(Photo: the International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Exceptionalism and Responsibility conference)
It was originally scheduled in 2014 for the Britain’s Southampton University and was canceled after Zionists pressured university officials. It was briefly rescheduled once more in Southampton in response to outrage over the censorship only to be canceled once again. However, lead organizers, Oren Ben-Dor, James Bowen and George Bisharat did not give up. In the intervening months questions about the legitimacy of Israeli government actions only increased, and the original conference organizers were joined by more scholars and international legal experts determined to carry out a serious discussion about Palestine and international law.
For many of the attendees, the timing this spring couldn’t have been better. The ascendancy of the right wing in Europe and the United States and the recent vociferous reactions to the UN report by Richard Falk and Virginia Tilley made the discussions all the more timely and necessary. The warm Irish welcome was such that the first two days were actually held in the atrium auditorium of Cork’s City Hall. The sessions were packed at both City Hall and the Sunday session at the University of Cork. Although there was security hired by conference organizers, there were no violent incidents, nor even any sustained complaints from the audience. The only sustained reactions were the enthusiastic applause outbursts whenever the courage and persistence of the conference organizers was mentioned.
Richard Falk, co-author of the recent UN report:Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid, commissioned and published by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), was the first keynote speaker with a magisterial overview of the legal history of the state formation of Israel. Ugo Mattai from the University of Turin and Hastings College of Law was the keynote for the second day and gave an eloquent perspective on the functional limits of international law. Other presenters included Ghada Karmi, University of Exeter; Vasuki Nesiah, NYU; Anthony Lowstedt, Webster University in Vienna; anti-house demolition Activist Jeff Halper; London barrister Salma Karmi-Ayyoub; Jaffa journalist Ofra Yeshua-Lyth; Joel Kovel, NY writer and activist and many others.
The sessions, listed with titles such as “Legitimacy, Self Determination and Political Zionism” and “Settler Colonialism: Exceptional or Typical”, could have veered off into repetitive rhetoric and bitter denouncements, but the skillful panel arrangements and choice of speakers by the organizers made for thoughtful, though sometimes intense discussion and reflection.
Several key Jewish academics and the presentation by Buckingham Professor Geoffrey Alderman insured that pro-Israel voices were also presented. The only tense moment came when someone in the audience questioned a panelist’s contention that Israeli children are being taught to hate. That discussion was quickly defused by expanding to include statements about diverse cultures and the need to empathize with “the other”.
One of the sessions on the last day was enhanced with a variety of maps. Instead of the usual depressing images of encroaching wall construction and escalating settlement development, in this discussion the maps were shown as possible guides for potential future reconciliation and repatriation. Dr. Salman Abu-Sitta from the Land Society of Palestine showed slides of map points locating carefully researched sites of former Palestinian homes and villages placed over a map of current Israeli population centers. When viewed via his overlapping graphics, one could see that there was room on the land for ensuring space for “the right to return.” As an experienced civil engineer, Abu-Sitta outlined some of the planning and construction that could be created for a truly authentic “peace process.” His plan, he assured the audience, would cost a lot less than even one year of U.S. aid to Israel, and, as he pointed out, would only be a one-time cost, not an annual expenditure. One should be cautious about any technological solution to human problems, but Abu-Sitta’s positive and good humored look at what has been such an insoluble issue was refreshing and persuasive.
Eitan Bronstein Aparicio also used cartography in a positive presentation. He passed out copies of a large fold-out map which shows the many historic settlements that were destroyed—but not just Palestinian ones. His map includes Jewish and Syrian destructions also from way before 1948 until 2016. This is part of the extensive work Bronstein Aparicio has done to increase understanding of the history of land and population centers for both Israelis and Palestinians.
Throughout the conference, there were occasional “Thoughts for the Day” by Philip Franses, a representative from the Schumacher College. These short presentations must have been scheduled by the organizers to circumvent what was the anticipated dissension. Like the bored security personnel, these hedges against rancor were completely unnecessary at this overwhelmingly positive and hopeful conference. The expected dissension was non-existent and these programmed “new age” moments seemed forced and patronizing. The mantra of “we’re all equal humans” and “we are the world” moments seemed rather insulting.
The final panel included a presentation by Cheryl Harris, Professor of Constitutional Law at UCLA, who began with a review of events in Ferguson, Missouri, and a short history of the Black Lives Matter movement. According to Harris, this movement has become aware of the need to connect with international struggles against racism and the global struggle for justice. Both Harris and Richard Falk adroitly, with diplomatic grace, responded to the “feel good, everyone’s equal” proscription by reminding the audience that Franses’ confident rhetoric did not take power into account. Yes, all lives do matter, but a “togetherness” chant is not going to remedy unjust situations—in Missouri or Palestine.