The University of Paris 8 is traditionally one of the more left-wing third-level institutions in France. Alas, its current president Pascal Binczak is seeking to negate this legacy. Under pressure from the pro-Israel lobby, he recently banned a conference titled “Is Israel an apartheid state?” When students and academics organising the event defied him and vowed to proceed with the event on the university’s premises, he ordered the campus closed for two days this week, citing a risk to public safety.
His “fears” were unfounded. Moved to another venue at the last minute, the event passed off peacefully. The only discernible risk it posed was that attendees would increase their knowledge about Israel’s crimes against humanity, which explains why hawkish groups like CRIF (the self-declared “representative council” for French Jews) and the Simon Wiesenthal Center could not tolerate it.
CRIF was particularly exercised by the intended participation of Omar Barghouti, a coordinator of the Palestinian campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. As it happened, Barghouti had to pre-record his contribution for delivery by video because of a scheduling issue (although he is hoping to be physically present for a public meeting against Zionist bullying in Paris tomorrow).
“Weapon of intellectual terror”
In his message, Barghouti argued that Zionist groups “recklessly and maliciously” accuse the BDS campaign of anti-Semitism. “This is a weapon of intellectual terror deployed by Israel and its lobby groups, especially in France and the US, to silence dissent and muzzle debate,” he said.
In an apparent rebuttal of comments made a few weeks ago by Norman Finkelstein, Barghouti took issue with claims that the BDS movement has a hidden agenda of seeking to destroy Israel. Stressing that the core aims of the movement include both an end to the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and equal rights for Jews and Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship, he said: “If equality and justice would destroy Israel, then what does that say about Israel? Did equality and justice destroy South Africa? Did they destroy Alabama? Of course, not.”
“Most important right”
Barghouti added that the “most important right” asserted by BDS activists is the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland. About 50% of the 11 million Palestinians throughout the world live outside historic Palestine (which includes the present-day state of Israel).
Several hundred Francophone academics signed a letter over the past fortnight urging Binczak to lift the ban he imposed on the conference.
Julien Salingue, a graduate of Paris 8 who now teaches at Auvergne University, told me that while Binczak had the power to cancel the conference on public safety grounds he had acted in a “disputable manner” by trying to gain approval from his academic colleagues. Binczak had called a meeting of the Paris 8 administrative council to discuss the ban. The meeting was held without following the usual procedures such as inviting student representatives to attend.
In my own presentation to the conference, I lamented how the European Union’s Monitoring Center for Racism and Xenophobia had drawn up a “working definition” of anti-Semitism in 2005, with the aid of the Anti-Defamation League (a right-wing Zionist group) in New York. The definition stated that describing Israel as a “racist endeavor” amounted to anti-Semitism.
While this definition has never been formally approved by the EU’s governments, it has been invoked by Zionists in a bid to prevent a robust critique of Israel on campuses in several countries. Visiting Birmingham in England last year, I learned that the student’s union in the city’s university had decided that all speakers invited onto the campus must not say anything that contravenes the EU’s “working definition.” The decision was taken in response to one Palestine solidarity activist who likened Gaza to a concentration camp.
Among the many articulate and courageous people I met in Paris was Jean-Guy Greilsamer from the Union of French Jews for Peace (UJFP). He has written a letter to Brinczak, describing the accusations of anti-Semitism made by CRIF and similar groups as “blackmail.”
“In keeping with the Israeli strategy of conflating Zionism and Judaism, it takes hostage all Jewish citizens of every country in the world who oppose the commission of crimes in their name,” he added. “Conflating the terms ‘Jew’, ‘Zionist’ and ‘Israeli’ facilitates anti-Semitism. Doesn’t caving in to this blackmail amount to accepting the confusion and everything it implies? Is it not the policies of Israel and its defenders that constitute a threat to public order, not the conferences organized by academics who believe in law and justice?”