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UCC involved in row with Israeli Embassy over conference

Plans to hold similar conference at UK university were cancelled over ‘safety concerns’.

A major row has been sparked following the announcement that UCC will host an academic conference which will debate the legal legitimacy of the State of Israel involving several Jewish lobby groups and the Israeli embassy. The conference was originally planned to be held in the University of Southampton in 2015 but was cancelled on the grounds of health and safety, over fears of protests and demonstrations which would disrupt the conference.

Organisers of the conference argue they are standing up against what they deem is the “chilling repression of academic freedom” in the UK, and contend that Ireland is a safer location due to its “different political culture.” On the other hand, opponents of the conference, including Jewish lobby groups and some UK cabinet ministers, have criticised the attempt to host the event in the University of Southampton, with Ronnie Fraser of Academic Friends of Israel describing it as an “anti-Israeli hate fest” in a quote to the Times of Israel. Furthermore, the Israeli embassy in Dublin issued a statement, citing that they were “deeply concerned” over the plans to host the conference in UCC instead, and further claimed that activists were seeking to promote an “unbalanced agenda within academic institutions, that seeks to demonise and de-legitimise Israel.” The embassy also stated “the prejudiced approach of such ‘activists’ serves only to propagate hatred of the state of Israel and its people. It is incompatible with the values of democracy and goes against the essence of academic discussion.”

In response, one of the conference’s organisers, UCC professor James Bowen, said the embassy’s reaction indicated a fear of any examination of how the Israeli state conforms to international law: “Fearful of any debate on the issue, the Israeli lobby tries to prevent pro-Israel speakers from participating in such events,” he said. Bowen also added that one of the pro-Israel speakers, Prof. Geoffrey Alderman, a British Jewish academic, was very pleased the conference was going ahead in Ireland. Prof Alderman is due to deliver a paper titled: “Jews, Judaism and the Jewish state: ethnic rights and international wrongs.”

UCC’s Governing Body also received a letter, a copy of which was also sent to this publication, asking them not to host to conference, stating the possible damage that could be done to the reputation of the university if it was to go ahead. However, UCC has issued a statement saying that no approval had yet been issued for the conference stating that “the University management has issued no approval for the event, has sought information on the details of the proposed conference from the organisers and will determine its position following appropriate consideration.”

Prof Bowen said it was important to defend academic freedom, especially in the face of pressure from governments with a “vested interest in preventing examination of uncomfortable issues.” Prof James Bowen also praised the decision to host the event in Cork saying “academic freedom is still fairly well protected, unlike in the UK, where it seems to have come to be regarded as a disposable luxury.”

Arieh Miller, Executive Director at the Zionist Federation, attacked attempts to justify the staging of the conference on the grounds of academic free speech. Mr Miller said: “Time and time again we see attempts by university departments to use the thinly veiled guise of academia to spread hate and often use lies and twisted facts to denigrate the state of Israel.

“These conferences only play into the hands of those who look to delegitimise Israel’s very right to exist. It is absolutely incredible that, with all of the atrocities taking place in the world not least in Syria or Yemen, Cork University has chosen to hold a conference on Israel, the one Jewish country and the only true democracy in the Middle East.”

The Cork event will feature at least two speakers who are known for their pro-Israeli views. The conference organisers include Israel-born law professor Oren Ben-Dor and Prof Suleiman Sharkh, who grew up in Gaza.

The conference, called International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism, will feature speakers on various sides of the debate will reportedly run from March 31st to April 2nd this year.