Heckler’s veto in Southampton

A couple of weeks ago I signed a petition in support of a conference planned for 17-19 April at the University of Southampton, on “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism” that had been threatened with cancellation because of pressure from the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the UK Zionist Federation; ubiquitous-parking enthusiast and Communities minister Eric Pickles also contributed his opinion. It seemed to me an obviously legitimate academic conference, on a subject of both academic and public interest. If the choice of speakers does not cover all possible opinions on the matter — my impression is that my own view would not really coincide with any of those represented, and the framing of the topic is too politically tendentious for my taste — well, that’s unfortunate, though I’d wait until after they’d spoken to comment on what they have to say, and then opponents are free to organise their own conference.

Now the university has decided to cancel the conference because of specious “health and safety” concerns: because protestors threatened violence, or because the university authorities consider them the protestors — or the conference organisers — inherently deranged. I recognised long ago that “health and safety” is the leading weasel word in the British bureaucratic vocabulary. Pretty much anything can be justified with it, and it sounds so much more decisive and incontrovertible than saying “I am worried that someone could get hurt” (or “someone could catch Ebola”).

This is a dangerous decision. As someone whose grandparents’ generation was forced out and/or murdered by brownshirt thugs who came to power in Germany and then most of Europe after applying the strategy of directed violence against opposing political and intellectual viewpoints, I am dismayed to see that Jewish organisations in the US (see, e.g., the Salaita affair) and UK have come to the conclusion that the main problem with the Third Reich was too much free speech. Never again!

This is a dangerous step. Either Southampton will make itself a pariah by this move, or it will make itself an example to other universities, who increasingly find that all that academic exchange-of-ideas mumbledy-goop just gets in the way of the free exchange of money and services with well-connected donors.

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