‘Dutch universities need to stop depoliticizing the probable genocide of Palestinians’
Free academic discussion and critical solidarity with Palestinians is of the utmost importance, writes Associate Professor Michiel Bot. ‘Dutch universities must stop censoring students and faculty who oppose the ‘probable’ genocide.’
On October 7, the day of the killings, capturing, and kidnapping of hundreds of Israeli citizens by Hamas, many of them civilians, our outgoing prime minister Mark Rutte said the following: ‘We have not experienced very often that this conflict affects very ordinary people [hele gewone mensen].’
The prime minister’s outrageous claim denies that this ‘conflict’ has displaced hundreds of thousands, and killed or wounded tens of thousands of very ordinary Palestinian people over the past seventy-five years. The claim implies that Palestinians are not ‘very ordinary people’, and that their lives do not matter as much as those of Israelis.
Accordingly, Rutte immediately pledged the Dutch government’s ‘unconditional support’ for Israel, as did EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. Rutte and Von der Leyen did not condition their support for Israel on respect for the rights of Palestinian civilians. This was all the more remarkable in the midst of overtly genocidal language by numerous Israeli military commanders, journalists, religious leaders and members of the Israeli government.
Moreover, it was a woeful dismissal of Israel’s long history of human rights violations against civilians in Gaza, particularly since its blockade of Gaza in 2006. Ignored were multiple UN fact-finding mission reports, including the Goldstone report on the 2008-2009 Gaza war, which discovered ‘numerous instances of deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian objects,’ and concluded that some attacks were ‘launched with the intention of spreading terror among the civilian population.’
Supplying parts for fighter jets
The pledge for unconditional support for Israel has further been accomplished by the Dutch government’s abstention during the United Nations vote on a humanitarian cease-fire. This was an opportunity, minimal as it was, to try and end the violence. Instead, the Dutch government has doubled-down, even gone so far as to supply parts for the F-35 fighter jets with which the Israeli Airforce has been bombing Gaza, bombs that have so far killed more than 11.000 Palestinians, including thousands of children.
Apart from numerous demonstrations and sit-ins, universities have been some of the most important spaces for the critical contestation of our government’s ideological, political, and military support for what hundreds of scholars of international law and Holocaust and Genocide Studies and a group of independent UN experts have warned might constitute a genocide.
Universities have been the spaces where the normalization of Israel’s ‘probable’ genocide of Palestinians in terms of a legally incorrect right to defend itself, or even in terms of a non-existing right to retaliate, has been disrupted. Many students and teachers from various faculties and nationalities have come together to organize academic discussions, teach-ins, petitions, open letters, demonstrations, and sit-ins. However, various university administrators have treated these academic discussions, teach-ins, and expressions of solidarity with suspicion or even hostility.
At a moment when our government is denying the value of Palestinian lives, and is ideologically, politically, and militarily supporting a ‘probable’ genocide, what our university administrators should be doing is to affirm, in the name of the universal values that our institutions stand for, that Palestinian lives do matter, and to call for an immediate end to the war, as universities overwhelmingly did in response to Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Affirming that Palestinian lives matter, in the same way that Ukrainian lives matter, in no way implies that Israeli lives or Russian lives don’t matter, or matter less. As the Dutch-Palestinian poet Ramsey Nasr stated in a moving testimony on Dutch national television, expressions of sympathy with Israeli victims is appropriate, especially for our Israeli students and colleagues whose families and friends may have been killed or taken hostage, but this should not make us blind to Palestinians who have also been killed.
But instead of speaking out, various Dutch universities have delayed, restricted, or canceled academic discussions and teach-ins, and censored various forms of expressions of solidarity with Palestinians. Universities have justified these interferences in their students’ and staff’s academic freedom, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom of demonstration in the name of ‘mitigating polarization,’ or failing to provide a ‘safe space’ for listening to ’the other side’ or ’the other party,’ by which they seem to mean Israeli or Jewish students and staff.
To make another comparison, this would have invalidated many events that were organized in solidarity with the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa in the 1980s, with Rohingya refugees from Myanmar or indeed with Ukraine. But it is also deeply problematic to assume that Jewish or Israeli students are ‘on the other side,’ or are ’the other party.’
Many Jewish students and staff, including Israelis, do not agree with the Israeli government, and Jewish and Israeli people all over the world have been protesting against the unfolding ‘probable’ genocide, including with huge demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience.
