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.
However, he goes on to argue that the "intervention" of the PACBI has "changed the meaning of this visit," by framing it is as a "breach of the boycott" and therefore a "public demonstration" of, "support to the State that is responsible for these violations and the situation of oppression of the Palestinian people." He explains,
I am personally opposed to collective sanctions against all citizens of a State and against its researchers, without taking into account their own attitude towards the policy of this State. I have therefore neither respected nor violated a decision that I did not personally endorse. But it appears that in the present situation, the content of what I might say in response to the invitation that was sent to me has become completely secondary to this simple alternative.
Rancière's decision, and his struggle with the "dual demands" of an invitation from an Israeli institution may serve to once more reignite the debate surrounding the policies of PACBI and the tactics of boycott, divestment and sanctions. In their letter to Rancière, PACBI write that they believe, "that the only avenue open to achieving justice and upholding international law is sustained work on the part of Palestinian and international civil society to put pressure on Israel and its complicit institutions to end this oppression." But why target universities? Does that not constitute a breach of academic and individual freedom? In their press release following Rancière decision, the PACBI tackle this problem head-on:
Jacques Rancière is 'opposed to collective sanctions against all the citizens and scholars of a state.' So are we. PACBI, like the Collectif Palestine Paris 8, AUDRIP, and the BDS France campaign, has no objection to dialogue amongst intellectuals of all countries, including Israel. What we cannot accept is the complicity of the University of Tel Aviv, and of all the other Israeli universities, with the segregationist policies of the Israeli state, and indeed, with its policy of military occupation. For this reason we firmly reject the exploitation by such an institution of the prestige of an intellectual of Rancière's stature.
Following this line of thinking, Judith Butler, who has also heeded the calls of Palestinian civil society by refusing to speak in Israel, has called on us to question,
the classically liberal conception of academic freedom with a view that grasps the political realities at stake, and see that our struggles for academic freedom must work in concert with the opposition to state violence, ideological surveillance, and the systematic devastation of everyday life.
Heeding the call for academic boycott does not, however, mean never venturing inside Israel. In the summer of 2011, Slavoj Žižek spoke at Tolaat Sfarim café in Tel Aviv. The organisers of the talk pointed out that
He did so following the guidelines of the PACBI, stipulating that he will only speak at a venue that will publically renounce the occupation, and state unequivocal support for equal rights for Palestinians. In doing so, Žižek did not only support the Palestinian-led non-violent struggle for equality and freedom, but also showed how the call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israeli oppression of Palestinians is not aimed at suppressing free-speech, or closing-off dialogue, but rather serve as a means to engage intellectuals and the entire artistic community in an honest conversation about the true mission of thinkers, artists, and activists around the globe: to unveil the ideological bigotry and mystification behind repressive regimes, and the pave the way for new paradigms of thought and action.
In choosing not to break the boycott, Rancière joins the ranks of many others who have publicly supported the tactic, including musicians Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, Elvis Costello, The Pixies and Verso writers Arundhati Roy, Eduardo Galeano, John Berger and Judith Butler.