Historian vilified over symposium with Israeli academics

The University of Manouba in Tunis, Tunisia, has said it will withdraw the title of emeritus professor from a historian and former dean of its faculty of letters, arts and humanities over his participation in an international academic symposium in Paris alongside Israeli academics.

Habib Kazdaghli, who still teaches at the university, has told University World News he has lodged a protest with Tunisia’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research.

A mid-April discussion on the legal and religious status of Jews during the French protectorate in Tunisia (which lasted until 1956) was hosted in Paris.

The meetings, usually held at the Sorbonne University, have attracted international scholars of Tunisian Jewish history for the past 26 years and have resulted in numerous publications.

However, the subject of Israel and Palestine remains highly emotive in Tunisia. Current President Kais Saied has, for instance, refused to follow the trend among some other Arab countries to normalise relations with Israel and has refused to recognise the country diplomatically.

Tunisia has hosted the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, or PLO, offices, which were bombed by Israeli warplanes in 1985, killing 68 people.

Trouble brewing

And, while the Paris meeting was part of an ongoing periodic series of symposia organised by the Tunisian Jewish History Society (Société d’histoire des Juifs de Tunisie, or SHJT), founded in France in 1997, trouble brewed for Kazdaghli because this year’s speakers were from Tunisia, the United States, Italy and Israel.

Kazdaghli had previously participated in numerous symposiums dating back to 1997 (in Tunisia), and his name is in all publications of the Tunisian Jewish History Society alongside Israeli scholars.

He explained: “We have had symposia in this series on Jewish Tunisian history here in Tunisia, but because the country does not have a relationship with Israel, no Israelis attended. However, this [latest] meeting was in France and, under French law, we cannot organise an academic meeting and exclude anyone on the basis of their nationality.”

Kazdaghli said that, when the programme of the symposium was posted by a Facebook user (he did not give further details) on 10 April, the author circled in red the name of an Israeli speaker – Haïm Saadoun – from the Open University of Israel. He was speaking on a panel about the Tunisian press under the French protectorate, moderated by Kazdaghli.

The next day (11 April), Kazdaghli received terse letters from his university president’s office and the scientific committee of the faculty, lambasting him for his planned participation.

Reading the letter to University World News, Kazdaghli said the university presidency and the scientific committee of the faculty of letters, arts and humanities “denounced” him for his proposed participation: “They accused me of using my title of former dean of faculty and professor emeritus for a ‘dangerous’ and ‘nefarious’ purpose. That, somehow, I was organising meetings behind the scenes of the symposium to enable [the] normalisation [of relations] with Israel.”

But the professor flew to Paris anyway, and participated in the symposium. The office of the presidency of the university subsequently announced in an April 11 letter that it would withdraw his title of emeritus professor, without giving a deadline for this action.

Jews are part of Tunisia’s history

But Kazdaghli is challenging this decision, with the complaint to the ministry and via a court challenge: “Only the ministry can give the title of professor emeritus, and only they can rescind it,” he told University World News.

“When I submitted my complaint, I asked to speak to the minister [of higher education] but he was unavailable.” He said that, to date, he has not heard back from the ministry.

The professor refuted any accusation that he has any relationship with any Israeli university, let alone being a broker of “normalisation”, adding: “I am an historian and Jews are an integral part of the history of Tunisia; their existence is a fact.”

He added that he was particularly interested in the participation of Jews in the anti-colonial movement and in the former Tunisian Communist Party.

He stated emphatically: “I am anti-colonisation,” and said that he was opposed to the Israeli settler project, equating it with colonisation; however, he opposes what he calls extremist positions referring to Israel as “the Zionist entity”.

“I’m for a two-state solution. I am not like those who want to obliterate Israel from the face of the earth,” he said.

Kazdaghli claimed that Tunisia's policy of non-normalisation meant that, although they had pitched to host the World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies (WOCMES 2023), the bid failed after Tunisia blocked Israelis from scholars participating and Tunisian academics had effectively boycotted the event, anyway, because they opposed any event with past links with Israel.

A rise in far-right sentiment?

The attack on Kazdaghli has also followed a rise in far-right sentiment in Tunisia. Over the past year, the Tunisian Nationalist Party has been stoking racial hatred online, promoting the idea of a European plot to re-colonise Tunisia with black Africans.

There were 105,000 Jews living in Tunisia in 1948, but large-scale emigration left about 1,000 in 2019.

Kazdaghli said he practises no religion and, while his interest in Jewish history had drawn criticism in the past, this had never moved beyond insults and grumblings.

“In the past, I was the dean of faculty, so they couldn’t do anything.” But, now that he no longer held any executive post, he said, some former colleagues felt they could attack him with impunity, with some being possibly motivated by anti-Jewish sentiment.

Civil rights campaigners have, however, rallied behind Professor Kazdaghli. A group of Tunisian human rights and justice NGOs and associations have collected 600 signatures in support of Kazdaghli.

In an earlier statement, the group decried the “instrumentalisation of the noble Palestinian cause to censor an academic”, and denounced the move, especially within the context of increasing authoritarianism in Tunisia. The coalition called upon “Tunisian civil society to defend academic freedom”.