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The next stage of Israel’s game in the UK: Lawfare, silencing and suppression – the test case in Southampton.

By Haim Bresheeth

Since the infamous Israeli attack on Gaza, in December 2008/January 2009, in which over 1400 Palestinian civilians were killed by the Israeli forces by a barrage of missiles, Tank fire, aerial and naval bombing, shelling by canon and mortar, drone fire and even white phosphorous shelling over three weeks, Israel recognised it has a serious problem The attack clarified, to anyone who was still confused about Israel’s aims, that all Israeli governments, of the left, right and centre, are intent on a combination of intensifying and enlarging the settlements, incarcerating the Palestinians inside a huge open air prison, not just in Gaza, but also in the West Bank, making life as impossible as can be achieved, and continuing both to refuse to negotiate, or pretend to negotiate, while stealing more land and resources.

In following this set of aims, there is no difference whatsoever between the so-called ‘left’ and ‘right’ in Israel. All Zionist parties ruling Israel, or taking part in government, are right wing and racist. The use of left and right in the sense we use it elsewhere is misleading and useless, despite Israelis’ insistence on such terms. For example, the so-called left of centre government of Ehud Olmert, was the one responsible for the attack on Gaza mentioned above, and once this coalition, in which Zippy Livni was at the heart of, fell from power to be replaced by Netanyahu, she and others now called ‘left’ joined his coalition, as well as his two attacks on Gaza, in the Fall of 2012 and Summer 2014. Together in both these attacks Israel killed around twice as many Palestinians as in the earlier one, following the belief that one has to always strike harder, for the threat to be effective.

But what Israel thought was fine to do, was not quite so acceptable to the international community. The attack in 2008 has started a huge wave of protest and action across the globe, especially through the newly adopted BDS campaign. This seems to be a successful campaign, drawing people by its civic and peaceful nature, and by the reference to the earlier success of a similar campaign in South Africa, against Apartheid. The call for BDS and academic boycott, signed by more than 190 Palestinian organisations, has galvanised the international movement, now that it was clear that the so-called ‘peace process’ is no more than a cover-up for the continued occupation and the land confiscation and settlement drive. As western governments, all closely allied to Israel, made any real solution all but impossible, it was up to the public to act; and it did. And its actions grew and spread, after its hesitant start in 2005, just one decade ago.

This is not the place or time to add up a list of the many successes of the campaign, and its enormous educational and organisational effects. But as the BDS message started spreading, it became clear to Israel and its paid and unpaid apologists and agents, that this new campaign, exactly because its universal appeal and non-violent nature, is a real danger to Israel’s continued occupation. Thus a number of its main supporters started developing measures to counter the worrying growth of this campaign. One of the leaders of the opposition to BDS was, and remains, the Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz. This supposed supporter of human rights, together with other Zionists in the USA, has set up the Lawfare project in 2008. This is what it had said about itself in 2010, on its website:

“As enemies of the West increasingly (and successfully) strive to manipulate our judicial processes, erode our free speech and work to delegitimize the rights of democracies such as Israel and the United States to defend themselves against terrorism, failure to act in response is not an option.

We have a responsibility to protect our legal institutions as well as our fundamental human rights, for if our systems of law are corrupted, our societies will be corrupted as well.

For more than two years, The Lawfare Project has been at the forefront of the struggle, exposing and combating the strategic abuse of Western legal systems against the interests of liberal democracy.” [1]

So, much talk of democracy and western values, but the main targets, connected in the minds, or at least the publications of those involved, are the twin enemies of the Muslim world, and the international civic resistance to Israel’s continued crimes in the Occupied Territories of Palestine (sometimes called OPC). The connection they draw between Islamism, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism have been influenced by a group French Jewish intellectual, originally of the left, but now part of the right in France, who have laid the academic foundation for connecting that which Alain Badiou claims was never connected. These people range from the originator of the argument, Pierre-Andre Taguieff, through Bernard Henry Levy, Claude Lanzmann, Alain Finkielktaut, Nicolas Weill, and some others. [2]

This loose group of Jewish academics and public intellectuals has done its very best to argue strong connections, and a unity of aims, between the Far Right, the Left, and Islamic groups in France, all of which are supposedly involved in anti-Semitic attacks on Jews and Israel, confusion and conflating the terms ‘Jew’, ‘Zionist’ and ‘Israeli’.  As Israel decided to change its semi-constitutional description from a “Jewish and Democratic State”, first to a mere” Jewish State”, and recently, to the “state of the Jewish People”, this group of Zionist apologists has used this change and argued that ANY argument against the State of Israel is by definition anti-Semitic, as it threatens Israel, as a ‘Jewish State’.

