Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Banning the voice of Israel

In an earlier post I quoted a Northern Ireland Friends of Israel report which stated that following representation from NIFI, Professor Geoffrey Alderman had been invited to join a panel discussion on the topic 'Conflict in the Middle East' to provide a pro-Israel perspective.

The two original contributors were Professor Avi Shlaim, who was born in Baghdad in 1945 of Jewish parentage but is now a critic of Israel and Zionism, and Professor Beverley Milton-Edwards, who is a professor in the school of politics, international studies and philosophy at Queen's University.  In a BBC Radio 4 Sunday Programme in 2007 she described Hamas as a 'Muslim national movement' which was trying to bring law and order in Gaza and at the time journalist Melanie Phillips described her as having 'had a history of promoting the interests of Islamist terrorists'.  That quote is still on Melanie Phillips website at

Professor Alderman is a respected author and academic who appears frequently on radio and television as an authority on the politics of the Middle East and he would have made a valuable contribution to the debate as well as providing some muc-needed balance.

However I have just received an e-mail from Professor Lewis H Glinert of Dartmouth College in America stating that last Friday Professor Alderman received an e-mail from Festival director Graeme Farrow informing him that 'a mistake' had been made in inviting him and that although he could join the audience, the event would go ahead without his participation in the panel!

This was a copy of an e-mail that Professor Glinert had sent to the QUB Vice-Chancellor, Professor Gregson, and in it he said, 'This is an unprecedented attack on academic freedom - and an insult to the Jewish community in the UK.'

This is a disturbing development and the Festival has a responsibility to explain why the invitation to Professor Alderman was withdrawn, how the 'mistake' was made and why they decided to stage a one-sided discussion that excluded a pro-Israel speaker.


  1. I attended the event, and the circumstances surrounding the organiser's dealings with Northern Ireland Friends of Israel were explained in full to those present. Professor Shlaim confirmed that he had met Professor Alderman that day and that they had had a friendly discussion. On balance, Professor Shlaim felt that having Professor Alderman on the panel would have resulted in a quite different event — probably with more heat than light — and I tend to agree.

    It is incorrect to state that Professor Shlaim is not sympathetic to Israel. He holds joint British-Israeli citizenship and served in the Israeli Defence Force. He stated at the event that his first preference would be for a two-state solution (consistently favoured by a majority of ordinary Israelis, though not always by their unstable coalition governments), which in all probability would leave at least 78% (the proportion recognised by international law) of mandatory Palestine under Israeli control. He also said that the illegal settlements put in place by successive Israeli governments had rendered a two-state solution extremely difficult and that there would be a Palestinian majority between the Mediterranean and the Jordan in approximately 10 years. He strongly criticised Hamas for using violence against civilians, which he said was never justified.

    I can also confirm that Professor Milton-Edwards referred to Hamas violence as "abhorrent".

    When it comes to guaranteeing the long-term survival of Israel, it seems to me that Professor Shlaim is quite obviously more of a friend than those who wish an unsustainable South African-style situation to emerge that would inevitably, after much suffering on both sides, result in majority rule in a one-state solution.

  2. Thank you for your report. I welcome the fact that Professor Milton-Edwards referred to Hamas violence as 'abhorrent'. However I will also look forward to hearing from Professor Alderman and the Northern Ireland Friends of Israel, as to their views on the matter. What explanation was given at the meeting about the 'mistake'?

  3. Scots Anorak, you seem very convinced that all the circumstances of the disinvitation were aired at the event. How can you possibly know this?

    The festival director told both Geoffrey and myself that Professors Shlaim and Milton Edwards refused to take part if Prof Alderman was allowed to participate from the platform. If that is not the case then let them say so. For Queen's and the Festival to back them up in this is disgraceful.

    Avi Shlaim also said the festival director was pressurised by telephone calls from NIFI to accept Geoffrey as an additional guest and that is why he had made his "mistake" of inviting him. I can assure you there was not one phone call between NIFI and the Festival Director and all communication between us was by email. So the circumstances weren't aired in full or even correctly.

    It is sad that you prefer to listen only to people you agree with, on an issue as contentious as the Middle East conflict, in case there might be "more heat than light".

    Senior academics like Avi Shlaim and Beverley Milton-Edwards should welcome having their views assessed and criticised by their peers and likewise Geoffrey Alderman. That is what academic discourse should be about!

    Israel's case may not be to your liking, and you are well within your rights to disagree with it, but you have no right to welcome it being silenced on the basis that only left wing critics of Israel should be heard at the Belfast festival. Galloway, Fisk, Chomsky in past years without reply; this year Alderman disinvited, it really is disgraceful.

