'We want to invite the board to reconsider its position'

UU educators and staff react to university's statement on Israel and Palestine

Photo by hosnysalah
Photo: hosnysalah via Pixabay

We, as dedicated educators and staff, are writing this open letter in response to Utrecht Universities’ announcement dated 24 October 2023, in which the Executive Board expresses its “concern about the situation” in Israel and Palestine but refuses to “take a stand” on the grounds that “we are a university, not a political institute”. In this open letter, we want to express our concerns about the statement and invite the Board to reconsider its position and responsibilities to all students and staff.

We condemn Hamas’ killing, injuring, and kidnapping of civilians during the attacks on 7 October 2023. Like the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, we also recognize that the attacks “did not happen in a vacuum” but within a context of decades of “suffocating occupation”. As such, we follow Prof. Noura Erakat’s call that “any condemnation of Palestinian violence now must begin and end with demands to lift the siege, end the occupation, and dismantle Israel’s apartheid system”.

We fear that, particularly by disregarding the wider historical context of the 7 October attacks, the Executive Board’s statement in fact further contributes to, what it calls, a “hardening” debate. The TerInfo teaching tools attached to the statement are a first step in guiding teachers in discussions on “terrorism”, but further resources, expertise, and perspectives that consider (historical) aspects, such as settler colonialism, apartheid, and decolonisation, are needed for more inclusive teaching and learning. The statement also evades mention of the Israeli military’s ongoing war crimes against Palestinians - war crimes fuelled by genocidal rhetoric by Israeli officials and Western media and aided morally and materially by the US, the EU, and the Dutch government.

In response to the Executive Board’s argument that it is not the role of the university to take a stand, we want to remind the Board of its own statement on the Russian invasion of Ukraine from 4 March 2022, in which it expresses being “shocked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the war that is now raging there”. The Executive Board further expresses its “solidarity with students and university staff, in and outside Ukraine” and its support for “the academic communities in Russia and Belarus who are speaking out against the war”. In the words of Desmond Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Since the Executive Board has taken a political stance before, we strongly suggest it do so again now.

We further urge Utrecht University to:

  1. Be transparent about its ties with the Israeli government, academic institutions, and private companies, and create a space for critical engagement with the principles of “Boycott, Divest, and Sanction” under the strategic theme of Open Society;
  2. Safeguard academic freedom and provide staff with more inclusive teaching resources, similar to the University’s dossier on the war in Ukraine, to facilitate further dialogue;
  3. Issue a new statement that emphasizes the importance of historical context, the necessity of adhering to UN guidelines and ICC principles, and calls for an immediate ceasefire.

We mourn the loss of all civilian life and add our voices to previous statements by Academics for Justice in Palestine, UC Santa BarbaraDutch Scholars for Palestine and students of Utrecht University who also stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people and their right to exist, resist, return, and to self-determination.

This letter was initiated by members of the Decolonisation Group at Utrecht University. You can sign it as well via this link.