Academic Panel on Palestine: Freedom of Expression, Freedom to Exist
On November 23rd 2021, Students for Palestine organized an academic panel on Palestine, specifically the intersection of activism and the university. Participating students report on the event and explain why academia and politics do not exist in isolation.
The Palestinian struggle for freedom is a prominent topic of discussion—both in and outside of Leiden University. Resistance comes in all forms too; including the divestment from and boycott of all products and institutions supporting the Israeli regime which systematically violates Palestinian human rights. Last year, a petition was signed by nearly a thousand academics and students in the Netherlands, calling for an academic boycott of Israeli educational institutions that support apartheid. Much commotion ensued: discussions rose around whether academia was the right place for activism. Indeed, Leiden University is hesitant in becoming the first university that calls for the academic boycott of the Israeli Apartheid regime. The university’s Rectror Magnificus Hester Bijl even distanced herself from the boycott, claiming that freedom of expression and calling for the boycott of Israeli apartheid were incompatible. This contradicts Article 10 of the European convention on Human Rights and Article 7 of the Dutch constitution guaranteeing freedom of expression, as the distancing implies those supporting the boycott were not free to express themselves. In fact, the petition demonstrated that many disagreed with the rector’s opinion. But why did academics choose to push for an academic boycott of Israeli universities?
This question prompted the organization of an academic panel on Palestine, organized by Students for Palestine (SFP) and the MENA student association (MENASA). On Tuesday, November 23, nearly 75 people gathered in Wijnhaven’s main lecture hall, while others joined online for the event themed around the connections between academia, activism, and Palestine. The panel was led by Dr. Sai Englert, a scholar teaching political economy and development in the Middle East at Leiden, together with Layla Kattermann, the current chair of SFP.
Those present had the privilege of listening to several experienced speakers. First, Dr. Christian Henderson, another scholar of political economy and development in the Middle East teaching at Leiden, spoke about the importance of an academic boycott as the initiator of the aforementioned petition. Akram Salhab followed, an activist with much experience in setting up Palestinian resistance at universities in the UK. Then, Yara Hawari joined, a senior analyst for the Palestine policy network and an honorary fellow of the University of Exeter, and the political commentator for Al Shabaka, the main Palestinian policy network. Finally, Sam, a student coordinator of BDS (an organization that focuses on boycotting, divesting from, and sanctioning the Israeli regime), commented on the limits of universal efforts in upholding human rights.* While a short blog will hardly capture all the amazingly interesting insights provided by the panelists, some points are worth reiterating here.
The main reason to support the boycott of Israeli universities is the pressure it creates on Israeli civil society to change the current system. Henderson supported this assertion with three arguments.
First, Israeli universities have a clear relationship to the Israeli occupation and regime, as they actively promote the development of methods sustaining the occupation by providing the military with resources, technology, and propaganda. Moreover, the Hebrew University (which has a long-standing partnership with Leiden University) hosts a military base on campus, and Ariel University is located inside the occupied West Bank.
Second, Israeli human rights abuses happen because of Western foreign policies and their support for Israel. After all, The US and Europe, including the Netherlands, are great sponsors of Israel and its military economy. But though these links exist, why bring them to campus?
One could argue that taking a political stance as a university, against the violation of Palestinian human rights, might compromise the freedom of thought and expression, deemed an important Dutch value. However, this brings us to Henderson’s third point. During the South African apartheid regime, Dutch universities were staunch supporters of the academic boycott. Using BDS as a peaceful, anti-colonial, and anti-racist campaign to end Israeli occupation and apartheid, therefore, in fact, sustains the Dutch academic tradition, rather than breaking it down. After all, freedom of expression and chances of personal development would more likely prosper in a world without apartheid regimes rather than with them. Universities striving for Palestinian academic freedom, including their calls to endorse academic boycotts, should be the obvious starting point of pressuring the international community to oblige to their duties as third states when an Apartheid regime exists.
