International law and Israel: Legitimacy, exceptionalism and responsibility

International law and Israel: Legitimacy, exceptionalism and responsibility
Blog: Inside the conference the Israel lobby tried to ban.
4 min read
05 Apr, 2017
Richard Falk was the keynote speaker at the conference [AFP]

Conservative MP Michael Gove had predicted an "anti-Israel hatefest". The Israeli embassy and their lobby groups warned of violence on campus and spiralling security costs.

But the ancient University College of Cork (UCC) proved them wrong. 

The three-day conference on International law and the state of Israel - cancelled two years previously by the authorities at Southampton University - finally got underway at UCC on 31 March, an example of the value of academic freedom.

The "barrage of intimidation and and misinformation bordering on defamation" that had led to the Southampton event's cancellation had also been directed at Cork, said Professor James Bowen, one of the organisers. But "if the university or City Hall authorities had given way, we would have held the conference under a tree".

"In Ireland, the tradition of 'talking truth to power' has not died," said Richard Falk, Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University.

Falk, who recently co-authored the UN-sponsored report which concluded Israel was an apartheid state, has had invitations to speak at British universities withdrawn and seen his report removed from the official UN website amid a firestorm of protest.

But he and other speakers, many of whom had travelled from Israel, Palestine, Canada and the United States, freely addressed issues including settler colonialism, Zionist nationalism and the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees. 

British-born Professor Geoffrey Alderman, meanwhile, spoke in support of Zionism.

"Our starting point is suffering, not big ideas," said Oren Ben-Dor, professor of law and philosophy at Southampton University, the organiser and promoter of the original conference.

While there were sharp disagreements within the conference hall, notably between supporters of Israel and Jewish non-Zionists, delegates and speakers were afterwards chatting amicably to each other outside.

Falk, the keynote speaker, opened the debate referring to four important anniversaries: the Zionist World Congress in 1897, the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the Partition resolution of 1947 and the Six Day War of 1967.

"It is characteristic of Zionist leadership to say one thing for public consumption but another for their actual agenda... we have to interpret public discourse in terms of real motivation," he said.

"It is important we use the language of apartheid to get away from the illusion of temporary occupation," said Falk.

The majority of delegates seemed encouraged by his analysis of hard power, as military capability, versus soft power, such as Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). 

"The lesson of the twenty-first century is that military power does not have the ascendancy," he said.

Gaza as metaphor and the right to be human, Professor Yosefa Loshitsky's analysis, put Israel's military power in another context. Loshitsky sees Gaza as metaphor for a prison, a ghetto, a refugee camp - and a laboratory for future warfare, allowing Israel to market weaponry as "combat-tested".

Israel's global reach as "security expert", meanwhile, was also mapped out by Jeff Halper, former head of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) whose talk 'Where are we headed in Palestine?' came towards the close of the conference.

After twenty years of writing, talking and analysis, Halper freely admitted that now only one thing interested him: a political solution. 

Dismissing the mantra of two states as "long gone", and the current de facto single apartheid state as simply "wrong", he expanded upon the bi-national state resolution, with a series of principles - including the security concerns of both sides - which must first be agreed.

These principles had been tested the previous evening on young Israeli and Palestinian delegates, when Halper and Palestinian speaker and author Ghada Kharmi had called an impromptu meeting.

"It was the best meeting I have been to, very friendly, nobody got angry. They liked my principles," said Halper. "We now have a working party."

This practical note cut through much of the academic theory here in Cork. 

Falk, in his summing up, noted the "almost universal consensus" within the conference hall - that Israel was an apartheid state - and emphasised the importance that language had shifted from "ending the occupation" to "ending apartheid". This has significance also for the wider system of racial domination suffered by refugees and others beyond Palestine, he concluded.