Yale Daily News

French-Algerian “decolonial advocate” and author Houria Bouteldja visited Yale to deliver a April 6 talk as part of the Decolonizing Europe Lecture Series. 

Bouteldja’s invitation was met with backlash from community members who accused the activist of bigotry, bringing up comments they interpreted as homophobic and antisemitic. In conversations with the News, students expressed issue not only with her invitation, but also with her lecture taking place during the night of the second seder of Passover, meaning that Jewish students observing the holiday were unable to attend. 

“Often, on this campus, I feel like my voice and perspective as a Jewish person is ignored, or not taken seriously,” Emily Zenner ’24 told the News. “By scheduling such a controversial guest, and one especially worrying to many Jewish people, during a Jewish holiday, it feels to me as if Yale, once again, completely ignored us.” 

In a April 3 tweet from the non-profit watchdog organization StopAntisemitism, the group decried Yale’s invitation of Bouteldja, labeling her “an atrocious antisemite and homophobe.” The tweet, which was viewed over 100,000 times, also condemned numerous past statements from the invited guest on topics ranging from Zionism and Israel to interracial relationships. 

The Decolonizing Europe Lecture Series is the brainchild of Professor Fatima El-Tayeb, who teaches in the Ethnicity, Race and Migration and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies departments.

The lecture was sponsored by the MacMillan Center, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Yale Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration. Bouteldja, El-Tayeb and leadership at the MacMillan Center and RITM all either declined or did not respond to requests for comment. 

Houria Bouteldja, her critics and controversies

Houria Bouteldja was born in Algeria in 1973 before migrating to France as a child. She entered the activism world in 2004, when she led a movement against a French ban on female public schoolers wearing hijabs and niqabs after a law prohibited students from wearing conspicuous religious symbols to school.

In 2005, Bouteldja co-founded the Indigènes de la République or the Party of the Indigenous of the Republic, a social movement that formally consolidated into a political party in 2010. The PIR — much like Bouteldja — defines itself as “decolonial” and anti-racist, but accusations that the group is antisemitic, anti-feminist and homophobic are as old as the group itself. At the heart of this controversy lies the party’s stance that the left centers social issues to avoid addressing the material conditions of the socio-economically and racially disenfranchised. 

Bouteldja has designated movements for LGBTQ+ rights, including the fight for gay marriage, under the label of “a homonationalist project.” Homonationalism, a theory introduced in 2007 by Jasbir K. Puar, criticizes a purported alliance between nationalistic ideology and advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights. 

Bouteldja resigned from the PIR in 2020, citing the group’s devolvement into “radioactivity,” though she continues to advocate for its original talking points. 

“What bothers me is that ‘Marriage for All’ is considered revolutionary, whereas it is globally part of a homonationalist project,” Bouteldja said in a 2020 interview with the French publication Ekho. “What bothers me most is that the defense of completely legitimate causes (and I include here the fight against homophobia) is most of the time to the detriment of the class struggle in general.” 

Accusations charging Bouteldja with antisemitism stem from another one of the activist’s highly contentious beliefs: that Western governments impose a hierarchy in which “Jews are in some sense better treated.” Bouteldja maintains that this simultaneously feeds resentment towards Jews among non-white people while still situating Jews as inferior to the white majority. 

In 2012, Bouteldja publicly self-identified with Mohammed Merah, whose terrorist attacks partly targeted teachers and students at a Jewish school. 

“On the 21st of March 2012, I went to bed as myself, and woke up as Mohamed Merah,” Bouteldja declared in a 2012 speech. “Mohammed Merah is me … Like me, he has been subjected to the incredible Islamophobic political and media campaign that followed the attacks against the twin towers.” 

Two of the most striking claims in the StopAntisemitism tweet can be traced to a 2016 televised debate between Bouteldja and French political scientist Thomas Guénolé. Guénolé prompted the activist to respond to a picture of her holding two thumbs up next to a graffiti slogan reading “sionistes au goulag” or “zionists to the gulag.” The debate — linked in a 2016 blog post — has since been removed from the television channel’s website and Youtube.  

According to the Anti Defamation League, the term Zionism initially described the ideology underlying the re-establishment of a protected Jewish nation in Israel. Contemporarily, it refers to a belief in the importance of an Israeli state. Zionism does not amount to unequivocal support for the Israeli government nor does it preclude support for a two-state solution and Palestinian self-determination. 

In the same debate, Guénolé claims to have challenged Bouteldja to explain a past comment about sexual violence in the Banlieu, a term for suburbs on the outskirts of large French cities that has come to evoke an image of poverty and sizable immigrant populations.

“If a Black woman is raped by a Black man, it is right that she does not go to the police in order to protect the Black community,” reads a translation of the comment, which has earned Bouteldja accusations of misogyny and racism in addition to antisemitism and homophobia. 

