For Leiden University, Palestinians aren’t ‘neutral enough’ to do their job
Last month, to mark Israeli Apartheid Week, Students at the Leiden University, in the Netherlands, organised an event on racism, apartheid and intersectionality. However, the university decided not to allow them to book a room for the event. The main excuse they used was that the chair of the event, me, did not possess a ‘neutral’ profile. The event therefore did not adhere to the household rules and could not take place at the university.
While the institution insists that the decision was made by the university board, the rejection first came from the security officer. I emailed the security officer asking him for clarification. At first, he informed me that he would not engage, then after I insisted, I received a long email arguing that due to my ‘outspoken’ profile he would not be able to guarantee the safety/security of all attendees. He ended our email exchange with an invitation for us to meet on neutral grounds, a place where I would feel comfortable, and talk over a cup of coffee.
Since then, a lot has happened. Students and professors started a petition calling for the university to reverse their decision and apologise to me. Newspapers have published about the incident, and an elected Parliament member raised questions to the Dutch minister of education.
''I have noticed that often, when an academic speaks out against global injustice, basing arguments on research and facts, they run the risk of tainting their professional reputation – especially when it comes to Palestine and Israel.''
In my email to the security officer I made clear that I am indeed not a neutral person, especially when it comes to topics such as racism and apartheid. Is a person who claims neutrality when it comes to social injustice actually neutral? What does a neutral profile even mean?
Nevertheless, I was sure that I would be able to fulfil my role as a chair in a professional manner. My job is to facilitate a productive discussion, ask the right questions, keep things running on time, and welcome critical questions and comments.
They apparently were not convinced.
I have noticed that often, when an academic speaks out against global injustice, basing arguments on research and facts, they run the risk of tainting their professional reputation – especially when it comes to Palestine and Israel.
I grew up with a Dutch mother and a Palestinian father in the Galilee, in a Palestinian town. I grew up under occupation, as part of a minoritised group that faced discrimination in most facets of life.
When it was time for me to decide what to study, I chose political science, sociology and anthropology. Now, 18 years later, I have a doctorate in anthropology. My academic career has always been part of my activism. I decided to study anthropology because I was critical of power. I studied Zionism, world history, feminism, indigenous politics and settler colonialism. Every bit of research I conducted was in order to expose injustice and oppression.
This is also why I decided to focus on teaching. I teach because I hope to play a part in educating critical students who think further than what they see in front of them. I don’t impose my own ideals on them, but hope to expose them to ethical dilemmas, and acquaint them with (in)justice. I talk to my students about the role of the Netherlands in slavery, LGBTQI rights, sexism, refugee predicaments. My work, my research and my teachings are my activism.
Why should academics continuously be pushed into showing their ‘neutrality’? Isn’t the university where revolutions and social change have often started? Why should standing up for a cause be a stain on you as a professional?
Or maybe the question should be – why does standing up for Palestine become a stain on your reputation? And how is this tied to global inaction in the face of Israeli aggression and the dehumanisation of Palestinians?
I am very sorry to hear that Leiden University's management has cancelled a student-led event on Palestine next week. This is in clear breach of academic freedom and makes a mockery of the university's motto "praesidium libertatis".— Christian Henderson (@CjvHenderson) March 17, 2022
The fact that I was accused of not having a neutral profile did not bother me that much. What bothered me was the claim that I am not professional enough to act as a good chair, while I have ample experience and (as far as I know) never received any complaints. Additionally, the grave, and unsubstantiated, accusation that I was making people feel unsafe was very painful to me.
The idea of safe spaces on campuses has been historically important for racialised groups and minorities. I can identify with the need to feel safe on campuses, as a Palestinian Arab student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Not only was it difficult to study rhetoric that treats me and my people as inferior, but my actual safety was also put in danger. One example of this is when I was attacked by campus security and arrested for voicing my opposition to the siege on Gaza on campus.
Nowadays however, it seems that the claim of ‘safety’ has been appropriated in favour of accommodating any and all political opinion. Should it be a university’s concern to make racists or supporters of apartheid systems feel safe? I don’t think so. Should such people be able to ask questions at an event on racism and apartheid? Sure! They might learn a thing or two from the responses of the panellists. Is it my responsibility as a chair to ensure that exchange goes respectfully and smoothly? Certainly.
''I grew up with the taste of teargas in my throat, and the bruises from clashes with police and soldiers on Palestinian bodies. The accusation of making others feel unsafe by speaking truth to power and standing up for oppressed people – that is the true violence.''
Leiden University denies considering me un-neutral due to my Palestinian background. What they fail to understand though, is that even if my Palestinian identity didn’t play a part in their decision, they have contributed to the violence committed against Palestinians.
My father was a political prisoner for many years. On my ancestral land that the nearby Israeli settlement confiscated, I grew up in a house that had a demolition order on it. We were always unsure of when the police would show up again to arrest my father, or when the bulldozer would show up to destroy our house.
I grew up with the taste of teargas in my throat, and the bruises from clashes with police and soldiers on Palestinian bodies. The accusation of making others feel unsafe by speaking truth to power and standing up for oppressed people – that is the true violence.
Leiden University is complicit in creating an unsafe environment for exactly those people it should create a safe space for.
The security officer’s invitation to meet somewhere I would feel comfortable highlights what privileged people often overlook, that for many of us the world is not a comfortable place. For women and people of colour, among others, the most important skill we learn is how to stay true to ourselves despite the constant sense of insecurity. What I need is not a cup of coffee and a nice ‘neutral’ chat, but a serious engagement with the issues of oppression, inequality and power. And, an apology.
Dina Zbeidy is an anthropologist. She teaches social sciences at the Leiden University of Applied Sciences and is senior researcher Access2Justice.
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