Dutch universities ignore Israeli research partners’ complicity in human rights abuses

Dutch Scholars for Palestine

Mondoweiss  /  May 16, 2023

Dutch universities need a principled human rights policy that prohibits cooperation with institutions complicit in systematic rights abuses. This includes an academic boycott of Israel.

Extensive research by students and scholar-activists in the Netherlands finds that Dutch universities ignore the complicity of their Israeli research partners in the apartheid and ethnic cleansing in Palestine. In this opinion piece, the activists make a case for a university partnership policy based on human rights that excludes all institutions complicit in systemic human rights abuses. Such a policy would necessarily imply an academic boycott of Israel.

Problematic research collaborations

The most respected internationalPalestinian, and Israeli human rights organizations agree that Israel operates an apartheid regime against Palestinians. Israeli universities are fundamentally complicit in Israel’s militaristic, colonial, apartheid society. After all,  they train the administrators, managers, researchers, specialists, and lawyers who make running it possible. Moreover, Israel’s international reputation as a prestigious research hub plays a significant role in obscuring the country’s dismal human rights record.

Dutch universities regularly participate in partnerships with Israeli universities and public institutions, such as ministries, many of whom play a shamefully important role in the systematic oppression of Palestinians. For example, from 2014 to the present, Dutch universities participated in circa 30 European research consortiums involving the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The Hebrew University owns several buildings on occupied Palestinian land in East Jerusalem; has proactively joined efforts to expel Palestinian families from their homes, hosts a military academy; and has lent its rooftops to police surveilling Palestinians. Not to mention, the CEO of Israel’s largest private arms company, Elbit Systems, is honorary chairman of the Executive Board of Hebrew University. Likewise, the Haifa-based Technion Institute for Technology is deeply tied to the Israeli arms industry and has profited from working with Dutch universities on 30 similar projects since 2014. The Palestinian campaign for the academic boycott of Israel (PACBI) has compiled proof that the Hebrew University and Technion are no exceptions 

Dutch universities also work with Israeli companies that profit from the oppression of Palestinians. For example, Utrecht University worked with Israeli water utility company Hagihon in a European research consortium from 2015 to 2019. The company extracts water in occupied Palestinian territory and supplies it to, among other buyers, Israeli colonies. In 2014, Palestinians took the company to court for cutting between 60,000-80,000 of them off from running water. Around the same time, the University of Groningen worked on a project coordinated by Verint Systems, an Israeli spyware company. A 2018 article by the Israeli daily paper Haaretz revealed that Verint helped the governments of Peru and South Sudan, among others, eavesdrop on human rights activists. The Technical University of Delft has worked on several projects with Israel Aerospace Industries, a government-owned company that profits from developing aircraft, drones, and missiles sold to the Israeli army and armies worldwide.

FOIA requests

To lay bare the full scope of cooperation with Israeli partners, we, a coalition of student and scholar-activists, sent a set of Freedom of Information Act requests (“FOIA requests”) to Dutch universities in early 2022 with the help of Dutch human rights organization The Rights Forum. In these requests, we requisitioned documents that underlie cooperation, such as contracts, as well as documents that might reveal internal discussions about the human rights violations in which their Israeli partners are intimately involved.

In 2021, the European Legal Support Center (ELSC), an organization dedicated to providing legal support and advice to people in Europe advocating for Palestinian rights, published a report mapping a pattern of silencing Palestinian rights advocates in the Netherlands. University campuses were among the primary targets of this silencing. This corresponds to our experiences of administrative uncooperativeness and hostility toward organizing on campus. The ELSC also mapped several of the foremost perpetrators known to be involved in pushing this repression. Therefore, the FOIA requests also requisitioned official communications between Dutch universities and such Dutch and international pro-Israel organizations as the Center for Information and Documentation Israel (CIDI), Christians For Israel, and StandWithUs.

Refusal under pressure

Not entirely coincidentally, when the FOIA requests leaked to the press within days of filing, the very same pro-Israel organizations accused The Rights Forum of anti-Semitism. They alleged that the requests targeted Jewish organizations and employees. On the contrary, the requests were carefully written to target documents at the institutional level and to avoid requisitioning any data on employees or their individual communications. Moreover, the requests explicitly stated that their object was “institutional ties to Israeli universities, institutions, companies and organizations that propagate support for the state of Israel.” Under pressure from pro-Israel organizations, the universities decided not to comply with the section of the request about pro-Israel organizations and, damningly, the section on universities’ human rights policies vis-à-vis Israel.

In response to an internal appeal filed by The Rights Forum, an interuniversity advisory committee composed of very senior lawyers concluded that the universities actions were illegal and failed to comply with the FOIA. The committee included Robert Crince le Roy, dean of the Dutch Bar Association, and Erik van den Emster, former president of the Council for the Judiciary. Because the universities have chosen to ignore the advice of the committee, the Rights Forum has now lodged an appeal with the Amsterdam administrative court.

Human rights policy falls short

Dutch universities’ commitments to human rights appear not to extend to protecting Palestinian human rights. In the first place, this is evident from their refusal to divulge policy documents that would show at least consideration for Palestinian rights when collaborating with Israel—assuming that such documents even exist. Second, this is evident from their refusal to reveal how they relate to outspokenly pro-Israel organizations. Finally, it is evident from the hundreds of documents that they have disclosed about research cooperation with Israel: there is no mention anywhere of how the proposed cooperation relates to the rights of Palestinians.

Marking the 75th year since the beginning of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, students and scholars in the Netherlands call on their universities to implement a principled human rights policy that rules out cooperation with institutions and companies systemically complicit in rights abuses. This naturally includes an academic boycott of Israel. The longer our universities continue to work with oppressors and their accomplices, and the longer they avoid accountability, the louder our call for justice will be.

Editor’s Note: Dutch Scholars for Palestine is an organization of academic workers in solidarity with Palestine; several Netherlands-based student collectives in solidarity with Palestine also contributed to this article, including, Students For Palestine (The Hague), Students for Justice in Palestine (Amsterdam), Utrecht in Solidarity with Palestine, Free Palestine Maastricht, Groningen For Palestine, Palestine Solidarity Rotterdam