Independent journalism about VU Amsterdam | Since 1953
17 July 2024

Student Life
& Society

Use our academic freedom

Can we ask the rectors to use our academic freedom to stand for those who have no freedom to even become academics? Annette Kemp, ethicist VU Amsterdam, wonders.

In the 1600’s Quakers came to my native state of Pennsylvania. Unlike the Dutch, who busily traded and began populating New York, the Quaker settlers were searching for freedom to practice their religion without oppression or persecution. While William Penn and his family were interested in wealth building, the general Quaker community hoped to spend their time ministering to the native Americans they encountered. They believed they could help the “poor savages.”

There is much to discuss about this migration of Europeans into Native lands, but one story about Quaker/Native interaction has been repeating in my head these last days. It goes something like this.

The Quakers traveled to the north of the territory they were taking over and approached the Sachem of the native nation. They had a proposal for him. They described in vivid description how they could help the children of the Sachem’s nation assimilate to the white man’s ways.
“Let us take your children to live with us, and we will teach them to read and write and talk like the white man”, was their promise.
The Sachem was wise. He knew from experience that the white people would just keep coming, and so he thought it was a good idea for the children to learn how to deal with them. He chose a few children as an experiment, and even included his own son to go with them.
With many tears the children went off to be assimilated. They did well. When they returned to the nation they could read and write without error. They spoke the white man’s language perfectly, and their etiquette was flawless. They told their Sachem that the white people had treated them kindly and had told the children about their Great Spirit who instructed the Quakers to be kind to the children.

During their next trip north, the Quakers were excited. They expected their success would mean even more children would be assimilated in this round. After the initial rituals of
greeting and respect, the Quaker representative eagerly asked how many more children would be included.

“None”, was the Sachem’s answer.
The Quaker was shocked.
“But we did everything you asked us to do!”

“Yes, the children can read. They can write. But that is all they can do. They are worthless. They cannot hunt. They don’t know how to do the things they need to do to live well. You have made them useless! All they can do now is sit around and read and write.”
Over this last weekend this story played on a loop in my mind.  At the same time, I felt
many things. Shame, anger, disbelief, hope, despair. I had so much hope that the scholars trained in thinking would take a stand for international human rights. In my hopelessness this story came to me, and I realized that we are the Quakers.  We sit around reading and writing, but we don’t know how to do the things we discover from our research.

“Why?” I asked myself. I don’t know. I suspect it is money. It always is. Academic freedom is an excuse. A whole class could be taught why that is ridiculous. Just one mention may be when the universities took a stand against apartheid and didn’t cry “academic freedom.” Does naivete deludes us into thinking we are going to dialogue change? If that worked then polarization wouldn’t be the monster under the bed in our own country because the Dutch, at least, have been dialoguing their brains out for the 45 years that I have known them.

Don’t get me wrong.  Sometimes things happen that are new, and dialogue is needed.  But Israeli and Palestinian relations are not new, and war is not new.  We have dialogued through these things.  What is it that prevents us from doing? Why is it so hard for us to do what we have already agreed to? The Fourth Geneva Convention was written because of the copious amount of research and writing about the inhumane destruction during the Holocaust. Because Jews, homosexuals, Roma, the unemployed, communists, and resisters were merciless destroyed, the Convention’s sole directive is to protect citizens in war areas. It has been legally tested particular to Palestine—due to her occupied situation–and found to be legally binding for Palestinian civilians.  Moreover, Israel is a ratifier to the convention.  So, shouldn’t they be holding to their agreement and protecting non-combatants?

I hear Jan saying, “But Hamas!”
What about Hamas? Since when does any one of us have the right to become a criminal because someone else is a criminal? Integrity demands that we hold our own values even if others detest them.

The relationship between Israel and Palestine has been a dialogue topic since 1948.  (See how far “dialogue” brings us?) But a little hint may answer the “But Hamas” declaration. The reason that our eyes have left Hamas and are on Netanyahu is because of another Geneva Convention ethic—proportionality.  Hamas did horrible things.  Taking hostages is another violation of the Conventions.  However, we are only human and can only take in so much. Palestinian suffering is so much, and the brutality is so disproportionate, that my brain is overloaded.  Not to mention that I didn’t even have time to mourn what was done to the hostages before I saw the IDF on CNN claiming that they had the right to wipe out civilians to “protect” Israel. The actions of Netanyahu and his cronies are the reason we don’t have time to mourn for the hostages, not some love for criminal behavior.

I’m not pro-Hamas. I am not anti or pro Palestine. I am not anti or pro Israel. I even have a love hate relationship with my own Western culture and some of the atrocities that it has perpetrated. However, what I am pro, and very proud of, is what the world was able to accomplish as we looked fully on what we did (or didn’t do) in the Holocaust. I’m pro human rights. I’m pro international law. I believe if we don’t take a stand when it happens to someone else, then we cannot complain when it happens to us. I learned that from my research into the Holocaust. If we all don’t stand for international law now, we have no moral authority to teach or even try to build citizens.

I believe that this standard applies to each of us, but it also applies to institutions.  No matter what their assignment is in our society.  Honestly, my heart broke when I read the letter from the rectors on Saturday. I may also be naive, but I still trusted that our universities would be the voice that taught how to do justice. After a weekend of hopelessness, tonight I am completely disillusioned. Sometimes it stinks to be assimilated. Does anyone think it would do any good if we asked them to think again? Can we ask them to use our academic freedom to stand for those who have no freedom to even become academics?


Stick to the subject and show respect: commercial expressions, defamation, swearing and discrimination are not allowed. Comments with URLs in them are often mistaken for spam and then deleted. Editors do not discuss deleted comments.

Fields with * are obligated
** your email address will not be published and we will not share it with third parties. We only use it if we would like to contact you about your response. See also our privacy policy.