A wave of indignation last week swept across the Latin Quarter in Paris and beyond as the Head of the Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS) decided to cancel a conference on the Middle East organised by the students.
The debate was to have taken place behind the walls of the prestigious French grande école, a higher education establishment that has traditionally trained the French intellectual elite, providing the country with statesmen, scientists, philosophers and writers. The issue at stake was the boycott of Israeli products, launched by some French intellectuals and politicians, and against which the French Government is taking repressive measures.
According to Florian Alix, a member of the organising committee, the management of the ENS were pleased to host this conference and to welcome such luminaries as Stéphane Hessel (co-writer of the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights and former French Ambassador), Leïla Shahid (the Palestinian representative to the European Union), Elisabeth Guigou (a former French Minister of Justice), Israeli pacifists, and many others who, as the organising committee later emphasised, did not necessarily support the boycott but were eager to debate the question.
However, no such conference was held. The CRIF (Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions), together with other Jewish associations, immediately appealed to the Ministry of Higher Education – and the Head of the ENS back-pedalled on the issue.
On the 18th January, the day the conference would have been held, ENS students demonstrated in front of the Panthéon against what they saw as governmental censure and a threat to their freedom of expression. They expressed deep concern over the behaviour of the ENS, who trained students in the free and critical spirit of the Enlightenment, yet gave in to pressure and implicitly “questioned the students’ intellectual integrity and probity”.
This was also a reaction to a statement made by the President of the CRIF, Mr. Richard Prasquier, in which ENS students were accused of ignoring the difference between debate and political activism; the members of the organising committee, Mr. Prasquier wrote, had been converted to “intellectual terrorism”, some inspired by “Trotsky”, others by “Stalin”, and were “spreading their doxa within the entire University”.
The French association, Boycott, Disinvestment, Sanctions (BDS), which promotes the boycott, refers to its own project as being in accordance with the ruling of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which stated that goods originating from Israeli settlements in the West Bank cannot be imported into the European Union duty-free, like all other goods made in Israel’s 1967 borders. The ECJ’s decision, emphasising as it did the issue of properly labelling the exact provenance of goods, clearly reinforced the EU’s position against Israel’s settlement policy in the Palestinian territories. On their website, the BDS association point out that “Israel has so far been ignoring the Court’s decision”, arguing it is therefore their duty to refuse all Israeli goods since no distinction can be made between goods actually produced in Israel and those produced in the Palestinian territories.
In the following days, two versions of the story flowed into various commentators’ columns. The student organising committee claimed that the conference was not about supporting the boycott, but was about “debating the issue of freedom of expression, especially when it comes to dealing with the Israeli Palestinian question”. Three days later, Mr. Prasquier’s reaction was published as well. Pointing out that the majority of the guests were known for their pro-Palestinian stance, the conference was, to all intents and purposes, “a political meeting” aimed at promoting the boycott. A boycott, which, he claimed, is “illegal” and “dishonest”, and serves as an “instrument of de-legitimisation of the State of Israel”.
The controversy occurred in a context of rampant suspicion regarding the actual impact and consequences of the boycott. On 16th January, it was announced that the French singer Vanessa Paradis had cancelled her Tel-Aviv show due to other “professional obligations”, and added that “another reason for cancellation may be political pressure on Paradis not to appear in Israel”.
The controversy, couched in a language and concerned with issues that must appeal to any student of Oxford University, also raises essential and disturbing questions about the extent and limits of freedom in democratic societies – a hope or a promise fulfilled; about what shall or shall not lie beyond the scope of research and discussion, and beyond criticism. And as the lines of divide materialise before our eyes, it becomes even more apparent that, “people build too many walls and not enough bridges” (I. Newton).