Academics in Italy held the country’s first scholarly discussions about boycott, divestment and sanctions measures on Israel in support of Palestinian rights — in spite of attempts at censorship during a major Middle East studies conference in Sicily.
A proposal for a boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) panel discussion was accepted last fall by the scientific committee for the annual conference of the Italian Society for Middle Eastern Studies (SeSaMO), which took place on 17-19 March.
However, just weeks before it was to take place, Giacomo Pignataro, president of the University of Catania, which was hosting the conference, requested that the BDS panel be removed from the official program, threatening to pull university support.
This struck a nerve with participating scholars, who sensed yet another precedent in curtailing academic freedom that goes well beyond the movement for BDS.
Scholars invoked the Turkish government’s crackdown on critical academics in Turkey and the Egyptian government’s grotesquely implausible accounts of the circumstances surrounding the murder of Giulio Regeni, the Italian PhD student tortured and killed in Cairo while doing field research.
In this climate of suppression of freedom of expression, even those who do not currently support BDS were moved to defend the panel.
A letter to Pignataro signed by 93 of the conference’s 286 participants, seen by The Electronic Intifada, called for clarification of the reasons behind the request. The letter demanded reintegration of the BDS panel in the official program “in the name of those principles of academic freedom that, we are sure, you hold dear as much as we do.”
In his reply, Pignataro defended his decision over what he considered to be the “clear political nature” of the panel, alluding to mention of the panel in a January press release from the Italian Stop Technion campaign, which noted that this would be “the first time an academic association in Italy will publicly debate the BDS/PACBI campaigns.”
PACBI, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, was launched in 2014 and is a part of the broader BDS movement.
The Stop Technion campaign calls for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, in particular the Israel Institute of Technology, known as the Technion, due to their role in “providing undeniable support to the military occupation and colonization of Palestine.” The number of endorsing academics has doubled since its launch in late January and now stands at more than 330.
Scholars also took exception at the selective calls for separating academic research and politics.
A leaflet entitled “Censorship is not scientific” distributed at the conference, the overall theme of which was “Migrants: Communities, Borders, Memories, Conflicts,” asked, “what topic is more political today, with asylum-seekers marching from the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia to reach Europe, and Europe sealing its own borders to keep them out?”
A number of participants canceled their participation altogether, while two panels requested to be removed from the conference program.
Presenters for the panel “Contemporary Social Mobilization in Morocco” told The Electronic Intifada they withdrew because they considered the decision to remove the BDS panel from the official SeSaMO program to be a “political act.”
And in a direct challenge to the university’s efforts to prevent debate of boycott campaigns, presenters for another panel, “Bodies, Discourses and Geographies: Mediterranean Migrations in Postcolonial Perspectives,” put aside their papers and transformed the discussion into one of academic freedom and BDS.
“This serious act of censorship — in this case against the BDS campaign, but it could have been in relation to other topics — meant the basic prerequisites for scientific debate were lacking,” said Gabriele Proglio of the European University Institute and University of Tunis and Chiara Giubilaro of University of Milano Bicocca, co-organizers of the panel in a joint emailed statement to The Electronic Intifada.
At a membership meeting held during the conference, a motion for academic freedom “defending the right of SeSaMO members to openly and transparently discuss the boycott of Israeli universities in the framework of its annual conferences and other initiatives” passed by a vote of 36 to 19.
Paola Rivetti, a lecturer at Dublin City University and outgoing SeSaMO board member, told The Electronic Intifada that “the motion is an important step toward the protection of academic freedom. Considering that attempts to debate the BDS and PACBI campaigns in Italy have been obstructed by various academic authorities, including this case by the University of Catania, the motion is intended as a tool at the disposal of SeSaMO to defend the right to debate the issues.”
Rivetti added, “We are aware that the boycott campaigns are controversial. It is precisely for this reason that we need to have time and space to discuss them.”
Despite being removed from the official program and demoted to a side event during a lunchtime session, by raising the issue of censorship scholars succeeded in ensuring a large turnout, with much of the debate centering on academic freedom.
Laleh Khalili of the University of London, SOAS, spoke of the shift in strategy to stifle debate on Palestine and BDS, which has moved from direct pressure on individual students and faculty, to pressure on university management and finally to the state level, with a push for legislation against boycotts.
Ruba Salih, also of SOAS, recalled the severe limitations on Palestinian academic freedom, from freedom to travel to destruction of educational facilities.
Mark LeVine of the University of California – Irvine talked about the dangerous efforts of the university’s Board of Regents to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism as a means of cooling and even criminalizing criticism of Israeli policies.
The SeSaMO debacle was just the latest in a series of attempts to shut down debate on Palestine in Italy, which peaked during Israeli Apartheid Week at the end of February and beginning of March.
The University of Cagliari denied space for events following a letter from the Israeli embassy and threatened legal action over any associated use of its logo. The university justified its decision by citing its “founding values of pluralism, of freedom from all ideological, sectarian and political influences and full respect for equal opportunities also among different cultural positions.”
Both the University of Turin and Turin’s Polytechnic revoked authorization for rooms to be used for Apartheid Week activities, purportedly due to the lack of opposing views.
In all three cases, however, and due to student action, the events went on as planned.
In Rome, according to some reports, the Israeli ambassador was working with the university president to block events at La Sapienza University, but students received no notifications and the events took place.
Stephanie Westbrook is a US citizen based in Rome, Italy. Her articles have been published by Common Dreams, The Electronic Intifada, Mondoweiss, In These Times and Z Magazine. Twitter: @stephinrome