Then what makes the approach to Israel so different from that to South Africa? Akram Salhab explained how Palestinian activist struggles locally are part of a world system, a much broader network of both oppression and resistance. In the UK for instance, the implementation of preventative legislation, such as the adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism (equating it to anti-Zionism), as well as the criminalization of Palestinian activism, all have something crucial in common: they try to separate Palestine from progressive politics, including anti-racist activism. The Palestinian struggle is then isolated from other anti-colonial struggles. This falls within the broader trend of silencing Palestinian voices, whereby Palestinians’ own narratives about their history and lived experiences of human rights violations are dismissed, replaced by Zionist tropes which delegitimize Palestinian existence. Fortunately, grassroots anti-colonial and anti-racist struggles stand with one another: Black Lives Matter fights the same underlying systematic oppression as Palestinians and recognizes this. Palestine should not be a controversial issue, because it is not an exceptional one: it needs to be discussed just as other human rights questions- with urgency.
How is it possible, then, that discourses on something so historically impactful as the Palestinian question are still presented as an exceptional matter, isolated from other struggles for justice? Hawari illuminated this by discussing the influence of mainstream media on global perceptions surrounding this topic. For decades, the international media and mainstream discourses have denied Palestinians the possibility to communicate their own narrative. The narrative is being dictated by those in power positions, namely by Zionists. Not only has the Israeli occupation encroached on Palestinian land physically, but it has also conquered epistemic space by omitting the Palestinian side of the story, going so far as to erase Palestine from maps and records. This is exemplified through the destruction by Israeli forces of archives which had been kept by the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) research center in Lebanon. Consequently, the preservation of Palestinian heritage took the form of oral history.
Therefore, it is crucial to challenge and overthrow the hegemonic narrative which denies Palestinians the right to speak, to exist. But how does one critically approach such a powerful hegemonic narrative? Sam, who was a student activist in London and is now the student coordinator for BDS Netherlands, shared his experience and thoughts on this. He analyzed two issues in the Netherlands when trying to talk about Palestine. First, a deep colonial pride is still present in Dutch historical consciousness. How does one get Dutch people to understand the horrors of living under the oppression of a colonial state, when the majority of them do not acknowledge their colonial past? Second, the collective trauma of WW2 and the fear of being labelled antisemitic heavily hold Dutch people back in their support of Palestine, especially since the false equation is often made between antisemitism and anti-Zionism.
Thus, the mindset of Dutch citizens must be decolonized first. Still, expressing one’s thoughts about decolonization and amplifying Palestinian voices can feel scary, if the Dutch government, your own university and public discourse appear to be against you. Sam pointed to a report of the European Legal Support Center illustrating this fear, as it revealed a pattern attempting to silence advocacy for Palestine in the Netherlands through serious smear campaigns. Nevertheless, it is (literally) vital to stand up against apartheid and keep one’s promise to humanity. Based on Sam’s experience, one can do many things as a student: engage in discussions with family and friends, join or start local student groups, engage in student co-participation to university and the press, host and attend informative and cultural events, amplify Palestinian voices, and be kind to one another. Importantly, Sam stressed the significance of recognizing the intersectionality of the Palestinian struggle with other anti-colonial struggles: “standing for Palestinian liberation means to stand for the liberation of all marginalised peoples.”
As the evening progressed, the link between academia, activism and Palestine became clear. As said by Martin Luther King: “no one is free until we are all free.” One cannot speak about freedom of thought and expression in academia if this entails the exclusion of the voices of those living under oppression in an apartheid regime. Academia, politics, and societal structures are interconnected. The academic world does not exist in a vacuum; it is part of a bigger network. There should be space to challenge hegemonic narratives and plead for political change and action within academia, without being silenced or facing smear campaigns. Apartheid in South Africa seemed invincible until local and international civil society, including universities, officially engaged in boycott and divestment after continuous student efforts. One should never forget that it was the student-led mass mobilization of people, not governments, that pressured the Johnson administration to legislate the Civil Rights Act in 1964 or De Klerk in South Africa to dismantle Apartheid in the 1990s. To end with a quote by Henderson:
“‘Student’ politics is misleading – what you are actually practicing is [real] politics. This is the real world. You are living in the real world and therefore you can endeavor to change that world.”