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Can ties with Israeli universities indeed be cut so easily?

Toon Meijerink ,
8 juli 2024 - 13:05

Cut ties with Israel: That is the main demand of the protesters who have been organizing protests for Palestine for months at the UvA and other universities. The UvA previously published a list of collaborations. But to what extent is it possible to terminate them?

On May 6th, at the request of protesters who had occupied the campus with tents earlier that day, the UvA published a list of collaborations with Israeli institutions. These are projects on which UvA scientists as well as other international scientists are collaborating.
 
Professor of forensic chemistry Arian van Asten was shocked when a research project on which he had been working fervently for years suddenly appeared at the top of the list of collaborations. “I had to check on how we came to be connected to an Israeli university in the first place.”
 
Chemist Van Asten and a PhD student are part of the European collaboration Inherit (INHibitors, Explosives and pRecursor InvesTigation), a research project about preventing attacks, on which the Israeli university Technion is also collaborating.

“We are not developing weaponry at all”

The chemistry professor noted that the research collaboration stands out because of the connotation of  “explosives” with war, and thus with Israel’s war in Gaza. “We are not developing weaponry at all,” Van Asten says. “We are developing new methods for preventing attacks in Europe using forensic traces. For example, we are looking at whether you can detect traces of bomb material in fingerprints.”
 
Horizon Europe collaborations
Van Asten’s research falls under a broader research project for which the Israeli university Technion has also received funding. That university has been identified by UvA demonstrators as one that supports the Israeli military and provides equipment for it. Van Asten emphasizes, however, that he and his doctoral student fall under a completely different working group that does not cooperate with Technion researchers.

Exchanges

In addition to the eight collaborations with Israeli universities, UvA has an exchange program with three Israeli universities. Those exchanges are currently inactive due to a negative government travel advisory. With the universities in question (University of Tel Aviv, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Ben Gurion University), the UvA has several exchange agreements (also called “Memorandums of Understanding”). The UvA does not comment on the possibility of terminating those agreements. However, students and employees have until Friday, July 5th, to contribute ideas to a new ethical framework for foreign collaborations.

Funding for the Inherit project, like the seven other collaborations with Israeli universities, comes from Horizon Europe, a European Union research fund. Researchers employed by different universities, government agencies, or companies form a collaboration or consortium through their own networks. “That consortium jointly applies for funding from Horizon Europe,” a European Commission spokesman explained.
 
The various parties, including the UvA, conclude a cooperation contract. “The only amount that the UvA contributes to a project goes directly to funding its own staff and therefore does not end up at other universities,” Van Asten explains. Working groups can also be formed within the project to deal with individual studies, as is the case with Inherit.
 
How to terminate collaborations
The UvA can end collaborations, explains the European Commission spokesperson. “Each university is involved in a Horizon Europe research project via an individual contract. So the UvA must look at the conditions for contract termination itself each time. Such a breach of contract can have consequences, especially financial ones.” The UvA has not published the exact conditions of the various collaborations.

Foto: Sara Kerklaan

In addition to costs associated with such a contract termination, the UvA may also lose a doctoral student and their research in which the university has invested for years. Although Van Asten expects that, at increased costs, the UvA could have its PhD student’s research completed after the partnership ends. “And some adjustment in the research is certainly possible if desired.”
 
The professor also believes that his international research partners could continue their research without the UvA’s cooperation. “It would probably especially cost the UvA a lot of money, because a large part of the grant money would have to be repaid to the EU.”
 
Why discontinue?
Associate Professor of Philosophy Yolande Jansen advocates ending research collaborations with Israel within Horizon Europe as a rule - taking into account the legal and financial consequences. She feels that the discussion of the “how” of termination distracts from the urgent reasons for a boycott, namely, the contribution of Israeli universities to the tens of thousands of Palestinian deaths Israel has on its conscience. “In addition to the apartheid and occupation of Palestinian territory that has continued for decades,” Jansen adds.

Isolation of Israeli researchers

As their main argument against ending cooperation with Israeli institutions, Dutch universities, including the UvA, stated in a letter in Trouw that they consider “academic freedom ...to be of utmost importance” in Israel. Jansen countered that there is no academic debate at the universities there. “Both critical Israeli and Palestinian voices are excluded.”
 
Jansen points, for example, to Professor Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian at Hebrew University Jerusalem. “She was arrested for making critical statements.” There’s already an international network that accommodates such Israeli academics, Jansen noticed at several meetings in recent months.
 
Professor Van Asten emphasizes that scientists should have individual freedom. “With an appointment as a professor, a researcher should be able to decide for himself who he collaborates with.” However, the occupations were a wake-up call for him to think about how far a scientist’s responsibility goes. “I am considering more what could be done with my research results.”

Jansen is part of the Dutch Scholars for Palestine network, which argues that virtually all Israeli universities are intertwined with the Israeli state and its army. “Besides a few technical universities that make war materiel, there are sections in the curriculum at all Israeli universities specially designed for, by, or in cooperation with the army. In addition, universities justify or mask Palestinian apartheid,” she argues.
 
The Israeli army is currently guilty of genocide against Palestinians, according to Jansen. The universities working with the Israeli military receive money through Horizon Europe from research projects that include the UvA.
 
International law
The results from Inherit have already been largely achieved, as the project ends in September 2024. Van Asten says: “The research results are shared with all research partners in the project, and will eventually be available to everyone in the context of Open Science (the public sharing of scientific knowledge, ed.).” 

 

Those results are not allowed to ever be used by research partners in violation of international law, the European Commission says. Since Israel violated that with the attack on Rafah, according to the International Criminal Court, a contribution to that attack from a Horizon Europe project would therefore result in a breach of the project’s terms. When asked, however, the European Commission spokesperson reveals that Horizon Europe is “not considering suspension or revision of participation of Israeli entities.”

“But the UvA should at least issue a statement that it wants to end the collaborations until Israel”

UvA statement
Before the final publication of the research, chemist Van Asten saw Israeli researchers at most three times, as part of meetings about the broader project. “I therefore find it difficult to label our research as ‘collaboration with Israel.’”
 
Jansen also understands that it is complicated to terminate research collaborations all at once without looking at the exact collaboration or consequences of contract termination. “But the UvA should - since the genocide that the International Court of Justice says is plausible is happening now - at least issue a statement that it wants to end the collaborations until Israel has fulfilled its human rights obligations.”
 
Jansen also hopes that the university will appeal as soon as possible to both the Dutch government and the European Union, where the collaborations receive their funding, to suspend Israel from Horizon Europe until further notice. The European Commission’s own spokesperson says: “We remain vigilant to ensure that EU funds are used in accordance with international law.”