A panel discussion on the subject of apartheid in Palestine, Namibia and South Africa that was planned to take place at the Wijnhaven building on Monday was called off when the three organising student groups and the Security Department could not agree on additional demands that the university had imposed the day before the event.
This was announced by Students for Palestine, the African Students Association and the BASIS Africa Committee. Mare was given access to email correspondence between the students and the university.
This shows that the university made additional demands because of the ‘sensitive nature of the discussion’ and the ‘possible tensions associated with it’.
For example, the Security Department wanted to know who the moderators and the speakers were. Another requirement was to provide the names of all attendees on the morning of the event.
The university also demanded that any promotional material for the discussion should explicitly state that everyone is welcome, and the event had to be moved from the Wijnhaven building to the Living Lab on Schouwburgstraat.
The student organisers were willing to meet all the demands, but they did ask the university for a justification why a relocation to Schouwburgstraat was necessary before agreeing. No such justification was given.
On Monday afternoon, hours before the scheduled start of the event, the students wrote the following in a letter to the Security Department: ‘If we are not allowed to hold the panel at the Wijnhaven building for unclear security reasons and abstract sensitivities, we will not agree to the change of venue. Therefore, we assume that the event will not go ahead.’
In March 2022, another Students for Palestine event also caused a stir. A panel discussion on Palestine was cancelled at that time because, according to the university, the moderator was ‘not impartial’, which was required under the house rules. In the end, the event was held at another location off university grounds. However, since then, Students for Palestine has organised other events at the university.
The students complain about the university’s seemingly arbitrary and non-transparent way of dealing with events it labels as ‘sensitive’. ‘We have repeatedly asked the university to produce a document that clearly states for which events you can and cannot book a room’, says Layla Kattermann, one of the members of Students for Palestine. ‘The existing house rules referred to by the Security Department are very vague and broad. We don’t understand how they interpret these rules because we have a totally different understanding of them.’
The student organisations are also angry about the explicit requirement for invitations to state that everyone is welcome. ‘Our events and discussions are open to everyone and are by nature inclusive. By imposing this requirement, the university is making the assumption that we want to exclude people. It’s as if the university treats Students for Palestine differently from other groups’, they write.
In response to questions from Mare as to why this debate has been labelled as sensitive, university spokesperson Caroline van Overbeeke says: ‘The term “sensitive” is used for events that require a bit more attention and care, such as the Dies or a lecture on a controversial topic. Everyone should be able to feel safe to attend an event and have their say.’
When asked why the university requested an explicit statement that everyone is welcome, she replies: ‘That’s not because we assume that people will not do this otherwise, but so that it’s clear what we expect from each other.’
According to Van Overbeeke, the tension between the students and the university arose mainly because the room was not booked by the participating students, but through the Diversity Office. As a result, the Security Department was only informed the Friday before the panel discussion and last-minute security arrangements had to be made.
‘It is not practical if the room is booked by someone who cannot answer questions about the event or make agreements. So overall, it took more time to get clarification from the organisation about the set-up.
‘We are happy to provide students and staff with the opportunity to organise events. As far as the university was concerned, it could have just taken place. Despite the lack of clear information during the reservation process, a room was made available at very short notice.’