This week, I read an open letter in which doctoral students, staff members and lecturers urge VUB to take more action. I noted a harsh and somewhat threatening tone, and continue to advocate for respectful dialogue. 

The letter presents a list of demands, headed by an academic boycott as the sole response to the dire and inhumane situation in Gaza. 

Clearly, the war has stirred emotions. On 7 October, Hamas carried out an abhorrent and unacceptable terrorist attack on Israel. The response by Israel unleashed unprecedented death and destruction in Gaza, which continues to this day. 

This has led to student demonstrations and occupations around the world, including here. As a university, we will tolerate these protests as long as they do not compromise a safe learning and working environment on our campuses. 

It is positive that students and lecturers are expressing their views. Universities should be places where debate can occur. However, violence, racism and antisemitic intimidation are always unacceptable. Destruction and vandalism are deeply regrettable. 

The rights of students who wish to study, of lecturers who wish to teach and of researchers who wish to conduct research always take precedence. This is also inherent to a university.

VUB takes a stand 

From the outset, VUB, in partnership with the Hannah Arendt Institute, has taken a clear stance, which we articulated in an opinion piece in De Standaard: β€œWe urgently call for an immediate ceasefire and unequivocally side with international law, in particular the recognition and protection of human rights. We oppose both the use of terror as an instrument, which can be attributed to Hamas, and the Israeli system of occupation and colonisation. In so doing, we consistently call a spade a spade.”

European response 

More than eight months later, as rector and as a human being, I believe Israel must immediately stop the abhorrent violence in Gaza, and that Israel should be held accountable, as demanded by the International Court of Justice. But why not an academic boycott? The EU funds ground-breaking research through its Horizon programmes, which also involve Israeli partners. Horizon research is by definition non-military. Moreover, these scientific consortia, involving dozens of universities, are of significant scientific importance, for instance in medicine. That is why all Flemish universities, united in the Flemish Interuniversity Council (VLIR), have written to the European Commission (LINK) asking how universities should approach research projects involving Israeli partners, given the rulings of the International Court of Justice.

Ongoing projects 

At VUB, as repeatedly indicated, we have submitted four ongoing research projects with Israeli partners to the ethics committee. The committee is currently reviewing these projects and we expect their advice this month. Previously, on 8 May, we announced that following a negative evaluation from the ethics committee, we intend to terminate a Horizon research project on artificial intelligence involving two Israeli partners. We have also provided full transparency about other collaborations involving Israeli partners. In the event of negative advice, we will start a procedure to withdraw from the project, or explore the possibility of the Israeli partner withdrawing, which would be more logical. 

This is my response to the call for a general academic boycott. I would now like to address other concerns raised in the open letter. 

I largely agree with the signatories; only on certain measures do we differ.

Support for Palestinians 

We agree that actions by VUB that perpetuate the occupation of Palestine are unacceptable. We support the rights of Palestinians to education and academic training, both in Belgium and in Palestine. 

Where we partially align:

  • Unlike other universities, VUB has no bilateral cooperation with Israeli partners. There are therefore no such agreements that we can terminate.
  • My chairmanship of VLIR does not mean that VUB can dictate what other universities should do. We would never accept the reverse. But I refer again to the letter from VLIR to the European Commission.  We are the first rectors’ conference in Europe to take this step.
  • We support a commercial boycott of Israel by not renewing contracts with certain companies. For all collaborations with companies, VUB will develop a procurement procedure, within the framework of public procurement legislation, which includes a sustainability and human rights assessment and explicitly incorporates clauses about these in the contracts.
  • Of course, if we withdraw from a project, VUB will fulfil its contractual obligations with the researchers concerned. The costs associated with the termination of a collaboration will be considered on a project-by-project basis in consultation with the research groups in question.

Finally, there are a few specific requests we can accommodate:

  • Protecting protesting students and staff. For VUB, the right to protest is crucial, as long as it is constructive and no criminal offences occur.
  • The student who was injured last week has been contacted. Like any student in a similar medical situation, she can of course apply to sit exams at another time.

Future approach 

I believe it is now important to look to the future. I will propose to the Academic Council that we ban future collaborations with the Israeli government and agencies directly under it. For other potential new collaborations with Israeli partners, we will reverse the burden of proof: we will only allow a collaboration if the Israeli partner declares that it adheres to international law and the current and future rulings of the International Court of Justice and acts accordingly. This ensures we remain consistent with our support for international jurisprudence and only collaborate with critical voices in Israel.

Finally, it is essential that everyone feels safe on our campuses and that calls for racism, hate, antisemitism, violence, etc are completely unacceptable. We ask everyone to pay close attention to this and address students and colleagues firmly yet kindly if such calls occur. Let us ensure that exams can take place in complete tranquillity. 

β€œSpeak freely, listen respectfully, different opinions matter.”

Jan Danckaert 

Rector, Vrije Universiteit Brussel