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Open letter | Protest and Palestine: UvA presents mischaracterisation of the problem

A Guest Editor,
30 april 2024 - 12:16

Earlier this month The UvA published on her website in interview with rector magnificus Peter-Paul Verbeek about the protest concerning the war in Gaza. The interview contains inaccuracies and lacks context, argue 26 UvA-scholars and scientists in this open letter.

On 10 April 2024, the University of Amsterdam released an interview with rector magnificus Peter-Paul Verbeek, discussing student protests, the recent picket at Amsterdam University College, and calls for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions. We, among us scholars and experts on the issue, were concerned that the interview contains instances of mischaracterisation and missing context. Some inaccuracies concern topics already addressed in conversations between UvA for Palestine, of which we are part, and the Executive Board. With this critical commentary we would like to afford the university community greater accuracy and insight when learning about the issues at hand. With this critical commentary, we aim to provide the academic community with a more accurate point-by-point understanding when learning about these topics using quotes from Verbeek's interview.


1. “As an organisation, we cannot take a stand. Our university must provide a home for debate and criticism, within the agreed rules, and cannot properly fulfill that function if we as an organisation take an explicit position ourselves.”

The University of Amsterdam can and has taken a stand on multiple occasions. In recent memory for many is the statement condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We also recall the University's statement that stood “in solidarity with #blackouttuesday,” encouraging our community to “speak out against anti-Black racism.” It is untrue that the university “cannot take a stand.”


2. “Academic freedom requires that we limit space for political demonstrations.”

This characterisation is unrecognisable within the existing discussions on academic freedom. Academic freedom encompasses the right for institutional autonomy unhampered by state or market interference, and the rights of individuals within the institution to teach and learn unhampered by these forces. This encompasses the freedom to be critical of the state, the market, and the institutions of which one is part without fear of retaliation. Its raison-d'être, moreover, is the pursuit of truth and knowledge, and our campus is a site where knowledge is produced and taught on international law, processes of dehumanisation and racialisation, colonialism, human rights, genocide, ethics, and so much more. Utilising and acting upon such knowledge includes freedom of assembly and political demonstrations.


3. “At the Amsterdam University College (AUC), access to the building has been blocked for a week by masked protestors, making lectures and exams impossible.”

Why might protestors at AUC have chosen to cover their faces? In recent months, six students at AUC were sanctioned by the AUC’s Management Team (MT) for their suspected involvement in the protests (according to AUFP, the picket’s organisers, not all the students had been involved). Three of them were placed on “social probation.” These authoritarian measures by AUC Management against student protestors provide the context as to why students may wish to conceal their identities while engaging in peaceful protest.

We are relieved to learn that following the sanctioned students' objections, and with the assistance of PiLP and the European Legal Support Center, the MT has withdrawn the sanctions.


4. “In the event of a blockade, we first try to enter into consultation, then we offer an alternative space so that education can continue or is not disrupted. We then ask if the demonstration can be moved so that the building remains accessible and education can continue. And only at the very last is contact made with the police for support.”

Between March 25 and 28, AUFP organised a peaceful picket outside AUC’s main building, the AB, blocking access to it. This action was announced weeks in advance, giving the MT ample time to enter into consultation. The decision to picket was the result of the MT's unwillingness to dialogue and repressive attitude. Police were called on four consecutive days and arrested seventeen students using excessive force. Involving the police does not secure safety on campus, it threatens it.

Protests, including pickets, are by definition disruptive, and the right to demonstrate is part of the Dutch Constitution. The implication that disruption to business as usual at the university is grounds for calling the police to remove protestors raises concerns around the maintenance of democratic standards on campus.


5. “Labeling people as cowards, chanting slogans such as “From the river to the sea” – all of this is extremely impactful and disturbing for other parts of our community, especially Jewish students and employees.”

What is particularly troubling here is the tendency of equating Palestine solidarity with antisemitism and mischaracterising calls for freedom for all in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea with a call for expulsion of or violence towards Jewish people. Only recently, the interpretation of the slogan as antisemitic has been rejected in the Dutch courts, which found that these expressions “do not relate to Jews.”

Critical Jewish students and staff in our community have been vocal in their Palestine advocacy, often at significant personal costs. Insinuations that Palestine solidarity protest disturbs Jewish staff and students fan the flames of these intracommunal tensions. It also erases the plurality of Jewish people’s politics and increases polarisation in an already divided community. 


