Usually one starts by saying that one is glad to be here, but I cannot say that it has been a pleasure anticipating this event. What a Megillah! I am, of course, glad that the event was not cancelled, and I understand that it took a great deal of courage and a steadfast embrace of principle for this event to happen at all. I would like personally to thank all those who took this opportunity to reaffirm the fundamental principles of academic freedom, including the following organizations: the Modern Language Association, the National Lawyers Guild, the New York ACLU, the American Association of University Professors, the Professional Staff Congress (the union for faculty and staff in the CUNY system), the New York Times editorial team, the offices of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Brooklyn College President Karen Gould whose principled stand on academic freedom has been exemplary.
The principle of academic freedom is designed to make sure that powers outside the university, including government and corporations, are not able to control the curriculum or intervene in extra-mural speech. It not only bars such interventions, but it also protects those platforms in which we might be able to reflect together on the most difficult problems. You can judge for yourself whether or not my reasons for lending my support to this movement are good ones. That is, after all, what academic debate is about. It is also what democratic debate is about, which suggests that open debate about difficult topics functions as a meeting point between democracy and the academy. Instead of asking right away whether we are for or against this movement, perhaps we can pause just long enough to find out what exactly this is, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and why it is so difficult to speak about this.
It’s not hard to imagine that anyone who skimmed the news this week might get the impression that something uniquely terrible is about to happen in Midwood, Brooklyn. “We’re talking about the potential for a second Holocaust here,” Assemblyman Alan Maisel warns. Assistant Majority Leader Lew Fidler and other New York City politicians write a letter to the Brooklyn College president threatening the school’s funding and claiming that their constituents feel “targeted and demonized.” “Jew-bashing grows in Brooklyn,” the New York Post proclaims. “Brooklyn College, a once-esteemed campus in the City University system, this week joins a long list of enemies — from lefty denizens of the Park Slope Food Co-op to Iranian madman Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — who crave wiping the state of Israel from the map.”
Mental images of Ahmadinejad picking up some kombucha at the Park Slope Food Co-op aside, the level of hyperbole might make one wonder if Brooklyn College is hosting a neo-Nazi revival weekend or passing nuclear secrets to Iran.
French political philosopher and leading intellectual Jacques Rancière has postponed a visit to Israel, where he was due to speak at Tel Aviv University, after receiving an open letter from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI).
PACBI, in a letter published online, wrote to Rancière urging him "in the strongest terms" to cancel his visit to the university which they claim "is complicit in maintaining a regime of occupation, colonialism and apartheid." The letter went on to explain that Rancière's decision to ignore the letter would "violate the Palestinian call for boycott," and, "constitute a blunt rejection of the appeal from over 170 civil society organisations that comprise the Palestinian BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement."
Rancière was invited to Tel Aviv by, among others, Ariella Azoulay director of the Photo Lexic Research Group at the Minerva Humanities Center. In response to the letter from the PACBI, Rancière, who was due to give a lecture on 25 January, explained why he initially agreed to speak in Israel,
I accepted the invitation to contribute to the debate on the image, of a research group whose work on photography is closely related to the exposure of violations of the rights of the Palestinian people since the birth of the State of Israel.