Letter to Sciences Po

As pro-Palestinian students control who can enter the “Gaza” amphitheater, Clara Levy, former Sciences Po student and founder of the Paris-Tel Aviv Association, delivers a touching, yet dejected, account of her memories of rue Saint Guillaume. While altercations over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and anti-Zionist suspicions of Jewish students, are apparently nothing new, Sciences Po seems to have lost its lustre: where can opposing viewpoints be organized, if the lecture halls are inaccessible?


March 13th, 2024, amphitheater of Sciences Po Paris


Dear Sciences Po,

In July, it will already have been ten years. Even though I still feel like a teenager in a grown up body, still looking for the meaning of life I find it hard to believe that it’s already been a decade since you handed me that grail in the form of a cardboard sheet: my diploma.

I’m not going to beat around the bush: you’ve changed my life. Not in terms of what I’ve become – I’ve given up on my dream career in political communication (the very aim of which was to play a part in reconciliation in the Middle East – kind of ambitious, isn’t it…) – but for everything you’ve given me, which has helped shape who I am and, even if it’s increasingly difficult these days, who I strive to be.

Before we met, you were just a dream. But was it really mine, or was it the internalized fantasy my grandparents projected on me – these grandparents who had fled their native Tunisia and Algeria despite the confiscation of their property? These Jews are known as “returnees”, as the occupying power, in its false indulgence, granted them French nationality. But a piece of paper, however precious, is no substitute for centuries of history. And for these “French on paper” and their insatiable quest for integration, I’m part of the first generation, that of grandchildren, to have been born here, on French soil, with a nice social security number. “You’ll be a minister,” my grandfather used to taunt me in his Tunisian-Libyan accent. So, France, here I come ! And I passed Sciences Po’s entrance exam.

The happy ending could have ended there. But then there would be no story to tell. Because at first, Sciences Po, let’s be real, you didn’t go that easy on me. Despite my nice social security number, my total lack of accent, my Parisian upbringing in privileged neighborhoods, my name was still Levy. Not everything could be erased… As soon as I gave my first presentation, on a random subject, with a partner assigned by the teacher, my partner proudly put on  his keffiyeh – the emblematic symbol of the fight for Palestine. I had no problem with this. Until, at the end of the presentation, the student whispered in my ear: “I put it on so that no one would associate me with you”. The year was 2008. I stood there, silent. What did he know about me? My political convictions? Wait… Could it be that in the lair of the “elite”, I was being judged solely on my supposed religion? One must admit that, already, anti-Zionism and antisemitism were kind of cousins. “To hell with him”, my grandfather would have said. It’s true that it took more than one student to shatter my dreams. But during that first year, several experiences kept bringing me back, or rather, reducing me to my origins: teachers asking me about Israel, even though it wasn’t on the syllabus (one of them went on to become one of the closest advisors to a recent French President), students in my class harassing me with jokes about money, and, of course, the comparison between the Shoah and Gaza, which was thrown back in my face – without, I might add, me EVER bringing up the subject of Israel, too afraid to make enemies. Despite all my efforts to hide, it had become painfully clear: for some of these young students, I, Clara Levy, 18, daughter of exiled North African Jews, first generation to be born in France, was in fact Netanyahu. Nothing less. So, what was I supposed to do against such violence?

During my second year at school, I decided to take back control of my destiny. Again, did I really have a choice? Whatever. I had to know as much as possible to protect myself. I picked every class about the Arab world. I remember this period as a form of bulimia. How many books did I read? How many drinks with friends did I ditch in order to finish learning about King Farouk, Nasser or the Mamelukes? I was obsessed. But I had one rule: on all the assignments graded by the teachers, I would stay away from Israel and Palestine. Once again, if everything had gone according to plan there would be no story… As I choose to write my book report on an essay about the Lebanese civil war, I realize that the book in question is out of stock in all bookshops and unavailable in Parisian libraries (no Amazon in these far-off times). I explain the situation to my teacher, who suggests I tackle the analysis of the only book not selected by the rest of the class – Elias Sanbar’s ‘Figures du Palestinien: identité des origines, identité de devenir’ (‘Figures of the Palestinian: identity of origins, identity of becoming’, not translated into English). First deviation from my rule. And what a deviation… This moment, so intense, is one of those that forged me. And for that, Sciences Po, I thank you. Thank you for giving me the chance, in a safe and secure environment, to learn how to think against a thinking software I inherited. Sanbar’s writing, the immersion in his thought, so fluid, so sensitive, and yet so distant, has created indestructible bridges in my mind. When I share my feelings with one of my classmates, tell him how much this analysis of a text, however difficult to carry out from a personal point of view, has intellectually transcended me because of my Zionist heritage – he cuts me off: “…but you can’t say that out loud. It’s like saying ‘my Nazi heritage'”. Wow. The word was out. I couldn’t believe it. Me, whose family doesn’t come from Europe, but whose Tunisian grandmother told me how she had conceived her first child in 1943, while my grandfather was hiding in her cellar, having escaped from the German labor camps. Me, whose Algerian grandmother recalled, stunned, that episode in 1940 when, as a child, she had been ordered to leave her class, stripped of her French nationality on the orders of the Vichy government. “Nazi”. That was the last straw. After that, I definitely threw the rule in the garbage, and decided to focus even more  on Israel and Palestine. That semester ended with an essay exam on the subject of ‘The Arab-Israeli conflict, from 1948 to the present day’. Would you still dare propose such a subject to students? I’d like to think so, in spite of the recent reality that is determined to transform my beliefs into illusions.