This bundle of arguments, the earliest formulated late during the last decade of the millennium, have really come to fruition and public note in the period 2001- 2009, when a number of volumes were penned and published by the various partners of this group in France, suggesting criminalising and making impossible a civic resistance to Israel’s policies and actions. By passing various legislation, which basically accepted the Israeli definition of anti-Semitism as acts directed at either Jews, Israel or Zionism, by equating and connecting them all as some unchangeable continuum, the French legal system has made civic protest of boycott of Israel and its crimes near impossible in France. This success of the Zionist pressure groups in France was one of the models used by the US campaign of Lawfare; one has to note, though, that while in the US the Lawfare Project was not able to enlist a similar group of prominent Jewish intellectuals - and not due to the lack of such people, of course - it was able to also collaborate and influence the French campaign, as well as a similar campaign in Britain. Indeed, at the early stage of the public arguments in Britain, as Boycott resolution were passed by some of the leading unions, such as UCU, the union representing College and University academics, Dershowiz, who has combined efforts with a British barrister, Anthony Julius of London, and the law offices of Mishcon De Reya, threatened the Union, universities and the academics supporting the boycott with destruction, no less [3]. Not one known for pulling his punches, he clarified his (and Julius’) threat: “The pair are planning to publish a paper outlining their objections to a pro-boycott motion passed by British academics last month and Mr Dershowitz has threatened to "devastate and bankrupt" those he believes are acting against Israeli universities.”[4] Neither was he alone in his valiant attack on the freedom of speech in Britain and elsewhere: “Mr. Dershowitz, the prominent lawyer and Harvard law professor who is well known for the ferocity of his attacks on those he perceives as enemies of Israel, told the Guardian that if the boycott call is endorsed by the UCU branches there would be retribution, and that he had enlisted 100 lawyers to break the boycott.” [5] So it was clear that Dershowitz and his various partners in this campaign of silencing criticism and denting the right for civic action against Israel were well financed and resourced, and meant what they said – they were prepared to wreak havoc on the British (and any other) Higher Education system which would dare to offer opportunities for civic actions for academics critical of Israel’s crimes. In France, such actions were taken by an allied group, Avocats Sans Frontières, which took action against the journalist Daniel Mermet, the publisher Le Fabrique, and then the philosopher Edgar Morin, political scientist Sami Naïr and novelist Denielle Sallnave [6]. Anti Zionist Lawfare was alive, kicking and spreading. Israel and diaspora donors supplied massive funding for these operations.

For a number of years, the Dershowitz associates in Britain have limited themselves to some bizarre and unsuccessful case, like the one brought by UCU member Ronnie Fraser against the academic Union UCU, in 2012, and failed at the tribunal, which harshly critics the legal team which supported him for bringing the case in the first place. This ‘restraint’ changed after the coming to power of Netanyahu, and especially after his attack on Gaza in the summer of 2014. A new and determined front against the discussion of Israel in academia, already active and successful in France, has started operating in the rest of Europe, with a vengeance, since then. With a multi-million dollar budget, the campaign against Anti-Zionist academics is acting across the globe, from California to Australia, targeting the academics and conferences which are deemed the most damaging to Israel’s image and interests. Only recently, such action was taken against a conference in Université Paris 8/Sa. Denis [7], Rome University III [8], and Imperial College London [9]. In all cases, the conference or public symposia was cancelled or disallowed after earlier agreements by the institution, only to be revoked under enormous public pressure engineered by the Israel lobby in each country.

The first such a conference in Britain arranged in the normal way through a widely publicized Call for Papers and organized by the hosting university to be cancelled is the Southampton University conference on International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility, and Exceptionalism, planned and advertised for April 17-19, 2015. This conference, announced in Mid-2014, has attracted some 90 speakers, including a range of legal experts from many countries, representing also a range of positions on the topic. The conference was organized by Prof. Oren Ben Dor, Prof. Suleiman Sharkh, and Prof. George Bisharat, and was sold out, as many wished to join and partake as audience.

The campaign against the conference, one without precedent in Britain, has included the usual suspects, like the Board of Jewish Deputies, the Jewish Chronicle, the Sussex Friends of Israel, and a number of other Jewish bodies, who immediately demanded that the conference be cancelled, condemning the organizers, as well as the many speakers, as ant-Semites – more than half the speakers were Jewish, and many were also Israeli – without providing any proof or justification, of course.

To begin with, and throughout January and February 2015, the University of Southampton seemed to withstand the pressure and deflect the criticism, as facts were on their side. Indeed, the organizers were so confident that the university will never buckle under pressure, that they tried to minimize public concern. A petition calling to cancel the conference was open to signatures of all and sundry, rather than limited to academics, and garnered more than 5,000 signatures by the end of March, after a coordinated campaign in the Britain, Israel, Europe and North America, using Jewish and general media outlets.

