I. TENSE ATMOSPHERE
Noa Schonmann, assistant professor of International Relations in the Middle East: ‘The atmosphere among students and staff is tense.’
Alessia*, master’s student at Campus The Hague: ‘There is a lot of hostility, I feel very uncomfortable. For the past month, I’ve only attended mandatory lectures at the faculty. The day after Hamas’ attack on 7 October, action group Students for Palestine was distributing flyers that said the attack was an exemplary form of resistance, despite the fact that civilians were killed, kidnapped and raped.
‘Knowing that there were people who think this way sitting right next to me during lectures was very difficult for me. For the first few weeks following 7 October, I was afraid someone would hurt me. On social media, I saw students saying that all Israelis should die.’
Eva*, master’s student at Campus The Hague: ‘I lost family on 7 October. There’s no room for those feelings, let alone my opinion. This only fuels polarisation.’
Alessia: ‘I find it difficult when I see students wearing a keffiyeh (Palestinian scarf, Ed.). If you google it, it says it’s a symbol of Palestinian nationalism. But as an Israeli, I recognise it as something worn by Hamas and by suicide bombers during the intifadas. When I turn around and I see someone wearing that, I have to reassure myself that I’m still at the university and everything is safe.’
*The names of Eva and Alessia are fictitious. Their real identities are known to the editors.
Eva: ‘I’m openly Jewish and often wear a necklace with a Star of David or chai. Because of that, people frequently approach me. They don’t want to know how I feel about Israel - which wouldn’t be great either, because why do I, as a Jewish person, need to have an opinion on Israel? - but they immediately ask: “Why don’t you condemn Israel?”
‘Things were different before 7 October. Israel didn’t come up that often, and when it did, there was room for a nuanced conversation, which is not the case now.’
Yonathan Listik, political theory lecturer at International Studies: ‘It feels very polarised. There’s a lot of miscommunication. There are a lot of people who disagree with each other but don't want to look each other in the eye or engage in discussion.’
II. THE DEMONSTRATION
Alessia: ‘It was scary to see how many people were listening when a lecturer from my previous study programme was speaking on that stage. What’s happening in Gaza is terrible, but they said that Israel is an apartheid state and that the war in Gaza is genocide. That is simply not true. They conveniently forget what happened on 7 October - the hostages, the continuous missile strikes. They only talk about why Israel is so terrible. Students who hear that from their lecturer will take it at face value.’
Eva: ‘As a Jewish woman, I didn’t feel safe there. There was a moment when the speaker said something about Jewish or Israeli students. This was followed by loud shouting; I couldn’t hear what he said next. All I could think was: I have to get out of here.’
Schonmann: ‘I only heard about the demonstration on Friday during a lecture. What I find more problematic is the violation of the regulations. When the university selectively applies rules to certain groups and then these groups decide for themselves which rules to follow, that’s when things go wrong.’
Eva: ‘I find it strange that the university didn’t stop the demonstration. Organising a protest that hasn’t been announced is simply not allowed.’
Schonmann: ‘But there is no room for intimidation on our campus. I would like for the university to acknowledge that a line has been crossed in following students and staff. We all have a responsibility to create a healthy environment for discussions.’
III. ‘FROM THE RIVER TO THE SEA, PALESTINE WILL BE FREE’
Alessia: ‘When students chant that, they’re calling for the destruction of Israel and my death.’
Eva: ‘I also want a free, democratic state for Palestinians. But what they’re actually saying with that slogan is: “We want all Jews to be exterminated.” Me included. Even though I have absolutely no influence on that conflict. I just live in the Netherlands. When Jewish people point out that the slogan is harmful or calls for the murder of Jews, the students don’t listen. If that keeps happening over and over again, and if even lecturers join in, I don't know if I can continue my studies.’
Listik: ‘I wasn’t present at the demonstration. The slogan wasn’t shocking to me, but that may be because I come from a political environment where statements like that are more common. I do see why others find it threatening.’
Schonmann: ‘Regarding that slogan, it’s important that the university enforces the law. People may disagree with it, they may find it offensive or repulsive, but as long as a judge has ruled that it’s not illegal, the use of this slogan is acceptable.’
Eva: ‘Maybe it wasn’t originally an anti-Semitic slogan, but a swastika wasn’t originally meant as an anti-Semitic symbol either. Hamas wants to exterminate all Jews and they use that slogan, so they’re associated with each other.
‘Someone who took part in that demonstration and knew I was Jewish came up to me and told me to leave. He also said: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” I don’t know how other people at the demonstration used that slogan, but he certainly used it like that.
‘I seriously considered quitting my studies because I no longer feel safe to be myself and I don’t feel like people respect me for who I am. I’m not Israel. I’m not the Israeli government. But I am a Jew.’
IV. WHERE IS THE DEBATE?
Listik: ‘The university is playing it safe by avoiding conversations. As a result, everyone is angry at the university. Jewish students feel unsafe, Students for Palestine feels that they are being censored. The university is not behaving like an academic institution where fruitful discussions can take place.’
Schonmann: ‘There is a great need to come together, share experiences and engage in discussions. I discussed the developments with my master’s students after setting up some rules: what is said in the lecture hall, stays in the lecture hall. Students are not allowed to be sarcastic or mocking. If you hear something you disagree with, you should articulate it. It turned into a lively discussion, with differing opinions, of course, but in my experience, students like to be constructive. They were quick to get to the heart of the matter. It’s not at all black and white.’
Listik: ‘Many people see this conflict as a confrontation of facts. Both sides think that if they have the facts, they also have authority. I’d rather see people challenge their preconceptions, and perhaps be confused but also more curious after a discussion.’
Eva: ‘The university says we should be there for each other, but they don’t facilitate anything. Or they facilitate things that fuel polarisation, for example meetings for Israeli and Jewish students. The fact that these exist is fine, but that’s not a dialogue. What’s important is to be confronted with something outside of your bubble and to be able to engage with each other in an academic and respectful way.’
Alessia: ‘Discussion should take place with a clear framework and a neutral moderator. That way, people on both sides can talk constructively. Polarisation is everywhere now: it’s no longer about peace, but about who is right. For us, the reality is that we’re forced to suffer from the resulting anti-Semitism. That’s not theoretical.’
Schonmann: ‘In a democracy, there are already many places where people can express their opinions or solidarity. As a university, we should do what we’re good at: debating with open minds, contributing ideas in constructive discussions and not just demonstrating or handing out flyers, although it is allowed.’
Listik: ‘Some people are calling on the university to speak out, but it’s impossible for the university to make a statement that everyone is happy with. That’s not its role. The university should be a space for ideas and not take a certain position. It also doesn’t speak for me: I can speak for myself.’
Schonmann: ‘There seems to be reluctance at the university to create spaces where discussion can take place. As a result, this vacuum is filled in the public sphere with demonstrations and occupations. They take the place of academic discussion, depriving us of the opportunity to do what we do best as a university. We shouldn’t talk with exclamation marks, but with question marks.’
Read here how a protest by Students for Palestine turned into a chase