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‘Being fired over a protest? This is not a dictatorship’

At VU Amsterdam, people should be able to say whatever they want as long as they keep things respectful, the Executive Board says. But lecturers and students feel like they can’t fully express themselves when it comes to the matter of Gaza.

The guests that are having lunch at the VU restaurant are being treated to a noisy protest by the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). Masked activists put up a banner reading ‘Existence is resistance’ and there is chanting, including of the controversial slogan “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free”. A young man wearing a mask uses a megaphone to tell those present about the repression of Palestinians by Israel.

The protest is intended to raise awareness of the situation the Palestinians are in, but also to voice objection to VU Amsterdam’s prohibition of a planned ‘teach-in’ about Gaza on campus. It’s not the first time that an SJP gathering is prevented by VU Amsterdam, the most frequent reason cited being that the programme is too one-sided and only features pro-Palestinian speakers.

But the programme for this teach-in, co-organised by professors, does not only include the likes of controversial Palestinian activist Sara Rachdan, but also such speakers as Professor Yolande Jansen, who researches antisemitism. A balanced programme, therefore, that VU Amsterdam banned from campus nonetheless.

Safety at stake

Why is it impossible to talk about Gaza on the VU campus? It’s not, says the Executive Board (EB). “We didn’t prohibit the teach-in, but we couldn’t make a decision based on what we knew back then. We wanted more time to talk to the organisers about it”, says EB President Margrethe Jonkman. “We were still discussing elements like safety and substantiveness”, says EB member Marcel Nollen.

Forbidding polarisation, isn’t that against academic principles?

Nollen adds that VU security and the police say there are signs suggesting safety is at stake. “It’s a very emotional debate and we don’t want people to get physical with each other or feel unsafe in any other way”, says Rector Magnificus Jeroen Geurts.

Volatile situation

More than, for example, the war in Ukraine or the question of whether to keep collaborating with the fossil industry, this is a “volatile situation”, Geurts explains. “This debate stirs up lots of feelings for people”, says EB President Jonkman. Nollen speaks of “groups of angry students” and worrying texts and stickers that are being distributed on campus and slogans that are being called out. “This means the preconditions for conducting such a debate in a safe manner cannot be met.”

But it’s about more than this. Social safety, for one thing. ‘Where there is room for activism in the public space, we want to focus on a dialogue within the walls of the university. Dialogue that is aimed at sharing knowledge, increasing mutual understanding’, reads the official statement of the Executive Board. Also, preventing further polarisation is a ‘fundamental precondition’.

Forbidding polarisation, isn’t that against academic principles? Isn’t it incredibly limiting for academic debate if it can only be geared towards mutual respect and connectedness? Shouldn’t you be able to say and question everything at an academy? Shouldn’t a debate get a bit uncomfortable or high-spirited now and then?

“Ideally we’d have a debating culture where anything can be said and talked about, with zero risk of people starting to feel so miserable that they don’t really dare to come to campus any more”, says Geurts. “We have to make sure that everyone’s freedom to join the debate is safeguarded.” Academic debate isn’t just blurting out whatever you want, he says. “You need to be able to give arguments and listen to those of others. That is what makes a debate respectful.”

Big family

“VU Amsterdam says it’s neutral, but in response to the election results they did publish an online statement with a hidden political message”, says a lecturer who is irritated by the Executive Board’s attitude. “What’s more, VU Amsterdam claims to be there for everyone, regardless of their political beliefs, which means there should be room for expressing different opinions, which isn’t currently the case in the matter of Gaza.”

Ad Valvas talked to a group of five lecturers that say they feel unsafe, not because their supervisors are forbidding them to criticise Israel, but because they receive emails from well-meaning colleagues warning them. That a lot of emails are going back and forth about the issue becomes clear as the interview goes on. An Islamic colleague, for instance, says that he was accused of sympathising with Hamas because he stands up for the Palestinians. “This makes me feel unsafe”, says one of the lecturers. “It’s as if I’m walking on eggshells, because saying that Israel is an apartheid state, which is actually a statement by Amnesty International, can already get you into trouble. I’m from outside the EU and if I were to lose my appointment at VU Amsterdam, I’d have to leave the country.”

For this reason the lecturers wish to stay anonymous, but their names are known to the editors. They were annoyed by the way Ad Valvas reported on the protest in the VU restaurant, appearing not to take the facial coverings some activists were wearing entirely seriously. “They wear those face coverings because some of them are here on a student visa, and would have to leave the country immediately if it were cancelled.”

“I work at the Faculty of Social Sciences”, says another lecturer. “We are social scientists. Our work is about society, about human experiences and exclusion and whatnot, so we can’t ignore this. Are we really supposed to watch and say nothing while in Gaza there’s an explosion of violence and human rights are being violated at a tremendous scale? Are we supposed to stay neutral? Did VU Amsterdam stay neutral when Russia invaded Ukraine?”

