Leiden University and Students For Palestine: A Breach of our Academic Freedom?

On the Rector Magnificus Hester Bijl latest statement: Our University is ‘Not a Political Platform’ – only when that is convenient for the University.

Last month, academic events throughout different Dutch universities were organized to mark the Israeli Apartheid Week. The only university where students were not allowed to organize a panel discussion regarding this issue is, unfortunately, Leiden University, where students could not book a room for their event on racism, apartheid and interesectionality. In a public statement, Rector Magnificus Hester Bijl stated that the main reason the event was not allowed was because it did not respect the University’s “house rules”, in particular because the chair of the discussion was not neutral: “An academic debate can only be open if people with a different perspective feel able to speak out and if the moderator in these kinds of sensitive issues is preferably impartial”. The chair was supposed to be Dr. Dina Zbeidy, a Dutch-Palestinian anthropologist who teaches social sciences at the Hogeschool Leiden and has worked for different human rights organizations in both Palestine and the Netherlands.

In response to this, a petition was formed by students and professors, calling for Leiden University to reverse their decision and apologize to Dr. Zbeidy. It managed to get featured in local newspapers, and even led a member of the Dutch parliament to raise the point to the Minister of Education.

Whereas the petition was a clear response from the students, I believe that the Rector’s public statement needs an equivalent written response from the students themselves, who should have a say in the institution’s decision-making regarding which events should be allowed to be held on LU campus. To this end, I asked a member of Students for Palestine, Nikolaj, to formulate a response to our Rector’s public statement, though he wanted to clarify that “the decision was not purely taken by the Rector, who is just the face of the organization”. 

Leiden University’s shameful discrediting of an academic 

According to Nikolaj, canceling the event by pointing at the inadequacy of Dr. Zbeidy as a neutral moderator is problematic on different levels.

First, he argues, it “discredits Dr. Zbeidy as an academic without justification”. In a recent article, Dr. Zbeidy explains how she “emailed the security officer asking him for clarification”, understanding that due to her ‘outspoken’ profile “[the security offer] would not be able to guarantee the safety/security of all attendees”. Furthermore, in the same article, Dr. Zbeidy said: “What I found problematic is not simply the accusation of not being neutral, but rather the claim that I am not professional enough to act as a good chair, while I have ample experience and (as far as I know) never received any complaints. Additionally, the grave, and unsubstantiated, accusation that I was making people feel unsafe was very painful to me.” Based on this, Nikolaj expressed his belief that there was no reason to cancel the event based on Dr. Zbeidy’s supposed inadequacy.

Secondly, Nikolaj believes that the Rector’s justification plays on the racist trope that “Arabs, and especially Palestinians, are a security threat. Although I do not think that [the cancellation of the event] is purposefully racist, I do think that there are racist undertones involved”. He compares the panel discussion on Palestine with a potential event on Apartheid in South Africa. In this case, if a “South African black moderator” was to be involved, “there is no reality where Leiden University steps in and says that they need a neutral white man” to do the job. “That’s not me accusing anyone of being a racist on purpose. But I think there are certain biases that have taken place within the leadership of Leiden University that fundamentally are rotten at the core. The members of the staff are well-intentioned, but there is a need to acknowledge that that’s problematic.” 

Thirdly, Nikolaj identifies a sexist undertone behind the university’s decision: “The language of labeling a woman ‘too involved’, the idea that a fellow woman would be too emotional to be neutral and host a conversation, seems to be very sexist. And it’s ironic, because the talk was about intersectionality”.

Leiden University’s Concerning Precedent of Politicizing Apartheid

Besides discrediting a fellow scholar, why have the Rector’s justifications for the decision been considered problematic by a part of the student body? Drawing on the assumption that the moderator was biased, the Rector justified the board’s decision by saying that the University cannot be a “political platform”. In her article, Dr. Zbeidy is very clear on this point: “The idea of safe spaces on campuses has been historically important for racialised groups and minorities. I can identify with the need to feel safe on campuses, as a Palestinian Arab student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. […] Nowadays, however, it seems that the claim of ‘safety’ has been appropriated in favor of accommodating any and all political opinions. Should it be a university’s concern to make racists or supporters of apartheid systems feel safe? I don’t think so. Should such people be able to ask questions at an event on racism and apartheid? Sure! They might learn a thing or two from the responses of the panelists. Is it my responsibility as a chair to ensure that exchange goes respectfully and smoothly? Certainly.”

Nikolaj agrees that the idea that there wouldn’t have been space for students who have a pro-Israeli government stance was unjustified. He points out that a panel discussion is about academics presenting their academic perspective. This perspective is, of course, also an opinion, but the value of having experts in the field, is that they have an educated opinion. Thus,  a moderator can be neutral, in the sense they “need to let everyone speak, which was clearly the intention of Dr. Dina Zbeidy. […] In fact, we had a panel discussion at the Institute for Social Studies, where we had pro-Israeli groups and people sitting in the audience and asking questions freely to the panelists.” 

