A Paris university closed its doors for two days this week after members of Collectif Palestine Paris 8 threatened to hold an unauthorised conference on the campus. The conference, entitled “New sociological, historial and legal perspectives on the boycott campaign: Israel, an Apartheid State?”, was scheduled to take place on 27 and 28 February at the University of Paris 8, in the northern suburb of St Denis. However, the university’s president, Pascal Binczak, who had originally agreed to the conference taking place within the university’s precincts, withdrew permission several days earlier.
The closure of the university was ordered by Binczak after Collectif Palestine Paris 8 announced that the conference would still take place at Paris 8 in spite of Binczak’s announcement. Students arriving on Monday morning found the gates locked and all lectures cancelled. Photocopied leaflets and volunteers directed conference participants to another venue nearby.
In an article published on 24 February in Le Monde, Binczak justified his decision, citing security concerns and objecting to the unbalanced nature of the conference which breached laws concerning objectivity and diversity of opinion on university campuses. Binczak strongly objected to claims that he had bowed to pressure from the CRIF (Conseil Representatif des Institutions Juives de France), the official Jewish umbrella organisation of France, which had raised concerns about the conference some days before the decision to withdraw permission was taken by the university’s administration. In an article published on the CRIF website on 14 February, Marc Knobel claims that calls for a boycott, whether cultural or academic, incite discrimination which is illegal within the precincts of a university.
In a strongly worded response to Binczak, also published in Le Monde, the conference organisers accused the university of censorship and argued that the cancellation amounted to a serious attack on freedom of speech. An open letter to Pascal Binczak on Mediapart, an independent online news outlet founded by a former editor of Le Monde, has garnered several hundred signatures from academics both in France and abroad.
Three professors from Paris 8 responded to the petition with a further article published in Le Monde on 27 February explaining why they refused to sign the open letter. Objecting to what they consider the instrumentalisation of political dogma and propaganda in the guise of academic debate, they point out that without free dialogue there can be no freedom of thought, and counter claims by the organisers that the two-day programme could be considered a conference, given the absence of genuine debate from all sides.
Natasha Lehrer is a writer and translator. She lives in Paris.