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‘Let’s try not to lose sight of each other’ – Interview with Annetje Ottow

The conflict between Israel and Hamas has had a clear impact on Leiden University. Students and staff are angry or scared, feel unsafe and are experiencing group pressure. Some students no longer dare to come to campus and incidents relating to the conflict have taken place.

The situation at the university is not in isolation: outside our university too are fierce debates, demonstrations and pressure on institutions to take sides. Antisemitic and Islamophobic hate speech is on the rise. It’s a time of polarisation in extremis.

We spoke about the situation with Annetje Ottow, President of the Leiden University Executive Board.

These are pretty turbulent times, both outside and inside the university.

‘They definitely are. We’re also noticing that here in Leiden: on the one hand, the outside world accuses us of acting against pro-Palestinian students and staff, and on the other, we’re accused of giving this group free rein in our organisation and leaving Jewish people out in the cold. This is not an accurate representation and it is incredibly unpleasant and upsetting for everyone involved.

‘What bothers me is the ferocity of the current debate. People are saying the most terrible things, on the street and on social media. Within groups, universities, businesses and governments people sometimes have diametrically opposing viewpoints, and this is the case for us too. It seems as though we are losing sight of each other. And if there is one place where there should always be room for different opinions, for mutual respect, for connection and interpretation, it is a university.’

How do you feel when you hear that some people currently do not feel safe at our university?

‘I find that very troubling. People do feel unsafe at our university at the moment and it shouldn’t be that way. As the board, we feel responsible for doing something about this situation, but we cannot do that alone. I think we should all be more considerate of others. It is the responsibility of our entire academic community to create an atmosphere where there is room for people with different opinions or beliefs. That is one of our founding principles, and we should not forget or abandon this. After all, two of our core values are “freedom” and “responsibility”. We need to create a calm space and give others the chance to speak and to listen.’

As university president, what have you noticed of the upset and tensions?

‘First and foremost, I’ve obviously noticed it in our community. Students and colleagues who are affected by the conflict, feel connected to a particular group or are upset by the fervour of the discourse. There is also a petition going around expressing student and staff displeasure with what happened at the demonstration at the Wijnhaven building on 9 November.

‘And the Executive Board has been receiving letters and emails daily from concerned or angry people since the conflict began. Sometimes these are students or staff, but we have also received reactions from parents, researchers from abroad or others who feel strongly about the conflict. Almost without exception, they request or demand that we take sides, that we speak out for one of the warring factions. But while some of the responses are truly heartbreaking, this is not something that we will do.’

No? Can’t you say where the university stands on this conflict?

‘No, we really won’t do that because that goes against what we are here for as an institution. We conduct academic teaching and research. We can teach about the topic and examine the backgrounds and causes of the conflict and interpret the current one, but that’s where it ends. We do not have a political perspective or preference, so we are not going to take sides in every conflict. Our students and staff are free to express their opinions, as long as they do not incite hate or discriminate, but the university as an institution does not express one.’

Some people are making a comparison with the war in Ukraine. Then the university strongly condemned the Russian invasion. Why did it do so then?

‘The big difference from that conflict is that almost our entire academic community was united behind Ukraine. The conflict between Israel and Hamas has sown a lot of division internally. Some believe that Israel is fighting for survival whereas others speak of genocide of the Palestinian people. Those are two strong, almost irreconcilable positions. Speaking out on this issue would only cause more polarisation.’

So the university is not taking sides in this war. But what about you personally?

‘Personally, I am horrified that all those civilians were attacked and killed in the Hamas attack on Israel. And I am horrified that there have been so many civilian casualties in the attack on Gaza. I cannot be clear enough about that, and this also applies to the other board members. All these civilian deaths are the human cost of a terrible conflict that has gripped much of the world. You can see this in the media, for example, with the war in Ukraine, along with conflicts in countries like Mali and Sudan, almost completely fading into the background.

‘The human tragedy, all that personal loss is so upsetting. I think, and hope, there is at least one thing we can all agree on: the thousands of casualties this war has claimed so far are truly saddening. It feels like the world is on fire, in addition to all the other problems we are already experiencing.’

Emotions were running high in our own community after the pro-Palestine demonstration at the Wijnhaven building in The Hague on 9 November in particular. How do you look back on this event now, more than a week later?

‘I’m afraid that no one at the university has come off well after this episode because it has only caused more fear and anger within our community. The protesters feel they were treated unfairly by the university. And in turn, some of the witnesses are terrified and do not understand why the protest went ahead at all. It has only magnified the divisions, which is very sad to see.’

What exactly do you think went wrong?

‘To begin with, the people behind the demonstration should have given advance notice of their plans. This is clearly stated in our regulations. You may think these rules are a load of fuss about nothing, but they definitely aren’t. The rules are there to ensure that we can all move around freely and safely within our community and that the situation does not get out of hand. The university also needs time to make any preparations to ensure demonstrations proceed safely. That is why the Executive Board condemned the demonstration that same evening, a decision we still stand behind.