6. “Meetings where there is room for dialogue are of course good, teach-ins for example. Demonstrating against university policy is also permitted. But there are conditions: no face coverings, no blockades, no overnight stays in buildings, no atmosphere of intimidation, and education and research must be able to continue as normal.”

This statement uses initiatives and events organised by staff—many of whom are part of UvA for Palestine— to legitimate repression of student protest. We refuse the distortion of our efforts towards knowledge dissemination in the service of delegitimising other forms of critique and opposition. Lest we forget that the UvA called the police on the very first teach-in that was organised in this series, a fact that complicates Professor Verbeek’s account of the process for involving the police.


7. “We are very cautious about limiting institutional and individual collaborations without a clear legal basis or call from the central government.”

The global call for an academic boycott is not a call to limit individual collaborations; it proposes a boycott of collaborations with Israeli institutions. It addresses the ethics of collaboration with institutions currently involved in or benefitting from the actions of the Israeli state. If the Executive Board is looking for a legal basis for ending these collaborations, they need look no further than the letter they received from Dutch Scholars for Palestine in January, which outlines this, and the more recent follow-up letter they received providing further substantiation. 

Our conversations with the Minister of Education have clarified that institutions may autonomously decide whether or not to end institutional collaborations.


8. “Severing or suspending all ties also means severing relationships with researchers who represent the critical voice in Israel.”

No one is calling to end collaboration with individuals employed by Israeli institutions. The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) is clear in its guidelines, rejecting boycotts based on identity. Mere affiliation is not grounds for applying boycott; representation of the state or complicit institutions, as well as commissioned projects or those recruited for embellishing the state's image, are. This has been explained to the Executive Board on multiple occasions, including by UvA’s Israeli employees themselves.

We are concerned that this interview may unwittingly lead to sowing divisions and promoting inaccuracies, which are already abundant in discussion on Israel/Palestine. We encourage our readers to adopt a critical approach to the university’s position presented in this interview as to all others they may encounter. We ask that you join us in the call for more informed discussion, more serious and open engagement, and more moral clarity from our institution in a time of tremendous devastation and loss of human life.




●     Dr. Jef Ausloos, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Law

●     Dr. Sruti Bala, Associate Professor, Faculty of Humanities

●     Dr. Dimitris Bouris, Associate Professor, Political Science

●     Prof. dr. Sarah Bracke, Professor of Sociology of Gender and Sexuality, Sociology

●     Dr. Valentina Carraro, Assistant Professor, Human Geography, Planning and International Development

●     Prof. dr. Chiara De Cesari, Professor of Heritage, Memory and Cultural Studies

●     Eleri Connick, PhD Researcher, Amsterdam School for Heritage, Memory and Material Culture

●     Dr. Jacob Engelberg, Assistant Professor, Media Studies

●     Camille Faber, Coordinator, Student Impact Centre, Faculty of Science

●     Agustín Ferrari Braun, PhD Researcher, Media Studies

●     Dr. Sneha Gaddam, Lecturer, Faculty of Economics and Business

●     Dr. Erella Grassiani, Associate Professor, Anthropology

●     Sam Hamer, Junior Lecturer, Sociology

●     Prof. dr. Yolande Jansen, Associate Professor, Social and Political Philosophy

●     Dr. Mieke Lopes Cardozo, Associate Professor, International Development Studies

●     Prof. dr. Annelies Moors, Professor Emerita, Anthropology

●     Dr. Laurens Naudts, Postdoctoral Researcher, Institute for Information Law

●     Dr. Brunilda Pali, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science

●     Dr. Polly Pallister-Wilkins, Associate Professor, Political Science

●     Dr. Charis Papaevangelou, Postdoctoral Researcher, Institute for Information Law

●     Dr. Noa Roei, Assistant Professor, Literary and Cultural Analysis

●     Dr. J. Scholtens, Assistant Professor, International Development Studies

●     Dr. S. Shakthi, Assistant Professor, Human Geography, Planning and International Development

●     Dr. Mikki Stelder, Assistant Professor, Cultural Studies

●     Jill Toh, PhD Researcher, Faculty of Law

●     Dr. Plixavra Vogiatzoglou, Postdoctoral researcher, Amsterdam Center for International Law and Institute for Information Law