include Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web. Its Law School enjoys a worldwide reputation as one of the best in Britain. The conference was intended to be noticed far beyond the shores of the UK.
This global reach was indicated in the list of participants signed up to deliver papers there. Of those listed to give fifty-three papers over three days, eleven were Americans, one was from Singapore, two were from Canada, eight were from Israel, seven were from the West Bank (Judaea and Samaria), two were from Ireland, one was from Lebanon, one was from Austria, one was from Australia, and one was from the Netherlands. With an international roster such as this, you are looking at a major event that had taken over a year to plan. It was clearly an attempt to legitimize a gathering of the clan of the academic anti-Israel fraternity.
The university, after appeals from countless individuals and organizations, stated that it had cancelled the conference. Its organizers spent some £35,000 to ask for a judicial appeal in London's High Court, but on April 14, just days before the conference was due to start, Judge Alice Robinson refused their appeal and upheld the decision to close down the event. The university had argued (rather weakly, it must be said) that fears of violence by demonstrators and their opponents made it necessary to cancel on the grounds of security. Legally, this was probably the only option they had, but it is more than likely that, once serious objections were made and the real purpose of the conference disclosed, they decided that it the conference might well stain their reputation. Unsurprisingly, BDS supporters are already describing the cancellation as capitulation by the university to the "Israel Lobby." And the lawyer acting for the conference organizers, Mark McDonald, has already stated that they may now take their appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
Britain's Southampton University this month cancelled a conference dedicated to questioning the legitimacy of Israel, which had attracted Jew-haters and anti-Zionists, and was described by a prominent member of parliament as an "anti-Semitic hate-fest".
This will not be the last attempt to mount an anti-Israel conference in a university, whether in the UK, Europe, or North America. On April 15, the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University (a notoriously anti-Israel institution) announced an October conference entitled, "The Gaza Strip: History, Future and New Directions for Research," supposedly as a response to Israeli "onslaughts" on the Strip. There was no mention, of course, of the "onslaught" from Gaza on Israel of the thousands of rockets that had invited Israel's response.
It seems appropriate, however, to examine the real reasons why the Southampton conference should never have gone ahead within an academic context in the first place. To begin with, look closely at the participants, at the titles of most of the proposed papers, and at the deeply unbalanced Call for Papers that served to attract Jew-haters and anti-Zionists, and to repel all but a few supporters of Israel and its right to exist.
David Collier has done thorough research on the positions held by the participants in the conference. His list is available here. To simplify matters, 45 of those listed to speak have records of active involvement in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement; some of them had already been active in direct anti-Israel work. Four appear to be neutral. The imbalance is stupendous and makes it hard to believe this conference is simply an anti-Israel and, for some speakers, an "anti-Semitic hate-fest" (as the Tory Chief Whip, Michael Gove, described it recently at London's "We Believe in Israel" conference). Some are leading figures in the movement to defeat Israel and turn it into a Palestinian state. The best known of these is Richard Falk, a professor emeritus at Princeton University and one of the most notorious and outspoken enemies of Israel today. Falk has described the 9/11 atrocity as a conspiracy by the U.S. government; blamed the Boston Marathon bombing on the United States, and condemned Israel non-stop while working for the United Nations as the UN Special Rapporteur for Palestinian Human Rights.
Others stand out for their much-publicized anti-Israel (and, frankly, anti-Semitic) views. Who has not heard of Ilan Pappé, an Israeli who now holds a professorship in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University, but who has been described as "one of the world's sloppiest historians". His book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, has been widely criticized as a biased and inaccurate work that squeezes data to fit the author's narrative, rather than using it objectively to question existing assumptions. His hatred for his own country motivates everything he writes about it.
Dr. Ghada Karmi, of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies in the University of Exeter, is a Palestinian medical doctor, an activist for the Palestinian cause, and a serial hater of Israel who has called for the destruction of the Jewish state. She has written thus about the country: "...Israel, from its inception in 1948, has been given the most wonderful opportunity to behave itself, and it clearly has not done so. It's flouted every single law, it's behaved outrageously, it's made a travesty of international and humanitarian law. On what basis should this state continue to be a member of the United Nations?" Apart from refusing to look at any combative behavior from Palestinians, or the many refusals by Palestinians to reject Israel's offer a Palestinian state, since when is a medical doctor an authority on international law?
One should look not just at the identities of the participants, but also at the titles of many of the papers they were to present. Here are a few. Do not forget to notice the strangled pseudo-academic language in which some are dressed.
  • "Maximum Land, Minimum Arabs: Zionist colonization strategies in Palestine" (Nur Masalha).
  • "Two Peoples, One Future?: Mutual Self-Determination After the Defeat of Actually Existing Zionism" (Brad Roth).
  • "Law, Race & Resistance: The State of Emergency as Apartheid Legality" (John Reynolds).
  • "Responsibilities for the Gross Human Rights Violations" (Anthony Löwstedt).
  • "Can the Configuration of a political community amount to an International Crime?: reflections on Originary Apartheid, Legalism and Ethical Reflection" (Oren Ben-Dor, the conference organizer).
  • "How Legitimate is Israeli Statehood? Factors and implications of the UN creation of Israel" (Ghada Karmi).
