A Symposium or a Political Statement?

BY JUSTIN HUNTER – From April 17 to April 19, the University of Southampton will hold a three-day symposium titled “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism.”[1] The organizers stated that the conference would “explore the relatedness of the suffering and injustice in Palestine to the foundation and protection of a state of such nature and asks what role International Law should play in the situation.”[2] They also mentioned that the topic would include the legitimacy of the state of Israel.[3] Moreover, Hazel Biggs, the head of the University of Southampton’s law school, stated that the event would take “no explicit perspective.”[4]

The Jewish community in the United Kingdom remains unconvinced.[5] With a rising climate of anti-Semitism and increased violence against the Jewish population,[6] many leaders believe this type of discussion will only add fuel to the fire.[7] In fact, the United Kingdom has experienced a tremendous growth in violence against Jewish people since the attacks in Paris in January.[8] In fact, anti-Jewish crime has tripled.[9] The University has received nearly a dozen letters from Jewish organizations requesting that the law school cancel the conference.[10] Furthermore, over 3,000 people have signed a petition also asking for the university to rescind its invitation to all speakers.[11] All efforts have failed,[12] which leads to the bigger question: what is more important? The freedom to promote ideas or the protection of a minority religion?

So why would a university be so eager to discuss the legitimacy of a country that has existed since 1948? The University of Southampton might say that the topic is highly divisive and full of opinions and therefore, well-known people in the intellectual community might wish to join the symposium.[13] If that is true,[14] then the school is promoting ideas. Promoting ideas is the core purpose to every university. Professors spend months researching a topic and then write about it, thereby expressing their opinions on the matter. However, the conflict here at the University of Southampton is alarming.

The University has stated that it will express no opinion on the matter. Yet, it continues to support the symposium despite no mention of any professor in favor of an Israeli state attending.[15] Indeed, inviting someone such as Richard Falk, who has submitted reports to the United Nations stating that Israel is ethnically cleansing the Palestinians,[16] only strengthens the argument against the university. Rather, it appears the University is unconcerned about the Jewish population and their feelings on this divisive subject. Would the school administration support a topic such as “Africans In England: Is There A Connection to Higher Crime Rates?” Probably not. Indeed, the University is using a hot topic that is easily discussed in liberal environments as a way to “discussion and critical thinking.”[17]

Critical thinking and discussion are important sources of the ideas and intellectual development and should be encouraged. While the purpose of symposium is questionable, the promotion of ideas is incredibly important to the freedom of speech. The concern of the Jewish people in the United Kingdom is justified as are so many other complaints that they have lodged with the university, but unfortunately, the protection of a religious faith, in the particular the feelings and opinions of that faith, must be subordinated to a core aspect of freedom. As Voltaire once said, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death you’re right to say it.” The University of Southampton should be scolded for holding this symposium, but its right to do so should be protected.


[1]Jewish leaders condemn British university debate on Israel and international law, RT (Mar. 11, 2015, 5:09 PM), http://rt.com/uk/239805-jewish-leader-condemn-debate (hereinafter Jewish leaders).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Pete Naughton, The chilling truth about the rise of anti-Semitism, The Telegraph (Mar. 11, 2015, 6:30 AM), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/tv-and-radio-reviews/11462696/truth-about-rise-of-anti-Semitism-since-Charlie-Hebdo-attacks.html.

[7] Jewish leaders, supra note 1.

[8] Naughton, supra note 6.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] In fact, Richard Falk, a famously liberal international law professor at Princeton University, is speaking at the symposium. Jewish leaders, supra note 1.

[14] The law school administration is probably not being completely honest about the purpose of the symposium. In fact, the organizers stated specifically that the purpose is to discuss “the suffering and injustice of Palestine[,]” which likely means the law school believes that Israel is the party at guilt in the Middle East. Id.

[15] Id.

[16]UN official: Israel engaging in ethnic cleansing, Ynet News (Mar. 21, 2011, 6:55 PM), http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4045623,00.html.

[17] Jewish leaders, supra note 1.

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