Keep quiet or take a stance?
How to deal with the war in Gaza
‘I’ve had colleagues crying, I’ve had students crying. I think at a certain point, it doesn’t make sense to not at least try to address it’, a lecturer of the Faculty of Arts says. ‘We may not have seen things go badly here yet, but it’s happening close enough for discomfort. And that works as a great silencer.’
To lecturers within the UG, deciding on how to deal – or not deal – with the war between Palestine and Israel, is a difficult topic to navigate. Should they discuss it in class? Should they keep quiet?
One lecturer decided to discuss the matter in class, but was aware of the possible dangers of talking about the issue on campus. She’s aware of instances where lecturers and students, at other universities outside the Netherlands, have faced repercussions for doing so. That is also the reason why she doesn’t want her real name in this article.
Moreover, it was a deeply sensitive and loaded subject for her students, her colleagues, and herself, with some having family ties to the region. However, this was also why she felt that she must talk about it. ‘This is a war that has been impacting so many people,’ she says.
I’ve had colleagues crying, I’ve had students crying
Since Hamas-Israel returned to active conflict, around 1,200 Israelis and over 11,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to the media. The intense horror and violence that has marred the region since October 7 threatens to spread to the rest of the Middle East.
Meanwhile, people and institutions like the UG, are trying to understand this conflict which has drawn hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets around the world in protest. All the while navigating a conversation that has become extremely polarised, political, and painful for so many.
Still, the lecturer says, it is necessary to talk about these things in academia. ‘Students at the end of the day are adults, and this is a university, not a high school. I think with that comes a degree of responsibility on your part, but also an ability to have greater expectations on our part, and an ability to have more difficult conversations.’
Unfortunately, the class didn’t go as well as she would have liked with tensions running high at times. The discussion started with a presentation on the war from the Israeli perspective, held by an Israeli student. That triggered a heated debate among students, as some felt that the Palestinian side was neglected. After this, the lecturer is not sure if and when she will try to discuss this topic again with students. ‘I think a lot more preparation would be needed.’
She is not the only one trying to come to grips with the subject. Professor of international crimes Alette Smeulers, for example, was also asked to address what was happening in a class on the Monday after the Hamas attack.
‘I mainly tried to show both sides of the conflict because this conflict is so complex and it’s an ongoing cycle of hatred, violations, crimes, and revenge’, she says. ‘There were also some students who saw a bit better the side of Israel in this and others who saw a bit better the side of Palestine.’
It’s an ongoing cycle of hatred, violations, crimes, and revenge
She says it is important that her students learn to think about it in a nuanced way and through the framework that international criminal law sets out, under which the rights of all humans should be protected. All violations of this must be condemned, she adds. In the end, many students reported to her that the most important thing they learned from the class was how complicated the conflict actually is.
Lecturers from Middle Eastern Studies have an even harder time dealing with the situation, as they are both intellectually and often also personally engaged or linked to this region. ‘We deal with tragic news on a daily basis, both personally and professionally, which is a struggle at times’, says professor Karène Sanchez-Summerer from the programme.
The staff members have each dealt with the conflict in their own classes, she says. ‘We discuss the current conflict and share our expertise to help students understand and reflect on the ongoing conflict.’
The staff members do this in various formats and from various angles, aiming to offer a safe space for colleagues and students to reflect on the various dimensions.
Talking within the classroom is easier than outside of it, it seems. As the public conversation around the conflict is so polarised, a meaningful dialogue on the subject is a challenge.
‘People take very extreme positions and don’t really listen and start to accuse immediately’, says Smeulers. ‘If you start to condemn one thing then people immediately accuse you of justifying something on the other side. It is so sad because people who try to say that we need to protect human rights are already accused of either anti-semitism or Islamophobia.’
Also, outside of the classrooms, things can easily run out of hand. The conflict has already led to violence on the campuses of major schools like Columbia University. A graduation ceremony of a Palestine student in Amsterdam was disrupted when he addressed the topic in his speech and a Jewish couple left the ceremony. At other universities, like Maastricht and Rotterdam, pro-Palestine students entered university buildings and held demonstrations.
This conflict is of such a big scale that we have to seriously look at how to handle it
Dutch universities don’t take a stance, though. UG too is considering carefully how it can facilitate discourse about the topic at a central level, as there is a lot of pressure for the university to take a stance. Over three hundred students and twenty staff members signed an open letter stating that the neutral stance that the university has publicly adopted makes them complicit in ‘the genocide of the Palestinian people’.
‘This conflict is of such a big scale that we have to seriously look at how to handle it and how to act as a university’, UG board president Jouke de Vries said during a meeting of the university’s board and council, before asking for suggestions about how to do that.
In response to the open letter, UG spokesperson Anja Hulshof says the UG is ‘not a political institute and therefore we won’t take a stance’. However, the university is interested in facilitating dialogue on the conflict, she says.
Finding a format that suits the subject is complicated, though. A debate would be the wrong way to go, Smeulers believes, as pitting points of view against each other when discussing this conflict leads to an accusation mode. ‘We should get into a more nuanced mode. If you have two people trying to discuss this war from opposite sides, if you can’t get them to try and understand the other side’s point of view, then you have a problem.’
For her, approaching this discussion with an impulse to understand this conflict from both sides respectfully is vital to finding solutions that are in line with the rule of law.
‘You have to think about how and what you add to what’s already there, in newspapers, TV programmes, documentaries or whatever’, agrees head of Studium Generale Groningen Nina Dieters.
The subject is too big for a single lecture, she thinks. ‘If you do it, you have to do it right.’ A conversation with a historian or a theologist would be a better fit. ‘I think we need to look at multiple perspectives to make sense of all these horrible happenings.’
Understanding this conflict in a meaningful way will take listening to different voices, from multiple disciplines within the university. ‘Academics have a role in trying to explain what is going on.’
And so, Middle Eastern Studies is working to do just that. ‘We are planning an academic event within the Faculty of Arts’, Sanchez-Summerer, says. ‘We want to do a series of smaller, more focused events dealing with specific social, geopolitical and historical dimensions of the region, including a series of documentaries and movies.’
However, the university does have an important role to play here, she feels. ‘We are convinced that academia is an important place to discuss topics like these in a critical and respectful manner.’