I have just returned from a fascinating two-day conference at the University of Sussex. As someone who researches anti-Zionist forces in the UK, watching these people operate inside an arena so fraught with internal disagreement, made for a fascinating and educational outing.
It spanned two full days and included around 50 speakers. The Sussex conference programme is available online.
The framing of the University of Sussex conference
Towards the end of the second day, Sussex ‘activist academic’ Michael Kearney made an interesting comment. Kearney had been discussing academic censorship when he spoke of the cancelled conference at Southampton:
“a conference that was supposed to be held at the University of Southampton on the very same topic that we are talking here today, but it was banished from the UK”
When you hold a conference of this type, it is built from within a world vision. Those initial building blocks will shape the speakers, the themes and the debate. The very focus of the conference, ‘occupation at 50’, removes the orthodox hard-core Israeli and Palestinian activists from the equation.
Kearney can turn up, he can even pretend he is in the same virtual setting, but the Palestinians in the audience were not fooled. They complained, both about the academic focus and what they saw as the unbalanced and unrepresentative composition of the panels. Their complaints became more vocal as the conference progressed. To pro-Israelis this might seem absurd, because the panels were distinctly anti-Israel in substance. But for some, this event wasn’t hard-core enough. There are certainly activist / academics who would refuse to attend, on the grounds that in speaking at a conference about an ‘occupation at 50’ there was implicit recognition of Israel’s legitimate right to exist. Why 50? Why not 69? That difference is what sets Sussex apart from Cork or Southampton.
A few comments from my experience:
Academia is in deep trouble. The video below is a single example of how low the bar is now being set. In an arena where ‘truth’ no longer has meaning, ‘innovation’, ‘extremism’ or ‘differentiation’ becomes king. To excel in anti-Israel academia, one merely needs to find a new way to attack Israel. If you can claim a ‘niche’ all for yourself, you will do well. Real expertise and research become meaningless.
Ruba Salih from SOAS is another activist I have seen many times before. I know her routine. Salih talks a lot about inter-connectivity and the Palestinian youth movements worldwide. The ludicrous idea of ‘Palestine as paradigm’. Or every oppressed person is a Palestinian. You can see this playing out at every demonstration of a left wing cause, with the ‘invasion of the Palestinian flag’. An attempt to bring about recognition that the anti-Israel cause is part of the fight of the global ‘oppressed’.
So as soon as any movement against inequality or oppression takes centre stage, anti-Israel activists will align Palestinians with it. You will see campaigns such as “Palestine supports the Dakota pipeline protests” with cleverly crafted YouTube videos. From ‘Ferguson to Palestine’ is another example, with its own YouTube videos. Black Lives Matter activists turned up on campus as part of Apartheid week as evidence of this strategy of inter-connectivity. Remember the junior doctors strike in the UK, well yes, Palestinians jumped on that too.
The anti-Israel cause has so much antisemitism infecting it already, it is foolish to adopt a strategy that tries to identify Israel as being an integral part of the global power grid (your oppressor is our oppressor too). Like so many of the strategies against Israel, it feeds classic conspiratorial antisemitic sentiments.
Additionally, by aligning with those that already have powerful enemies themselves, the Arabs do themselves no favours. They will see additional regionalised restrictions because of those troublesome new alignments, and in turn, the blame will wrongly be placed back onto the global reach of the Jews. As usual, as a result of avoiding talking about peace, the Palestinians are willing to make it worse for everyone else, including themselves.
Talking of terrorists
One of the speakers on the second day, Michael Kearney spoke about Prevent, terrorism and free speech. It was during an interesting debate about Non-Violent Resistance and BDS. Kearney was apparently frustrated that he couldn’t talk about violent resistance. Kearney has had a similar career path to one of the organisers of the Cork hate-fest, Dr. John Reynolds. They both work in similar fields and both served with anti-Israel NGO ‘Al-Haq‘.
