Lobby group persuades Dutch college to ban “boycott Israel” event

A Dutch university banned a public meeting on the academic boycott of Israel scheduled to take place yesterday. Although the board of the VU, a university in Amsterdam, had originally….

A Dutch university banned a public meeting on the academic boycott of Israel scheduled to take place yesterday.

Although the board of the VU, a university in Amsterdam, had originally given permission to the meeting, it decided to forbid the event at the last minute.

In a statement, Jaap Winter, the chairperson of the VU board, made an apparent reference to the recent attacks on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and on a Jewish supermarket in Paris.

According to Winter, the “civil unrest” created by “the events of last week” evoked “feelings of exclusion and insecurity” around the public meeting.

The university had agreed to host the discussion organized by SRP, a Dutch student group campaigning for justice in Palestine. Speakers booked to participate included Ronnie Barkan, an Israeli acitivist supporting the Palestinian-led call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, and former Dutch senator Anja Meulenbelt.

A post on a Facebook page set up to promote the SRP’s event helped trigger the ban. The event did go ahead, however, after a venue was found outside the university’s campus.

Mysterious post

On 8 January, SRP organizers were surprised to find an anti-Semitic post on their Facebook page from a certain “Muhammad Seher.” He expressed a wish that VU should be “free of Jews.” In doing so, he used a translation of Judenfrei, a Nazi term to designate an area where ethnic cleansing occurred during the Holocaust.

“Within twenty minutes we removed the post,” SRP member Thomas Van Beersum told me. But only eleven minutes after the vile posting, a screen shot was taken by an unknown person. It reached Dutch right-wing newspaper De Telegraaf, which published an article about the matter on Monday.

The paper stated that “the discussion about the safety of Jews has been cranked up” in Europe, referring to the killing of five people in a Jewish supermarket in Paris. The newspaper did not give SRP an opportunity to comment.

After the article had been published, SRP checked out the Facebook account of Muhammad Seher. It appears that Seher had only opened the account shortly before posting on the SRP page. His account can no longer be accessed.

This indicates that “Seher” may have posted his comments in a deliberate attempt to have the debate banned.

“Flood of reactions”

As soon as the newspaper article was published, the VU received “a flood of reactions” from students and academic staff, as well as people from outside the university, claiming they felt unsafe, VU spokesperson Aukje Schep told me.

By banning the event, the VU board effectively held pro-Palestine students responsible for a posting that none of them had made.

The Palestinian BDS National Committee, which oversees the campaign for a boycott of Israel, has explicitly and repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism. BDS activities are focused on the State of Israel and corporations doing business with it, not on Jews as a people.

It is no surprise that the leading Dutch pro-Israel lobby group CIDI welcomed the university’s decision. Esther Voet, CIDI’s director, went even further by saying that it was “not scientific” to facilitate an event focused on the boycott of Israeli universities. “The Vrije Universiteit would cut itself in the fingers because many scientists originate from Israel,” she told Dutch newspaper Het Parool.

On its website, CIDI has thanked its supporters for their efforts to have the SRP event banned. It stresses that the messages sent to the VU board by Zionists had a role to play in having the ban introduced.

That is a clear indication that the university’s administrators were more eager to keep an Israel lobby group happy than to faciliate free speech.