Invitation and backlash

In an email to the News, StopAntisemitism Executive Director Liora Rez doubled down on her position following the organization’s April 3 tweet. 

Rez highlighted that Yale had received an F grade in her organization’s 2022 annual college report of campus antisemitism, which claims to be based on “hundreds of first-person narratives by students at [graded] schools.” The report ranks universities based on four categories: protection, allyship, identity and policy. Yale and Columbia  were the only Ivy League institutions out of the five covered by the report to receive an F grade.

“Yale received an ‘F’ in StopAntisemitism’s latest college report because its Jewish students don’t feel protected or heard by the administration,” Rez wrote. “Rather than taking action to fix its grade, Yale is proudly promoting Ms. Bouteldja’s appearance via an event page that cites her hateful bibliography.” 

In the days leading up to Bouteldja’s talk, numerous members and allies of the LGBTQ+ and Jewish communities sent emails to administrators expressing their concerns about the activist coming to campus during a Jewish holiday. Concerned students passed around a template email for other community members — including donors and alumni — to adapt in communicating their concerns to administration.

The template email, which has been obtained by the News, references the April 3 tweet by StopAntisemitism, clarifying that the watch-dog group is not affiliated with the University. It goes on to emphasize that concerned students were advocating for a postponement rather than cancellation, and affirmed students’ belief in freedom of speech and the right of any Yale student or faculty member to bring speakers of their choice to campus.

“Given the controversial nature of this speaker, it would be highly unfortunate if she were brought in on a holy day of the Jewish calendar” the template email reads. “Time and time again, Jews have been caught off guard or unable to participate in activities, whether on Oct. 6, 1973 when Israel was attacked by Egypt and Syria on the holiest day in Judaism, Yom Kippur, or in more recent memory of antisemitic BDS resolutions presented on Shabat. I can only hope that the timing of this event is a coincidence.” 

In the week before Bouteldja’s talk, a post announcing the event on the “Belonging at Yale” website — which highlights University events that “enhance diversity, support equity and promote an environment of welcome, inclusion and respect” — was removed. 

In an email sent to protesting students, Assistant Vice President for University Life Pilar Montalvo laid out the administration’s response to student protests: because of the University’s stance on free speech, nothing could be done to accommodate the concerns of students. The email, which has been obtained by the News, avowed an administrative commitment to combating antisemitism and looped in Jewish University leaders as a resource for dealing with any residual concerns. Nonetheless, Montalvo confirmed that the event would not be moved to a date outside of Passover. 

“Antisemitism has no place at this university,” the email concludes. “There is a great deal of work underway to support the Jewish community on campus.” 

Zenner was one of many students who wrote emails to University administration expressing their disappointment about the event. In an email to the News, Zenner explained that despite her opposition to Bouteldja’s beliefs, she above all considered herself a defender of free speech. 

However, Zenner went on to identify Passover Seder as one of the most important events of the year for practicing Jews. Passover, viewed as one of the most sacred Jewish holidays, stretches from April 5 to 13, with observers typically attending seder on the first two nights.

In her email, Zenner emphasized that she, alongside many other students who sent in emails, had advocated only for a rescheduling of the talk — in the name of protecting Jewish students’ free speech — and never for a disinvitation. For Zenner, the incident did not come as a shock. She remarked that at Yale, the issue of rising antisemitism in the US and around the world was more often than not ignored. 

“While I firmly disagree with many of [Bouteldja’s] publicized comments, as I view them as dripping with antisemitism, homophobia, racism and the promotion of violence, I’m also a huge proponent of free speech,” Zenner wrote. “Open and honest debate is something I value in the highest regard.” 

In an email to the News, Montalvo said that the administration had engaged with student concerns, adding that she had listened to the worries of several Yale community members leading up to the event. She also denied receiving communications from alumni about concerns with the event, though she said she could not speak to the communications received by other University offices. 

She highlighted the timing of the talk as a main concern shared by various community members, but explained that the event could not be moved due to “scheduling constraints.”  

Montalvo emphasized that the University’s policy regarding free expression aimed to maximize protections for academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. Her role as assistant vice president for University life, she said, was to provide support for the academic freedom of faculty members as well as concerned students. 

“[University policy] states in part that invited speakers are generally free to express their views even if unpopular or controversial,” Montalvo wrote in an email to The News. “Dissenting members of the community may peacefully protest and express disagreement, but they may not interfere with a speaker’s ability to speak or attendees’ ability to attend, listen and hear.” 

The lecture

El-Tayeb provided introductory remarks about the series on Thursday afternoon, explaining that it seeks to answer how Europe — “the home of the colonizers rather than the colonized” — could fit into a decolonial model that aims to recover the lost traditions of groups oppressed by colonization. 

