I generally avoid writing about Israel-related issues in this blog, because the blog form does not permit the many nuances and caveats (contortions?) that I find necessary to bring to the subject. But I posted something the other day about the cancellation of an appearance by Stéphane Hessel at the École Normale Supérieure. This led to a somewhat testy exchange among several commenters on the original post. I therefore want to return to the issue today. And since Israel is at the center of the French free speech issue, I will inevitably be drawn into a comment on French attitudes toward Israel.
I note first that a petition protesting the cancellation of the Hessel lecture has drawn a response from Richard Prasquier, president of the CRIF (Conseil représentatif des institutions juives de France). Prasquier, like Cincinna (one of the commenters on my previous post), claims to be a supporter of free speech and invokes a career of pro-speech positions in support of his claim. Also like Cincinna, he sees no contradiction between his general support for free speech and his specific opposition to M. Hessel's appearance at ENS. On what grounds?
First, he states that the "Boycott, Divest, Sanction" (BDS) movement against Israel contravenes French law banning discriminatory boycotts. And indeed, Alliot-Marie, when she was interior minister, sent a memorandum to prosecutors reminding them of this law and urging them to use it against an array of allegedly anti-Israel actors. This leads M. Prasquier to say that Hessel is being "prosecuted, not persecuted." But Prasquier goes on to undermine his own invocation of the majesty of the law by indicting Hessel for hypocrisy as well as discrimination: why hasn't he boycotted Syria, Libya, and Burma, Prasquier asks? So it appears that there are "good" boycotts and legitimate uses of "discrimination" as well as "bad" ones, and it is to be left to our gentle rulers to decide which causes are just and which are not. Any attempt to disagree with the government's choice of which states can be supported by French citizens and which states can be opposed is deserving of suppression, according to Prasquier. I imagine that Cincinna agrees. This abdication to the French state of the right to protest the foreign and military policy of another state is hardly consistent with the right of free speech as I understand it. (Parenthetically, I also find it difficult to understand why Cincinna, a self-described conservative, wants to grant the state the right to determine what the legitimate exercise of free speech is; I thought conservatives wanted to limit the power of the state in the name of individual liberty and freedom of conscience.)
Prasquier, like Cincinna, also insists that Hessel's protest of Israel policy is aimed at the "delegitimation" of the state of Israel, "the only democratic state in the region." To be sure, there are among supporters of the BDS movement some who would deny Israel's right to exist. There are others who would simply deny Israel's right not only to occupy for more than 40 years but now also to colonize the West Bank. I disagree with those who would put an end to Israel and agree with those who would put an end to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, but I see no reason to deny either group the right to state its case on French (or American) soil. The fact that Israel is a democracy does not render all its actions beyond reproach. Switzerland is a democracy that has banned minarets, but no one has proposed preventing French citizens from stating a position pro or con the Swiss law in France.
In short, one doesn't have to support BDS (and I do not) to support Stéphane Hessel's right to support BDS. I would have thought this would be obvious to self-described champions of free speech, but apparently, when it comes to Israel, different principles apply.