Dutch universities boycott Russia, but bow to Israel lobby

Adri Nieuwhof

The Electronic Intifada  /  March 7, 2022

Last week, universities in the Netherlands jointly announced that they are cutting off all ties with institutions in Russia and Belarus.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Dutch universities stated, “is a direct assault on liberty and democracy, which are the fundamental values undergirding academic freedom and cooperation.”

Yet the same universities have caved in to an Israel lobby campaign urging them to defy a freedom of information request.

The request seeks information about their relationships with Israeli universities, Israel lobby groups and weapons companies including Elbit Systems, Rafael and notorious cyberwarfare firm NSO Group.

For years, Palestinians have called for a boycott of Israeli universities because of their complicity in Israel’s regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid.

In January, The Rights Forum submitted the freedom of information request to 14 Dutch universities on behalf of concerned academics and students.

Founded by former Dutch Prime Minister Dries van Agt, The Rights Forum describes itself as “a high-level network of former ministers and professors of international law who have joined forces to promote a just and durable solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.”

It is a mainstream organization whose advisory board includes former lawmakers, officials, Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire, Jaap Hamburger, chair of A Different Jewish Voice, and Ghada Zeidan, a Palestinian human rights advocate.

In a statement on 11 February, the Dutch universities acknowledged that the request sought information about “the institutional ties of Dutch universities with universities, institutions and businesses in Israel and with organizations that propagate support for the State of Israel.”

Moreover, they said, the request “specifically excludes partnerships between individual academics.”

The universities said they had a “statutory duty” to respond to the request but that “this does not mean that all requested information must be made public in its entirety.”

The statement – already somewhat defensive – followed a firestorm of protest from Israel supporters.

A day earlier, NIW, a Dutch pro-Israel weekly, published a leaked copy of the freedom of information request, falsely accusing The Rights Forum of anti-Jewish bigotry.

This unleashed a flood of smears, threats and attacks against The Rights Forum and its staff.

Also, on 10 February, Gert-Jan Segers, the leader of the Christian Union party, called on universities to violate Dutch law and simply ignore the information request.

The Christian Union is part of the ruling coalition.

Segers claimed that the information requests were “anti-Semitic.”

Child of Holocaust survivors

Allard de Rooi, a member of The Rights Forum’s staff who is Jewish, told The Electronic Intifada how this all felt.

“I am a child of Holocaust survivors. That marked my life,” he said.

“The accusations and threats like ‘you better arrange security’ are unbearable. They infuriate me and their huge number is terrifying.”

“In a broader perspective, we should all be alarmed by the fact that attacks against rights-based organizations have become a worldwide standard,” de Rooi added.

The Rights Forum submitted the freedom of information request on behalf of Dutch Scholars for Palestine and several student solidarity groups.

According to Layal Ftouni, a professor at Utrecht University, Dutch Scholars for Palestine arose out of two petitions last May – during Israel’s attack on Gaza – that addressed institutional complicity with Israel’s human rights violations.

One was signed by around 600 academics in their individual capacities, the other by academic departments and organizations.

Holocaust trivialization

Whereas the Dutch universities cut all ties with Russian and Belarusian institutions just because of their national identity, Ftouni pointed out that the freedom of information request about Israeli universities was motivated by concern over “formal relationships at the institutional level where one of those institutions is implicated in serious human rights abuses, including war crimes.”

The request also seeks information about the relationship between Dutch universities and entities that promote Israel and engage in campaigns to silence and demonize students, academics and others advocating for Palestinian rights.

These include Netherlands-based lobby group CIDI, which has been at the forefront of efforts to silence critics of Israel.

The Dutch and European Union coordinators for combating anti-Semitism, Eddo Verdoner and Katharina von Schnurbein, are also included in the information request.

After university administrations passed the request on to staff, a copy was leaked to NIW.

“This is obviously intimidating, especially for Jewish employees,” NIW asserted about the freedom of information request. “A university employee rightly remarks: ‘What is the next step? That Jews in universities should all wear a yellow star?’”

Such Holocaust trivialization was a common theme.

columnist for the right-wing Dutch daily De Telegraaf compared the information request to “a manhunt, a raid.”

She claimed it was a test by The Rights Forum to see how far the Netherlands could go with an institutional witch-hunt against Jewish contacts. “How much hatred must you have to do this injustice to grandchildren of Holocaust survivors?” she wondered.

Israel lobbyists also launched vicious attacks on The Rights Forum’s director Gerard Jonkman, who signed the information request.

For example, CIDI researcher Kees Broer published information about Jonkman’s private life which bore no relation to the freedom of information request.

Former CIDI employees Wim Kortenoeven and Hidde van Koningsveld poured fuel on the fire.

They currently live in the Israeli settlement of Eli in the occupied West Bank, a colony built in violation of international law.

Kortenoeven tweeted foul language characterizing Jonkman as a Nazi officer.

Van Koningsveld, a convert to Judaism who changed his first name to Akiva when he moved to Elitweeted:

“If it were up to The Rights Forum and director Gerard Jonkman, Jewish students at Dutch universities would now be forced to wear a yellow star – entirely in the anti-Semitic tradition of Dries van Agt. Disgusting.”

NIW must have been aware of the consequences of revealing the name of the person who signed the freedom of information request.

Law is optional for some

The Rights Forum’s freedom of information request is – as the Dutch universities acknowledged – a matter of law.

But it seems that where the law infringes on Israel’s interests, it becomes optional.

In urging the universities to ignore their legal obligations to process the information request, Christian Union leader Gert-Jan Segers argued that ethics come before the law.

His party also applies the “ethics before the law” principle to Jerusalem.

On its website the party states that “The Dutch embassy will be established in Jerusalem, the undivided capital of the State of Israel.”

It would appear however that Prime Minister Mark Rutte is entirely happy with members of his coalition showing such contempt for both Dutch and international law.

Universities back down

This barrage of smears, misinformation and lies appears to have had the intended effect: On 21 February, the Dutch universities jointly declared that “They have decided not to comply with parts of this request.”

The reason, they asserted, “is that the request asks them to disclose not just ties with organizations in Israel, but also those with Dutch and international organizations that study religion, promote remembrance and combat anti-Semitism.”

Although they had previously acknowledged that the information request covered only institutional ties, the universities now claimed: “Targeting specific members of the public, including students, staff and alumni of our universities, leads to feelings of insecurity, injustice and discrimination. We will not assist in this.”

The Dutch universities are, however, happy to assist in a deceitful Israel lobby smear campaign to shield political lobby groups from scrutiny.

The Rights Forum supported by concerned academics and students should insist that the universities fully respect the law.

An exception for Israel

For Allard de Rooi, the attacks against The Rights Forum “reveal the agenda of the Israel lobby of forbidding debate at all cost. Everything revolves around the destruction of critics.”

“The fact that they also target Jewish critics betrays that the well-being of the Jewish community is irrelevant to that agenda,” de Rooi added.

“My parents warned me to be aware of signs of exclusion of Jews or other population groups,” de Rooi recalls.

Today, he says, the universities are doing exactly that by exempting pro-Israel organizations from generally applicable legal and democratic rules just because they identify as Jewish.

The Israel lobby has succeeded in carving out another exception for Israel, by allowing the organizations that aid and abet its crimes against Palestinians to escape public accountability.

“My parents taught me to work for equality and justice, and to stand up against injustice,” de Rooi said. “To watch the Israel lobby doing the exact opposite, pretending to represent me as a Jew, is an insult.”

Adri Nieuwhof is a human rights advocate based in the Netherlands and former anti-apartheid activist at the Holland Committee on Southern Africa

Ali Abunimah contributed research.