Continuing to look for overlapping consensus

Studiekiezers tijdens Bachelor Open dag
Rector Annelien Bredenoord stands outside in Rotterdam with other professors in the background.
Alexander Santos Lima

In recent weeks, students and staff have demonstrated at Erasmus University for a free Palestine. In a letter, more than 300 students and staff call on the Executive Board to conduct an academic boycott, to call for a ceasefire and to acknowledge genocide. This is the case at all Dutch universities.

Last week, together with the 14 other universities, a rectors' letter was published in the daily newspaper Trouw. In it, the universities explained how they view academic freedom and the call from students and staff to categorically sever ties with Israeli knowledge institutions. This letter and the many other events around the campus and in Gaza have evoked many reactions from very different quarters. An interview with Rector Annelien Bredenoord.

A lot has happened in recent weeks, both in Gaza and here on campus. How do you view the situation at the moment? 

I'm horrified at what is happening in Gaza and am deeply saddened as I see that yet another tent camp has been bombed. The horrors that the civilian population is experiencing there, the countless dead and wounded, young children and women, the hopelessness, it all breaks my heart. The destruction of the entire academic infrastructure in Gaza. A disgrace. Sigrid Kaag (UN Coordinator for Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction in Gaza) called it this week: hell on earth. Everything in me wants this horrible situation to stop. Right away. And that the population is given all the space and support they need to rebuild their lives. It is an unprecedented humanitarian tragedy that also puts our humanity to the test. 

Then your hands must be itching to do something, right? 

You can bet I'm working on this a lot. There are those who say that it is clear: that we as a university should call for a ceasefire, acknowledge the genocide or institute an academic boycott. It is quite understandable that those feelings are felt very deeply. I feel them myself. The impotence. I can't stop the shooting and the killing. However, I can use all the time and position I have to speak and listen to as many people as possible within our community. And I can try to make sure that everyone has a place here and can still feel at home. We all abhor people's personal suffering, but we also all choose our own way of dealing with it. And I want to pay attention to all that diversity within what is possible in a university. 

Annelien Bredenoord

Talking to everyone separately is not possible, of course?

True, but I do try to get as far as possible and have spoken to a lot of students and staff in recent months, even today. And will do it over and over again. Many will think that approach is too soft, while others think we're not doing it enough. But we really need to be able to exchange ideas with each other. We first did this in smaller groups, but on Monday 24 June we will also talk to each other live during the dialogue tables. We must continue to make an effort to understand each other better and to learn about each other's views. It is a democratic and academic skill to always stay connected and to keep looking for conversation, even if you radically disagree with each other. To continue to seek out the "overlapping consensus" as philosopher John Rawls called it. 

How has there been a response to the rector's letter you wrote about the cooperation with Israel?  

I notice that there is still a lot to explain about the context in which we should view this letter. As rectors of the 15 universities in the Netherlands, we have written a joint letter about academic freedom and the partnerships with Israeli knowledge institutions. In it, we outline the arguments why our basic position is that we do not want to categorically sever ties with Israel. We don't think it's in keeping with the nature of a university to categorically boycott an entire country. This is an approach that leaves room for researching and reconsidering collaborations with specific knowledge institutions in a country. Such a fine-grained, precise approach is in line with the careful process that you would expect from a university and academia. And of course, no conclusions have been drawn yet. We try to be as unbiased as befits scientists; we are open to criticism, arguments and counter-arguments, and falsification. That's the nature and character of the academy and that's what you should do when things get abrasive and uncomfortable. 

Campus woudestein in summer
Alexander Santos Lima

Why did you take that decision so quickly and categorically at the start of the war in Ukraine?  

A while back, I also said in an interview with Erasmus Magazine that we, as university administrators, would have taken a different approach with today's wisdom. This is exactly why the Commission for Sensitive Collaborations is needed. Every situation is different, the context makes a difference. Our own academic community, like the rest of Dutch society, was much less polarized. Moreover, the Dutch government asked us for this boycott. With today's knowledge, I don't think we would allow ourselves to be pressured to take such a drastic decision so quickly. We have learned a lot in recent months. How wonderful it would be if this kind of atrocity would never happen again, but we must remain realistic. So, I imagine that in the event of a subsequent incident, our CGS will immediately enter into discussions with the similar committees of the other universities in order to come to a well-considered decision based on predetermined ethical and human rights frameworks. 

Is this committee really going to make a difference? 

