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Testimonial 15: In defense of Palestine solidarity

In testimonial 15 of our Palestine Uncensored series, scholars in Vienna speak out about the University of Vienna's unilateral cancellation of a teach-in series about Palestine. In the face of censorship, they ask "What would it mean for our solidarity to rest not on notional liberal values, but on a materialist commitment to Palestinian life and endurance, justice and liberation?"

Geoffrey Aung, Adriana Qubaiova, Noura Salahaldeen, Klaudia Wieser22 January 2024

Testimonial 15: In defense of Palestine solidarity

This testimonial was written on 14 December 2023.

 

At universities in Vienna, and in Vienna and Austria more broadly, an acute atmosphere of repression prevails regarding almost any kind of Palestine solidarity work. This regime of silencing includes targeted attempts to erase critical discussion of what is happening in Gaza, in Palestine, and in the deeply complicitous political and intellectual classes of Europe, not least in Austria. In universities, the acts of censorship and attacks on academic freedom that we describe below are seen at best—that is, when they are not simply celebrated—as a series of unfortunate events, something to move on from. We write out of a keen sense that this position must be resisted. This attempt to enforce a certain forgetting, to look away and move on, is part of and indeed integral to the regime of silencing at work in Austria today. Hence, we detail a basic chronology. We wish to preserve a record, a memory, of things that happened, as senior colleagues and administrators aim to expunge, forget, or bury critical voices. 

In mid-October, several of us at the University of Vienna and the Central European University (CEU) realized we shared a sense of outrage. Our rage spoke most directly, obviously, to the ongoing, horrific slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza, which all people of conscience must oppose. But we also felt a sense of urgency to discuss, understand, and provide education about the Israeli state’s bombardment of Gaza. As scholars with expertise on Palestine, colonialism, and empire, we responded to a sense of duty to open critical spaces of discussion, to cultivate knowledge of Palestine, and to allow for experts on Palestine to speak openly.

At the same time, we found ourselves incensed by the silence and thus complicity of our universities, our departments, and our colleagues, including those in a discipline, anthropology, that is supposedly in a decolonizing moment. In the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology (IKSA) at the University of Vienna, several of us raised two discussion points at our October department meeting. The two discussion points—a statement and a teach-in series—were not met with any objections. In full transparency and having followed all formal procedures, we moved forward with both.  

One group took the lead on drafting the statement, titled Against Violence in Israel and Palestine. Another group took the lead on organizing the teach-in series, titled Against the Present: Past and Future Perspectives on Palestine, which was a collaborative endeavor with colleagues from the Department of Gender Studies at CEU. The statement was eventually published with individual signatories on the IKSA website on October 31, with the teach-in series set to begin the following week.

On November 3rd, however, the Rectorate of the University of Vienna intervened. The IKSA department head informed several of us by email that the statement would be unilaterally removed from our website—and the teach-in series would no longer be supported by the university or our department. Although we inquired about the reasoning, no specific legal or policy justification was given, despite the fact that all planning had followed all relevant protocols. The department head only noted that it had become clear, in recent days, that Austria overall, as well as our university, cannot afford to be perceived as “one-sided” in this “conflict.” Our department head later confirmed that he himself did not do anything (including anything to resist this intervention). It was the Rectorate that had intervened, leading the Dean’s office to access our website to remove the statement themselves—an egregious and unprecedented intervention into IKSA’s programming and activities. (The statement is now online here.)

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And let us here be unequivocal: we reject the idea that Austria at large, or the University of Vienna in particular, can be seen as “one-sided” when criticizing violence against Palestinians. We see it as a dangerous position that threatens the position of Palestine Studies in Austrian academia, specifically. Moreover, it is all too clear clear that this risible recourse to a fictive “neutrality” is easily weaponized to obscure a deep complicity in the devastation of Gaza. It is worth mentioning that in late October, Austria had already been one of only 14 countries to vote against a UN resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. It is also worth noting that at the University of Vienna, the Department of Political Science published a pro-Israel statement with individual signatories, adorned with images of Israeli flags—and this statement has not been removed. It is clear that one-sidedness only applies when speaking about Palestine.  

In censoring discussion of Palestine, moreover, the University of Vienna did not act quietly. The university’s official X (formerly Twitter) account launched a thread attacking IKSA students and staff, as well as the speakers we had confirmed for the teach-in series. They include five of the most important contemporary scholars of Palestine and gender studies in the Middle East: Layal Ftouni, Adriana Qubaiova, Amahl Bishara, Darryl Li, and Ilana Feldman. These attacks continued in an article published only hours after the Rectorate’s actions in Der Standard, a newspaper with some of the widest circulation numbers in Austria, with subsequent articles in Der Standard continuing these attacks. Ominously, the X thread made mention of “internal measures” (interne Massnahmen) that were already being taken to determine how the teach-in series had come about in the first place. There has been no further discussion of those measures that we know of. Disgracefully, the thread also suggested the teach-in series violated the principles of the university, where “one-sided representations, intolerance, racism, and anti-Semitism have no place.”

Ultimately, our partners at the Department of Gender Studies at CEU took over the teach-in series in full. This happened, however, not without obstacles, including internal and external pressure from various individuals and groups, such as the Jewish student union. The cancellation by the University of Vienna, the ensuing public backlash against the teach-in series, and general concern over the atmosphere of repression prompted the organizers to hold three of the teach-ins solely online in order to ensure their safety and the safety of attendees.

