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Analyse Campus Politiques

The Threatening of Academic Freedom and Inclusion during the Gaza Genocide

This text was written for the SHS: “Moyen-Orient, enjeux contemporains”

Throughout history, the youth has been a major driver of collective awareness and socio-political change in times of crisis of all nature. Whether we go back to 1942, when the White Rose, a collective of medical students in Munich called out the Jewish genocide through leaflets and graffitis​1​, or later in 1976, The Soweto Uprising in South Africa, when thousands of students marched for equal education leading to the international condemnation of the apartheid system​2​, or even in 2018 with The Global Climate Strikes demanding concrete political measurements regarding climate change prevention​3​. These examples show that activism is a natural response of students (more broadly, the youth) witnessing social injustice and inequality, who are willing to strive for change but are faced with political indiference or complicity.
In this essay, we will show that the students’ and scholars’ pro-Palestinian activism in the West follows the heritage of academic activism, and how its censorship by academic institutions is an echo of the restriction of academic freedom. For the sake of structure, we will first define academic freedom and the debate around its selective restriction regarding Palestinian studies and activism, compared to other geopolitical events. Secondly, we will give the context of the pro-Palestinian academic activism in Lausanne in response to the October 2023 events.

Selective Restriction of Academic Freedom 

Academic freedom refers to the principle that scholars, educators, and students have the right to pursue, teach, research, and express ideas without interference or censorship from authorities, institutions, or public pressure. It encompasses the autonomy to explore diverse perspectives, challenge prevailing beliefs, and engage in intellectual inquiry without fear of reprisal or constraint​4,5​. The book Out of Bounds: Academic Freedom and the Question of Palestine by Matthew Abraham, has described how academic freedom, particularly concerning discussions about Palestine within academic settings, is often constrained and hindered by various institutional and external pressures. He likely argues that there are limitations imposed on scholars, restricting their ability to openly engage in discourse, research, and teaching about the Palestinian situation within the academic sphere​6​.
By selective restriction of academic freedom, we refer to the differential treatment or limitations imposed on scholarly discourse, research, and expression based on varying socio-political contexts or subject matters. It denotes the unequal application of academic freedom principles, wherein certain topics or geopolitical issues face more constraints or censorship within academic settings compared to others. This selective imposition of restrictions raises concerns about the consistent and equitable application of the fundamental principle of academic freedom across diverse fields of study and global events​7,8​

When comparing the response of academia to the Russia-Ukraine conflict by March 2022 and the Israeli war crimes in Gaza of October 2023​9–11​, it becomes apparent that there is a selective restriction of academic freedom. While discussions, research, and open discourse on the Russia-Ukraine conflict were relatively more accessible and less restricted in academic circles, similar freedoms might be curtailed or met with greater constraints when it comes to addressing Israeli actions in Gaza. Most (if not all) Western academic institutions did not hesitate to openly express full support for Ukraine, host conferences endorsing the european perspective of the Russian-Ukraine war, and call for boycotting cultural, intellectual, and academical exchange with Russia​12–14​. On the other hand, any form of support in the academic sphere, to Palestine and Gazan civilians was quickly met with allegations of antisemitism​15​ and restricted for precautions preserving political neutrality (examples in section 3). 

This selective application of academic freedom raises questions about the consistency and impartiality of academic institutions in upholding this fundamental principle. The disparity in the treatment of these two geopolitical situations within academia underscores the nuanced challenges and biases that exist in the academic landscape, suggesting a need for more comprehensive and consistent application of academic freedom across all contexts and topics.