Going into my third year, thanks to you, I had the chance to fly to Melbourne, Australia, for an exchange program! To my great surprise, and probably because it was in English, I discovered documentation on the Middle East a hundred times more varied and precise than in French libraries. There, I learnt the basics of the different currents of Islam, and studied the history of political Islam. As the war in Syria broke  out, I focused more on that country. I continued  researching the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Palestinian question, I started Hebrew lessons, and I even studied the disparities and fragmentation of Israeli society through cinema. By chance, as if everything were constantly intertwined, I also discovered Melbourne’s largest community of Holocaust survivors ( second only to Israel’s). It’s amazing how being so far away paradoxically brings me closer to all these issues…

The more I learned, the more I realized I knew nothing. The more I asked, the more I finally realized what geopolitologist Yves Lacoste meant when he explained that studying power rivalries in a territory also meant studying conflicts driven by “representations” (of a place, of oneself or of course, of others, for example). In fact, that’s where and how the IDEA came up. The idea of a non-religious association, far removed from the partisan logic that underlies most initiatives on the subject in France, that would introduce students to the region, challenging their prejudices. We raised funds for a trip that would eventually take us to Israel and Palestine, to confront us with this diversity of viewpoints and “representations”. The idea came up while sharing  a beer with other (non-Jewish) students who had never set foot in Israel. These students are now life and death companions, and we launched this crazy project: it was called PARIS-TEL AVIV, like the plane ticket, our ultimate goal.

Sciences Po, without your omnipresent community life, we could never have imagined such an organization. You pushed us to get involved, to never give up. Everything existed (I imagine it still does today…): from sports associations to those based around tarot, cooking or even the conquest of space – there were no limits! Ah yes, there was one: 120 votes had to be cast during the week of the association elections. How many kg of Hummus did we prepare? How many falafels? We had to get away from this community image at all costs, and we put up Homer Simpson posters saying: “If you’re not circumcised, you can still be our friend!” I don’t know if it was our dubious sense of humor or our stubbornness, but we finally got the votes we needed! I’ll skip over a few inappropriate remarks (which have become customary at this stage), and the fact that Sciences Po Arab World Association (SPAM), despite our many requests, never agreed (at least in this first year) to carry out the slightest activity alongside us – unlike the French–Iranian association – and focus on what matters the most. By the end of  year, and after a lot of hard work, we had raised enough money so that each student would only have to pay  €500 for the all-inclusive trip (ticket, accommodation, full board). The 40 places available were booked in less than 24 hours, bringing together a dozen different nationalities, and the waiting list was as long as your arm. With the help of the Jerusalem Consulate and the Union des étudiants juifs de France (Union of Jewish students of France) (we couldn’t have done it without them), we were able to organize a day trip to Ramallah. There we met Mohammad Shtayyeh (who since became the number two in Mahmoud Abbas’s government, before submitting his resignation a few days ago), as well as Sulaiman Khatib, former prisoner of war turned peace activist, nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize. With him, we went to a semi-clandestine bar in the heights of Ramallah, where young people can smoke shisha and swim in a pool. There we met students, some of them living in refugee camps, who, despite their difficult living conditions, told us they were working on a film project with Israeli students. We also met soldiers, our own age, who had no choice but to enlist, religious Jewish students, left-leaning secular kibbutzniks, academics, Northern Druze, Bedouins, we even celebrated Easter mass in Nazareth in Arabic, and of course didn’t leave out Jerusalem, the Shoah memorial, the Dead Sea and Tel Aviv. This whirlwind of perspectives, this utopia, Sciences Po, you made  it possible . You made me want to bring it to life.

