Both events addressed issues that made me feel uncomfortable, and arguably everyone else in the room. Of course, that is precisely the intention of a teach-in, to address uncomfortable, contemporary topics. In the past, teach-ins have been organised at Dutch universities in relation to the war in Vietnam, in relation to apartheid in South Africa and in relation to the racialised nature of the Dutch higher-educational curriculum.
It is okay and totally expected to feel uncomfortable when talking about horrific events. I would even say it is essential to feel uncomfortable, certainly from a critical-pedagogical standpoint. As one of my colleagues told me, embracing uncomfortability is key to critical reflection, to questioning our assumptions and to being in dialogue with scholarship and with each other.
A casual read of the news media over the past two weeks revealed many uncomfortable issues. Arguably the most prominent of these issues has been the killing and capture of more than a thousand Israeli military and civilians by armed Palestinian groups. Faced with this unprecedented breach of security, Israel has waged an eliminatory assault, calling up more than 300.000 reservists, persistently dehumanising Palestinians by referring to them as ‘animals’. More than 2,300 scholars in the Netherlands have expressed concern about Israel’s response.
It is uncomfortable to hear how many people have been killed, at least 1,400 Israelis and more than 5,000 Palestinians, as Amnesty International has reported. According to the United Nations, many Palestinians are reported as missing and an estimated 1,000 people remain trapped under the rubble. The United Nations has further reported that dozens of humanitarian workers have been killed and schools, shelters and hospitals have been targeted. But as we also know, and this is perhaps the most uncomfortable issue of all, these events did not happen out of the blue. They have a context, including Israel’s regime of apartheid and settler-colonialism.
As if all of this was not uncomfortable enough, UN experts as well as hundreds of scholars with expertise in international law, holocaust and genocide studies have called on states to prevent the commission of genocide. It is evident to these experts that Israel is in the midst of committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza, as per Article 6 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
States have been mixed in their responses. Western states in particular have not only failed to condemn Israel’s assault against the Palestinians, they have been actively lending their support, with the European Union President Von der Leyen assuring that they would be ’ standing by Israel’, which triggered a fierce denunciation from EU staffers who referred to her actions as ‘uncontrolled’. By stark contrast, the South African government called for an immediate ceasefire and opening of a humanitarian corridor. Moreover, South Africa called on Israel ‘to cease its genocidal campaign against the Palestinians’.
As Raz Segal, a professor of Modern Genocide has put it, this is not only a ‘textbook case’, it is a genocide ‘unfolding in front of our eyes’. That very word, genocide, is especially uncomfortable, particularly for me as someone of Jewish cultural heritage. However, beyond the cold comfort of providing explanations based on my academic knowledge, I am also acutely aware how important it is to differentiate between feeling uncomfortable and feeling unsafe.
Feeling safe versus feeling uncomfortable
It is certainly not okay to feel unsafe, particularly in an academic environment. This is why we explicitly established at the start of the teach-ins that it would not be accepted for anyone to use language that is islamophobic, antisemitic, homophobic, sexist, racist or in any way ad hominem (in other words, attacking someone personally, rather than engaging with their views). And to be clear: none of this occurred at either event.
Claims that one doesn’t feel safe need to be based on arguments. In my experience of more than two decades of organising events that have sought to center a Palestinian perspective, complaints around ‘safety’ have come almost exclusively from outside the university community. Arguments about why complainants allege they feel unsafe are almost never provided.
It is strangely perceived to be a given that universities make an exception to academic freedom when discussing a topic from a Palestinian perspective. Stranger still is how many universities have upheld this, while Palestinian perspectives have been almost entirely absent from the mass media and academic discourses.
Erasmus University sends an important message
During the teach-ins, my colleagues and I publicly acknowledged our appreciation for the support we received from our University’s leadership. This is not something to be taken for granted in these polarised times and truly important for upholding much needed academic freedom.
Indeed, it is hoped that other universities will take the lead of Erasmus University and open their doors to critical discussions on this – uncomfortable – topic as well.