Academic Voices Against Silence on Gaza Genocide

Across various platforms—social media and the streets of major cities—academic activism has been essential in shedding light on the ongoing crisis in Gaza. Students and scholars, aligning with the legacy of academic activism, have become prominent advocates for raising awareness and demanding accountability for Israel’s violation of international humanitarian law by deliberately targeting civilians, taking hostages, and collective punishment all applied in Gaza since the start of the blockade in 2007​16–18​ and even in the West Bank, where suffering is often underlooked​19,20​.
While in Lausanne, a crushing silence and indifference in the academic sphere, the lack of importance given to the rapid escalation of the humanitarian crisis in Swiss national media and the dystopian silence of the United Nations in neighboring Geneva, contrasted greatly with the brutal footage of bombings, corpses by hundreds and eradicated buildings in Gaza on social media. In this context, students of Unil and EPFL reunited on October 15th 2023 as the Lausanne Palestine Collective and have played a crucial role in centralizing the pro-Palestinian activism on campus and in creating synergies with professors and student associations to organize conferences and fund-raising events to raise awareness around the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The activism of Lausanne Palestine Collective was not limited to the campus, as they very rapidly were able to connect with Swiss NGOs and associations like Boycott Disinvestment Sanctions (BDS) Suisse, Collectif Sud Global, JeunesPopSuisse, and SolidaritéS Vaud.

Social Statements and Compromise of Inclusion in Academia

Very early on in the beginning of the events in Gaza, the campuses were no exceptions to this activism, as voices were raised not only against the ongoing genocide in Gaza but also calling out the quick one-sided statements formulated by Unil and EPFL​21,22​. These statements, in which the suffering of innocent Palestinians was completely disregarded throughout the escalation of events, represent the main catalyst for pro-Palestinian activism on campus. Note that the Unil statement has been adapted to the requests of the activists on November 17th 2023. On the other hand, EPFL has failed to review its public statement and end the controversy around it to this day. EPFL associations advocating for sustainability and inclusion, the Drag Lab, and Unipoly were quick on sending an email to the EPFL presidency and vice-presidencies. Their letter points out the silence of the institution regarding Israel’s acts, causing the rising humanitarian crisis in Gaza that needs to be condemned. In addition to this initiative, professors and alumni of EPFL created a petition that was signed by over 450 members of the institution expressing feelings of unfairness and disappointment with the public statement. The petition stated that ”if silence is not a choice, an equitable condemnation is required in such a sensitive moment where many defenseless souls are being taken away from the joys of life per minute and as we write”​23​. Both formal initiatives from the EPFL community highlight the crucial role of an academic institution in representing fairly and equally all of its members especially in times of crisis. At this point, it is necessary and relevant to state that like EPFL, many academic institutions -particularly in the West- restrict an equitable representation or explicit support of their community when it comes to the crisis involving Palestine. The cases of both Malaka Shwaikh (a Palestinian PhD student at the University of Exeter) and Rebecca Ruth Gould (American Associate Professor at the University of Bristol) is a fair example as they both were ”attacked by the same organization in the days leading up to Israel Apartheid Week, in both cases for statements [they] had made about Israeli politics several years earlier. In both cases, too, the media systematically distorted what [they] had said, and our universities failed spectacularly to support [them] while [they] were under attack”​24​.
This advocacy has encountered criticism and censorship from academic institutions, echoing concerns about the restriction of freedom of speech​25​. The pro-Palestinian academic activism in response to Israeli assaults on Gaza since October 2023 has faced significant pushback.

Events Censorship by Institutions

The academic activism advocating for Palestine in light of Israeli war crimes in Gaza​9–11​ encountered notable resistance, marked by abrupt cancellations and censorship of numerous fundraisers and conferences by the Unil and EPFL institutions. This section aims to delve into two main affected events, detailing the organizers, intentions, and the reasons provided by Unil and/or EPFL for their cancellations. 

FC Hardegger’s mixed-football association aimed to organize a charity match to raise funds for humanitarian aid to be sent to Gaza. It was planned for October 29th and to be held on the fields in the university sports’ center of Dorigny. It was canceled two days earlier, first by the sports’ center and then by Unil stating that ”Unil does not engage in providing support related to a political conflict”​26​. The administrations only broke the silence later, after press articles (20 minutes ​26​, Watson​27​) were released, and an open letter signed by 235 Unil professors, students, and staff, along with 9 Unil associations, showing support to FC Hardegger was issued on November 8th​28​. The sports’ center administration claimed that there were ”communication issues” with the Unil administration and that ”the actual reason is administrative; the association is not recognized by the University, and the event should be announced and authorized by the municipality”​26​. The legitimacy of this censorship needs to be studied under the lense of municipal and institutional law, however, the FC Hardegger claims that this decision is unfair and contradicts the fundraisers organized in Unil localities and in collaboration with non-Unil associations for the support of ”victims of the Russian invasion in Ukraine”​26,29​