Jewish people, including Israeli citizens, have long played central roles in Palestine solidarity movements around the world, such as Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now, and, in the Netherlands, Een ander joods geluid, Vrouwen in het zwart, and Dutch Scholars for Palestine. Jewish and Israeli people have also participated actively in the Palestinian-led movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, asserting their right not to be a perpetrator.
In the current polarized climate, it is very courageous for Jewish students and staff to speak out, as happened last week in an open letter in NRC by Jewish academics and students who called on Dutch universities to take a position against Israel. The letter not only called on Dutch universities to speak out against ’the war of destruction that Israel is waging against two million Palestinians.’
It also called for the recognition that ‘human rights and the rule of law apply to all inhabitants of historic Palestine,’ and affirmed ’the right to self-determination for the Palestinians,’ the ‘right of return for all Palestinian refugees,’ and ‘equal rights between Palestinians and Jews from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.’ Moreover, it called for Dutch universities to ‘suspend any form of collaboration with Israeli institutions that contributes to the continuation of the occupation and the unequal treatment of the Palestinian population.’
Instead of playing into the rhetoric of ‘aggressive solidarity,’ which falsely portrays solidarity as a zero-sum game, and reiterates colonial, racist tropes of Palestinians as ‘savage,’ universities should welcome the creativity, political commitment, and moral courage with which students and faculty have been discussing and forging critical solidarities. By contrast, hiring ‘coaches’ and ‘mediators,’ or promoting anti-intellectual ‘dialogues’ in which ‘the important thing is not who is right, but the recognition that we are all people who suffer,’ neutralizes critique and psychologizes and depoliticizes the issues.
Of course, universities have a responsibility for the safety of their students and staff. I worry about the death threats that have been made against various students and colleagues in recent weeks, sometimes for stating their opinions, sometimes simply because of who or what they are: Palestinian, Israeli, Arab, Jewish, Muslim. Universities do not only have a responsibility to react to immediate danger, but also to prevent an unsafe climate in a tense political situation.
However, claims by students and staff—often including student rabbi Yanki Jacobs—that they feel unsafe when they want to defend Israel’s alleged right to defend itself should not be accepted uncritically as grounds for curtailing academic freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly and demonstration on campus.
It is important to subject media reports about alleged unsafety on university campuses to critical scrutiny. For instance, the lead in this op-ed in NRC claims that ‘Jewish students and staff are targets [mikpunt] during Gaza demonstrations on campus,’ but even the op-ed itself does not contain any evidence for this.
And right-wing newspapers such as De Telegraaf and The Times of Israel have presented an incident during a graduation ceremony at the University of Amsterdam as an instance of antisemitism, but the reporting in Het Parool does not mention, and the reporting in Ad Valvas found no evidence that anything antisemitic was said. What is clear is that, contrary to what De Telegraaf reported, no political slogans were chanted [gescandeerd] during the ceremony.
According to AT5, what actually happened was that a woman in the audience disrupted the graduation speech of a Palestinian student by screaming ‘fuck you.’ The Palestinian student had said the following: ‘From the river to the sea, from the past to today, Palestinians resist in their own specific way. Some through art, some through dance, others through activism, and some like myself creating a positive impact using business.’
AT5 reports that the Palestinian student wished to remain anonymous out of fear for his safety and the safety of his family in Jerusalem, but German and Israeli newspapers have since made his name public. The least that can be said about the University of Amsterdam’s handling of the incident is that it is not clear whether the University paid sufficient attention to the safety of this student.
As Anya Topolski observed during a teach-in about academic freedom in Nijmegen last Monday, ‘antisemitism is real.’ But insinuating that solidarity with Palestinians is antisemitic, or redefining antisemitism to include critique of Israel, stands in the way of recognizing and fighting actual antisemitism.
The university ought to be a space for critiquing the mystifications that prop up the denial that Palestinian lives matter. One of the main mystifications in Dutch public discourse is the complete ignoring of the historical connections between political Zionism, the settler-colonial ideology of a Jewish ethno-state in Palestine, and European imperialism. It is impossible to understand these interconnections if we do not even teach our students the colonial genealogies of our own political, legal, and cultural present.
For instance, our Dutch Law students can easily graduate without the slightest awareness that for most of its existence, our own legal order was a colonial apartheid order that denied equal rights to its racialized, ‘indigenous’ majority population. Mark Rutte’s suggestion that Palestinians are not ‘very ordinary people’ is part of a Dutch colonial cultural imaginary that has yet to be decolonized.
