The University of Southampton has cancelled a controversial conference on Israel and international law, following a barrage of criticism and a 6,000 signature petition. But was it right to bow to pressure from pro-Israel apologists?

In a statement issued this week, the university claimed it was forced to cancel the International Law and the State of Israel conference due to health and safety concerns. But event organisers believe the cancellation follows mounting pressure from pro-Israel lobby groups, such as the Zionist Federation UK and Sussex Friends of Israel, as well as Romsey MP Caroline Noakes and MP and Communities Secretary Eric Pickles.

These parties have argued the conference, which was set to debate the state of Israel’s right to exist, is one-sided and amounts to Israel-bashing. To this end, the Zionist Federation set-up a petition and gathered over 6,000 signatures demanding the university withdraw hosting of the event. Some even claimed that the conference was anti-semitic, failing to notice that one of its primary organisers, Professor Oren Ben-Dor, is both Israeli and Jewish, as were several of the conference’s speakers.

But where is the free speech we were so quick to defend following the Charlie Hebdo shootings? It is a sad state of affairs if universities like Southampton are going to roll over every time a bunch of rabble-rousers exclaim their offence at a simple conference. If the cancellation was truly on health and safety grounds, are they trying to suggest that these same lobby groups were threatening attendees with violence?

Ben-Dor told the Guardian: “It is very clear that the health and safety issue was not serious, it’s a way of creating bogus reasoning. The real reason was political pressure. The controversial nature of the conference is precisely where freedom of speech leads – that’s where the commitment to freedom of speech is tested.”

Since the cancellation of the event, a petition was created by freelance journalist Ben White calling on the university to uphold free speech and once again host the event. This petition has garnered more than 6,000 signatures in a matter of hours.Will the university reverse their decision and put the event back on? Are we going to end up in some strange democracy-by-petition society, where all matters are decided by acts of slacktivism?

The University of Southampton proclaims it has a strong history of supporting free speech and of presenting controversial debates on its campuses. This is why it such a shame that it has decided, on this occasion, to bow to public pressure. We can only hope that they will not be so cowardly in the future.

Photo Credit: Ben O’Neill (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)

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