JeffHandmakerISS (EM)
Jeff Handmaker Image credit: ISS

On 21 January 2022, a Freedom of Information or FOI request was submitted to Dutch universities by The Rights Forum concerning ties between Dutch and Israeli universities and Israel lobby organisations. Shortly thereafter, Amnesty international released a lengthy report that outlined a system of apartheid directed against Palestinians, the latest in a string of reports by Palestinian, Israeli and other international organisations showing a regime of systemic, institutional discrimination inside Israel and occupied Palestinian territories.

Dr. Jeff Handmaker is Associate Professor in Legal Sociology at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. Dutch Scholars for Palestine is a Platform / Citizens Initiative of several hundred Dutch-based scholars who are concerned about and organize discussions regarding the longstanding impasse between Israel and the Palestinians.

The FOI request was submitted on behalf of scholars and students who are connected with a group known as Dutch Scholars for Palestine and various student groups who are in solidarity with the Palestinians. This has led to absurd allegations of antisemitism against the Rights Forum, student associations and others.

These groups are not formal associations, but a movement of concerned scholars and students. The former arose out of two petitions from May 2021; the one signed by several hundred academics in their individual capacities, the other by a host of Dutch academic institutions. Both expressed concern and anger regarding human rights violations by the Government of Israel and its military as well as institutional complicity in these violations.

The FOI requests information about two sets of relationships; firstly, on the institutional relationships between Dutch and Israeli universities and corporations and second, the relationship between Dutch universities and Israel lobby organisations.

FOI Request (1): institutional relationships

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While no one should object to contacts and critical discussions among individuals, there are legitimate concerns to be raised about formal relationships at the institutional level where one of those institutions is implicated in serious human rights abuses, including war crimes.

This principle underscored an earlier FOI request concerning the involvement of universities in programmes financed by the Chinese government. The revelations that emerged led to the Vrije Universiteit in 2022 deciding to not only suspend involvement in a collaborative research programme with strong connections to the Chinese government, but to actually return money that had been received. FOI Requests have also revealed influence by corporations on academic research results. In 2018, following revelations from another FOI Request on the influence by the tobacco industry, a decision was taken by Utrecht University to end its relationship with cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris.

FOI Request (2): relationships with Israel lobby organisations

Regarding the second part of the FOI request, as the backlash against The Rights Forum has shown, there are organisations in The Netherlands who are committed to silencing academics and students who are critical of Israel. They attempt to do this in two main ways: either by seeking to stop critical discussion and debate or by demonising individuals who speak out. As scholars and students, we have experienced many instances of this.

The FOI request queries formal relations between universities and organisations that promote the state of Israel and engage in campaigns to silence and demonise students, academics, and others advocating for Palestinian rights. This includes Netherlands-based Israel lobby organisations like the Center for Information and Documentation Israel (CIDI) and Christians for Israel. This also includes the Dutch and European Union coordinators for combating antisemitism, who have established that they are mainly preoccupied with attacking criticism of Israel and solidarity with Palestinians, rather than defending Jews against antisemitism.

Contrary to misinformation that has been circulated by pro-Israel groups, the FOI request does not concern the relationship between Dutch universities and Jewish organisations. In fact, concerns about the policies and actions of the Israeli government and military, as well as complicity of Israeli universities in human rights abuses, have come from many Jewish scholars. This includes signatories of the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism – consisting of ‘scholars in the fields of Holocaust history, Jewish studies, and Middle East studies’, Jewish members of Dutch Scholars for Palestine and student  groups and organisations such as European Jews for a Just Peace, Jewish Voices for Peace, Gate48, SIVMO and A Different Jewish Voice.

Why the request? Preserving academic freedom

As Dutch Scholars for Palestine and as student groups, we avowedly reject sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and any other form of unlawful discrimination and hate speech. This has no place in a free society, let alone a safe environment for public discussion, including on university campuses. We regard these as foundational principles underpinning academic freedom.

The FOI request preserves academic freedom by seeking transparency around a university’s ties with a militarised apartheid state, responsible for well-documented human rights abuses and war crimes. These formal ties put pressure on academic freedom in Netherlands, and put the academic freedom of our Palestinian colleagues, fellow students and human rights defenders in jeopardy.

Indeed, this is precisely the reason why we submitted the FOI request: to protect academic freedom and above-all, to ensure a safe and critical space for learning and for research.