‘The protesters feel that the protest itself went well and without incident. And although I believe that they sincerely feel this way, it was perceived very differently by some of those present. And we cannot ignore that. I do wonder how things would have turned out had the demonstration been announced in advance. Then we might have been more able to manage the protest. Another event, a teach-in, was held last Monday, and this time we did have advance notice. That went well, which shows this is possible.’

Some protesters and media also criticised the role of security guards afterwards.

‘Yes, we have received reports of that and these are serious allegations. An evaluation of exactly what happened is currently underway. We want to be very thorough about this and are talking to representatives of all the groups involved. Something like this takes time, so I can’t say anything more about it at this time. But our community should obviously expect us to ensure that our security guards abide by the rules.’

Have there been times recently when boundaries were crossed as far as you are concerned?

‘It’s a shame but we cannot deny that there have been some incidents where a line really was crossed. In the demonstration on 9 November, for example, slogans were chanted that other people present perceived as discriminatory. And then there are the flyers that surfaced outside Campus The Hague last month. They express support for Hamas’s attack on Israel, which means you condone the murder of innocent civilians. That is truly reprehensible. It is also causing quite a commotion in society, and questions have been asked in parliament about it.

‘These things are unacceptable; that’s the main thing. But I also find it so sad that we too are seeing such strong words and feelings. The Executive Board understands that it can be hard to hold back and that emotions can run high. We do get that. But we would ask everyone to continue to respect each other and each other’s opinions. That really is the foundation upon which our university was built. If we lose sight of that, we will find ourselves in an impossible situation as a community.’

The university has been accused of doing nothing or too little against incidents like the one with the flyers.

‘That is an opinion I don’t share. First of all, most of the posts on social media on this topic are not accurate. It has been suggested that we simply allowed the flyers to be distributed but this is not permitted at the university at all. Our security guards are careful to ensure that this does not happen. Anyone doing so will be immediately told to stop.

‘The Executive Board has also informed students and staff in several messages that hate speech and incitement to violence and bigotry will not be tolerated by the university under any circumstances. We have recently tightened security at our sites as a result of the heightened tensions. So we take this issue very seriously while wishing that none of this was necessary.

‘We do have to be realistic though: you cannot guarantee that you can prevent such incidents. We have over 33,000 students and thousands of staff. You can’t control them all, nor would we want to. And what happens outside our buildings is beyond our control. That is public space.’

Leiden calls itself a ‘learning university’. What have you learned from these recent events?

‘The Executive Board is closely monitoring the recent developments within our community. Because we do indeed want to learn from these experiences. We have talked a lot with people from our community and, more importantly, listened. As a result, we have decided to organise some things a little differently and to bring our knowledge and expertise more to the fore.

‘As people will know, we stand for open debate, where everyone should be able to engage with others respectfully. But we have found that in these difficult times, groups of people also want to be able to talk to like-minded people alone. We also want to create space for this. This is why we have decided to relax the rules on events and meetings.’

What does that mean exactly?

‘We want to create more space for our community to come together. From now on groups of students and/or staff can request events, such as teach-ins, for groups of like-minded people. The organisers are responsible for ensuring that things run smoothly and that people treat each other with respect. If we notice that people are not abiding by these rules, we will intervene. These are clear, straightforward ground rules. We hope this combination of flexibility and clarity will make students and staff feel safer about coming together and talking openly about their feelings and opinions.

‘In addition, our Rector Magnificus Hester Bijl recently set up a special task force. This group, led by Mirjam de Baar, is going to encourage and coordinate knowledge sharing (academic literature, lectures and dialogues) on the conflict so that people inside and outside the university can learn more about it. The group also wants to reach out to lecturers who want to discuss the conflict in their lectures. And it wants to offer support to students and staff of Israeli and Palestinian descent and those who have relatives living in the affected areas. All this knowledge and information will soon appear on a special web page.

‘I think these are good examples of how our university can make a contribution to a crisis like this: we can use our experts and our knowledge to inform and interpret, and we may be able to improve people and society’s understanding of the conflict. So we are providing the opportunity to look at the issue from a different angle as well, to seek nuance.’

And let’s try to end on a positive note: What would be a good outcome for you?

‘The short answer is to end this war as soon as possible. But unfortunately, it’s not as easy as that. This is a long-standing and extraordinarily complex conflict. And I find that often little is known about the background and causes of what is happening now. And that is precisely where I see an opportunity for our university: we have experts who can talk about the political, military, ethnic and religious aspects of the conflict.

‘These are turbulent times, but let’s not give up hope. Let’s not lose sight of each other, but continue to listen to each other and seek and find common ground. Let’s try to become closer and keep the peace. This is what I desperately wish for our academic community. As the Executive Board, together with the deans, we will do all we can to ensure a safe, open and inclusive community.’

Photo: Eelkje Colmjon

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