SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: May 26, 2022

Attack Types: Other

Institution(s):Academy of Fine Arts Vienna

Region & Country:Europe | Austria

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On May 26, 2022, the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna (AKBILD) notified Walaa Alqaisiya, a teaching fellow of gender, peace and security at the London School of Economics (LSE), that her lecture based on her upcoming book The Politics and Aesthetics of Decolonial Queering in Palestine was canceled. The cancellation followed reports of external pressure.

Alqaisiya, a Marie Curie Global researcher at the University of Venice and Columbia University, was invited to give a lecture on May 30 as part of the Spring Curatorial Program 2022: Art Geographies, organized by AKBILD and Verein K, an arts and cultural organization. As described in the event program, the lecture, titled as “Walaa Alqaisiya: Queering Aesthesis: Unsettling the Zionist Sensual Regime” was going to be “divided into two parts; the first part identifies the functionality of Pinkwashing as a settler sensual regime, focusing on theorising the relation between sex (sex/gender systems) and sense (sensory structures including emotive and affective dimensions of politics) that implicates Zionist structure of native elimination.”

In a blogpost on the LSE website, Alqaisiya reported that, on May 21, she received an anonymous email warning her that “‘pro-Israel and antifa’ local groups in Vienna were mobilising to cancel [her] lecture.” She also reported social media content that she described as “a smear campaign against [her] and [her] work for the purpose of canceling the lecture.”

On May 26, Alqaisya was notified in a phone call that her lecture was canceled. Alqaisya claims in her blog post that “[a]fter numerous emails with the organiser, it was finally confirmed that both akbild and mumok [a cinema where the lecture was to take place] took this decision following pressure exerted from pro-Israel groups, including the Council of Jewish Students in Austria and KESHET Austria, who labelled my work as antisemitic.” In a statement reported by Artforum, ACKBILD’s rector, Johan Hartle, defended the cancellation: “the text announcing the lecture contains de-differentiations and essentialist exaggerations in relation to Zionism, which were perceived by numerous members of the academy as untenable assertions and an affront; in particular the Austrian Union of Jewish Students understandably pointed out this transgression of boundaries. Among other things, the announcement text speaks sweepingly of ‘Zionist(s) structure with the aim of eliminating the indigenous population,’ and thus constructs Zionism generally as an enemy image, so that a discursive and open debate would hardly be possible anymore.”

Following the cancellation, Jelena Petronić, the curator of the program, and Verein K issued a statement denouncing the cancellation of Alqaisiya’s lecture and rejecting the allegations of anti-Semitism. On May 30, Verein K pulled the Spring Curatorial program from AKBILD, according to Artforum.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the cancellation of an academic lecture, apparently based on political considerations. Higher education leaders should respect academic freedom by refraining from politically motivated restrictions on academic activity. Members of the higher education community and of civil society who disagree with the content of academic activity should also refrain from coercive actions intended to chill or punish such activity. Politically motivated attempts to limit academic discussion and exchange undermine academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.