Freedom of Information Request on Israel Ties Demands Transparency

On 1 February 2022, a Freedom of Information or FOI request was submitted to Dutch universities by The Rights Forum concerning ties between Dutch and Israeli universities and Israel lobby organizations.

Around the same time, Amnesty international released a lengthy report that outlined a system of apartheid directed against Palestinians, the latest in a string of reports by Palestinian, Israeli and other international organizations showing a regime of systemic, institutional discrimination inside Israel and occupied Palestinian territories.

False claims against the FOI request led to  a lot of commotion and confusion. Some universities claimed to be embarrassed by the call and others have unlawfully denied part of the request. Parliamentary questions by right wing parties have been raised and unfounded accusations of antisemitism  were used to discredit the request and The Rights Forum, as the organisation that initiated it. But who, alongside The Rights Forum, supported the original FOI request? What was contained in that request? And why was such a request necessary?

Consortium who submitted the FOI request
The FOI request was submitted on behalf of scholars and students who are connected with a group known as Dutch Scholars for Palestine and various student groups who are in solidarity with the Palestinians. The former arose out of two petitions from May 2021; the one signed by several hundred academics in their individual capacities the other by a host of Dutch academic institutions. Both expressed concern and anger regarding human rights violations by the Government of Israel and its military as well as institutional complicity in these violations. These groups are not formal associations, but a movement of concerned scholars and students.

The FOI requests information about two sets of relationships; firstly, on the institutional relationships between Dutch and Israeli universities and corporations and second, the relationship between Dutch universities and Israel lobby organizations.

Institutional relationships
While no one should object to contacts and critical discussions among individuals, there are legitimate concerns to be raised about formal relationships at the institutional level where one of those institutions is implicated in serious human rights abuses, including war crimes.

This principle underscored an earlier FOI request concerning the involvement of universities in programmes financed by the Chinese Government. The revelations that emerged led to the Free University in 2022 deciding to not only suspend involvement in a collaborative research programme with strong connections to the Chinese government, but to actually return money that had been received. FOI Requests have also revealed influence by corporations on academic research results. In 2018, following revelations from another FOI Request on the influence by the tobacco industry, a decision was taken by Utrecht University to end its relationship with cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris.

Relationships with Israel lobby organisations
Regarding the second part of the FOI request, as the backlash against The Rights Forum has shown, there are organizations in The Netherlands who are committed to silencing academics and students who are critical of Israel. They attempt to do this in two main ways: either by seeking to stop critical discussion and debate or by demonizing individuals who speak out. As scholars and students, we have experienced many instances of this.

The FOI request queries formal relations between universities and organizations that promote the state of Israel and engage in campaigns to silence and demonize students, academics, and others advocating for Palestinian rights. This includes Netherlands-based Israel lobby organizations like the Center for Information and Documentation Israel (CIDI) and Christians for Israel. This also includes the Dutch and European Union coordinators for combating antisemitism, who have established that they are mainly preoccupied with attacking criticism of Israel and solidarity with Palestinians, rather than defending Jews against antisemitism.

Contrary to misinformation that has been circulated by pro-Israel groups, the FOI request does not concern the relationship between Dutch universities and ‘Jewish’ organizations. In fact, concerns about the policies and actions of the Israeli government and military, as well as complicity of Israeli universities in human rights abuses, have come from many Jewish scholars. This includes signatories of the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism – consisting of ‘scholars in the fields of Holocaust history, Jewish studies, and Middle East studies’, Jewish members of Dutch Scholars for Palestine and student  groups and organizations such as European Jews for a Just Peace, Jewish Voices for Peace, Gate48, SIVMO and A Different Jewish Voice.

Why the request? Accountability and academic freedom
As Dutch Scholars for Palestine and as student groups, we avowedly reject sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and any other form of unlawful discrimination and hate speech. This has no place in a free society, let alone a safe environment for public discussion, including on university campuses. We regard these as foundational principles underpinning academic freedom.

The FOI request achieves transparency around a university's ties with a militarized apartheid state, responsible for well-documented human rights abuses and war crimes. Only through transparency can we hold our universities accountable for their complicity in and normalization of Israel’s violations of the lives and (academic) freedoms of Palestinians, including our Palestinian colleagues, fellow students, and human rights defenders. By asking universities to divulge their collaborations with organizations that defend Israel, the FOI request also creates transparency about how these organizations police the academic discussion of apartheid and settler colonialism at Dutch universities.

Indeed, this is precisely the reason why we submitted the FOI request: to hold our universities accountable for their ties to an apartheid state, and to ensure a safe and critical space for learning and for research.