But there was a new development, an ominous and threatening UK government involvement in pressurizing the University of Southampton to call off the conference; for the first time, as far as we know. The Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, made an unprecedented statement, calling upon the university, without any material information quoted, to cancel the conference: “Eric Pickles has warned Southampton University against “allowing a one-sided diatribe” as the become the most senior politician yet to intervene in the growing row over a major conference into the legitimacy of Israel.” [10] The university, enjoying various financial support from UK government budgets like any other in the UK, had of course to listen to a government minister speaking on this topic, despite the total lack of evidence, and even though the University of Southampton’s own statement on the conference cancellation admitted that the conference was properly and carefully constituted, and represented many views on the topic. Hence, this demand by Pickles has joined the enormous pressure put on Prof. Don Nutbeam, the Vice Chancellor of SU. In an additional worrying development, the British ambassador to Israel has called for a meeting of Universities UK management, at which he has outlined the reasons for them to support the cancellation, or at least not oppose it. Thus, he acted on behalf of a foreign government when speaking to a British university organization, representing its interests.[11]

The Board of Jewish Deputies has demanded a meeting with the VC, which he immediately granted, though he has repeatedly refused to meet with the organizers, two of them professors at his own university… After the meeting, on March 18, a confident Vivian Wineman, the Board’s President, said about the meeting: “We put forward very strong concerns about this proposed conference.  It is formulated in extremist terms, has attracted toxic speakers and is likely to result in an increase in antisemitism and tension on campus.” [12] In another report, he went further and gave away the strategy: “Speaking to the JC [Jewish Chronicle], Vivian Wineman of the Board of Deputies of British Jews said: “When we had a meeting with the university vice-chancellor they said they would review it [the conference] on health and safety terms. The two lines of attack possible were legal and health and safety and they were leaning on that one,” he added.” [13] So the plan was laid out, and the university has been told its options by the Board President…

A signature campaign of UK academics has been started, of exclusively UK academics, to offer support to the university against the crude pressure applied to it from all quarters. This has collected around 1,000 signatures of leading academics from across Britain in few days. But the duty to protect academic freedom and the freedom of research, enshrined in the university constitution, was not as significant to the VC as the pressure to cancel the conference by Zionist lobby groups and some government quarters, and the die has been cast. University of Southampton buckled under the enormous pressure and told the organizers it has removed its support of the conference.

Immediately of learning that the university has told the organizers it has cancelled the conference on the grounds that it represented a danger to Health and Safety of students, staff and the public, and gave them 24 hours to appeal the decision, a campaign against the decision has been started and garnered more than 8,700 in five days, and is still growing by around one thousand signatures per day. At the Appeal, heard on April 1, the organizers have produced proof that the Southampton Police has seen no problem in securing public order at the event, and the Sussex Friends of Israel group, which planned to demonstrate against the conference, also noted that it has planned no violence whatsoever, the VC, hearing the Appeal, dismissed it without giving reasons on the same day.

The SU management, at this point, having exhausted the purely technical Appeal procedure, released a Statements (sic) in which it cancel the conference finally, and also admits the conference was properly constituted: “The University has an excellent track record of upholding free speech and remains committed to ensuring that freedom of speech within the law is secured for staff and students. It has been impressed by the commitment of the organisers to include a broad spectrum of views, and indicated to the organisers that it will work with them to find a venue suitable for a conference of this nature at a later date.” [14]

The necessary ritual of ‘due process’ has now been exhausted, leaving the organizers with no chance bur to start a Judicial Review process against the university, asking the court to force the University of Southampton to honour its academic and public contract, and arguing that the use of Health and Safety regulations was both a ruse, and a dangerous precedent of silencing academic debate by the use of arbitrary and inappropriate use of H&S regulation, thus failing the basic duty of guaranteeing academic freedom within the university. An overnight campaign raised more than £10,000, donated by many individuals to support the judicial challenge procedure, and donations are still coming in.

At the time of writing, the result of the Judicial Review process is not yet known – it is likely to be heard in camera on Tuesday, April 7, 2015, due to the Easter break, and be decided and announced on the following day in open court. Many of the participants have already announced their agreement to come to an alternative venue, if one can be found, and deliver their papers and lectures, making sure that this crude attempt to stifle free exchange of views on this crucial topic is not successful. One hopes such arrangements can be made in the short time left before the planned conference dates.