“These topics are not just theoretical to us but deeply personal. As a young community, we are in the fortunate position to be able to deeply and thoughtfully explore these topics beyond sound bites and cliches,” El-Tayeb said. “We should honor this by engaging respectfully with each other.” 

The podium was then handed off to Bouteldja, who gave her lecture in French, pausing periodically for a translation from an interpreter. Her talk, titled “France and Whiteness: breaking with the collaboration of race,” centered on an original theory of the “integral racial state,” inspired by the writings of Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci. She began with the disclaimer that she was there to speak not as an academic, but as an activist. 

Bouteldja’s “integral racial state” describes a collaboration between the bourgeoisie ruling bloc and white people in France — which the activist terms the “racial pact.” This relationship, Bouteldja said, compromises the class struggle by making it impossible to establish a unified working class bloc across ethnic lines. 

“If I stress this heavily it is because we cannot hope for an end to the collaboration of race between bourgeoisie and white people as long as the racial pact rewards whites socially, economically and symbolically,” Bouteldja explained. 

The “racial pact” term shows up in Bouteldja’s first book “Whites, Jews, and Us” in a chapter titled “You, the Jews.” In the chapter, she labels French Jews the “dhimmis of the republic,” a term dating back to the Abbasid period when it was used to describe non-Muslims living under the protection of the caliphate. The legal status of the dhimmi is crystalized in sharia law, distinguishing Jews and Christians as an intermediate class situated between Muslims and worshippers of polytheistic faiths. 

In her book, Bouteldja proceeds to draw a parallel between France’s contemporary Jewish population and the dhimmis of medieval Islamic states. She contends that both groups received privileged imperial protection, but that protection in both cases involved a transactional exchange. Like the dhimmis, Bouteldja says, French Jews could only ever be integrated into French society upon the condition that they acknowledge their inferiority to the dominant “white” group. 

“[French Jews] have abandoned the ‘universalist’ struggle by accepting the Republic’s racial pact: white people on top, as the legitimate body of the nation, us as pariahs at the bottom, and you, as a buffer,” Bouteldja writes. 

However, during her prepared lecture, Bouteldja made no reference to the role of Jewish people in France and made no effort to carve out their place in the so-called “integral racial state.” She instead ended her remarks by naming her primary political agenda: the “rupture of racial collaboration.” 

While she acknowledged that this agenda might strike many as naive — given that, by her own characterization, it is a highly implausible political outcome — she maintained her commitment to continued advocacy for the cause. This advocacy, Bouteldja argued, should come in the form of non-white individuals resisting the pressure to racially integrate into the dominant group. 

“What I meant was that I refuse the process of whitewashing of which I myself am a victim,” Bouteldja concluded, referencing one of her published letters in which she expressed a desire to escape whiteness. “So, in concrete terms, escaping from whites is, above all, a radical refusal of integration through racism. Or to put it another way, refusing to become a racist.” 

The lecture was followed by a brief Q&A period, in which questions mostly steered clear of Bouteldja’s controversial past remarks. One student attendee, however, asked the activist to address two controversies in a series of yes or no questions: firstly, whether she supported universal equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community — including a right to same-sex marriage — and secondly, whether she unequivocally condemned the attacks of terrorist Mohamed Merah. 

At the conclusion of the second question, El-Tayeb interrupted, characterizing it as a waste of time. She insisted that Bouteldja had written at length about the topic in the past. Despite the interruption, Bouteldja went on to answer the question, saying that while she condemned the attack, she believed that Merah had only resorted to violence because he was integrated into a white supremacist state. 

“What you could simply do is read her work,”  El-Tayeb said to the inquiring student. “The advantage of this context is that we don’t have to produce sound bites. So why ask a question that requires a yes or no answer, instead of actually engaging?” 

In response to the first question about universal rights for the LGBTQ+ community, Bouteldja began by rejecting media narratives that have labeled her homophobic, anti-semitic, anti-white, racist and misogynistic, insisting that she was nothing but “a decolonial.” 

She refused to respond to the question of gay rights in a yes or no format, arguing that one could not bestow universal rights on those identifying as LGTBQ+ if the LGBTQ+ identity itself was not universal. Her contention: while homosexuality is universal, LGBTQ+, which she defines as a political identity, is not. 

“And if political identities are not universal, and if everywhere in the world, people don’t want to politicize their sexuality,” Bouteldja remarked. “This is their own right to refuse to politicize their sexuality. I’m just saying from a decolonial point of view, that we can’t generalize a political identity that was born in advanced capitalist countries.” 

Bouteldja did not directly address the matter of gay marriage.

The MacMillan Center is located at 34 Hillhouse Ave. 

Ines Chomnalez writes for the University desk covering Yale Law School. She previously wrote for the Arts desk. Ines is a sophomore in Pierson College majoring in History and Cognitive Science.