A leading British university has been condemned for hosting a conference questioning Israel’s right to exist which critics say will legitimise anti-Semitism.
Pressure is growing on Southampton University to cancel the three day event, planned for next month, or face growing anger from academics, politicians and its own fund-raisers.
One prominent lawyer has already said he would think twice before hiring someone from the south coast university.
Mark Lewis, who has represented a string of celebrity clients, said he would look “unfavourably” at CVs sent by graduates of Southampton.
And one of its most respected former alumni has returned his degree in protest and at least one major patron of the university is said to be considering withdrawing funding.
Critics have said the conference – International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism – would be a ‘one-sided’ exercise in Israel-bashing and provide a platform for anti-Semitic views.
Nearly 4,500 people have signed a petition calling on the university to cancel the conference.
Organisers describe the conference as “the first of its kind and constitutes a ground-breaking historical event … it is unique because it concerns the legitimacy in international law of the Jewish State of Israel.”
The university’s own website advertising the conference makes no secret of the fact that the event will question the both the legal and moral right of the state of Israel to exist, stating:
“It concerns the legitimacy in International Law of the Jewish state of Israel. Rather than focusing on Israeli actions in the 1967 Occupied Territories, the conference will focus on exploring themes of Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism; all of which are posed by Israel’s very nature.”
The event, set to take place from April 17 to 19, will be addressed by academics from universities around the world, including the US, Britain, Australia and Israel.
Organisers – who include Southampton law professor Oren Ben-Dor; George Bisharat, professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law; Juman Asmail, a Southampton law graduate and Palestinian rights activist; and Southampton engineering professor Suleiman Sharkh – said the conference will “engage controversial questions concerning the manner of Israel’s foundation and its nature, including ongoing forced displacements of Palestinians and associated injustices.”
But critics of the conference, which include the Board of Deputies of British Jews, say many of the speakers are known anti-Israel activists who have called for a boycott of Israel.
They include Richard Falk, the former United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, anti-Zionist Israeli academic Ilan Pappe and Palestinian activist Ghada Karmi.
Also due to speak is Dr Elias Khoury, a Lebanese novelist, who during the 1970s enlisted in Fatah, the largest armed group in the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), and fought in the Lebanese civil war.
Mr Lewis, who represented the family of murdered Surrey teenager Milly Dowler and Gordon Taylor, the Professional Footballer’s Association chief executive, during the hacking scandal and subsequent Leveson inquiry, said Southampton university’s decision to host the conference raised disturbing questions about its attitude to Jews and the state of Israel.
In a comment on the social media site Twitter he said: “University of Southampton Law School that will stand out on CVs. Well thought out.”
Mr Lewis, a partner with London law firm Seddons, told The Sunday Telegraph: “This is a one-sided conference, not a debate and I would want to raise serious questions about what students at this university are being taught and what the university believes.
“If Southampton allows teaching which does not present both sides of a case it would raise doubts in my mind about the suitability of a candidate from its School of Law. I would not look so favourably on those CVs.”
Mr Lewis added that to his knowledge at least two major patrons of the university were considering withdrawing their financial support. One is a charitable foundation, the other a wealthy family.
He said: “Southampton university is hosting a debate about Israel’s right to exist that would not be permissible about any other country. And by doing so it gives credence to anti-Semitic views.”
Mr Lewis’s comments came as one of the country’s leading paediatricians returned his degree to Southampton, saying he no longer wanted to be associated with the university.
Andrew Sawczenko, one of the few consultants accredited in both General Paediatrics and Paediatric Gastroenterology, last week returned the Bachelor of Medicine he received in 1987 to vice chancellor Professor Don Nutbeam.
The university said it was “extremely saddened” by his decision.
Vivian Wineman, president of the Board of deputies, and its Vice-President Jonathan Arkush, met Prof. Nutbeam last week in a bid to persuade Southampton to withdraw its support for the event.
The planned conference has also been criticised at Westminster.
Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities, called it a “one-sided diatribe”.
He said: “There is a careful line between legitimate academic debate on international law and the actions of governments, and the far-left’s bashing of Israel which often descends into naked anti-Semitism.
“Given the taxpayer-funded university has a legal duty to uphold freedom of speech, I would hope that they are taking steps to give a platform to all sides.”
Mark Hoban, the Conservative MP for Fareham, described it a “provocative, hard-line, one-sided forum that would question and delegitimize the existence of a democratic state.”
In a letter to the university’s Vice Chancellor, he said: “Whatever one’s thoughts on the actions of its government, Israel stands as the only democracy in a region blighted by political, religious and social persecution.”
Caroline Nokes, MP for Romsey and Southampton North, said the university risked bringing itself into disrepute by hosting what she described as “such an apparently one-sided event”.
The conference has led to fierce arguments between colleagues at the university.
Tim Sluckin, professor of mathematics at the university and secretary of Southampton Hebrew Congregation, denounced the event, describing it as “a political meeting masquerading as academic activity”
Prof Sluckin said: “Their purpose is to delegitimize Israel. This is not appropriate for a university. It makes me feel uncomfortable as a Jew, with Israeli family, that I have to take a public as opposed to a private position on Middle Eastern politics.
“The university management has mishandled it, and failed to understand the political issues involved.”
The Parkes Institute, a respected centre for the study of Jewish history based at Southampton University, has added its voice to the chorus of critics.
In a statement distancing itself from the decision to host the conference, Joachim Schlör, director of the institute, said: “This event could potentially damage the spirit of dialogue and cooperation to which we are all committed. A conference that singles out Israel and invites the questioning of its very existence cannot be supported by a group of academics dedicated to the study of Jewish history and culture.”
Prof Ben-Dor, however, described critics’ concerns as rejected the concerns, “ludicrous”.
Southampton university said it “very much values its relationships with students, staff, visitors and invited speakers from Israel and the Jewish community” adding that it will do “all we can within our statutes and ordinances to ensure that any distress or upset is addressed”
A university spokesman added: “We are committed to academic freedom, free speech and opportunities for staff and students to engage with a wide range of opinions.”