Another mystification that academics should be critiquing is invocations of the Holocaust that do not aim at historical understanding, but at shutting down critique of contemporary oppression. The wearing of the yellow star by the Israeli delegates to the United Nations to shut down attempts to stop the ‘probable’ genocide was a new low.
The nation-state ideology
A demystified remembrance of the Holocaust, including the ways in which the Dutch have been implicated in this history, can unlock critical solidarities and political imagination. For instance, apart from critically confronting the considerable popular and institutional support for the Nazi regime in the Netherlands, including for the deportation and murder of most of the Jewish population, we should be researching and teaching the history of the nation-state ideology according to which Jews do not ‘really’ belong to the Dutch or other European nations.
We should counter uncritical remembrances of the February Strike of 1941 and foreground the courageous, critical solidarity of workers with people who were being deported and murdered for being Jewish. And as Guno Jones argued at a ’teach-out’ last Friday that had to be moved to the Black Archives after the VU banned it from its campus, we should be teaching Anton de Kom, whose writings and politics exemplify a critical solidarity that combined resistance against Dutch colonialism in Suriname with resistance against antisemitism that led to his death in a Nazi concentration camp.
Violation of academic freedom
Even purely academic speech is now considered highly dangerous to the status quo. Just last year, my audio introduction to a law lecture in which we would discuss an Israeli court judgment was removed from the Canvas page by the course coordinator, and replaced by a version of their own. My transgression had apparently been that I had used the ‘non-neutral’ concepts of settler-colonialism and apartheid.
Thankfully, the university supported me against this egregious violation of my academic freedom, and my audio introduction was put back on Canvas, but only as an ‘alternative perspective,’ and only weeks after the lecture was taught.
This incident shows that critique of Israel’s policies is allowed, even encouraged, insofar as it can bolster the absurd claim that despite the fact that millions of people are denied equal rights, Israel is ’the only democracy in the Middle East’ and thus welcomes critique. Critique of Israel is, however, militantly censored if you dare to use terms that call the Israeli settler-colonial project into question, or critically reflect on potential political alternatives to the Israeli ethno-state that has been denying millions of people their rights.
Even affirming that all people living in historic Palestine should be free, that all people currently living under the ultimate state power of the Israeli state should have equal rights, is considered profoundly disruptive.
Equally disruptive are calls for ending our universities’ many institutional collaborations with Israeli universities and corporations. Israeli universities have strong ties to the army; are deeply connected to the high-tech industry that constantly develops new technologies to spy on and murder Palestinians; develop juridical doctrines that aim to justify violations of international law; are built on occupied Palestinian land; discriminate against Palestinian students; and refuse to take a stance against apartheid.
The academic boycott that Palestinians have been calling for since 2004 explicitly does not target individual Israeli scholars and students, but only official institutional ties. At a very minimum, our universities should contact their Israeli institutional partners and demand that they stop censoring students and faculty who oppose the ‘probable’ genocide, and take disciplinary action against students and faculty who, on the contrary, encourage it with genocidal rhetoric.
As the ‘probable’ genocide rages on, academics and universities have a duty to disrupt discourses that normalize it. Staying silent with the excuse that ’the issues are so complex’ and ‘I don’t know enough about it’ is completely unconscionable for anyone who works at a university.
Instead, all of us should heed the entirely reasonable call from our colleagues at Birzeit University ‘[u]pon the international academic community, unions, and students to fulfill their intellectual and academic duty of seeking truth, maintaining a critical distance from state-sponsored propaganda, and to hold the perpetrators of genocide and those complicit with them accountable.’
Universities should take a stance against the Dutch government’s unconditional, partisan and uncritical solidarity with a political regime premised on what Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has called the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, and welcome critical solidarity with all people living ‘between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River,’ solidarity that allows for the imagination, beyond settler-colonialism, of a political future for all.
Michiel Bot is Associate Professor in the Department of Public Law and Governance of Tilburg Law School.
On Tuesday, November 28 from 14.45 to 16.30 in Wz101, he will moderate a conversation about Palestine/Israel, the Netherlands, Racism, Anti-Semitism, and Critical Solidarity for all students and staff of Tilburg University, with Palestinian researcher/artist Isshaq Albarbary, migration law and De Kom scholar Guno Jones, and scholar of Islam, politics, and society Martijn de Koning. No sign-up required, but please bring your Tilburg University card.