The Academy of Fine Arts Vienna has come under fire for canceling a lecture on Palestine. (photo courtesy Academy of Fine Arts Vienna)

Over 370 artists and cultural workers have signed an open letter criticizing the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Wien (Mumok) for canceling a lecture titled “Queering Aesthesis: Unsettling the Zionist Sensual Regime” following complaints from pro-Israel groups. Signatories include scholars Judith Butler, Sam Durrant, and Slavoj Žižek, activist and author Angela Davis, and artist Ali Yass.

In the lecture, set to take place on May 30, scholar Walaa Alqaisiya was to address topics covered in her forthcoming book The Politics and Aesthetics of Decolonial Queering in Palestine. It was planned as part of a series entitled “The Spring Curatorial Program 2022: Art Geographies,” which promised to plumb “critical, decolonial, feminist and material dimensions of planetary co-existence.” But the organizers soon received objections from pro-Israel groups such as the Austrian Union of Jewish Students and Keshet Austria, who alleged that Alqaisiya’s academic work was “antisemitic.” In response, they pulled the event.

“We stand in solidarity with Dr. Walaa Alqaisiya against this unsubstantiated and racist attack, which discredits and delegitimizes her both personally and academically,” reads the letter written in support of Alqaisiya, which is undated.

“We outright reject antisemitism in all of its forms,” the statement continues. “This also means that we reject the equation of critical conversations about Zionism with antisemitism, as it subverts the legitimate concern regarding antisemitism across Europe and the world.”

Not all organizers approved of the decision to uninvite Alqaisiya from the lecture series. Curator Jelena Petrović and co-organizing group Verein K rejected the validity of the accusations of antisemitism and reaffirmed that with her affiliations at the London School of Economics, Columbia University, and the University of Venice, Alqaisiya’s research “complies with the highest academic standards.” In a letter, they jointly apologized for the cancelation of the event, calling it “out of our hands.” They also labeled the allegations “an attempt to discredit the lecture and censor its content.”

Nonetheless, the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna continues to stand by the cancelation of the event. In a statement shared with Hyperallergic, they said that the text of Alqaisiya’s lecture contained “de-differentiations and essentialist exaggerations in relation to Zionism, which were perceived by numerous members of the academy as untenable assertions and an affront.” Given the text, they said, “a discursive and open debate would hardly be possible.”

In a Twitter thread on May 30, Alqaisiya called on the organizers to issue an apology. “By accusing me of making essentialist exaggerations of Zionism, the cancelation of the lecture is a political and militant act, gesturing toward the protection and sheltering of these groups that systematically conflate Jewishness with one specific vision of Zionism,” she Tweeted.

In a statement Alqaisiya shared with Hyperallergic, she said: “The equation of critiques of Zionism with antisemitism is a political tool that the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna sought to utilise to shut off the only Palestinian (indigenous semite) contributor to what has been rallied as a decolonial and feminist conference. This not only shows the appropriation and commodification of feminism and decoloniality within the neoliberal academy/museum; more importantly, it demonstrates the structural racism upon which these institutes are founded.”

French political scientist Françoise Vergès, who was a previous guest in the series, expressed her furor at the cancelation in a separate letter addressed to the organizers of the event.

“Uncritically accepting the material and ideological reality imposed by Zionist and pro-Israel groups is being their accomplice,” Vergès concluded in her criticism of the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and Mumok.

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.