Tense atmosphere

Jewish academics, including former EB President Mirjam van Praag and VU Professor of Jewish Studies Jessica Roitman, wrote an open letter in the NRC newspaper saying that Jewish students and staff at Dutch universities don’t feel safe because of the tense atmosphere created by the war in Gaza. They think the debate is one-sided and they don’t condone the toleration of the From the River to the Sea slogan.

‘The intention is not to curb people’s freedom of expression; that’s not done at an academy.’

“That slogan isn’t antisemitic”, says one of the anonymous lecturers. “That slogan expresses the ideal of an Israel where Palestinians live in freedom and with the same rights as Jewish Israelis.”

Sitting EB President Jonkman is aware of this interpretation. “But there are people here who are grieving the loss of friends and family members in the Hamas attacks of 7 October. Is it really necessary to hurt them by saying these kinds of things? Would you, knowing that certain things hurt me to my core, bring them up in a debate anyway?”

The teach-in that was forbidden at VU Amsterdam ended up being held elsewhere under the name ‘teach-out’. According to the lecturers, it was a “peaceful, respectful” event without slogans. “With a very good debate befitting of VU Amsterdam”, says one of them.

Antisemitism

Seven years ago, Ad Valvas spoke to a group of Jewish VU students about the antisemitism that flares up every time things get out of hand in Israel. They are called “fucking Zionists” and read social media posts by classmates saying things like “Zionist pigs”. When this comes up in the interview with the lecturers, one of them says: “But what about our Islamic students? They also feel unsafe because of everything that’s said about them. Everyone’s talking about antisemitism, but islamophobia and Muslim hate are being overlooked.”

VU Professor of Global History Pepijn Brandon says: “If Jewish or Israeli students are being held accountable for Israel’s actions because of their Jewishness, I think that’s just as stupid and racist as holding students with headscarves accountable for the actions of Hamas.”

But he does think it makes sense for students and lecturers to be criticised if they defend Israel’s actions, advocate an exclusively or predominantly Jewish Israel, or trivialise the suffering of Palestinians at the hands of Israel. “Of course it’s wrong for that criticism to then be expressed in an antisemitic way. But equating sharp criticism of Israel to antisemitism, which happens all too often nowadays, is actually dangerous from the perspective of fighting real antisemitism.”

This statement is echoed by one of the lecturers: “If you are that adamant about Jewish People and Israel not being the same thing, don’t make it look like that by dismissing every single piece of criticism for being antisemitic.”

Deel de Duif

Brandon was one of the Jewish academics and students that also published an open letter in NRC, calling for universities to take a stand against Israel’s human rights violations in Gaza. “Universities should be ashamed of themselves for not talking about Gaza”, he said to Ad Valvas in a double interview with Dutch colonial heritage researcher Patricia Schor (who’s also Jewish).

“You should be able to say anything at VU Amsterdam”, says a lecturer. “If students approach me, I should be able to tell them: ‘Go to that teach-in, or to that debate in 3D, take in all of those opinions. If you want to bring something up in class, go for it’. That’s how we learn from each other, that’s the way it should be.”

The Executive Board is taken aback by the things the lecturers say. “‘Being fired over a protest? It’s not a dictatorship here”, says Geurts. “The intention is not to curb people’s freedom of expression; that’s not done at an academy. It saddens me to hear that people are experiencing it like that.” “It really doesn’t have anything to do with VU policy”, Nollen adds.

In a ‘call for unity and understanding’ on the VU website, the EB refers to such places as the Centre for Teaching and Learning, which helps lecturers deal with ‘diverse points of view’ in the classroom, and to meaningfulness platform NewConnective for conversations and support. “The matter of Gaza is debated on campus, in lecture rooms and at the 3D debating centre”, says Jonkman. “It only concerns public manifestations, such as teach-ins”, says Geurts. “We’re simply looking for a way in which those things can take place on campus without compromising anyone’s safety. So people with any kind of perspective truly feel free to join the debate.”

“You should interview the young Jewish and Palestinian people united in Deel de Duif”, says Jonkman. “They debate one another and even though opinions may clash and things can get quite uncomfortable, they always treat each other with respect. It’s important to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.”

 

‘Executive Board must grab the initiative’

As it has a lot on its plate, the University Student Council hasn’t had time for a proper talk on the matter, says chair Guido Groenescheij, but as far as he’s concerned this will take place shortly. “I understand VU Amsterdam is looking for a manner in which the debate can be carried on safely. There’s a balance between being able to express yourself and feeling safe, but now everyone’s talking over each other’s heads and that doesn’t aid social safety”, says Groenescheij. “The EB should stop waiting around and grab the initiative.”

 

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