Following the massacre at the Paris office of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, “Je suis Charlie” became the slogan of UK government ministers keen to proclaim their commitment to free speech, together with their belief that it is threatened by extremism as seldom before.
It is an old British boast that intellectual liberty and diversity of opinion were nurtured in Britain. When the other day no fewer than seven British party leaders engaged in a television debate occasioned by the forthcoming UK general election on May 7, the event was hailed as evidence of Britain’s evolving democratic heritage, its hospitality to fresh political formations. Never mind that the debate was of stultifying parochialism, with scarcely any reference to the outside world. Never mind, either, that even as the various leaders had their say a top British university was caving in to pressure to cancel an academic conference scheduled for mid-April on a subject big with democratic significance: The past and present legality of Israel’s conduct toward the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine.
Entitled International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism and organized by Prof. Oren Ben-Dor, a sometime Israeli citizen and Prof. George Bisharat, a Palestinian American, the conference was smeared from the moment it was mooted as an exercise in “de-legitimization,” a morally repugnant attempt to “deny Israel’s right to exist.” Its critics ranged from Britain’s Jewish Board of Deputies to two prominent Conservative members of the UK’s coalition government, the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, and the Chief Whip, Michael Gove. The latter, well-known for his furious Zionism, denounced the conference as an “anti-Israel hate fest.”The cancellation of the Southampton conference comes at a time when the British government is making a priority of combating anti-Semitism, in response to abuse of Jews across Europe and rising Jewish anxiety. An appeal is planned, but if the cancellation is upheld it seems sure to fuel the perception of institutionalized double standard, the widespread impression that official British readiness to conflate criticism of Israel with racism is matched only by the speed with which Britain’s security services react to signs of Islamist radicalism. Common sense suggests that the cancellation can only be counterproductive, deepening anger and alienation among a substantial minority of Britons. Common sense also suggests that the cause of democracy is ill-served when what many regard as legitimate debate is muzzled.
One might wonder what lies behind the demonization of an international conference based on historico-legal scholarship. It is hard to quell the suspicion that it springs from panic, the fear that informed discourse about the circumstances of Israel’s creation may raise questions as awkward as they are real. Might it be too that it betrays a bad conscience, displaced Zionist guilt? After all, here is a state ideology which ceaselessly accuses Palestinians and their supporters of denying Israel’s right to exist, even as it persists in depriving Palestinians of the right to exist in a state that they can call their their own.
What is beyond dispute is that for dominant elements of the UK political elite appeasement of Zionist sensitivities is less a considered principle than an automatic reflex. There is irony in this, for Britain has long been seen as having “appeased” Nazi Germany at the 1938 Munich conference, thereby opening the door to Adolph Hitler’s concerted attempt to annihilate European Jewry. All these years later, the word seems not inappropriate to describe the token demurrals Britain makes, along with other western democracies, as Israel annexes ever more Palestinian land and steadily extinguishes the very possibility of Palestinian self-determination. It might also be applied to the obsequious manner in which British Zionists rush to strangle discussion unwelcome to Israel at birth.
The Southampton conference on Israel was cancelled soon after an Israeli general election that shocked even the US political commentator, Joe Klein, himself a cradle Zionist, as an affront to democracy, with its brazen contempt not just for Palestinian national aspirations but for Palestinians as human beings. If Britain’s Zionist zealots had their way, such independence of mind about Israel would be outlawed as a thought crime.