The University of Vienna has bowed to pressure from Austria’s Israel lobby and banned a public lecture by a veteran Black activist from the United States.
Meanwhile in a significant victory for free speech in Germany, the Ruhrtriennale festival reversed a decision to disinvite the group Young Fathers because of its support for Palestinian rights.
Former member of the Black Panther Party Dhoruba Bin-Wahad had been scheduled to speak Thursday evening at the University of Vienna’s Institute for African Studies.
The lecture was co-sponsored by Dar al Janub, an anti-racism and Palestine solidarity organization.
But in recent weeks, the university has been under pressure from the Austrian Students Union and the Austrian Union of Jewish Students to ban the event.
They claimed that Dar al Janub is closely associated with the Palestine solidarity group BDS Austria and that both organizations are anti-Semitic.
That censorship campaign succeeded after the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde, the central council of Jews in Austria, also got involved, smearing Bin-Wahad himself as anti-Semitic and criminal because of his involvement in the Black liberation struggle that faced severe repression by US authorities.
In recent days, according to email correspondence from administrators seen by The Electronic Intifada, the university imposed increasingly strict conditions on the lecture, ultimately forcing it off campus.
These included banning any involvement by Dar al Janub and insisting that the lecturer stick strictly to the advertised topic and make no “anti-Semitic statements.”
A dean, Melanie Malzahn, would be assigned to monitor the lecture as it happened and would have the power to halt the event on the spot if she judged that any of the speech restrictions were violated.
The university also decided that the public would not be allowed into the lecture at all, and that Bin-Wahad could only speak to a handful of students.
Reached by telephone by The Electronic Intifada, Malzahn stated, “I’m in a meeting. I have no time now” and abruptly hung up the telephone. She did not respond to a follow-up inquiry by email.
Bin-Wahad and Dar al Janub rejected the university’s draconian restrictions and moved the event to Afripoint, an African cultural space in Vienna.
In a press release announcing the change of venue, Dar al Janub said the university had submitted to “unacceptable pressure” from student unions and other interest groups.
Just before the university had imposed the restrictions, its top official Rector Heinz Engl had held a closed meeting with representatives of the Austrian Students Union and the Austrian Union of Jewish Students.
Another of those interest groups is the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde. The Jewish communal body sent a dossier to the university on Bin-Wahad. The university then forwarded the group’s allegations to Dar al Janub, and a translation was shared with The Electronic Intifada.
According to the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde, Bin-Wahad’s membership of the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army made him part of “a criminal organization that carried out bombings, killings of police officers and drug dealers and is responsible for robberies.”
In fact, Bin-Wahad was wrongfully imprisoned for 19 years for allegedly attempting to kill two police officers in 1971. He was exonerated in 1990 and subsequently received $900,000 in damages from the New York Police Department and the FBI.
His personal and political history was the advertised topic of his planned lecture.
The Black Panthers, along with antiwar activists, left-wing groups and the American Indian Movement, were targets of the FBI’s secret COINTELPRO program to sabotage and disrupt their work, including by using infiltrators to incite criminal activities to discredit the organizations.
Notoriously, as part of this government repression, a Chicago police death squad in 1969 assassinated Fred Hampton, the deputy leader of the Illinois Black Panther Party, as he slept in his bed.
Bin-Wahad edited a 1993 book, Still Black, Still Strong, giving testimonies of survivors of the US government’s war on the Black liberation movement. He spoke about his experience in the 2016 video interview with VladTV at the top of this article.
The Israelitische Kultusgemeinde also alleged that “there are valid reasons to assume that the speaker could make anti-Semitic remarks at the event on Thursday.”
As evidence the group quoted two statements from Bin-Wahad.
One of them was an answer he gave to a question about why Black American political leaders did not show greater solidarity with Palestinians.
“I think that the silence of the Black political elite and many so-called Black reformers and activists is a consequence of the interference with political power on behalf of the African community,” Bin-Wahad had responded. “AIPAC and the Zionist lobby in Washington and Jewish money across the country has been a major factor historically in the civil rights movement.”
