Despite University opposition, students offer Palestinian-American poet public venue
IAS honorary Sigma Iota Rho (SIR) planned to host its semesterly town hall on the topic of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), a movement founded in Palestine that intends to combat Israeli presence in contested land with economic sanctions. The panel was to feature Washington University professors and Kanazi discussing the campaign.
Shortly before the panel was to take place, however, the IAS department informed members of SIR that they would not be able to hold the event as planned. Instead, only Kanazi would be able to speak at the event and only SIR members would be able to attend, and, according to SIR members, Kanazi would only be able to discuss his poetry, and not his politics.
Honorary members voiced concern that the department’s decision was inspired by anti-Palestinian sentiment.
Some felt this aligned with an official University statement Chancellor Mark Wrighton sent to all students in December, where the school condemned the American Studies Association’s boycott of Israeli academic institutions as contrary to the intellectual philosophy of Washington University, which is centered on “freedom of inquiry.”
“The reason that we’re here today is we feel that [IAS’ decision] is sort of an ironic violation of academic freedom. We put on this event to give Remi [Kanzaki] the chance to express himself,” junior Raja Krishna said at the slam.
In a written statement to Student Life, IAS professor Jeremy Caddel said the department decided to alter the event because they felt the planned panel might not have been as balanced as SIR members had initially suggested it would be.
“SIR is an academic honor society associated with an academic program, IAS. As such, the intent of any public event sponsored by SIR/IAS is to ensure an informed, expert, and balanced campus discussion of the topic. In this case, after consultation with student groups, faculty, and community members, we did not believe that the planned town hall format was conducive to that original intent,” Caddel wrote.
The event opened with student slam poetry performances, junior Sam Lai reciting a poem titled “Dear Mr. Boyce” that he wrote about Peabody Energy. Kanazi then performed several of his poems, interspersed with a discussion of BDS and his experiences as a Palestinian-American. The performance was followed by a brief questions and answer session.
In response to a question about how Kanazi reconciled supporting both BDS and academic freedom, the artist said that the movement does not seek to limit individual scholars’ speech and movements.
“It doesn’t actually stop Israeli academics from traveling, from speaking,” Kanazi said. “The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions call, particularly the academic and cultural boycott call, is incredibly nuanced because we don’t want a witch hunt, we don’t want to go after individuals, and we want to have maximum target[ing] of the institutions themselves.”
Students said they enjoyed the event, punctuating Kanazi’s poetry by snapping their fingers. But many were upset that the University attempted to restrict Kanazi’s performance to only SIR members.
“I wish we could have gotten more people [to come out,]” freshman Sam Wexler said. “I think he represents a perspective that’s not often expressed on this campus.”
“To put a speaker with such an incredible voice…in a box makes me upset,” sophomore Olivia Robinson said. “It makes me upset to see that we as an institution would [do that,]”