Today, May 15, Palestinians mark the 75th Nakba Day, a commemoration of the ethnic cleansing and displacement of more than 750,000 Palestinians by Zionist militias during the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. But the Nakba, as the Palestinians put it, is ongoing. Millions continue to live under a regime of violence, occupation, and exile. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza continue to live under Israeli military rule - one of the longest occupations in modern history.
It is a brutal situation. So far this year around 104 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces; of this number more than 20 have been children. In addition, Palestinian citizens of Israel are relegated to the status of second class citizens. This segregated system of governance imposed by the Israeli state is now widely considered by human rights organisations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, to constitute apartheid. Moreover, millions of Palestinians remain in exile around the world, banned from returning to their native country.
Despite the scale of these injustices, Dutch universities maintain full links with Israeli institutions. In contrast to the decision to sever ties with Russian and Belarusian universities in 2022, Dutch institutions continue to participate in a range of joint programmes with their Israeli counterparts.
Students at Leiden can participate in a study abroad programme at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Hebrew University’s culpability in Palestinian oppression is explicit. Some of its buildings are located in occupied Palestinian land, which constitutes a war crime. In addition, it hosts an Israeli military base on campus. Such programmes allow Israel to maintain its international standing and launder its reputation, while continuing to occupy and dispossess Palestinians with impunity.
These ties continue despite growing support for the academic boycott of Israeli universities amongst staff and students at Leiden University. In 2021 142 staff members and 633 students in our institution signed a call to end these formal institutional ties, as long as Palestine rights are denied. This act of solidarity and support for Palestinians is vital, perhaps more so now than ever before.
The current Israeli government is the most extreme in the country’s history and it includes politicians who have made genocidal statements towards Palestinians. The boycott remains a peaceful means to hold the Israeli state to account for its treatment of the Palestinians, while also demanding that the Dutch state and European Union end their complicity and defend Palestinian human rights.
But those who publicly advocate for Palestinian human rights in the Leiden community have often faced attempts to deny their academic freedom on this subject. Academics have been publicly accused of antisemitism by university administrators for simply pointing out the ongoing oppression of Palestinians, student events have been cancelled, and those that are permitted to proceed have undue restrictions and ‘security’ regulations imposed on them.
There should be no doubt that the campaign for Palestinian rights has a legitimate place on campus, and that the debates it generates are an integral part of a healthy academic community. Military occupation, colonisation, and apartheid must always be resisted, particularly when the state in question is directly supported by our government and the EU. Dutch students and staff members played a key role in isolating South African Apartheid internationally, and we have both a right and a duty to carry that proud tradition forward.
However, given our institution's refusal to apply the same standards for Palestinian human rights as it does for Ukrainian ones, it is necessary to shed more light on the decision making processes that have created this blind spot over Palestine.
Why does the university maintain links with institutions managed by a state that is consistently responsible for serious human rights abuses? Why have campus events and organisations that support Palestinian rights been subjected to repression and harassment? To receive answers, students and staff, supported by the Rights Forum, launched a Freedom of Information (known as a WOO in the Netherlands).
Subject to smears
The WOO seeks to determine the nature of the institutional links between Dutch and Israeli institutions, how decisions regarding Palestine are made in the university, and to examine the influence of pro-Israeli lobby groups over the university administration. Inevitably, this request has been subject to smears, which claim that it is motivated by antisemitism, accusations that universities have used to justify their refusal to comply with the law.
Yet, the WOO is clearly and specifically directed at Israeli and pro-Israeli institutions, intended to create a safe space for Palestinian rights on campus. Any attempt to conflate Israel with Jewish people in order to side step accountability smacks of the old antisemitic prejudice, which holds Jews everywhere responsible for the actions and crimes of a specific state. They must be resisted at all costs.
A university that safeguards justice for everyone must be our aim - this must include the safety of our Palestinian students and colleagues. The call for boycott is a call for solidarity in its truest sense. It does not only provide concrete, and urgently needed, support and solidarity to a people under colonial rule, but also an opportunity to democratise our own institutions. It is a basis to create a platform to discuss - and to decide - the nature of our university’s mission, relations, and impact on the world.
Sai Englert and Christian Henderson are assistant professors at the Institute for Area Studies, Leiden University