In the meantime, the university has also declined to announce its decision directly to participants, and left this duty to the organizers themselves, spreading a legal haze about the important question of who reimburses those many delegates who have booked hotels and travel arrangements, as advised officially by the university before the whole affair blew up, not to mention the hundreds of people who have booked places for the conference, and paid and made travel and accommodation arrangements. It will be interesting to see how far this lack of responsibility may extend in this unique case of the denial of free speech, academic freedom and the right, now denied, to voice critical view of Israel’s many war crimes.

In political terms, while the denial of the right to hold an academic conference in the UK on this topic is certainly a blow to the attempts to bring about free and frank discussion of Israeli actions and policies, the ferocity and aggression exhibited in this lengthy affair represents also the fact that Israel and its allies are losing the public’s support, and cannot afford to allow such discussion to proceed. The current admission by Netanyahu that he never intended to support a Palestinian State in Palestine, his attack on Obama during the Congressional debate on Iran’s nuclear capabilities, his racist remarks during the election in Israel, and the UK and French governments’ uncritical and unconditional support of the continued brutal occupation and its many iniquities, are all evidence of the gulf between the public’s view in Britain, and what its political class finds necessary and possible to support. The cancellation of the conference has proven that, like in Palestine, Israel and its supporters will stop at nothing to get its way. This is only likely to make the opposition to Israeli crimes more determined; Unfortunately, it is also very likely to increase anti-Semitism, as the parts of the public, with a strong history of past and present racism, use anti-Semitic memes to try and explain this immense influence by the Zionist lobby. It falls to all of us to continue to clarify that ant-Zionism never means anti-Semitism, and to demand the British Jews speak strongly against Israel’s crimes, and against their representative organisations’ unconditional support of Israel. Opposing anti-Semitism, as well as any other form of racism, is part and parcel of all anti-Zionist organization, and will continue to be. Britain’s Jews, until now mainly silent on this crucial debate, should carefully review their silence, which is understood by some to be an acceptance of Israel’s crimes. A more nuanced behaviour will make our combined struggle, against Zionism and anti-Semitism, a more successful one.

In Southampton, a battle was lost, indeed, in the struggle for free speech on Israel. The war against Israeli Apartheid will go on, and will be ultimately successful, as was the battle in South Africa,

Notes

1. See The Lawfare Project: http://www.thelawfareproject.org/what-is-lawfare.html, and http://www.thelawfareproject.org/News/the-chilling-effect-of-lawfare-litigation-alan-dershowitz.html, accessed on April 3, 2015 Back

2. See Alain Badiou, Eric Hazan and Ivan Segré (2013) Reflection on Anti-Semitism, Verso, London, pp. 17-32 Back

3. See Matthew Taylor and Susan Goldenberg “Boycott will destroy British Academia, Warns US Professor”, The Guardian, June 9, 2007: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/jun/09/highereducation.israel, accessed on March 29th, 2015 on: Back

4. ibid Back

5. see Anti-Israel Academic Boycott Resource Centre (Zionism on the Web), June 9, 2007, on: http://www.zionismontheweb.org/academic_boycott/UCU_boycott_of_Israeli_academics/Boycott_will_destroy_British_academia.htm, accessed on April 3, 2015 Back

6. see Badiou et al (2013) p. 5 Back

7. see http://mondoweiss.net/2015/03/university-featuring-blumenthal, accessed on April 2, 2015 Back

8. see “Did Rome college censor Ilan Pappe because of ‘Zionist intimidation’?”, on http://electronicintifada.net/content/did-rome-college-censor-ilan-pappe-because-zionist-intimidation/14319, accessed on April 2, 2015 Back

9. see Palestine Conference 2015, on http://www.palestine-conference.net/2015/, accessed on April 2, 2015: this conference was cancelled at short notice, and had to move to a hotel in Central London Back

10. quoted on “Pickles warns Southampton uni over ‘one-sided diatribe’”, on http://www.jewishnews.co.uk/pickles-to-southampton-uni-avoid-one-sided-diatribe/, accessed on April 4, 2015 Back

11. see “British Ambassador met Universities UK over Israel and ‘free speech’ concerns” on : https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/blogs/politics/17477-british-ambassador-met-universities-uk-over-israel-a-free-speech-concerns, accessed on April 4, 2015 Back

12. Statement on: http://www.bod.org.uk/board-meets-with-vice-chancellor-of-university-of-southampton-on-israel-delegitimisation-conference/, accessed April 4, 2015 Back

13. Quoted in: http://rt.com/uk/245593-southampton-israel-conference-cancelled/, accessed on April 4, 2015 Back

14. see http://www.southampton.ac.uk/news/statements.page. Accessed on April 3, 2015 Back

 

 

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Page last updated April 6, 2015