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Critics, Rally Force Paris School to Back off Israel Boycott Threat

January 9, 2003
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Student protests on the Left Bank of the Seine River are almost as much a part of Paris as baguettes and caf au lait, and have brought down their share of French governments.

So the recent demonstration in front of the Pierre and Marie Curie campus of Paris VI University was not, on the face of things, out of the ordinary.

This time, though, some of the regular assortment of protesters were on the other side of the barricades, watching — rather than carrying — the banners demanding academic freedom.

Monday evening’s demonstration was called by France’s Union of Jewish Students, together with the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jews and the League Against Anti-Semitism and Racism.

The rally followed the Dec. 16 adoption by the university’s administrative council of a petition calling for the suspension of scientific cooperation agreements with Israeli academics.

“Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has made education and research impossible for our Palestinian colleagues,” reads the petition, which also says that continued scientific cooperation between the European Union and Israel “will be interpreted as support for Israel’s current policies.”

The council’s move provoked criticism across the political spectrum in France, with Education Minister Luc Ferry and Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe among those condemning the action as an attack on academic freedom.

Academics across Europe have signed petitions calling for boycotts of their Israeli colleagues, and two Israelis were dropped from academic journals published in England, where boycott calls have been especially popular.

In the United States, students and faculty members across the country have sponsored petitions calling on their universities to stop investing in companies that do business with Israel — sometimes sparking counter-petitions backing Israel.

On Wednesday, UNESCO, the U.N. agency for cultural preservation and education, criticized the boycott move at Paris VI.

“We must do everything possible to preserve the conditions for dialogue between the various scientific and academic communities throughout the world, as this dialogue is sometimes the last link between peoples divided by war and the first step toward reconciliation,” UNESCO’s director general, Koichiro Matsuura, said in a statement.

Monday’s rally, which drew some 2,000 people despite sub-freezing temperatures, was addressed by CRIF and Jewish student leaders, as well as by two of the country’s most widely respected philosophers, Alain Finkielkraut and Bernard Henri Levy.

Levy told the crowd that the petition did nothing for the cause of peace. He also accused the professors of double standards.

“We never heard the professors when the Russians razed Grozny or when the Chinese invaded Tibet,” Levy said.

Jewish student leaders were pleased by a new motion Tuesday from the Paris VI council that overturned the boycott – – though it also mandated the university president to seek closer cooperation with Palestinian universities.

Anny Dayan Rosenman, who had gathered 20,000 signatures for a petition demanding that the council scrap the boycott, hailed the council’s about-face.

“It would be dangerous for a university to become a place for partisan battles when it should be dedicated to the free flow of knowledge,” she said.

Still, academics at Paris VI adopted “a political position” calling on the European Union to “not renew its scientific cooperation accord with Israel.”

The Paris VI boycott had been seen as a test case, as other universities in Paris and elsewhere in France were eager to adopt similar positions.

The neighboring campus of Paris VII had been scheduled to debate a similar boycott motion Tuesday. However, professors there ruled the motion out of order, voting instead to support cooperative projects with Israeli universities.

A statement from Paris VII said it was not empowered to debate political or religious issues.

“The university works for the objectivity of knowledge and it respects diversity of opinion,” the statement added.

The leader of France’s Jewish students, Patrick Klugman, welcomed the decision at Paris VII as “good news.” But he is aware that Jewish students still face difficulties on French campuses.

Some of the worst examples of anti-Israel activity have occurred at universities in working class areas of Paris suburbs that have large populations of North African origin.

The student association at Nanterre, northwest of Paris, also tried to pass a boycott motion last year while organizing an official student conference on Palestine.

“I am ready to blow myself up,” a Palestinian speaker told students at the conference — who responded with wild applause.

The Nanterre municipality also was reluctant to allow Israel’s then-ambassador to France, Eli Barnavi, to give a speech to students, claiming that his presence at a university so close to Muslim neighborhoods could inflame local passions.

However, Jewish students have been especially concerned that the recent moves to boycott Israel have come from teachers at French universities, not from student groups.

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