Dutch universities refuse Freedom Of Information requests
Ignoring Israeli research partners' complicity in human rights abuses
Extensive research by student and scholar activists in the Netherlands finds that Dutch universities ignore the complicity of their Israeli research partners in apartheid and ethnic cleansing in Palestine. In this opinion piece, the activists make a case for a university partnership policy based on commitment to human rights that excludes all institutions complicit in systemic human rights abuses. Such a policy would necessarily imply an academic boycott of Israel.
Problematic research collaborations
The most respected international, Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations agree that Israel operates an apartheid regime against Palestinians. Israeli universities are fundamentally complicit in Israel's militaristic, colonial, apartheid society. After all, they train the administrators, managers, researchers, specialists and lawyers who make running it possible. Moreover, Israel's international reputation as a prestigious research hub plays a significant role in obscuring the country's dismal human rights record.
Dutch universities regularly participate in partnerships with Israeli universities and public institutions, such as ministries, many of whom play a central role in the systematic oppression of Palestinians. From 2014 to the present, Dutch universities participated in circa 30 European research consortiums involving the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. For example Between 2014 to 2017, Leiden University collaborated with Hebrew University on research to address and prevent so-called "lone wolf terrorism." The irony that a university complicit in occupation lends its expertise to “fighting terrorism” is compounded with Israel’s dismissal of basically all forms of Palestinian resistance, including peaceful human rights activism, as terrorism, even though resistance to occupation is permissible under international law. Add to that, the CEO of Israel's largest private arms company is the honorary chairman of the Executive Board of the Hebrew University, which owns several buildings in occupied Palestinian territory, hosts an Israeli military academy, and allows Israeli police to use its rooftops to patrol Palestinians in East Jerusalem. That the Hebrew University is no exception is evidenced by extensive documentation prepared by the coordinators of the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israeli educational institutions (PACBI).
Dutch universities also collaborate with Israeli companies that profit off of the oppression of Palestinians. From 2015 to 2019, Utrecht University worked together with Israeli water company Hagihon in a European research consortium. The company extracts water from occupied Palestinian territory and sells it to Israeli colonies, among others. In 2014, Hagihon shut off the water pipes of at least 60,000 Palestinians. Around the same time, the University of Groningen worked on a project coordinated by the Israeli spyware company Verint Systems. This company helped the governments of Peru and South Sudan, among others, to spy on human rights activists, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported in 2018.
As students and scholars who are committed to human rights, we decided to pursue this line of enquiry and ask: To what extent do Dutch universities collaborate with Israeli partners and in which academic fields? What policies are in place that ensure Dutch universities’ protect human rights and how does that impact collaborations with Israeli partners involved in human rights violations?
To answer these questions we wrote a set of Freedom of Information Act requests (“FOIA requests”) to Dutch universities in early 2022. In these requests, we called for complete disclosure of documents that underlie collaborations with Israeli institutions, as well as documents that might reveal internal discussions about the human rights policy vis-à-vis Israel.
In 2021, the European Legal Support Center, an organization dedicated to providing legal support and advice to people in Europe advocating for Palestinian rights, published a report mapping a pattern of silencing of Palestinian rights advocates in the Netherlands. University campuses were among the primary targets of silencing. This corresponds to our experiences of administrative uncooperativeness in general and vis a vis the FOIA request, as well as hostility towards organizing on campus. The ELSC also mapped several pro-Israel organisations known to be involved in pushing this repression. This is why the FOIA requests also requisitioned official communications between Dutch universities and such Dutch and international pro-Israel organizations as the Center for Information and Documentation Israel, Christians For Israel, and StandWithUs.
Refusal under pressure
Not entirely coincidentally, the FOIA requests were leaked and ended up in the hands of the New Israelite Weekly (Nieuw Israëlitisch Weekblad). The latter accused The Rights Forum, the organisation that filed the request on our behalf, of anti-Semitism. Allegedly, the requests targeted Jewish organizations and employees. In fact, the requests explicitly emphasised institutional as opposed to individual collaboration, stating their object as inquiring into “institutional ties to Israeli universities, institutions, companies and organizations that propagate support for the state of Israeli.”
Under pressure from pro-Israel organizations, the universities refused to comply with the parts of the FOIA request that are about pro-Israel organizations and human rights policy.
In April, an interuniversity advisory committee concluded that the universities must nevertheless consider the entire request and that the universities' decision not to fully comply with the FOIA requests violates the Freedom Of Information Act. The committee included Robert Crince le Roy, deacon of the Dutch Bar Association, and Erik van den Emster, former chairman of the Council for the Judiciary, among others. Because the universities chose to ignore the committee's advice, The Rights Forum filed an administrative court case against the universities' decisions.
Human rights policy falls short
Dutch universities’ commitments to human rights appear not to extend to the protection of Palestinian human rights. In the first place, this is evident from their refusal to divulge policy documents that would show at least consideration for Palestinian rights when collaborating with Israel—assuming that such documents even exist. Secondly, this is evident from their refusal to reveal how they relate to outspokenly pro-Israel organizations. Finally, it is evident from the hundreds of documents that they have disclosed about research cooperation with Israel: there is no mention anywhere of how the collaborations relate to the rights of Palestinians.
Marking the 75th year since the beginning of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, students and scholars in the Netherlands call on their universities to implement a principled human rights policy that rules out cooperation with institutions and companies systemically complicit in such rights abuses. This naturally implies an academic boycott of Israel. The longer our universities continue to work with oppressors and their accomplices, the longer they avoid accountability, the louder our call for justice will grow.