In another statement quoted by the Jewish communal group, Bin-Wahad said that the US government “has always carried out a policy to divide Black leaders and the Black community away from the struggles of people for self-determination and liberation and especially Arab and Palestinian people.”
The Jewish group also objected to Bin-Wahad referring to Israel as a “European settler state” and denying that Israel has a “right to self-defense.”
He also accused “a Black comprador class and Black elected officials” of accepting funding from “from the Israeli Zionist lobby and the right wing in America.”
Silencing Black voices
The power of the Israel lobby, including its relationship with Black political leaders and elites, remains a lively topic of discussion in the United States, on the left and right. Views of Israel are almost always at the center of these debates.
In a 2007 article, for instance, this writer traced how as little known Chicago politician Barack Obama rose to national prominence, he increasingly adopted the hardline anti-Palestinian talking points of the powerful Israel lobby group AIPAC.
In 2010, Glen Ford, editor of Black Agenda Report, wrote that “the relentless pressures of the Israel lobby have succeeded in causing most Black elected officials to cower in fear of being labeled anti-Israel.”
“Since at least the mid-sixties, many Jewish organizations have treated Black sympathies for the Palestinian people as rank anti-Semitism of the kind Jews experienced at the hands of whites,” Ford observed. “In some Jewish circles it is accepted as a truism that Blacks are anti-Semitic.”
In a recent article for the far-right anti-Palestinian magazine Commentary, neoconservative pro-Israel activist Jamie Kirchick recycles claims about the “prevalence of, and insouciance toward, anti-Semitism in the African American community.”
In a well-worn tactic, Kirchick uses the fringe views of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan in an effort to smear millions of Black people and bully Black activists into backing off from working with Jewish groups that support Palestinian rights and the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement – particularly Jewish Voice for Peace.
The smear campaign comes amid a resurgence of expressions of historically strong Black solidarity with Palestine in the United States.
To prevent Black activists from responding to or discussing the history and political context of such allegations – as the University of Vienna has done – is effectively to endorse the attack on their communities and to silence them.
Genocide advocate welcome
It is a well-established principle that it is not necessary to agree with a speaker in order to defend their right to speak and the right of students and educators to engage with them in public discussion.
Yet the University of Vienna has a deeply biased standard about who can be heard.
In contrast to the draconian censorship of individuals and organizations suspected of believing that Palestinians should have full rights, the University of Vienna warmly welcomes those who advocate that Palestinians should be exterminated.
Last year, university officials welcomed Israeli justice minister Ayelet Shaked to campus despite how she had disseminated a call for the genocide of the Palestinian people, including the slaughter of mothers who give birth to “little snakes.”
The University of Vienna’s tolerance of those like Ayelet Shaked who spread calls for genocide, and its intolerance of those like Bin-Wahad and Dar al Janub who struggle against racism and the legacy of slavery and colonialism, is deeply troubling given the institution’s Nazi history.
Bin-Wahad spoke to a packed house at Afripoint on Thursday evening, an attendee told The Electronic Intifada.
German festival changes course
The University of Vienna’s action is part of a wave of censorship targeting supporters of Palestinian rights in Germany and Austria, countries where elites channel historic guilt for the Nazi extermination of Jews into unquestioning support for Israel.
But in a surprising development on Thursday, Germany’s Ruhrtriennale festival reversed an earlier decision to ban the acclaimed Scotland-based group Young Fathers because it had refused to renounce its support for BDS and Palestinian rights.
Festival director Stefanie Carp said she wished to “correct my approach,” by inviting the group back, while still maintaining her personal opposition to BDS.
Beirut-based musician Sherif Sehnaoui confirmed that the festival had also reached out to re-invite him and four other artists who had pulled out to protest the cancellation of Young Fathers.
“Hats off, already quite an achievement in the context of German society, and against those who falsely equate BDS with anti-Semitism,” Sehnaoui said in praise of Ruhrtriennale’s about turn.
PACBI, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, called the decision a “victory for free speech over anti-Palestinian censorship.”