The first teach-in took place in person, however: “Palestine as a Feminist Issue,” with Professors Ftouni and Qubaiova as the speakers. Alarmingly, the Vienna police crashed the event, entering CEU premises and the auditorium where the event was taking place, which created a tense atmosphere among the attendees. Holding print-outs of the teach-in announcement, the officers claimed they are required to attend any event featuring Palestine in the title in adherence to new policies adopted in Austria. They requested a contact phone number in case of emergency and then proceeded to leave. As this exchange could have easily taken place by phone or email, it is difficult to see what function it held apart from outright intimidation in an academic space. CEU did not react publicly to the presence of police on its premises.

The actions of the University of Vienna are not necessarily a surprise, unfortunately. Although the University of Vienna itself has not, to our knowledge, shut down Palestine-related events in the past, it is clearly extremely sensitive to public pressure. These recent acts of censorship thus set a stark and unsettling precedent. However, other universities and cultural institutions in Vienna do have a history of shutting down Palestine events, as cancellations of events featuring Walaa Alqaisiya, Salman Abu Sitta, Yanis Varoufakis, and Edward Said himself, some years ago, attest. Of course, many acts of silencing in Viennese academia—not only events shut down, but also opportunities rescinded, job offers withdrawn, careers interrupted or pre-empted—never make headlines.

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Our expectations for university administrations are not especially high, in other words. But it is a matter of serious disappointment that professors and other senior colleagues, many with the contract protections of tenure, have not roused themselves to take any kind of principled public stance against censorship, for academic freedom, and in defense of their students and staff—even regardless of their positions on the statement and teach-ins. We cannot escape the contrast wherein over seven hundred faculty at Columbia and Barnard signed a letter protesting the Barnard President’s censorship of the campus discussion on Gaza. At IKSA, only one full professor has shown any support for our solidarity work—not least as the only professor to help develop and indeed sign our statement before it was removed. A boycott of sorts has developed as a result. That is, the closed, repressive environment at IKSA is so poor, the reputational damage so significant, that already several prominent anthropologists have renounced plans to join the department, specifically for political reasons. It is possible this situation may change. But for now, the dominant position continues to be an attempt—at best—to look away, move on, and forget.

As the weeks have passed, this repressive regime has shown signs of cracking. Within the University of Vienna, as with other universities in Vienna and across Austria as well, student organizers are mobilizing around Palestine. They are pushing back against the acts of silencing that have been characteristic of academic and public discourse not only since October, but over a much longer period—as the earlier event cancellations make clear. Major student-led demonstrations are coming together. Those of us who helped organize the teach-in have also circulated an open letter criticizing the university. Simply put, we refuse to accept the university’s acts of censorship. Moreover, Palestinian, Arab, and other community organizers in Vienna have continued doing the vital work of organizing large-scale marches and demonstrations in this extremely difficult environment. Pro-Palestinian demonstrations were initially banned, police intimidation has been pervasive, and anti-Muslim racism has been on full display. As many of us seek to seize and hold spaces within universities, community organizers have put in hugely important work to claim the streets. We see these organizing activities as mutually reinforcing.

Obviously, commenting on and exposing the repressive environment in Austrian academia should not detract from the far more crucial educational work of exposing what is actually happening in Gaza (and not only in Gaza, of course, but also in the West Bank, for instance, where radical settler violence has sharply spiked). In terms of education alone, we have seen several universities in Gaza completely destroyed, a rector assassinated, schools made sites of massacres, students made witnesses to massacres (when not killed themselves), and the future of education reduced to literal ruins. These are material realities. There is always a risk that reflexivity and introspection in academia obscures the actuality of the world beyond. This is especially the case in an environment in which academics’ rampant depoliticization and abstraction of Palestinian suffering and death proceeds alongside the usual practices of academic extraction. Unapologetically, we insist on the importance of engaged scholarly attention to Palestine even as we reject depoliticizing self-reflexivity in academia.

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We also wish to raise the question of how best to defend Palestinian solidarity work in repressive environments like Austrian academia. We recognize that our recourse to a defense of academic freedom and opposition to censorship—which we inevitably turn to in times such as these—draws on liberal values of free speech and free expression that, historically, are easily weaponized by the right. Accordingly, we ask: what would a defense of Palestinian solidarity look like that did not rely on abstract liberal freedoms, freedoms that, as we know too well, have been deeply integral to the violent civilizing missions of liberal empire, colonial rule, and racial capitalism, across centuries? What would it mean for our solidarity to rest not on notional liberal values, but on a materialist commitment to Palestinian life and endurance, justice and liberation?

While administrators at the University of Vienna—alongside senior IKSA colleagues, unfortunately—remain keen to look away, move on, and forget these acts of silencing, we present this basic memory of these events to refuse precisely that impulse. We refuse that impulse to look away and move on in solidarity with our colleagues at Birzeit University, who implore academic institutions not to be silent about the devastation of Gaza. We also embrace and hold onto a feminist politics of rage, to paraphrase Purnima Mankekar from a recent IKSA roundtable. This is a clarifying, not obfuscating, political affect, a rage not opposed to clear-eyed, rational discourse, but one that can and should be a basis for knowledge production, grounded in the standpoint of the oppressed. As we maintain and insist upon our outrage, finally, we lift up memory against acts of forgetting. In his prose poem Memory for Forgetfulness, set during the Israeli siege of Beirut in 1982, Mahmoud Darwish asks: what is the task of writers, of intellectuals, in times of bloodshed? What can writing, as an act of memory, offer as a mode of resistance against the headlong rush of historical time, with all its violent obliterations of the past? These questions are still with us.

If you have a story to share, please send it to pdiaries@verso.co.uk. We are publishing testimonies from all over the world. To see the full collection of testimonials, check out the Palestine Uncensored series' main page.

 ← Read Testimonial 14 in our Palestine Uncensored series

Read Testimonial 16 in our Palestine Uncensored series →

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