Friday, 17 April 2015

The importance of academic freedom and open debate

Today, The Jewish Chronicle published a letter in which a cross-section of Jewish academics, including myself, condemned the undermining of academic freedom at the University of Southampton.

This letter is too little, too late, at least from the point of view of this particular academic conference, which has now been indefinitely postponed. But let's hope that the support for unhindered academic freedom expressed by a spectrum of Jewish academics, as well as by many Jewish communal figures (albeit primarily in private so far), will make Jewish organisations think twice before bringing pressure to bear on universities to limit open debate in the future.

Below is a copy of the text and a full list of signatories, together with a photograph of the letter as it appeared in today’s print edition:

Dear Editor,

As Jewish academics in the UK, we condemn the pressure that has been brought to bear, in our names, on the University of Southampton, and which led to the withdrawing of permission to hold the conference "International Law and the State of Israel” on its premises. We are deeply concerned by reports that organisations, including the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council, pressured the University to limit open debate.

The unhindered airing and rigorous critiquing of ideas, especially controversial ones that may make some feel uncomfortable or offended, is at the core of the academy and the intellectual process. Academic freedom should not be restricted because some people disagree strongly with ideas being expressed or because such ideas are against their strongly held convictions. Rather, those people should challenge such ideas with counter-arguments based on sound analysis and evidence. Meanwhile, academics should decide what constitutes acceptable academic debate, unless the subject breaches UK law, which neither the conference's description nor outline appear to do.

Restricting the spaces and places available for debate is not only intellectually lazy and against the principles of academic freedom, but also sets dangerous precedents. In this instance, those precedents include legitimising the interference and intervention of outside interest groups on campus; limiting academic debate; silencing critical voices; and setting the stage for further moves to boycott academic events and individuals. None of this is acceptable, and we feel we have a duty to stand up against it now.

We also wish to express our disappointment in the University of Southampton for failing to uphold free academic debate in this case. We hope that the University realises that the reported actions of some Jewish organisations in relation to this conference do not speak for all Jews, and that many of us - including those who disagree vehemently with the viewpoints of some of the conference presenters - are nevertheless dismayed by what has happened.


Prof Geoffrey Alderman, University of Buckingham
Prof David Feldman, Birkbeck, University of London
Dr Bernard Gowers, University of Oxford
Prof Paul Hyams, Universities of Cornell and Oxford (Emeritus)
Mr Charles Keidan, City University London
Dr Liora Lazarus, University of Oxford
Dr Amir Paz-Fuchs, University of Sussex
Prof Avi Shlaim, University of Oxford
Dr Rebecca Steinfeld, London School of Economics
Prof David Steinsaltz, University of Oxford
Mr Bernard Sufrin, University of Oxford
Dr Adam Sutcliffe, King’s College London
Dr Ruvi Ziegler, University of Reading