Paris-Tel Aviv, after ten years of operating, no longer exists. As I write these words, I wonder: would such a trip still be possible today? I’d like to think so, despite this recent reality that is determined to transform my beliefs into illusions.

“Don’t let her in, she’s a Zionist!” Were these words really uttered in your Émile Boutmy amphitheater, the same amphitheater where, I confess, I played a lot of “online games (because, yes, that’s what we did back then), but also where I celebrated Barack Obama’s election by dancing on the tables? That’s for the courts to determine. For my part, I settle for sadly noting that this climate, which is not new, seems to have worsened.

Sciences Po, you who taught me rigor, critical thinking, nuance and contradiction, what do you suggest to make it better? 

Faced with this violence brandished as a banner, with this political and therefore necessarily truncated reading of current events, which divides people and forces them to choose sides – what do you suggest to make it better?

What do you suggest in the face of the trivialization and misuse of words such as “genocide” and “anti-Zionism”, which are so deeply rooted in the history of the Jewish people? If calling for a ceasefire, for an end to a government’s policy of occupation, if wanting two states side by side, which can live in peace, is being anti-Zionist, would I myself be an anti-Zionist who doesn’t know it? Faced with these buzzwords that reduce the complexity of reality, essentialize the other and amalgamate, what do you suggest to make it better?

In the face of all those faces covered in surgical masks during this amphitheater occupation, and the assertive refusal to let the student in so that she couldn’t film; in the face of this tribune of support of this occupation from Jewish students, for which we can’t really know who signed it, as it was only signed  with initials; in the face of these individuals who want to speak out but hide their identities so that they can’t be  challenged, what do you suggest to make it better?

Where is the avant-garde Sciences Po of “one third scholarship holders”, of income-based tuition fees, of diversity of origins and points of view while respecting each other? Have you been so absorbed in covering up the many sexual scandals of previous management teams, or trying to reinvent selection procedures, that you’ve forgotten to pass on your values and fundamentals? Have you forgotten to remind us that, in order to rebel, we must also confront what’s disturbing us – even if it means that it upsets us a little? Have you become such a coward?

I lived in the United States for several years. I arrived just before the Weinstein scandal finally broke: it was the beginning of the #MeToo era. Working in the audiovisual industry, I was confronted head-on with changes in mentalities and the necessary awareness of these pernicious and systemic discriminations: this famous woke thinking (which some people call the “identitarian” current). My memories of 2017-2018: what a breath of fresh air! What freedom blowing through Hollywood! What a thrill for the young woman I was to see the boys’ club I had to deal with gradually shed its privileges! I dreamed of seeing Idris Elba as James Bond, and I was delighted that women directors were being given greater prominence. I was convinced that we were building new “representations” (here they are again, funny isn’t it?) and that we had a responsibility to highlight certain non-dominant identities in the public arena. This period was decisive in making me aware of the extent to which humanism and universalism could mask, or even perpetuate, all too many abuses of power and inequalities.

Yes, we had to improve. . And we will always have to improve not to go back to what was wrong . But if Sciences Po taught me one thing, that the current period confirms , it’s that a school  of thought set up as an ideological tyranny is dangerous. That, for all their faults, flaws and shortcomings, humanism and universalism have never been bettered. That, as Churchill said of democracy, then under attack  by totalitarian ideologies, it is “the least bad of all systems”.

No, I didn’t become a minister. Far from it. My grandfather didn’t have it all good. Nevertheless, Sciences Po, I’m happy I crossed your path.

Through your countless two-part, two-sub-part plans, thank you for teaching me how to think against myself.

Thank you for teaching me to recognize and denounce all forms of radicalism.

Thank you for giving me the will  to get involved, in whatever form, and  to look for  ways of living together.

Thank you for teaching me the story of those who braved fear and made peace against their own people.

Thank you for having put those in my path who fight alongside me to seek what brings us together rather than what divides us. The same people who have held my hand since October 7, the day when everything changed. The same people who have marched with me against antisemitism, at a time when people would have us believe that it’s right-wing extremism.

Finally, thank you for giving me the courage to write these lines and to speak out, even if I would have preferred to keep my mouth shut. Except that, despite my beautiful social security number, my total lack of accent and my Parisian upbringing in privileged neighborhoods, my name is still Levy. It is with this name, without a surgical mask but not without fear, that I choose to sign this letter.

Thank you Sciences Po. See you soon, I hope.

Clara Levy
Former student and founder of the Paris-Tel Aviv Association

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