Moreover, Nikolaj argues that “the politicization of crimes against humanity was an extremely dangerous precedent, especially at a University Campus where we are likely training the future of the Dutch and International governments.” He continues by explaining that “It is undeniable that there is a political aspect to the Palestinian issue, as there are different opinions regarding to its solutions, whether it is a two-state solution or a one-state solution. But that is not what the discussion was going to be about. It would be about affirming the apolitical reality of Apartheid in Israel. And that’s a fact – according to the most respected Human Rights Organizations – in the same way as other Crimes Against Humanities are. We have video evidence, we have legal evidence, we have written evidence, we know that this is a system that takes place within Israel.”

Thus, echoing Dr. Zbeidy’s words, Nikolaj believes that, whereas it was the moderator’s responsibility to let everyone speak and ask questions, it was not their responsibility to include “a speaker arguing that Israel is not an Apartheid state.” This is exactly because of the factual nature of Apartheid in Israel. “Given such general consensus regarding the existence of an apartheid state in Israel, it would be irresponsible of us to present that view. It would be the equivalent of LUMC including an anti-vaxxer in a discussion about vaccines. It doesn’t make sense, because it gives legitimacy to something that is incorrect.”

Finally, regarding the Rector’s reference to “students who did not agree with the format” and the necessity of guaranteeing “the safety of all students”, Nikolaj thinks that “this was a bad decision by the University, because it is not only affecting Palestinian students, but also Israeli students who support us and believe in what we are doing, and who want to be able to have a conversation in an academic setting”. He thinks that numerous Israeli students come to this country not because they do not like their own, but, “like all of us, to gain an international perspective, to see what the rest of the world thinks about where they come from, and how their mindset works in general.” For this reason, “(indirectly) preventing Israeli students from joining such discussions (by canceling them) is bad, if not worse, than banning anyone else. This generation of Israelis is the generation that will need to […] create a state where everyone is welcome, where the state addresses security concerns, and makes sure that Israeli people are safe without persecuting Palestinians.”

The last thing that Nikolaj wanted to emphasize in our conversation is that “sanitizing the discussion can be damaging. Talking about crimes against Humanity is an incredibly ugly thing. For the people who are forced to see it, it can have life-long effects. What we want to do is to present the issue in a sanitized enough way so that people can engage with the issue, without having to experience that, and still make a meaningful change. If we sanitize it [too much], we are excusing it, but we cannot excuse it, because it would remove the whole purpose of the event, and it does not do anyone any favor.” He concludes by saying that: “I wish the university had spoken to us about these students’ concerns. But if it’s about the framing of the event, if it’s about the ‘Sanitization’ of the event, that’s not something we can do, because it would not be beneficial for anyone.”

We Need to Question our Academic Freedom: Who decides what is ‘Political’ and what is ‘Academic’?

What happened to the event organized by Students for Palestine is not an isolated case. We, as students of Leiden University, need to question critically and reject the University’s board’s arbitrary definition of what is political and what is not, what is academically acceptable and what is not. How can we accept passively the contradiction between the Rector’s words about the university not being a ‘political platform’, the unshakeable stance in support of Ukraine, and the similarly unshakeable stance against a panel discussion regarding Palestine? In other words, why is the Russian invasion of Ukraine not as ‘political’ as Apartheid in Israel? The rationalization and normalization of these conceptual differentiations is moved by clear interests and power relations that, eventually, end up threatening the effectiveness of everything our students, our researchers and professors are doing to deconstruct them. The University also belongs to us, so we should be able to have a say on the appropriateness of an event.

I would like to conclude by quoting Dr. Zbeidy’s article: “Why should academics continuously be pushed into showing their ‘neutrality’? Isn’t the university where revolutions and social change have often started? Why should standing up for a cause be a stain on you as a professional? Or maybe the question should be – why does standing up for Palestine become a stain on your reputation? And how is this tied to global inaction in the face of Israeli aggression and the dehumanization of Palestinians?” Indeed – I too believe that the University needs to be a source of social change, a place where young people, through empathetic and critical discussion, manage to bridge different opinions in the name of a greater, societal, good. In order to do this, students themselves need to be free to decide what discussions can be allowed and what cannot, what is apolitical and what is not. We, students, have the capability of deciding for ourselves whether a topic is ‘too sensitive’, we have the ability to decide whether a panel discussion is a ‘safe space’ for everyone to voice their opinion. We, students, must be allowed to assess on our own whether a panel discussion constitutes a real security concern for the student body. I suggest that the only security concern, here, is the fact that the content of the panel discussion threatens the political views of the Board of Leiden University, or of its associates. We, students, must unite and stand against the politicization of Crimes Against Humanity, and against the instrumentalization of the concept of ‘academic freedom’ for political purposes by Leiden University.

by Federico 

This article does not reflect the official stances of BAISmag or BASIS, nor that of Students Of Palestine as a whole. 




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