Home News Brussels campus protesters take familiar approach, but with different results

Brussels campus protesters take familiar approach, but with different results


On the leafy campus of a Dutch-language university, students have for months been demanding that their school sever ties with Israeli academia. Gaza War.

Their campaign drew heavily on Protests on US campuses The students have set up camps. They hold demonstrations every day. Sometimes they Use slogans Many Jews saw this as a call to destroy Israel, like “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

In the United States, protests took place The political environment is extremely polarized and relations are tense between students and administrators, and Fierce congressional hearingsBut in the Belgian capital, protests at the Free University of Brussels (VUB) were much more peaceful, thanks to a unique combination of factors: a supportive political environment (Belgium is an outspoken critic of Israel); a proactive rector; strict protest rules; and, crucially, a small Jewish community on campus that, while uncomfortable with some of the protests, chose not to clash with protesters.

Thus, similar protests sparked by war have brought chaos and violence. Go to US campus also in EuropeStudents on the Brussels campus were proud not only of the success of the protest but also of the atmosphere surrounding it.

“Look at what’s happening in America, it’s crazy,” said Ruaa Khatib, a Palestinian protester, as she woke up on a recent rainy morning after a late-night security shift at the camp.

She said the setup on her campus contrasted with the protests students have seen online and on social media. In the United States, the pro-Palestinian movement on college campuses has been amplified by extensive media coverage and the presidential election. There, campus clashes have opened up a new line of attack for Republicans, forcing President Biden to directly address an issue that divides the party.

Ms. Khatib said the divisions in Brussels reflected the political environment in Belgium, whose government has been one of the most vocal critics of Israel’s conduct in the Gaza war and one of the first in the European Union to call for a ceasefire.

That has not exempted it from the fierce debate over the war. Belgium is home to a large Jewish population and a Muslim minority, mostly of North African descent. Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia prevalence, groups focusing on both trends report that Things have gotten worse since the October 7 attack..

At VUB, students are tasked with protecting their camp by enforcing a list of rules posted on the walls. No drugs or alcohol, no outsiders, no violence, no anti-Semitism and no hate speech.

Ms. Khatib praised the university’s leadership for engaging with protesters from the beginning. Several pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel students at Liberty University said the university’s president, Jane Dancart, began a listening tour on campus shortly after Hamas launched its Oct. 7 attack on Israel. The attack killed about 1,200 people, according to Israeli authorities, took more than 200 hostages and triggered a violent Israeli military response that has killed more than 37,000 Gazans, according to local health officials.

Pro-Palestinian students are disappointed that Mr. Dancarter hasn’t done enough to support their cause. Pro-Israel students counter that he should do more to keep the campus neutral, free of graffiti and slogans. But both sides acknowledge that he is paying attention to their concerns.

Mr. Dancart approved the encampment, but he carved out a small area on the edge of campus and insisted on strict rules for protesters. He also resisted demands and chants from pro-Palestinian protesters, sometimes at the request of Jewish students.

In an interview, Dan Carter said he strongly supports free speech but is firmly against hate. “As long as the protests are peaceful and respectful to other members of the university community,” he said, “we believe that protests fall within the free speech and social engagement of our students.”

In the United States, university presidents have tried to stay out of the issue or evaded questions at congressional hearings. Sometimes pay their job.

Then there is the important issue of money. In the United States, students have been urging their universities to divest donations or investments related to Israel or defense companies. In Europe, Universities are largely funded by the state.

This has allowed pro-Palestinian student activists at the Free University of Brussels (VUB) to focus more on the idea of ​​an academic boycott and to scrutinize their university’s partnerships with Israeli institutions.

In response to the students’ demands, the university said its ethics committee was reviewing seven projects with Israeli partners and had said it would withdraw from one of them.

Jouke Huijzer, a doctoral student at VUB, said it was a “brave step” to end the partnership for ethical reasons. But Mr Huijzer, Ms Khatib and other students who support Palestine Supporters of the movement insist that a wider moratorium on ties with Israeli academic institutions is needed, a demand rejected by president Dan Carter.

“VUB does not advocate a blanket boycott of academic activity, as we believe that a dialogue with critical voices within Israel is a better option,” the university said in a statement last month. “Universities are often sites of resistance, or at least of providing a critical perspective on the authorities.”

In an interview with The New York Times, three Jewish students who spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons said there was a small Jewish student population at VUB, but they did not have an organized representative group. Instead, some Jewish students spoke directly to Mr. Deckert.

The university is a staunchly secular institution, which, according to one student, is why many Jewish students choose other schools. The small size of the Jewish community on campus also reflects the fact that most Brussels Jews speak French and prefer to attend French-language universities, such as the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), which is not far from the Vrije Universiteit Brussels.

The three Jewish students differed in their political views, expressing opinions ranging from mostly supporting Palestine to mostly supporting the Israeli government. But they all said slogans such as “Give us back to Palestine” ’48” and called for a “global uprising,” which was very threatening.

Some said that while they felt safe on campus (albeit awkwardly at times), they felt the climate of the student protests had its biggest impact outside of VUB, contributing to a wider climate of tolerance for anti-Semitism.

At the nearby French-speaking ULB, which has a larger Jewish student population, some pro-Israel students came into direct confrontation with pro-Palestinian protesters, at least once. quarrel This led to intervention by the authorities.

Three Jewish students interviewed by The New York Times for this article said they had experienced anti-Semitism on campus before and after Oct. 7, including in student forums and WhatsApp groups.

Organisers of the protest at the Free University of Brussels said they were determined to ensure their pro-Palestinian rhetoric was not confused with anti-Semitism. They also denied claims that the slogans they used were anti-Semitic, noting that pro-Palestinian Jewish speakers had spoken at their protests.

“Anti-Semitism is real, and Jews have faced a lot of hatred over the years,” Ms. Khatib said.

She said the main goal of the Free University protesters was to end their university’s “complicity” in what they call genocide, a charge Israel strongly denies, adding that the protesters were not doing it “to spread hatred against anyone.”

Koba Rickwart Contributed by Brussels Report, Johnson Rice From Tel Aviv.

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