Gaza and the nuanced realities of academic diplomacy 

As I write this column, a petition is doing the rounds among the staff members of our university. Signed by over 70 academics from across faculties, this letter appeals to the University of Groningen’s board, seeking a firm stance on the alarming situation in Gaza, particularly the decimation of its educational infrastructure, referred to as ‘educide’ in the petition.

The gravity of this issue cannot be overstated. Reports indicate that the conflict has led to the tragic loss of educators and students alike, alongside the destruction of educational facilities. Such acts not only obliterate physical structures but also the future of a people, their intellectual heritage, and their right to education. 

The petitioners call on our university to embody its societal responsibility by unequivocally condemning these acts, offering support to at-risk scholars and students, reassessing academic collaborations, fostering a broader understanding of the conflict through educational initiatives, and publicly calling for a ceasefire. 

The call to action is clear. Yet, the subtext is richer. Why is the petition focused on ‘educide’ and not genocide? And is this not a very graceful way to bypass the university’s neutrality with regards to political matters? 

The university’s strategic partnerships are, one hopes, not the sole arbiters of its stance

And indeed, in response to this petition, our rector, in a move that could either be seen as a masterstroke of diplomacy or a daring dance on the tightrope of academia, has engaged with the initiators of this action. The rector’s willingness to engage, to sit down and discuss the petition, signals a potential shift in how our institution approaches these convoluted issues. 

The dialogue that ensued wasn’t just about the university’s role in global advocacy, but also about the nuanced realities of academic diplomacy. It’s an open secret that universities, including our own, navigate a delicate balance of interests and affiliations (some of which with Israeli institutions).

However, it’s important to clarify that this isn’t about casting aspersions on any party or simplifying the dense thicket of geopolitical relations into a binary of right and wrong. The university’s strategic partnerships are, one hopes, not the sole arbiters of its stance. Yet, they are part of the tapestry of considerations that inform how it navigates its role in a world rife with war and inequity.

This ‘situation’ invites us, the university community, to reflect on the broader implications of our institutional affiliations and the values we champion. How do we reconcile the pursuit of knowledge and academic collaboration with the imperative to advocate for justice and human rights? Where do we draw the line between constructive engagement and complicity in silence?

I know where I stand, as one of the signatories of this petition.

VALERIA CERNEI

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