Ronnie Kasrils (via Wikimedia Commons)

A Vienna museum has canceled a scheduled talk featuring Ronnie Kasrils, a renowned South African anti-apartheid activist of Jewish descent. His talk, scheduled for this week at the Volkskundemuseum in the Austrian capital, was to address historical South African anti-apartheid struggles parallel to struggles experienced by Palestinians today. Kasrils was a former member of the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the African National Congress (ANC) and former member of the Central Committee of the South African Communist Party (SACP).

The museum talk was intended as part of a wider series of events associated with the annual Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW). According to its website, Israeli Apartheid Week promotes lectures, film screenings, direct actions, cultural performances, poster campaigns, and other direct actions that recognize Palestinian struggles for self-determination. Organizers of the event accuse the Israeli lobby of pressuring the Volkskundemuseum to cancel it.

The event was organized by the Austrian chapter of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, an international coalition of unions, academic associations, churches, and grassroots movements that advocate for the human rights of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

In response to the talk’s cancellation, Kasrils said:

I have just had the dubious honour of having a meeting in Vienna I was invited to speak at banned […] The reason given is that BDS is equivalent to anti-Semitism. That reason is equivalent to the anti-communist red herring used in days past by apartheid South Africa in an attempt to smear and intimidate opponents.

The BDS movement cites its inspiration as the South African anti-apartheid struggle, using a non-violent strategy to boycott Israel until the nation withdraws from occupied Palestinian territories; removes the separation wall in the West Bank; grants equal rights for ethnically Palestinian citizens of Israel; and aids the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes, in compliance with UN Resolution 194 in 1948. In 2004, the International Court of Justice ruled that Israel’s wall built on occupied Palestinian territory was “contrary to international law,” but the Israeli government continues to build settlements on occupied Palestinian territory.

A spokesperson for the event organized by BDS Austria said:

We are not surprised by the Vienna City Council’s repression or their growing relations with Israel’s apartheid regime. They are silencing democratic debate and criminalizing all human rights groups, even Jewish ones, that are in solidarity with Palestine. Palestinian academic Edward Said was invited to Vienna shortly before his death and then disinvited due to the Israel lobby’s pressure. We will not be intimidated by this. We remember Edward Said’s words: It is a just cause, a noble idea, a moral quest for equality and human rights.

According to a press release sent to Hyperallergic by the Palestinian BDS National Committee, “The cancellation comes amid Israel’s ongoing repression of the peaceful Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights.” Kasrils points out that the Austrian government associates BDS with anti-Semitism, which is a felony offense in Austria and Germany. In 2018, the Israeli government announced a $72 million dollar “war chest” to fight BDS in Europe.

According to a BDS Movement website, Chief Mandla Mandela, a member of parliament for the ANC and Nelson Mandela’s grandson, said of the cancellation in Vienna:

The truth cannot be silenced! We deplore the venue cancellation for the scheduled Israeli Apartheid Week event at the museum in Vienna, Austria. This type of censorship was deployed by the South African Apartheid regime and as South Africans we condemn this act of repression. We will talk against all acts of racism and apartheid. We will continue to fly the Palestinian flag and speak against Israeli apartheid, aggression and occupation from the streets if we are denied venues. We will not be silenced and I call on activists all around the world to be spurred on and continue the struggle until we end the unjust occupation and until Palestine is free. Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) is an international series of events that seeks to raise awareness about Israel’s apartheid regime over the Palestinian people and build support for the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

The German organization Jüdische Stimme (European Jews for a Just Peace), who were recently awarded the Göttinger Friedenspreis, a peace prize in Germany, chimed in as well:

As a Jewish organisation we face, worriedly, the criminalization of voices in defense of Palestinian rights all round the world. This pressure is even greater in German speaking countries where growing alliances with the Israeli state and its narrative, undermine all other voices, including Jewish ones, which dare to criticize Israel’s racist policies. We sent a letter to the museum director when we learned that the event was threatened with cancelation. We are appalled that this cancelation was announced, and call again for the event to go forward.

In 2017, a similar event was canceled in 2017 at the Hotel Kaiserwasser in Vienna, which was to feature Salma Karmi-Ayyoub, a Palestinian lawyer and consultant on Palestinian human rights with the NGO Al-Haq, who had been set to deliver a lecture entitled “Apartheid and its Applicability to Israel/Palestine.” The reason, said Michael Bart, General Manager of the hotel, was due to incessant calls claiming that the event was platforming an anti-Semitic position. He cited people who had issued threats and allegations of anti-Semitism against hotel staff, as well as announcing, without further detail, protest actions and boycott calls against the hotel.

In another example, the Scottish band Young Fathers, which was slated to perform at the Ruhrtriennale in Germany last August. Their concert was canceled after band members refused to renounce their support for BDS. After international pressure, however, including from music legends Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, and Brian Eno, the Ruhtriennale backtracked and re-invited the band, who subsequently turned down the re-invitation.

In response to the canceled event at the Volkskundemuseum, Ronnie Kasrils wrote: “It’s disappointing then to find those rights now curtailed in Austria for wanting to express solidarity with the Palestinian people and sharing the South African experience and lessons with the Austrian people.”

He went on: “Freedom and justice are indivisible. The City of Vienna and Austria should be in the forefront of supporting the United Nations resolutions on Palestinian rights instead of cow-towing to Israel and the Zionist lobby campaign to silence legitimate, peaceful protest. They should hang their heads in shame.”

The Volkskundemuseum has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s multiple requests for comment.

Dorian Batycka is an independent curator, art critic, and DJ currently based Berlin. Previously, he was curator of contemporary art at Bait Muzna for Art Film (Muscat, Oman), assistant curator for the...

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