Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Freedom of expression, French university-style

From JTA:
A writer’s conference at a southern French university was canceled when unidentified Arab participants refused to attend with an Israeli author.

The University of Provence Aix-Marseille nixed the conference last week aimed at featuring Mediterranean authors.

“The story beneath all this -- and it’s an enigma -- is that nobody knows the names of the Arab writers” who refused to dialogue, Esther Orner, the Israeli author who was invited to the confab, told JTA Tuesday.

Jean-Raymond Fanlo, a Spanish literature professor at the University of Provence Aix-Marseille, told the French media that one of the Arab authors against Orner’s presence at the conference was “a major writer around which we will organize a vast program in Marseille schools for back to school.”

Fanlo refused to divulge the author’s name for fear of adding controversy to the widely covered story.

As a result of the Arab refusal, the university said in a July 20 statement that it was forced to cancel the whole program.
More details from YNet:
..."The idea was to convene authors living in the Mediterranean basin to discuss their works," said Orner in a conversation from her home in Tel Aviv. "Everything was fine until June 17 this year when the organizers met to finalize details regarding the time table of the conference when they received a notice from certain authors that if authors from Israel attend, they will not participate."

Orner said that none of the organizers fought for her, but instead, simply canceled her participation. The only one who expressed an opinion and resigned from her position as one of the conference organizers was Ann Roche, who invited Orner in the first place.

"I received a letter from the other organizers that said, 'We don't have anything against you, and we are against the boycott of intellectuals and cultural figures, but we are against Israel's politics,'" recounted Orner.

"I wrote them in response, 'How can such an important university allow foreign people to dictate what you should do.' They made justifications, but did not cancel the conference."

Distressed, Orner contacted her friend Rachel Samoul, a highly regarded blogger covering the cultural event. "After she published the story, the issue suddenly had a great impact online. The Jewish community in France got involved, and then the organizers decide that if it had reached such proportions, it is best they cancel the conference."

The university's announcement to cancel the conference, dated July 20, says:

Un colloque « Ecrire aujourd’hui en Méditerranée : échanges et tensions »,
programmé en mars 2011 à l’Université de Provence prévoyait la rencontre
d’universitaires et d écrivains issus de l’ensemble du pourtour méditerranéen.
La présidence de l’université a été informée du refus de certains participants de
dialoguer avec un auteur et universitaire israélien. La décision a été prise
d’annuler la manifestation.
« L’université étant universelle, toute entrave à l’universalité est contraire à
l’essence de l’université. Tout universitaire qui met comme condition à sa
participation à un colloque la non participation d’un autre universitaire falsifie
l’esprit de l’université et par là-même s’en exclut.
L’annulation du colloque « Ecrire aujourd’hui en Méditerranée : échanges et
tensions », répond à un souci de respect de l’esprit universitaire, qui est d’abord
un respect des personnes. On ne colloque pas avec qui exclut le dialogue ».
Even though the university is couching its cancellation in terms of respect for people also means that Arabs can have veto power over any academic conference by refusing to participate. The proper response, of course, is to hold the conference and shame the Arab boycotters publicly.

The university chickened out. As a result, the same scenario will be repeated.