A Call for Academic Freedom

We the undersigned are shocked and bewildered to learn that the University of Rome 3 withdrew from hosting an important academic conference on topical and important issues such as conflicts,….

We the undersigned are shocked and bewildered to learn that the University of Rome 3 withdrew from hosting an important academic conference on topical and important issues such as conflicts, nationalism, and political and cultural identities in Palestine-Israel and the Middle East at large. The event, scheduled to take place in the University of Rome 3, at the Centro di Studi Italo-Francesi’s premises, featured the participation of national and international scholars and intellectuals invited to a dialogue with renown Israeli historian, Professor Ilan Pappe’.

The withdrawal of the venue, which happened at the very last minute – when the event had already been widely publicized – risked preventing the organizers from finding an alternative venue and reorganizing themselves and left the organisers, the invited speakers and the audience outraged. The University later resorted to offering a dislocated and unknown venue, while delegitimizing the event by requiring the organisers to remove the University logo from all leaflets and invitations, and by deleting information about the event from the University website.

The University declined to give clear explanations outside of supposed technical-procedural problems in requesting the venue by the organisers. These allegations were unfounded, given that formalities and procedures were fully respected.

Many sources, however, (some websites, expression of part of the Jewish community claimed paternity) revealed the actual reason being pressure exercised by the Jewish community and the Israeli embassy in Rome to prevent the event from taking place in a venue considered “improper” due to its location in proximity to the former Jewish Ghetto of Rome. This, if confirmed, adds insult to injury. Silencing a debate because some of the speakers are widely committed to denouncing the long term Israeli violations of Palestinians’ rights through a sinister and cynical manipulation of the Holocaust memory abuses both the right of the Palestinian plight to be heard and the memory of the victims of genocide committed on European soil by fascist and anti-Semitic regimes.

In these terms, we perceive the act as an attempt to silence debates and critical voices and as a grave infringement on academic freedom and freedom of speech.

It seems that in Italy, as in the rest of Europe, offending Muslims with cartoons of the prophet is hailed a sacred issue of freedom of speech, whereas the freedom of speech over the Middle East and Palestine is severely curtailed, if not denied. The double standards and exceptionalism shown in the case of any debate about Israel make a mockery of the discourse on freedom of speech that was piously pushed forward in France in the wake of the horrible attacks in Paris this winter.

These acts did not prevent the event from taking place, however. The conference took place in another venue and was attended by a very large audience of over two hundred and fifty people: academics, students, journalists, ordinary citizens participated in a rich and lively debate contributing to the success of the event.

However, we are left with a profound sense of injustice and outrage at the shirking of its primary responsibility by the University of Rome 3 which, as a higher education institution, should have among its primary aims that of increasing opportunities for debates that foster critical thinking, not their censorship. By subjecting itself to unacceptable forms of outside intimidation and pressure, the university not only discredited its own scholars and academic community, but also the many ordinary citizens, journalists, activists, students who in Rome and Italy uphold the principles of freedom of speech and academic freedom, and who believe in higher education institutions’ independence from external pressure.

Despite the shameful behaviour of the University of Rome 3 we, as academics, remain committed to developing critical thinking and debates, whether they concern the Middle East, the Palestine question or any other areas in the world where violations of rights are experienced and silenced. We remain committed to denouncing these violations in our research and writing and we urge all academic communities in the world to stand against the selective use of the principles of freedom of speech and academic freedom.