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The unbearable lightness of UvA’s neutrality

A Guest-editor,
13 februari 2024 - 17:09

When Russia invaded Ukraine, UvA’s Executive Board did not hesitate to take an unambiguous stance, but in Israel’s war against Palestine the Board actually wants to remain neutral, while Israel commits genocide in Gaza, argues a group of 24 UvA-scholars. “By not doing the same for Gaza, UvA opens itself to accusations of double standards.”

As Israel’s war on Palestine enters its fourth month, over 28,000 people have been killed including over 12,000 children. 80 percent of the population of Gaza has been internally displaced, their homes and livelihoods flattened. Schools, hospitals, and vital public infrastructure have been deliberately targeted. Education is in tatters. To date, all Gaza’s universities have been destroyed and more than 4.000 students and 90 professors have been killed amounting to what has been called ‘educide’. As Israel reduced water and electricity to the strip, available water plummeted to 2-3 liters per person per day, with 95 percent of Gazans depending on polluted sources. By December, over 80 percent of Gazans were experiencing either Emergency (IPC Phase 4) or Catastrophe-level food insecurity (IPC Phase 5 – the highest level), with the situation deteriorating rapidly. As humanitarian convoys remain blocked at the border, Human Rights Watch reports that Israel is deliberately using starvation as a weapon of war.


By mid-October, Raz Segal, a senior genocide scholar and Israeli historian warned that Israel’s war on Gaza was a “textbook case of genocide.” Several days later 800 concerned scholars and practitioners of international law, conflict studies, and genocide studies published a public statement sounding the alarm about the possibility of genocide being “perpetrated by Israeli forces against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.”

By not doing the same for Gaza, UvA opens itself to accusations of double standards

More recently South Africa made a persuasive genocide case against Israel in the International Court of Justice, leading the court to affirm in its provisional ruling that the risk of genocide is plausible, and ordering Israel to act in a way that prevents this genocide from unfolding. This order encompasses six provisional measures that were almost unanimously approved.


Traffic incident

Regardless of the above, UvA’s Executive Board recently released an internal news statement (17.01.2024) reducing Israel’s war on Gaza to a “Situation in Israel and Palestinian Territories,” as if it were a traffic incident on a highway. In the first sentence the “situation” is described as a “war,” yet not one waged primarily on civilians, their infrastructure, and livelihoods, but rather a war “between Israel and Hamas,” the word “between” signaling an equivalency of military might and political power that has never existed. Significantly, the word “occupied” or “occupation” is not mentioned. The use of “between” also suggests an equivalency between the violence of Hamas’ Oct. 7th attacks and the sustained violence currently being inflicted on Gaza, a violence aggravated by genocidal rhetoric coming from the highest levels of Israel’s government, as well as the civil and military establishment. Distressingly, sources show how this rhetoric is echoed and used by soldiers in charge of operations on the ground.


Despite the dire state of the “situation,” higher management claims it “does not wish to take a stance.” Yet when Russia invaded Ukraine, higher management had no qualms in making its position very clear: the UvA “condemns the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Our thoughts go out to everyone who has been affected by this terrible war… it has been decided to freeze all ongoing collaborations with Russian (academic) institutions, and new agreements will not be entered into.” By not doing the same for Gaza, UvA opens itself to accusations of double standards.

Merging political positioning with social safety shuts down uncomfortable political discussions and disagreements, paradoxically rendering them unsafe

In their letter dated 23 November 2023 Management argues that a university can only provide a “safe space” for all by remaining apolitical. While the sentiment is laudable, the argument is problematic. It appears to confuse political positioning and social safety (where the latter refers to discrimination, bullying, and (sexual) intimidation) by conflating being uncomfortable with being unsafe.


Merging political positioning with social safety shuts down uncomfortable political discussions and disagreements, paradoxically rendering them unsafe. We wish to remind the university that when staff and students engage on the question of Israel/Palestine they are put under scrutiny and regularly suffer intimidation. This does little to create a “safe space” for anyone.


It is hard not to be cynical about UvA’s political turnaround. The current political climate suggests that the university’s hesitations are less to do with an aversion to wading into politics, and more about making the right noises to a wider political order that consistently diminishes Palestinian suffering and delegitimizes their political struggle for freedom. By doing this, the UvA forgets that it exists to serve the interests of its academic community and wider society.


Finally, we are a community comprised of thousands of students who look to their Executive Board and teachers for inspiration. We, as educators, are here to provide the necessary tools to our students so that they can develop analytical minds. It is they who will need to defend and promote a better world and respect for human rights. Our role is to teach students to think and to question based on rigorous analysis of factual evidence and academic scholarship, not to silence them. UvA’s statement and letter signals to our students that our university supports not taking a stand, even in well-documented cases of crimes against humanity, gross human rights violations, and starvation crimes.


We would remind Senior Management, the Executive Board, and the Deans of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s words: “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”


Dimitris Bouris, Associate Professor, Dept. of Political Science, UvA

Farid Boussaid, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Political Science, UvA

Sarah Bracke, Professor of Sociology of Gender and Sexuality, Dept. of Sociology, UvA

Solange Fontana, Researcher/Assistant Professor, NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies / UvA

Polly Pallister-Wilkins, Associate Professor, Dept. of Political Science, UvA


Sruti Bala, Associate Professor, Dept. of Theatre Studies, UvA

Chiara De Cesari, Professor of Heritage and Memory, Dept. of Cultural Studies, UvA

Martijn Dekker, Lecturer, Dept. of Political Science, UvA

Kobe De Keere, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Sociology, UvA

Agustin Ferrari Braun, PhD Candidate, Dept. of Media Studies, UvA

Sneha Gaddam, Lecturer, Programme director of BSc Economics and Business Economics, Dept. of Economics, UvA

Ali Hamdan, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Political Science, UvA

Mona Hegazy, Lecturer, Dept. of Middle Eastern studies, UvA

Yolande Jansen, Associate Professor, Dept. of Philosophy, UvA

Beste Işleyen, Associate Professor, Dept. of Political Science, UvA

Ayşenur Korkmaz, Postdoctoral research fellow, Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies (NIAS)/Meertens Institute

Meredith Loken, Associate Professor, Dept. of Political Science, UvA

Annelies Moors, Prof. Emeritus, Dept. of Anthropology, UvA

Brunilda Pali, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Political Science, UvA

Ladan Rahbari, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Sociology, UvA

Mikki Stelder, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Cultural Studies, UvA

Berna Toprak, PhD candidate, Dept. of Sociology, UvA

Misha Velthuis, Lecturer in the Sciences, Amsterdam University College (AUC)

Siggie Vertommen, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Sociology, UvA