As Israeli warplanes pounded the Gaza Strip for 11 consecutive days during the month of May, killing 256 Palestinians, including 61 children, pro-Palestinian groups received an “unprecedented wave” of solidarity statements—particularly from universities and other academic institutions. This support grew further amid the Israeli forces’ violent raids on al-Aqsa Mosque and forced evictions in East Jerusalem.

“What is significant about these pledges…is naming Israel’s oppression of Palestinians for what it is: a settler colonial regime that practices military occupation and apartheid,” said Stephanie Adam, a coordinator for The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel, in a recent interview with Inside Higher Ed.

Ms. Adam cited anti-racist movements, such as Black Lives Matter – along with recent reports by Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem accusing Israel of operating a system of apartheid in the Palestinian Territories – for spawning a “global reckoning” against Israel’s criminal enterprise, especially among academia.

Unfortunately, not all college campuses around the world have gotten the memo, and thus what we are witnessing today is a rear-guard offensive by neoliberal universities in the United States and Europe. This includes the Netherlands, a country long considered a bastion for liberal democratic values.

Universities Palestinian solidarity

Students at the Piet Zwart Institute in the Netherlands pose with their banner, made to show support for Palestinians in May 2021.

Students at Piet Zwart Institute (PZI) in Rotterdam learned this firsthand, a few hours after hanging a banner from the school’s main building on May 12, when mob attacks against Palestinians in East Jerusalem by Jewish settlers reached a zenith.

“STOP THE ETHNIC CLEANSING; #SaveSheikhJarrah; Free Palestine,” read the banner.

Shortly after, the school’s Dean received a call from his board – Hogeschool Rotterdam – urging him to remove the student’s banner, referring to its long held-held policy that prohibits school property from being used as a platform for political speech.

Yet the students were quick to spot the board’s hypocrisy and blatant double-standards by pointing out that it had approved the words “Je Suis Charlie” to be painted on the pillars at the entrance to its Willem de Kooning Academy, in response to the 2015 terrorist attack against the offices of Charlie Hebdo. It also permitted a statement of solidarity with Black Lives Matter on the school’s Instagram account, and a banner expressing criticism of the Dutch government’s immigration policies.

Moreover, the students highlighted that their protest against Israeli occupation and apartheid was consistent with the curriculum offered in post-colonial studies, and the discourse used by US-based Human Rights Watch and Israel-based human rights group B’Tselem.

[The Year 2021 May Have Broken the Back of the Israeli Occupation]

[We Must Maintain the Momentum for Palestine Against Israel’s War Crimes]

[Unity Intifada: Nothing Threatens Israel More Than Unified, Nonviolent Protest]

Indeed, it appears when it comes to Israel, the disconnect between the school’s board and its students and faculty could not be starker. Whereas students and faculty are mostly driven by the pursuit of evidence, truth, and knowledge—tertiary institutions are typically focused on profit and the avoidance of unwanted media attention.

The administrators of Piet Zwart are likely acutely aware of just how effective the Israeli Lobby is at generating negative media blowback.

Thus, the administrators of Piet Zwart are likely acutely aware of just how effective the Israeli Lobby is at generating negative media blowback against any individual or institution that expresses solidarity with the Palestinian people.

It’s for this reason college campuses throughout Europe and the United States have become a “growing front” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For instance, two days before the Dutch students held a rally against the board’s censure, the Central Student Government (CSG) at the University of Michigan issued a statement condemning Israel’s aerial assault against Gaza. The CSG also called out “Israeli settler colonialism, ethnic cleansing and apartheid.”

To mitigate against anticipated and bogus accusations of “anti-Semitism” from pro-Israel groups, the CSG was careful to emphasize that the Israeli occupation “threatens Palestinians of all religions.”

“In an effort to further suppress Palestinians, Israeli police and settler militias are currently targeting Muslims during the holiest month of Ramadan at the third most divine site in Islam, al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Additionally, Palestinian churches and other houses of worship have been targeted,” reads the statement.

Nevertheless, the backlash came swift and hard. Hillel International, the largest Jewish organization on US campuses, condemned the CSG in a counterstatement, and accused the students of using “inflammatory language that put the blame entirely on Israel.” Another group, Young Americans for Freedom, accused the student government of opening “the door to antisemitism against Jewish students.”

Pro-Israel activists enjoy backing from well-funded and influential political and special interest groups.

It is important to note that while pro-Palestinian activists typically receive support from student unions, faculty, and alumni bodies, pro-Israel activists enjoy backing from well-funded and influential political and special interest groups. In fact, even the Israeli government itself, which typically sends a chill into the executive boardrooms that oversee these schools.

“Renewed fighting in the Middle East has prompted students in universities across America, emboldened by last summer’s wave of Black Lives Matter protests, to rally against more than half a century of Israeli occupation and to call for an international boycott modeled on the ostracism of apartheid South Africa,” observes The Guardian.

But this activism has produced a spike in efforts by pro-Israel groups to come after pro-Palestinian student activists, with advocacy group Palestine Legal taking on 213 cases involving harassment and threats last year.

“While students and faculty struggled with questions around health, safety, and education in the early weeks of COVID-19 campus closures, administrators devoted time and energy to clamping down on campus activism for Palestinian rights,” said Palestine Legal in a recent statement.

The advocacy group also called out several university boards for falsely equating pro-Palestinian activism and the boycott Israel movement with anti-Semitism, including Columbia University, Point Park University, and Tufts University.

In stubbornly maintaining either a neutral or pro-Israel position, college administrators are denying international and human rights law. They are also missing an opportunity to stand against an illegal occupation while perpetuating false narratives around Palestinian solidarity, that erroneously align it with anti-Semitism, Islamic extremism, and Arab nationalism.