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Conflict between Israel and Palestine causes unrest in Dutch higher education

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The recent conflict between Israel and Palestine has led to protests, petitions and a call to boycott Israeli knowledge institutions. But Dutch universities prefer not to take sides.

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Shortly after violence broke out in Israel, students at art academy Willem de Kooning and the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences hung a banner on their building's façade with the messages "Free Palestine" and "Stop the ethnic cleansing". The art academy removed the banner the following day.

Safe space

Jeroen Chabot, director of the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences said in the institutions's new platform, Profielen, that his school must be a safe space for all students. "The moment you use the building to broadcast the opinion of a group of students, then it's no longer a safe place. That’s exactly why we had to intervene.”

Those who placed the banner showed little understanding for his position. One of them later told newspaper AD that the institution should be ashamed of itself. “Hundreds of children and innocent people have been killed. You are complicit unless you speak out against it.”

Last Tuesday, the group organised a similar protest alongside the students of Erasmus University College, also located in Rotterdam. There, too, banners have been quickly removed from the façade, Erasmus Magazine reports. According to Dean Gabriele Jacobs, her school would like “to be able to hold inclusive and open discussions” about the conflict. “If we choose one side by leaving these banners up, then we block free and open debate.”

Hate mail
The conflict is also having an impact on Maastricht University, whose Diversity and Inclusivity Office reports a “recent outburst of hate against Muslim and Jewish members of our community.” Their news platform, the Observant, reports that such taunts include “antisemitic and Islamophobic comments, intimidation, hate messages and threats”, usually on social media. The messages come from members of Maastricht University as well as from outside.

The call put out by almost 600 researchers and 1,200 students to boycott Israeli education institutions failed to get the support of the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU in the Dutch acronym). Chairperson Pieter Duisenberg distanced himself from the initiative on Twitter. “Universities are an open space for debate and research" he said. "This call for a boycott has absolutely no place here and will not be supported by universities in the Netherlands.”

Freedom of speech
According to Christian Henderson, Professor of International Relations at Leiden University and one of the initiators of the petition, Duisenberg is contradicting himself. “You cannot be for freedom of speech but against a call for a boycott”, he said in an email to Dutch newspaper NRC.

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