Kearney’s talk was uncomfortable to listen to. This is the part when he discusses the legality of Palestinian terrorism:
I place the video here because personally, I am not qualified to judge it. There is no question that the launching of Hamas rockets against a civilian population is not lawful. I am surprised Kearney seems to even suggest that might not be the case. I was also disturbed by the discussion of Israeli settlers possibly being ‘legitimate targets’. Once you begin to break down the rules of engagement in this fashion, all the walls can be broken down. Because Israel has civilian national service, it is the type of rationale that Kearney seems to deploy, that ends up justifying the unjustifiable.
The talk about non violent resistance also provided a glimpse into the vile racism of BDS and suggests that the discriminatory damage that BDS does beyond its scope, is an inevitable consequence of BDS activity:
The example in Oxford, the example of the University of Sussex ‘not wanting to go there’, in relation to a joint programme, and open admissions that BDS activity is more likely to cross the line silently than it would openly. It is odd that Salma Karmi-Ayoubb from Al Haq seems confused that anti-discrimination laws are being used to restrict the unfair discrimination inherent in the BDS movement.
Hannah Weisfeld, Eric Heinze and the welcome silence of Falk
As the make up of the audience was generally more extreme than the panelists, any attempt to present a balanced perspective met with instant rebuke. Sammy Smooha delivered a simple, factual, but perhaps badly thought out paper on Israel’s Arab citizens. Sitting in a room that believes these Arabs to be persecuted, subject to an Apartheid regime and in constant fear of dispossession, there was a serious disconnect between Smooha and the crowd. He was visibly rattled by the aggressive response
Rosa Freedman was attacked for daring to suggest that the UN focus on Israel is both unfair and a hindrance. Despite the balanced presentation, she was accused during the Q&A of delivering a “conservative polemic”. It isn’t enough to be a humanitarian at a conference such as this, you need to be one who disregards the truth.
Two panelists who did stand out like a sore thumb, Hannah Weisfeld and Eric Heinze sat on the final panel on day one. Real, live, breathing, Zionists. They had turned up to defend the truth and Israel at a conference that had little interest in either. Both Hannah and Eric spent a long time in front of a hostile audience, and both handled the questions well. On the same panel Richard Falk was connected via Skype. There were problems with the connection. He was silent almost throughout. So it was a good end to the first day.
Right at the end of the final panel at Sussex was a fascinating delivery by Leila Sansour who was sandwiched between Adi Ophir and Yoav Peled. Or perhaps it is fairer to suggest Leila Sansour directly and brutally attacked the ‘one state’ paradigm of Ophir, Peled, the Brighton BDS, Brighton PSC, the organisers of the conference and many of the other anti-Zionists in the room. This video is well worth watching:
So many anti-Israel activists in the UK push forward the idea of a single secular state as a way of ‘punishing’ Israel. The brutal truth is that nobody on the ground wants it. Not the Israelis and not the Palestinians. You cannot push BDS and suggest the Palestinians want ‘one secular state’. It is a fraud. Sansour calls it ‘the worst possible solution’.
Activists and academics
This event at the University of Sussex wasn’t like the conference at Cork, but at times it was even more disturbing. A bunch of naive, ignorant and blindly idealistic academics got together with other less well-intentioned folk, and put on a show that was all about how Israel is ‘the bad guy’. There was not a single submission, not one, that suggested the current situation was created and is perpetuated by a very real, and very worrying security situation. That was an unforgivable bias.
As each activist / academic delivered a presentation, I was required to work out which particular hat they were wearing at the time. An academic conference really should not be like this. When for example, they were pushing elements of their own activism, it turned into the equivalent of political propaganda. Some of these people live and breath the anti-Israel cause, and this conference is part of that activism. Like Pappe, you feel they are willing to bend the truth.
No, BDS is not doing well. I lost count of the times I was fed BDS propaganda about its own success. Can you call it an academic conference, when so many panelists have an underlying requirement to overstate the results of whatever particular ideology they are pushing? How do you tell the difference between the academic and the activist? Why should so much university funding be channeled into something so academically weak?
Questions that perhaps only the organisers know the answer to.
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