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Foto: Jeroen Oerlemans (UvA)

President of the board Geert ten Dam: “When we take a stand, we fuel polarization”

15 november 2023 - 12:44

The Israel-Palestine conflict is dividing the UvA. President of the board Geert ten Dam is deeply concerned. “A graduation ceremony or open day is not the time for a political statement.”

Geert ten Dam has been president of the executive board of the UvA for about seven and a half years now. In that time, there has never been a conflict that, in Ten Dam’s words, “polarized so extremely quickly” at the UvA as the current situation in Israel and Palestine.


She is concerned, “tremendously concerned.” First, about what has happened and continues to happen in Israel and Palestine – “horrific,” she feels, “degrading and heartbreaking.” But second, closer to home, about the university.


For the UvA, operating “safely and at a great distance from the war” is becoming noticeably more divisive. Some seven hundred doctoral students, students, and staff have urged the UvA administration in an open letter to condemn Israeli actions against the Palestinians more strongly. A number of Jewish scholars and students are also demanding this, NRC reported earlier this week.


At the same time, Israeli and Jewish students with different views no longer dare to speak out at the UvA and feel unsafe, student rabbi Yanki Jacobs told the Volkskrant. Ten Dam also says she has received several messages from concerned students and staff.


She has received messages from Jewish people who say: “I no longer dare or want to come to the UvA. Is this still my university? Because I don’t feel at home here anymore.” But e-mails from Palestinian students have also come, asking, “Do you know what is happening there?”

Many don't feel heard or supported by the UvA. The key question is: How do you deal with this as a university? Folia spoke about this with university president Geert ten Dam in her office on Roeterseiland.


What makes this conflict so different from the war in Ukraine?

“The conflict has arrived in our own community; it’s politicized in-house. We are a hugely socially engaged university. I’m proud of that, too, so it's good that the discussion is taking place. But it has also become very personal over the past four weeks. The Holocaust is, of course, deep in the memory of Amsterdam and the Netherlands. That is one side. At the same time, the UvA always stands up for inequality and oppression. That is a great thing about the UvA.”


In your opinion, what exactly is the role of the university in such a conflict?

“The important thing is that we stand firm for academic freedom. That means we have to provide context to this conflict and interpret it. We have an enormous number of scientists to do this. For example, they organize public discussions where students can talk to each other in an academically dignified and responsible manner. Everyone has to ask themselves: Should I say something if it will be perceived as very hurtful and intimidating by other groups within the UvA?”

“The war in Ukraine did not create polarization within the UvA”

In your opinion, where do you draw the line between a public discussion and a political demonstration?

“A public discussion within a university is an academic debate with accompanying values and manners. A demonstration is not, especially if, for example, people are chanting slogans. As a university, we do not support that. This also affects other people's sense of safety.”


“When the first teach-in was mixed with flags and chanting slogans last Friday in the Oudemanhuispoort, it went well. So we learn from that with each other, and I'm very happy about that.”


Still, there are plenty of people who say the UvA should not be politically neutral in this conflict and should condemn Israeli actions in Gaza.

“At least the people who have articulated that loudly, yes.”


The petition for that has now been signed more than 1,200 times.

“And possibly more. That’s a substantial group. But as an administrator, I am responsible for guarding academic freedom and the safety of every student and employee. That means preventing escalation and polarization. The moment we take a stand as a university, we fuel polarization. So you shouldn't do that as an administrator.”


“Also, I can honestly say that I find it very complicated to take clear sides in this complex conflict, one that has been going on for decades. That also applies to countless students and staff. You sometimes need to have the space - truly - to be able to say: I don’t know.”


How does this neutral attitude as a president relate to the placement of posters in the Maagdenhuis condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine? You put up those posters yourself.

“I think that’s a very valid question. Especially lately, I've been thinking about that a lot. I found and find the situation back then different. It was a one-sided, unilateral aggression which did not create polarization within the UvA or the Netherlands.”


“Even in that situation, we tried to carry out our duty of care to the Ukrainian, Russian, and Belarusian students to the best of our ability. And even then - you can indeed ask yourself whether we did the right thing at the time.”


That is the question, but what is the answer? Or let’s put it this way: Would you do it again?

“I find that difficult, those ‘what if’ questions ... But what I see now is that we must be extremely careful and cautious about these issues. Never say never, though ... We thought it was justified at the time, but basically, we must stay true to our academic principles.”


And to our house rules, I suppose. After all, they explicitly state that displaying posters of a political nature is not allowed at the UvA at all. Since when exactly have those rules been in place?


“Since 2015. And it’s always good practice to review those rules over time. Both the Central Works Council and the Central Student Council have said: Shouldn’t we review those rules together again? For example, it also states that no religious expression is allowed at the UvA. Does that also mean that you are not allowed to wear a headscarf or a cross?”


That doesn't change the fact that those rules apply.

“Certainly, which is why it is a valid question.”

“Jewish students and staff don't dare to speak out: I find that very bad”

In practice it does not stop at public discussions, either. Many political demonstrations are also held at the UvA where students show support for the Palestinian people. In contrast, Israeli flags or support for the hostages - even immediately after the Hamas attack and before the Gaza invasion - are nowhere to be seen. In your opinion, is there strong pro-Palestine sentiment at UvA?

“That sentiment is definitely there. What I read in the mail and hear from people I talk to is that Jewish students and staff don’t dare speak out anymore. Then you can say, ‘Come on, it’s all right to do that.’ But no, the fact is that they say: We just don’t dare do this anymore; we feel that our very existence is under attack. I find that very bad, especially in the context of growing anti-Semitism. The university is a place where everyone is welcome within the boundaries of the democratic rule of law and regardless of origin or religion.”


May we then conclude that engagement at the university sometimes goes too far?

“We are a socially engaged university. And I think that’s a great thing. But if you start judging each other, you don't create a safe learning and working climate. Together we are responsible for preventing that. We must listen to each other, with understanding.”


“It is very worrying that the name of the Palestinian student is circulating on social media”

“Last Friday, for example, at an open day at Science Park, political slogans were chanted through megaphones for an hour. During open day, sixteen and seventeen-year-olds come with their parents to orient themselves on their choice of study. That is not the time for politics. That is why we are appealing urgently to our students and staff not to do so at such gatherings.”


In your opinion, does a rallying slogan like "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free" belong within such a debate?

“Regardless of whether that statement is punishable - that’s what lawyers have to find out - above all, you have to ask yourself the question: Should you say that here within the university community if you know that by doing so you knowingly and unnecessarily hurt others? I don’t think so.”

De Telegraaf recently reported on a Jewish family that felt unsafe during a graduation ceremony. A Palestinian UvA student present told a personal story in which, among other things, he cited “From the river to the sea” in a different context and spoke of “genocide in Palestine.” His name is now in international media. How do you feel about that?

“I think a graduation ceremony is not the time to make a political statement. People go there for a celebration. Parents said afterward that they were very sorry about what happened there.”


“The Palestinian student had a very personal, poignant story. De Telegraaf then reported on it one-sidedly. It went viral and fortunately also nuanced. We spoke with the man afterward, who was shocked by what happened afterward. It is very worrying that his name is circulating on social media, and we are doing everything in our power to ensure his safety and that of his family.”