Letter ignores how Israeli universities restrict academic freedom

Our rector owes us better arguments for his Israel stance

Executive Board member Henk Kummeling. Photo: DUB
Rector Henk Kummeling attending Maya Wind's lecture on May 14. Photo: DUB

Last Friday, the rectores magnifici of all fifteen public universities of the Netherlands, including UU Rector Henk Kummeling, published an open letter in the newspaper Trouw to substantiate their refusal to cut ties with Israeli institutions. It is, presumably, good to have a concise statement of all Dutch universities’ positions on the matter. The bad news, however, is that the argumentation in the letter is disappointingly simplistic and misleading, which makes one wonder if the rectors have thought their position through at all.

Since the most recent Israeli invasion in Gaza, following the October 7 attacks, the role of Israeli universities in their government’s oppression of Palestinians has received renewed public exposure. Last month, Maya Wind, an Israeli anthropologist working at the University of British Columbia, published her book Towers of Ivory and Steel. This thoroughly researched work argues that Israeli universities are deeply interwoven with the Israeli army, offering specific programmes to train soldiers and developing weapon systems. They also routinely provide legal and intellectual defences of Israel’s regime. A regime whose apartheid policies and war crimes against civilians have been so extensively recorded by human rights groups, experts, and UN rapporteurs, that they need not be repeated here.

Disabuse of expectations
In light of such damning characterisations, one would expect that anyone who actively chooses to uphold ties with Israeli universities would provide strong arguments for this choice. A reading of the rectors’ letter quickly disabuses one of these expectations. The signatories never dispute the Israeli state’s and army’s dismal human rights record, nor Israeli universities’ role in these crimes against humanity. Nonetheless, they believe that continuing to cooperate with these universities is consistent with the "values embedded in the academic ethos". The most important of these values, it appears, is academic freedom, "the freedom to be able to do research, to think and to debate".

Mentions of academic freedom return frequently in the letter, yet it is unclear how exactly this notion supports the continuing cooperation with Israeli universities. It would be strange to say that a boycott would harm the academic freedom of Dutch institutions or researchers since Dutch academics would remain free to think or debate about this decision. They could also still debate individual Israeli colleagues, just not in the context of institutional cooperation. The idea rather seems to be that cutting ties with these institutions would harm the academic freedom of researchers at Israeli institutions since it would isolate them. But, if this is the argument, many more assumptions need to be argued for.

Supporting Palestine colleagues
First, the letter entirely ignores ways in which Israeli universities themselves curtail academic freedom. Maya Wind’s book argues, among other things, that Israeli universities, from their inception, have been involved in the repression of Palestinian scholarship, restricting enrolment of Palestinian students and limiting the bounds of allowed research and teaching. Moreover, they continue to align themselves with a state apparatus that heavily limits the infrastructure accessible to Palestinian universities in the West Bank. As for universities in Gaza, all twelve of them have been largely destroyed in the past months (which makes one question how exactly the Dutch rectors envisage their "support" for Palestinian scholars will take shape). All of this makes it puzzling how academic freedom is promoted by collaborating with – and thereby supporting – institutions that have a track record of demoting this same freedom. One would be excused in conjecturing that, for the rectors, not all academic freedom is equal.

Moreover, the letter mischaracterises the demands of pro-Palestinian protestors when it says that their calls would "isolate" individual Israeli researchers. These demands tend to focus on an institutional boycott; that is, severing official ties and partnerships with Israeli universities (and other research institutions complicit in Israeli human rights violations). This does not mean that researchers can no longer engage with individual Israeli academics who are critical of the regime. It is still possible to invite individual Israeli researchers to give talks, co-author papers with them, etc. These contacts will only have to take place outside of the constraints of institutionalised partnerships that benefit Israeli universities as a whole.

Academic freedom
But say that cutting ties with Israeli universities would negatively impact academic freedom overall. Would this be the end of the matter? Surely not. I suspect that no one in Dutch academia thinks academic freedom is unimportant, but, at the same time, can anyone seriously uphold that it is the only value we should be concerned about? The letter itself seems to think not: the third paragraph dutifully asserts commitment to "the core values that are so fundamental to our society: freedom, justice and respect for human rights". If we agree that these other values matter, then appealing to academic freedom does not automatically settle the issue: when it clashes with other values, as it surely can, we need to weigh which value is most important.

Surely, given the well-documented complicity of Israeli academia in systemic human rights violations, the value of respect for human rights, which the rectors pay lip service to, should appear on our radar when discussing a potential boycott. Why do the signatories assume that the importance of academic freedom (assuming it helps their case) trumps the importance of not supporting institutions closely tied to a military that has in recent months made Gaza a "hell on earth", in the words of the UN secretary-general? 

The only answer the letter gives is that engagement with Israeli institutions may allow for an "open and critical conversation" that, apparently, may help in steering them away from participation in human rights abuses. A glance at history shows that this prospect is exceedingly unlikely. Maya Wind outlines in her book how Israeli universities’ role in the oppression of Palestinians did not start recently, but has been dominant since their inception. The many decades of cooperation with Western universities seem to have changed little in this pattern. Scepticism about the efficacy of "academic diplomacy" therefore seems warranted. A vague commitment to voicing concerns about human rights violations does not remove the duty to argue why cooperation with these institutions is a good idea to begin with.

Maya Wind
The most astonishing thing is that none of these points are particularly new or unknown. Even before Wind’s book, Israeli universities’ ties with the army, and their barriers against Palestinian students and researchers, were well-known. Discussions of the relationship between academic freedom and potential boycotts of Israeli institutions have gone on for years. Take, for instance, Judith Butler’s 2006 article Israel/Palestine and the paradoxes of academic freedomButler argues that appeals to academic freedom to resist a boycott tend to presuppose an overly narrow notion of academic freedom that ignores the conditions in which this freedom can actually be exercised – conditions that are sorely lacking for many of those living in both Israel and Palestine. 

Even if they do not agree with these arguments, the rectors may at least show some awareness of their existence, rather than pretending that academic freedom is an uncontested notion that can be unproblematically rallied in favour of continuing cooperation with Israeli institutions. Even if they have somehow missed these long-standing lines of arguments, they surely ought to have been reminded of them by the voices of student protestors raising similar points – both before and after October 7. Or else by the tour of Dutch universities that Maya Wind made surrounding her book’s publication. On May 14, Wind spoke at UU, in the presence of Rector Henk Kummeling. One would expect that, before signing a joint statement in a national newspaper, Kummelling would consider whether Wind’s powerful arguments are in any way addressed. But no such luck.

Long way to go
It is quite jarring for the letter to extoll academic virtues without considering long-standing and powerful counterarguments against its main claims. Academic freedom is not simply the freedom to say anything one wishes. It comes with the responsibility to listen to contrary positions, and to respond to valid counter-arguments if these arise. But the Dutch rectors completely ignore the points raised time and time again by a large number of their students and staff. Whether they are not aware of these points, do not understand them, or (most likely) willfully ignore them, their letter does not meet the basic standards of informed debate. This makes the solemn declaration of the importance of academic freedom feel like an especially hollow slogan.

Henk Kummeling, and the other rectores, simply owe us better arguments. Or, in the absence of those, a reconsideration of their policy towards cooperation with Israeli institutions. As an employee of UU, I, for one, do not in the least feel reassured by the letter about my university’s commitment to academic values. Unfortunately, it seems that Dutch academics and students still have a long way to go in making their rectores face up to their nominal commitment to academic integrity.