  4. I have dealt with this most regrettable incident in my column in the current Jewish Chronicle:

    The plain facts are that I was invited to join Professors Milton-Edwards and Shlaim, and was subsequently "disinvited" - on the grounds that it had been a "mistake" to invite me in the first place!!

    This issue is not about any particular view of "Conflict in the Middle East," (is it?), but rather about the gross discourtesy (to put it no higher) shown to me and the implications of this for freedom of expression in Northern Ireland and especially at the Belfast Festival.

    Geoffrey Alderman

  5. Professor Alderman - Thank you for your post. This whole episode is extremely alarming.

  6. Scots Anorak, or should I say Gavin? The Northern Ireland Friends of Israel and Professor Geoffrey Alderman have both posted on this matter. Perhaps you could respond to the questions I asked you earlier.

  7. As the family of Beverly Milton-Edwards has been threatened, this will be my last posting on this, although all involved should feel free to continue without me.

    I of course accept absolutely that as an audience member I could not know all the circumstances of the “disinvitation”, but it was an inherently reasonable assumption to believe that all relevant particulars had been brought to the attention of those present given that the issue emerged in an exchange between Stephen Jaffe, co-chair of Northern Ireland Friends of Israel, and Avi Shlaim. I can, however, confirm that a telephone call (not, I think, an e-mail) was mentioned. The organisers and Prof. Shlaim spoke to the Jewish Chronicle and have no need of me to make their case. I made my original post because the Minister seemed to have such strong opinions on an event that he had not attended, and because, following a recent pattern, he was voicing strong criticism of a body in receipt of funds from his Department (in this case the Belfast Festival at Queen’s) in a manner that could, I hope incorrectly, be interpreted as an attempt to bully the artistic and cultural community into absolute adherence to his personal agenda.

    I am sure that Prof. Alderman is an able academic, but he is surely not the “voice of Israel” of the Minister’s post. He is a British person of Jewish faith, not an Israeli, despite, like all Jewish people, being entitled to an Israeli passport. Avi Shlaim, who spent his childhood in Israel, has native-speaker proficiency in Modern Hebrew, holds joint British-Israeli citizenship and served in the IDF, on the other hand, is referred to as being merely “of Jewish parentage”, as if the political stances that he adopted as an adult had somehow diluted his ethnicity. As poll after poll has confirmed that a majority of Israelis favour a two-state solution, I am at a loss as to why the epithet “voice of Israel” should be conferred on Prof. Alderman, who presumably, in public at least, does not view that goal's achievement as a priority.

    I also note that the Minister terms Prof. Alderman an “authority on the politics of the Middle East”, from which one might infer that he shares a research specialism with Profs. Shlaim and Milton-Edwards. Judging from his list of academic publications, he is certainly an authority on Jewish life in Britain, but that is hardly the same thing. His CV states: “My research career, and my university teaching, have focussed on 19th and 20th century British history, contemporary British politics, modern Anglo-British Jewry, and quality management in higher education.”

    If Prof. Alderman has major peer-reviewed academic publications on Middle East history or politics, he should be more upfront about them; if he has not, perhaps he might consider submitting something to anonymous peer review as a way of bolstering his case to appear on future such panels. I do hope that the Festival compensates him for any costs incurred, however.

    It is incorrect (and wishful thinking) to view criticism of the state of Israel's actions as being only left-wing. If anything, the divide over Israel-Palestine is generational. In my case, the criticism is based on concern for individual human rights (and international law) over group rights. It is therefore axiomatically more liberal rather than left-wing. In fact, it does not differ much from views expressed by the current Conservative Foreign Secretary.

    On the other hand, it is difficult to avoid the impression that the Minister has adopted a stance of unqualified support for the current Israeli government's actions for the comparatively frivolous reason that, by a process of flawed analogy, it makes him appear a rather more staunch Unionist (I am assuming that it has nothing to do with his adherence, former or otherwise, to certain theories concerning the “lost tribes”). As such, he is, in a small way, contributing to the moral and demographic destruction of the state of Israel.

    We are clearly on a superhighway to a one-state solution. Only a few exits remain.

  8. I think that I may have mistyped the extract from Prof. Alderman's CV slightly. The correct entry is as follows:

    "My research career, and my university teaching, have focussed on 19th and 20th century British history; contemporary British politics, modern Anglo-Jewish history, and quality management in higher education."

  9. Gavin (Scots Anorak) - The question I asked you and for which I await an answer was "What explanation was given at the meeting about the 'mistake'?"