In the city of Ghent, the university president cut his ties with Israeli universities

In the city of Ghent, the university president cut his ties with Israeli universities

In the 1990s, when he was a young researcher at Ghent University, he was given “a great deal of freedom,” says Rick van de Walle, now the rector of that university. “In choosing my research topics, and in deciding who I wanted to collaborate with, I was able to travel a lot.” He also wishes this for the new generation of researchers, but he nevertheless chose to stop all forms of cooperation between Ghent University and Israeli universities and research institutions. To date, Ghent University is the only Flemish university to do so. No university in the Netherlands has done this yet. Van de Walle is happy to explain why.

His spacious office in the university administration overlooks the gray University Forum (UFO). This is the building that pro-Palestine demonstrators occupied from May 6 to mid-June. The protest was organized by the “Ghent Students for Palestine” organization, demanding that the university sever all ties with “Israeli institutions.”

May 6 was also the day that student protests began in the Netherlands, at the University of Amsterdam. But while police cleared the tent encampment on the University of Rottersland campus on the first night, Ghent University tolerated the occupation of the UFO building. The demonstrators set up tents and hung banners. They chanted slogans, gave workshops and speeches, and cooked for each other.


In the first week, Van de Walle wrote to students that he would not sever ties with Israel. Ghent University has had a human rights committee since 2018 and has already evaluated current cooperation with Israel. In the case of Ghent University, this included cooperation in consortia with different countries, in research on Alzheimer’s disease, obesity and wheat, among others.

At the end of May, the university president decided to stop all forms of cooperation with Israeli universities and educational institutions. Van de Walle has asked the Human Rights Commission to look again at such collaborations – but this time not at the project level, as usual, but at the institutional level. This all happened shortly after the protest got out of control. Students entered the university president’s office, destroyed objects and defaced the walls. A number of security guards were injured. This was enough for Van de Waals: the UFO occupation had to end. Because the students did not want to listen, the university went to court. It was decided (on appeal) that the demonstrators were no longer permitted to occupy the building.

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Van de Walle’s decision to sever ties with Israel appears to contradict the words framed on the wall of his office: “questionable,” “trust,” and “nuance.” But the university president believes he has lived up to those values. “Doubt, nuance, and confidence in your thinking. You have to be committed to continuing to ask questions and be willing to adjust your thinking. Isn’t that a core mission of the university? And yes, my thinking has evolved recently.”

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Why did you finally decide to cut ties?

“The human rights violations in Israel are extraordinary in terms of scale, nature and duration. The number of hospitals being bombed, the number of educational institutions, the proportion of women and children. There is no prospect of ending it. There is no indication from the government of that. We – the Human Rights Commission and I – believe that the situation In Gaza, it is very bad. Then there is the interconnection between Israeli universities and research institutions on the one hand and the government, defense and security agencies on the other hand, which is why the committee in this case abandons its usual careful approach and looks at the institutional level rather than the project level.

Didn’t you also succumb to the pressure of the protests?

“The students clearly put the problem on the map and encouraged us to pay more attention to it. It would be silly to deny that.”

But we did not meet all the demands of the demonstrators. They want a complete boycott of Israel. I will never defend that, ever. never. For me, it is not possible to stop collaborating with an individual or research institution solely on the basis of location. This is as unthinkable as treating people negatively simply because of their nationality. At one point, our Human Rights Commission recommended that individual cooperation with Israel not be allowed in the future simply because it is Israeli. “I was completely against it.”

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Pro-Palestine demonstrators did University Directorate Ghent University is distorted.

In contrast to the Netherlands, the rector in Flanders is democratically elected. You have been elected by university staff and students. Did that play a role in your decision to accommodate the demonstrators?

“Yes and no. At no time did I wonder how many people would or wouldn’t vote for me next year. We also don’t even know if all the protesters were students. But I was chosen to advance the university’s vision. And the great importance we attach to Human rights are a core component of the DNA of Ghent University.”

The Dutch vice-chancellors were appointed two weeks ago devotion that Open brief They wrote that they would not categorically sever all ties with Israel. This is inconsistent with the academic freedom they find so important. However, they will “carefully weigh” partnerships.

Van de Walle finds it unclear what exactly they mean. “If they presented me with the letter and said: ‘This letter means that you must simply continue to cooperate with Israeli universities’, I would not sign it. If they mean: you have to examine each collaboration individually, I will sign, because that is exactly what we did, at the institutional level.

“By the way, the academic freedom of individual researchers was not affected by our decision,” he says. “And to be clear: I understand the position of the Dutch university rectors. But we are a university that attaches great importance to human rights. This is partly because we have so many researchers working on it.

But on an institutional level, you are now curtailing academic freedom when it comes to Israel.

“You could say: The basic tasks of a university are to conduct research and disseminate knowledge, and these tasks take precedence over everything and everyone. If you then infer further, you arrive at the conclusion that involvement in human rights violations is always subservient to those core tasks. This is a very legitimate position, but our position is: these basic tasks remain subject to preconditions and one of them is that we do not want to contribute to human rights violations.

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Ghent University cooperates with Israel only in groups, funded by European Union funds. Is it legally possible to cancel these collaborations?

“We are now examining what is legally possible. We will first see whether it is possible to remove the universities that emerged through the bids as problematic from the associations. If that does not work, we will come out ourselves – even if it costs us money.”

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Now that you have abandoned the HRC’s “close” scrutiny of Israel, shouldn’t you do the same for other countries?

“I don’t see any reason for that at the moment. But if evidence emerges that the same situation exists in another country as in Gaza, then obviously we will apply the same policy.”

Rick van de WalleDean of Ghent University.

Pro-Palestine demonstrators at Ghent University remain unsatisfied. They want to continue the protest because they believe you should also cut ties with Israeli companies. Isn’t this frustrating?

“The word is not depressing. It is a feeling of not understanding, which is different from misunderstanding. Not understanding is judgmental, but frankly I don’t understand it. The committee also examined those companies. This shows that there is currently no evidence of involvement in human rights violations.”

“I had conversations twice with a large group of students. We sent a mediator – he was the diversity and inclusion coordinator at our university – but we couldn’t come to a solution because the activists just want a complete boycott of Israel.”

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