Not only at our university, but also at a number of other Dutch and European universities, committees are hard at work looking very specifically at the existing partnerships with knowledge institutions in Israel, and in Gaza to the extent that they are still possible. From an initial inventory, EUR seems to be mainly concerned with exchange programmes for students, and there does not seem to be any links with scientific research that could be used for warfare or oppression. But that is exactly what is going to be mapped out and weighed on the basis of a pre-established ethical framework in which human rights and knowledge security are important criteria. Future collaborations will also be viewed in this way. 

Do you understand the criticism of the students and staff who say that you know enough to make a radical break with knowledge institutions in Israel?  

I absolutely understand that, but we have learned from the situation with Ukraine and Russia and we want to do better through a committee. I also ask myself every day: am I doing enough? There is also a lot that we already know, the UN resolutions, the rulings of the International Court of Justice. And as an institution, we are not blind to that either. We have repeatedly urged the minister to exert maximum pressure as a country to stop this war.  

I, too, hope that there will soon be a ceasefire, that this terrible situation will soon come to an end, and that the soft voices and good forces that are working for hope and peace will once again prevail, including in conflict zones elsewhere in the world. From that point of view, the call to break all ties is easy to follow. At the same time, we as scientists must keep a cool head and, from the point of view of academic freedom and the need to arrive at well-considered and careful decisions, exercise patience and trust in an independent committee that will do its work. After all, you have to be able to apply the framework that we apply to Israel to other conflict and war zones in the world, and unfortunately that applies to other many countries. As a university, in particular, you have to want to stay in dialogue and collaboration for as long as possible. 

Annelien Bredenoord stands behind speaking podium and gives a speech at debate centre Arminius.
Alexander Santos Lima

The riot police had to be called in to remove the protesters at Erasmus Plaza. What's next?

I am relieved that the demonstrators themselves have left and that no violence has been used. It is a pity that they did not want to take advantage of the offer to move the tent camp to Park Noord. We explicitly offered them another place and respected their right to demonstrate as much as possible. But we also had to cancel a lot of activities in the almost two weeks that the tent camp was there, including several primary school classes. And there were also many students and staff who told us that they found the graffiti and slogans intimidating. It is important that all our students and staff feel safe on our campus, whether they come from a Palestinian, Israeli or other background. The demonstrators have pushed the boundaries and violated them here and there: vandalism, defacement, anti-Semitic expressions, chasing people across the campus; all of this is not acceptable. That doesn't make it any easier to weigh up the interests of all groups on campus. It is a misunderstanding that they only had to leave "because of a party". It's a much broader consideration. 

How do you, as the Executive Board, deal with all these different, often conflicting interests? 

As the Executive Board, we have no choice but to take everything into account: the horrors that befall the people of Gaza and the passion with which our students and staff demonstrate against it. But also, the feelings of insecurity that Israeli and Jewish students and staff feel when they walk across campus. Moreover, there is still a large group of students and staff who are less directly involved in the issue, but who are experiencing the effects of the war and the protests. Day in and day out, we continue to weigh and test in order to do justice to all interests and to deal with these moral dilemmas with the utmost integrity. I taught ethics myself for 20 years. It's inherently tragic: no matter what you decide, moral pain remains. 

So, did the demonstration have to move to Park Noord for the HeartBeat Festival? 

We had hoped that the protesters would find it a good solution to move the demonstration to another location on campus so that the closing of the Lustrum year with the WellBeing Week and the HeartBeat festival could take place. This week and the party revolve around all our students and staff. We have also been through a lot here in recent years and as horrific as the situation in Gaza is, we must also make room for the well-being of the people here. That they can meet informally, especially now that we are also facing major cutbacks from a new cabinet. As far as I'm concerned, the demonstration and the well-being of our people can go hand in hand on campus. I would like to emphasise once again that there is still plenty of room for peaceful assemblies and protests. Our university is and will remain an environment in which dialogue and understanding must be central.  

I truly hope that our students and staff who are so closely involved with Gaza will take advantage of the opportunity to join EUR's dialogue tables on this topic. The next dialogue table will be on Monday 24 June. It would be good if they were also to reflect on what ideas and initiatives there might be with regard to the reconstruction of the knowledge infrastructure in Gaza in due course. Let us hope that with the relatively positive noises about a ceasefire from the United Nations in recent days, that the violence will finally stop and we can start thinking about reconstruction. This war is a humanitarian tragedy that has a profound impact, also on our campus.  

Researcher
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