Nederland, Rotterdam, 15–09-2020 EM interview met Ed Brinksma, voorzitter van het CvB van de EUR foto: Ronald van den Heerik Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

Can you talk us through the decision to close the campus buildings on Thursday because of the pro-Palestine protest?

“Sure. I thought that was a sad decision, but one that we had to make. We received urgent advice from the triumvirate (the three key three decision-making parties: Mayor Aboutaleb, Rotterdam police and the Public Prosecution Service – ed.) based on the information they had. The nature and scale of the protest was unclear, and disturbing messages were circulating on social media.

“Of course, we saw what happened in Amsterdam, too. You have to bear in mind that our campus is much bigger and more complex than the UvA’s Roeterseiland Campus, so it would be a huge task for the police. Added to that is the fact that we are responsible for security in the buildings on our campus, although the triumvirate has authority in the public space. And when it comes to maintaining security, we have very few resources.”

Palestina protest Rotterdam CS 16052024_28_Tyna Le

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Many of the arguments put forward by the triumvirate, such as the open buildings into which protesters could disappear and uncertainty about the turnout, are actually factors that apply to every protest. So will protests be allowed on campus in the future?

“Yes, we had a couple of small protests on campus last Tuesday that went smoothly. We have nothing against peaceful demonstrations. Our campus is subject to the Public Assemblies Act, and as such we aim to facilitate demonstrations in the first instance. It’s only if there’s likely to be a risk of escalation that we have to step in. You have to look at this case in the context of the information we received.”

Public administrators might worry that protesters won’t announce their campus protests in future, if the consequence is going to be that the buildings will close and there’ll be no one left on campus to hear their message.

“Absolutely, that’s a risk. Although the board and multiple deans were available to talk to them. But let’s face it, if you look at the images of the occupations at Roeterseiland Campus and the UvA’s Oudemanhuispoort complex, you can’t just assume that everything will go smoothly.”

Hindsight is fifty-fifty, of course, but when you look at the protest at Rotterdam Central station where not a single incident took place, what do you think?

“Yes, I did see that. Everything went fine there. The question, of course, is whether the protest on campus would have gone the same way. We’ll never know. But I have to assume the triumvirate had serious indications.”

Turning to the response from the Executive Board: you intended to release it on Friday, but it ended up being Monday. Can you explain what the difficulties were?

“We live in a world where every word counts, which means that when you’re formulating a statement, you want to engage people and elicit feedback. Care is more important than speed. Other than that, there’s no profound reason for the delay. In these kinds of situations, you can never please everyone, so we try to strike a balance. Of course, such a statement is a gesture towards the protesters, but equally it’s a message to the whole EUR community, which consists of more than just protesters and which also has feelings about the situation. What’s more, the community probably has its own dilemmas and nuanced views. People are thinking: should I loudly proclaim my demands as well, or are there other ways to deal with an issue?”

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Have you noticed any polarisation on the campus itself, for example in how Executive Board members are approached by students and staff?

“I particularly notice it on social media. A few comments were directed at me there after we closed the buildings. Personally I’ve never felt unsafe, at least not in the sense of feeling ‘physically threatened’. I do notice a lot of emotion.”

‘We will haunt them’

The Instagram message Ed Brinksma referred to was posted by the account @rdamstudentenvoorpalestina. It read: “As even Ed Brinksma understands, the risks are significant. What for them is a risk, is liberation for us. They are right to be terrified. We will haunt them until Palestine is liberated. (…) We are not interested in ‘civil debate’. Fuck your outstanding invite. We don’t want a conversation, we want revolution.”

In Monday’s response, you mentioned three points: dialogue tables, a committee to review partnerships and assistance with rebuilding Gaza’s academic structure. What would that first point – the dialogue tables – involve? I can imagine that starting a collective dialogue about Gaza is very complicated.

“So far, we’ve given people space to organise protests, demonstrations and teach-ins. These events generally take a position in advance. That’s a good thing, because to defend your opinion you have to express it. However, it also means that everyone is organising their own activities. We want to deal with this issue in a more visible and structural way, along the lines of the fossil fuel industry dialogues. In these dialogues, we want to have a deeper debate about how to deal with all the dilemmas.”

This is a different kind of topic from the fossil fuel industry, though. It’s about war, which stirs up even more emotions. How do you counter the feelings of a lack of safety in such dialogues?

“This is different, but it’s still about fundamental dilemmas. It’s about ethical questions, geopolitical considerations and academic freedom. What about the horror of what is happening in the Middle East? What is the proportionality between what happened on 7 October and what happened afterwards? What is the ethical basis for that? Does polarisation help solve problems, or should we move past it? These are all relevant questions that could be discussed. How exactly we should do this, I don’t know. We asked the IDEA Center to organise the dialogues, because it’s very good at taking the heat out of a debate. All things considered, we should at least make an effort to come closer together.”

When can we expect these dialogues to take place?

“We’re well aware that we can’t put this off forever, or we’ll trigger another wave of protests. The IDEA Centre is working on it.”

The Executive Board also wants to help rebuild Gaza’s academic structure. What would that entail?

“That’s more of a long-term thing, especially given that in Gaza right now what’s important is the lack of the basic necessities of life. However, when we say that we’re committed to academic freedom, the fact there’s not a single university left standing in Gaza is something we cannot ignore. Our options are limited, which is why we’re doing this in cooperation with other Dutch universities. One option for us might be helping academic talent from Gaza: where can they go? Or consider Palestinian professors who no longer have a place to work. Do we need to arrange additional scholarships, for example? At a minimum, we want to make sure that Palestinian academics are preserved as a group. I want to stress that it’s still early days, but at the same time it’s very important.

With regard to the Executive Board’s third initiative, a committee to review the university’s partnerships, EM has already written about that. It’s still unclear when this committee will be set up, though it’s certain that the committee will look at ties with Israel and Gaza first.

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