Students filled a lecture hall for a lecture via Skype by Palestinian leftist parliamentarian Khalida Jarrar at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Free University of Brussels, VUB) on Wednesday evening, March 4, after student organizers defeated an attempt by Israel’s ambassador to Belgium to cancel Israeli Apartheid Week at the Dutch-speaking university in the Belgian capital.
A small media firestorm erupted at the university after news reports that Israel’s ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg, Jacques Revah, had complained to the VUB’s Rector, Paul De Knop, about the organizing of Israeli Apartheid Week on the campus. In particular, Revah, following earlier complaints by a Zionist lobby organization, the Belgian League Against Antisemitism, complained about Jarrar’s presentation as well as a planned talk by former Israeli fighter pilot Yonatan Shapira. Joel Rubinstein of the BLAA had earlier threatened legal action against the university for allowing Jarrar, a leader in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a leftist Palestinian political party listed as a “terrorist organization” by the European Union, to speak.
Even more troubling, De Knop stated that the IAW events would be cancelled, or, in the alternative, be permitted to continue, but only with the inclusion of a speaker from the Israeli embassy or another pro-Zionist voice. IAW at VUB was organized by COMAC, the youth movement of the Workers’ Party of Belgium, along with Palestinian groups and other student organizations, all of whom immediately rejected this proposal.
Supporters of IAW launched an online petition, which garnered over 700 messages to the rector in support of the events, while organizations in Belgium and internationally voiced their support for the VUB students and their freedom of speech and expression. In particular, the fact that this censorship was taking place at the behest of the Israeli ambassador was galling for community members. “A lot of students were astonished by the fact that the Israeli Embassy could have so much power. Students have the right to organize events without the interference of political pressure,” said Sanae, a student at VUB and one of the organizers of IAW. “The principles of our free University, academic freedom and free inquiry, were going to be violated by this act of interference of the Israeli embassy.”
On March 2, the first planned IAW event at the university, a discussion with author Lucas Catherine, was cancelled and replaced by a discussion on academic freedom and the interference of the Israeli embassy. “First it was cancelled by the VUB for ‘administrative’ reasons,” said VUB second-year student Kamel Badarneh, of the Progressive Palestinian Youth in Brussels. “After talks between the organizers and the rector, he decided not to cancel it, provided that somebody from the Israeli Embassy comes to speak. We cancelled it rather than give in to the pressure, and Lucas Catherine himself refused to take part in any event on the conditions of the Israeli embassy,” Badarneh noted.
“VUB adopts freedom of speech and academic freedom as its main principles. The ‘V’ in VUB stands for ‘vrige’ (free). Therefore, VUB shouldn’t allow any external party to interfere in the affairs of the students, and especially not the embassy of a state that is involved in wide-scale repression and war crimes,” said Badarneh. On Tuesday, March 3, De Knop conceded the students’ demands: IAW would go forward as initially planned, including the events featuring Jarrar and Shapira.
“We see this as an attempt to impose apartheid upon student organizing and the right to freedom of speech and expression, not just in the University of Haifa and Bir Zeit University but also at VUB,” said Mohammed Khatib, an organizer with the Progressive Palestinian Youth in Brussels. “This attack was only pushed back by the strength of student and community organizing to resist censorship and oppression. This is but one small scene from the daily ongoing apartheid against our people in Palestine.”
He linked the attacks on IAW with ongoing economic and social struggles in the university. “As Palestinians, we support student struggles to democratize the university and liberate it from neoliberal policies of austerity that come hand in hand with destructive, repressive support for colonialism and occupation, including through joint military research projects,” Khatib said. “This is part of a bigger battle, between justice and injustice. When we call for the boycott of Israel, this means also money for education, not for occupation.”
IAW organizers noted that the focus on Jarrar was an explicit attempt at political censorship by the Zionist lobby and Israeli embassy in Brussels. “This attack was directed against the progressive political line that Khalida Jarrar represents – to build a free, democratic Palestine, one state for all of its people, on the entire land of one free Palestine. This exactly what they do not want to focus on, and what they do not want people to hear,” said Khatib.
Jarrar, Palestinian representative in the Council of Europe as well as a PLC member, has been denied permission to travel for urgent medical care and was earlier subject to an Israeli military expulsion order. “Jarrar is living through Israeli apartheid, like millions of Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, the 1948 lands and the diaspora,” said Badarneh. “We invited Jarrar to speak at Israeli Apartheid Week first of all because she is Palestinian and it is important to highlight Palestinian experiences with Israeli apartheid in this week.”
The Wednesday event included a talk by Belgian writer Ludo De Brabander, speaking alongside Jarrar on Palestinian resistance, and the week’s events at VUB concluded on Thursday evening, following outdoor protests on the campus with a mock apartheid wall, with Shapira’s presentation.
“Say no to racism, say no to injustice, say no to inequality and keep your heads high when you work on BDS initiatives in your communities,” said Jarrar in her address. “Just like the world stood against Apartheid in South Africa in times when the racist regime was very strong and had a lot of support, in the end it fell. The people of the world, along with the resistance black South African people inside South Africa won that fight. We too will put an end to these racist policies and Apartheid regime.”
IAW organizers noted that the crowd were interested and engaged, and that the event went forward without disruption. “The attempt of the Zionist lobby and the Israeli ambassador to Belgium to silence voices rejecting the occupation and its ongoing crimes against our people failed due to the struggle of the students. Such attacks only increase our determination to continue to struggle and resist the occupation, until victory,” Jarrar said, following her presentation.
In September 2014, Jarrar won widespread international support – including calls from over 2000 international organizations and individuals, visits by European parliamentarians to her sit-in outside the Palestinian Legislative Council, and resolutions passed around the world – after 50 Israeli soldiers invaded her home in August, presenting her with a 6-month expulsion order to the city of Jericho. Refusing to implement or recognize the order, Jarrar launched a permanent sit-in outside the PLC building in Ramallah until the order was cancelled.
This year’s events were not the first such incident of interference with IAW at VUB; in 2011, an IAW event featuring author David Cronin and Palestinian writer Azzam Tamimi had a Zionist speaker imposed by the university’s administration, following Zionist lobby complaints. “They objected to both Azzam Tamimi and me,” Cronin said. “In the end, the VUB authorities told the students organising the event that it could only go ahead if they agreed to have a Zionist speaker. This was bizarre. I have never heard of a case where an environmental group has been told it can only talk hold a meeting if it agrees to give a platform to polluters. So why are these kind of conditions attached to Palestine solidarity events? We, Palestine solidarity activists, often get accused of singling out Israel. In fact, it’s the other way around. Palestine solidarity activism is being singled out for muzzling and censorship.”
“The attack on the IAW program and especially on Khalida Jarrar by the Zionist lobby shows that the lobby is troubled by such events, which means that students who are organizing for Palestine should increase the number of these programs,” said Badarneh. “This victory against the Zionist lobby shows that even this tool can’t stand long, because it’s in the wrong position, the unethical position and it’s on the occupier’s side – a side that will never win. This is a victory of all who support independence, justice and equality in Palestine and those who stand for the freedom of speech and academic freedom.”