Liverpool Hope University has cancelled a talk by a professor who is critical of Israel.
Professor Avi Shlaim is an emeritus fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford, where he was professor of international relations. Shlaim is one of Israel’s “new historians”, a group of academics who are critical of Zionism and Israel’s foreign policy towards Arab states.
Professor Shlaim had been going to speak as part of Liverpool Hope University’s (LHU) “distinguished lecture series”. Members of the local Jewish community complained to the University about Shlaim’s scheduled talk, citing the “present context”: Hamas’ murder of fourteen-hundred Israeli civilians, and Israel’s retaliation, which has killed thousands, many of whom are civilians.
LHU cancelled Shlaim’s talk, stating that the decision had been made in the interests of “the well-being and safety of our students and staff”. LHU offered Shlaim the opportunity to rearrange his talk to be given at some unspecified point in the future.
LHU’s claim that Shlaim’s talk posed a threat to the well-being and safety LHU’s students and staff is unfounded. There are no grounds, whatsoever, for LHU to believe that Shlaim would incite violence, issue hate speech, or do anything else that could threaten the safety of the Jewish community. Shlaim himself is a British-Israeli Jew. At a launch for his book Three Worlds: Memoirs of an Arab Jew on the 14th Oct, Shlaim stressed his opposition to hatred on either side of the Israel-Palestine conflict. He also took time to explain that the event had been organised long in advance, and that no one had any way of knowing it would take place during such distressing times.
LHU’s stated reasons for cancelling the talk are bogus, and transparently so. It appears that LHU simply became afraid to host a speaker who had written on a controversial subject, when that subject became topical. Shlaim believes that those who complained “did so because they don’t like my views on Zionism and Israel.” He continues, in his email to LHU: “The issue is not of safety; it is of academic freedom. I am being denied the freedom to express my views on your campus”. Shlaim has called the university officials who had made the decision to cancel his talk “spineless”.
LHU might argue that Shlaim’s academic freedom has not been curtailed – they did offer him the opportunity to give his talk at some point in the future. But academic freedom only when it is convenient is not academic freedom. An academic freedom that existed only when no sensitive issues were topical would be an absurd parody – and it would never exist. Academic freedom requires academics to be unconstrained in the topics they research and teach, even when these topics are sensitive, or distressing. Indeed, academic freedom is even more vital in areas that are contested, and distressing, since these are areas which it is particularly important for us to understand.