  • "The Israeli Legal System: The practice and ideology of eternalizing the occupation" (Lea Tsemel).
  • "The Legal Infrastructure of Domination and Dispossession: An Appraisal of Israel's Contemporary Territorial Regime in Historic Palestine" (Valentina Azarova).
  • "The Case of a State that Refuses the Responsibility Inherent in Statehood" (Yoella Har-Shefi).
  • "The Melting Pot of Hatred, or On the Lives of Zionist Practitioners" (Marcelo Svirsky).
  • "Israel's Settler Colonialism, Stolen Childhood, and the Creation of Death Zones" (Nader Shalhoub-Kevorkian).
  • "We Fight, Therefore We Are! A Muslim De-Colonial Critique of Zionist Epistemology" (Hatem Bazian).
These examples should be enough to identify the extraordinary bias inherent in the conference. The language is typical, not of balanced academic enquiry but of pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel and BDS propaganda. The university's original refusal to respond to calls to cancel, or move the conference to a more neutral venue, fell painfully short of any recognition of how damaging such a farcical event would have been (and actually has been). The administration ignored arguments that lacked bias, and argued that the conference must be allowed to take place based on considerations of free speech. And this is the argument that the conference's supporters have been using ever since, even more since the ban. But that is also false. Most of those who have appealed to the administration have asked, not for an outright ban -- which would indeed go against the principles of free speech -- but for relocation, which is quite different.
It is worth saying in passing that the Call for Papers is, in itself, a very unacademic document. Rather than analyse it in any detail, let me cite just one thing. In just three pages, the Call refers no fewer than seven times to an entity they term "historic Palestine". But the term is meaningless. There is certainly no legal definition of what is meant by "historic Palestine." The region that covers today's West Bank, Israel, Gaza, and Jordan was for centuries the southern half of the Ottoman province of Syria. In 1920, the League of Nations established a British Mandate for Palestine, and in 1922 approved a separate British administration for Transjordan. Between 1923, when the Mandate came into effect, and 1948, when the British withdrew, there was a territory known as Palestine, in which everyone – Christian, Jew and Arab -- was listed on his passport as Palestinian. Is this the "historic Palestine" to which the Call refers? Or does this include the Mandate territory of Transjordan, as the British Colonial Office suggested in 1921? Or is it a fictitious Palestine stretching back to ancient times, as the term is used by the Palestinians and their supporters themselves?
To leave this point so poorly defined makes it hard for a historian such as myself, or a legal scholar, to advance any arguments that might relate to the identity of "historic" Palestine, a name invented in the year 135 AD by the Roman Emperor Hadrian. This alone exposes the conference to a charge of academic dishonesty.
UK Lawyers for Israel, a collective of British lawyers who volunteer to use their legal skills to defend and advocate for Israel, took up the matter of the conference with the university, using arguments based on the Call for Papers. Its secretary and treasurer, David Lewis, wrote a long letter to the Vice Chancellor, in which he noted, among other things that:
It is clear from even the most cursory reading of the Call for Papers that it has been written in a way that could almost have been designed, and probably was designed, to deter supporters of Israel from presenting papers at the conference. In fact we find it mystifying that this inherent bias should have escaped the University when it approved the conference. And if the University gave its approval before even seeing the Call for Papers, then it certainly should not have done so.
Analysis of the Call for Papers is difficult because large chunks of it are almost incomprehensible. But it clearly states as incontrovertible facts: that the State of Israel depended for its "initial existence" on a "unilateral" declaration of independence; that Arabs were expelled in 1947-49; that the Jewish nature of the state has profoundly affected the lives of Israeli Arabs (described as "non-Jewish Arabs who were allowed to stay"); that Jewish nationality bestows vital privileges (i.e. "constitutionally entrenched, privileged citizenship to Jews"); that there are two layers of Israeli citizenship; that there is an inherent differential between Jews and non-Jews; that Israeli settlements are illegal; that there is or was "apartheid colonisation" of the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza; that there are "constitutional challenges of equal citizenship;" and that Israel inflicts "structured suffering" on the "non-Jewish Palestinian Arabs."
The three main "pillar-themes" which the conference is intended to link repeat some of these statements. They further state or assume: that there is such a thing or place as "Historic Palestine" and that Israel exists in that place; that Israel has an "inbuilt non-egalitarian basis" and that the State of Israel is an unjust regime; and (to provide a little variety) that the United States and Australia were established as a consequence [sic] of "extreme violence towards indigenous populations."
One letter sent to this author and cited here with permission, said:
We have to hope... that the academic and legal arguments were the true factors that swayed the university authorities. It is a pity they have not admitted this openly. They have used a face-saving argument rather than confess that the conference was ill-conceived from the beginning and that they had been careless to approve it....
A precedent has been set. Israel haters who try to use the mask of academic enquiry to cover up an extreme political position must accept that the cancellation of the Southampton conference has sent out a message to universities everywhere. Ilan Pappé, Oren Ben Dor, Richard Falk, Ghadi Karmi and hundreds of other academic anti-Israel fanatics will not stop their efforts as a result. No doubt, they will intensify them. But the writing is on the wall: keep your politics out of the groves of academe.
Dr. Denis MacEoin taught Arabic and Islamic Studies at a British university, has written numerous books, articles, and major encyclopedia entries in his field. He is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.