University of Antwerp and Gaza: “Let’s define the future”

Some of our IOB colleagues co-wrote an open letter expressing their views on the pressing issue of ongoing violence in Palestine. The open letter was published in Dutch in the UAntwerp Student Magazine Dwars on 2 December 2023 in Dutch:

Distinguished Rector,

You are more than right, dear rector: the violence across Palestine is indeed having a strong impact on us, as you rightly state in de Standaard (22 November 2023) and in your internal communication to students and colleagues. This has been going on for far longer than October 7th. Unfortunately, time does not heal all wounds. As Samura Koichi says, “time heals everything except wounds”. What remains as time passes are wounds upon the scars.

The ongoing violence, in which we bear not only a historical but also a current responsibility, has, as you write, a strong impact on many students and staff. Not only through (our empathy with) the untold suffering of those who experience the violence first-hand, but the impact is also palpable as a gaping discrepancy between what we as academics “know” on the one hand and “do” on the other. Unfortunately, ignorance is a poor hiding place. Not taking a stance under the guise of “neutrality” is, in itself, a stance, yet one that is not fully shared by the academic community you are referring to. Already more than 3,600 Flemish academics have called on their rectors to come out in favour of a ceasefire and to boycott relations with Israeli institutions that support ethnic cleansing. By now, already more than 800 international experts in international law, conflict studies and genocide studies have warned of a potential genocide against Palestinians by Israel’s armed forces. War crimes are being committed and the UN mentions the risk of genocide. Choosing “neutrality” (as a euphemism for status quo?) in situations of injustice means choosing the side of the oppressor, as Desmond Tutu said many years ago.

Discrepancy between knowing and doing

 Although ‘knowing’ is often related to the empirical order, and ‘doing’ is of a practical order, the sense of discrepancy is located within an ethical order. Indeed, the path between “knowing” and “doing,” between observation and inference, between criticism and action, is often dictated by ethics. Whether moral or immoral, it is rarely amoral. To be clear: even if ‘acting’ would result from a faulty ‘knowledge’, or from a dubious ethical order, that would not change anything. Regardless, blocking the path between ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’ (out of opportunism, fear, feigned ignorance or for whatever reason), creates qualms with one’s own conscience.

Of course, this ethical order is relative. Precisely because of this relativity, norms were created. Although imperfect and never absolute, issues such as international law and human rights, to which you rightly refer to, provide guidance.

Because of this relativity (also historical), we honor not only norms but popular personalities as moral compasses. This is why the names of individuals like Nelson Mandela, Patrice E. Lumumba, and Hannah Arendt are bestowed upon auditoriums, institutes or even entire universities. Palestinian doctor Izzeldin Abuelaish, whose 3 daughters were killed by the Israeli army in 2009, and who lost 22 family members since the 9th of October, was awarded an honorary doctorate by our institution. As we celebrate our role models, we are forced to recalibrate our moral compass as we think through what they teach us. Whether coincidentally or not, they have often pointed in the opposite direction of where we prefer to see the ‘good’ in mainstream understanding: either due to flawed knowledge, a questionable ethical order, or in blocking the path between ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’, or the various combinations of these factors.

Academic boycott

Norms and role models can help us bridge the gap between ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’. Your politicised initiative to honour Lumumba as well as your erudite lessons in law and history provide us with strong grounds to once again call for BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) against institutions and organisations that directly or indirectly benefit from the illegal occupation and pressure Israel in a non-violent way to abide by international law, without boycotting individuals on the basis of their identity, such as citizenship, religion or opinion. Following the example of the struggle against the former apartheid state in South Africa, BDS is an important tool within our limited means to ensure that we are not complicit in the vicious cycle of violence. It is therefore also one of the small means to contribute as an organisation to sustainable safety for all across our campuses.

Certainly we do not always need to only rely on norms and role models. We agree, as you simply state, that “violence against innocent civilians is unacceptable”. Let us then simply stop accepting violence against innocent civilians. The absolute minimum that can be done, and what lies within our power, is to stop being complicit. In this case walking the talk means no longer partnering with these institutions, rather than actively contributing to the status quo.In a nutshell, BDS declares no more complicity until there is no more violence against civilians.

Academic freedom

We agree with you that academic freedom does not automatically coincide with “freedom of expression”. While the latter allows the freedom to make unscientific statements (but shouldn’t necessarily entitle just anyone an academic platform), the former implies the freedom to act from an “accurate” and “knowledgeable” place. Applying BDS, and thus abstaining as an institution from actions and initiatives that maintain or promote the status quo of the occupation, is precisely an expression of this academic freedom.

What lies out of the perimeters of academic freedom is the ‘whataboutism‘ that you seem to employ as official University of Antwerp doctrine, “What about the Congo, and Iran?” As academics, we are allergic to fallacious arguments. A reference to previous inaction (e.g. “we didn’t take responsibility for eastern Congo either!”) can never count as justification for further inaction (“so we won’t do it for Palestine”).

‘Whataboutism’ belies the fact that this is about our (also historical) responsibility, here and now. The question is not why the university is not taking a stand about the ongoing violence in Gaza, but why the university is taking a stand on itself. The issue is not Israel, occupied Palestine, or whichever name you want to use for this apartheid state (according to human rights organisations), the issue is us. What is most tangible are the current cooperation projects between our university and Israeli institutions that actively support and contribute to the illegal occupation, such as the Bar-Ilan University, an institution that advises the Israeli army (IDF) and has ties to a campus in the occupied West Bank; the Tel Aviv University, which receives sponsorship money from the Israel’s Ministry of Defence and provides scholarships to IDF reservists; and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, which provides academic programmes and support to the IDF.

Finally, where you torpedo academic freedom itself is your “whataboutism-except-for-Ukraine“. Your reasoning that academic sanctions on Russian academic institutions were indeed possible because Belgium is a member of NATO belies the academic independence of our university. Academic freedom means a university is capable to think for itself, and means that we as academics are not beholden to a military alliance. “Let’s define the future” is the slogan that “drives the University of Antwerp to bring about positive change and take on challenges within society.” That is what we signed up for as academics and students at UAntwerp.

Statement of commitment in the past, status quo for the future?

In summary, dear Rector, you press on the open wound upon the scar when you write that we are strongly impacted because violence on innocent civilians is unacceptable. The painful thing about the current status quo is that we do seem to accept it. And this, admittedly, is because despite a clearly shared ethos, we fail to put our money where our mouth is. Putting commitment into action is something you seemed to support when you declared, in the name of the University of Antwerp and as its representative, that the inauguration of the Lumumba auditorium also implies a commitment to the future. The future is now.

As rector you are an important voice in the public debate. Use that voice and stand up for a ceasefire. Cut the ties with academic institutions that are complicit in the war and the occupation.

  • Matthias De Groof, Professor of Film Studies and Visual Cultures, UA.
  • Gert Van Hecken, Professor of Development Studies, UA.
  • Roschanack Shaery-Yazdi, Professor of History, UA.
  • Philippe Meers, Professor of Film Studies and Visual Cultures, UA.
  • Eline Engelen, Student Language and Literature, UA.
  • Lukas Janssens, Student Student History, UA.
  • Danya Nadar, Doctoral student of Development Studies, UA.
  • Devanshi Saxena, Doctoral student of Law, UA.
  • Vincent Bellinkx, Research Coordinator IMDO, UA.
  • Richard Toppo, Postdoctoral Researcher in Development Studies, UA.
  • the Editorial Board of dwars, Student magazine University of Antwerp.