Palestine 101 conference was initially organized by the Unil association GMU (Muslim Student Association) but its content was fully prepared by an EPFL master’s student. It aimed to give a historical and socio-political overview of the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the evolution of its policies regarding international law and agreements over the next 75 years. The conference was to be held in Unil on October 20th, but was cancelled by the Unil Direction two days earlier. It informed the GMU that ”the university cannot allow events where only one political opinion is expressed”.The association contested that a presentation of the same nature was held on March 17th of the same year with no administration restrictions and that the conference was purely informative aiming to contextualize the contemporary situation in Gaza. Again, a sense of unfair treatment compared to the Ukrainian crisis can be highlighted. In fact, about a year earlier, on October 20th 2022, Michel Fouchet, former ambassador of France in Riga, held a conference in Unil entitled ”Ukraine and Europe Facing the Test of War”. The political character of the conference is not only found in the title, but also in reducing the political and economic stakes of the Ukranian-Russian conflict as ”a colonial war in Europe between one of the last nations in Europe seeking emancipation and the last empire striving to survive” ​30​. The intervention of professor Joseph Daher, author and lecturer in political sciences at Unil, and known pro-Palestinian activist, claimed that the censorship of this event would be a violation of academic freedom which was discussed in section (2). The conference was rescheduled and held on November 14th with an audience surpassing 100 students and professors. It was the first (and only so far) academic space where the key concepts of the Palestinian-Israeli debate were explained, and the main old and contemporary debate nodes were exposed (anti-zionism VS antisemitism​31,32​, conflict VS apartheid​33,34​, two-states-solution VS settler colonialism​35,36​,…). The conference was intended to be held later on EPFL campus with the initiatives of Unipoly and Polyquity, sustainability, feminism, and equity promoters at EPFL. The demands were not only rejected but both associations received an email from a superior of the student affairs claiming that ”the activities of both associations are not compatible with the nature of the event”, but that they wish to ”contribute to humanitarian efforts while conserving an apolitical status”. Notice that these exchanges were not released publically by the administration, but were communicated directly to the presidencies of the mentioned associations. To this day, EPFL has not formulated an official and public answer to the complaints regarding the clear bias of EPFL in its official statement, the petitions and open letters sent from the EPFL community to the administration remain oddly unanswered. 

Having witnessed the previous examples and the discussions between the institutions and the student associations, many questions surface: why are academic institutions failing to respond to the Gaza humanitarian crisis as was done for the Ukrainian crisis just one year earlier? Is the censorship of political informative conferences a form of restriction of academic freedom? Isn’t the restriction of conferences because of their political nature paradoxical in institutions that teach politics in their curriculum? Why is a charity event for Gaza labeled as political and not simply considered humanitarian aid? 

Conclusion

The trajectory of academic activism, as showcased throughout history, underlines the pivotal role students and scholars play in advocating for social justice and change. This essay has traversed the terrain of academic freedom, revealing its selective application in response to crises such as the ongoing genocide in Gaza. The discrepancy in institutional responses between different geopolitical events, notably the Gaza crisis juxtaposed with the Ukraine conflict, highlights a troubling bias in the academic landscape.
The suppression and censorship of pro-Palestinian activism and events advocating for awareness of the Gaza humanitarian crisis have spotlighted the limitations of academic freedom. Institutions’ reluctance to provide equitable platforms for discussions and initiatives related to Palestine raises questions about their commitment to fostering inclusive discourse and supporting humanitarian causes.
Ultimately, the disparity in treatment between crises, the silencing of pro-Palestinian voices, and the labeling of humanitarian efforts as political underscore the urgent need for a more consistent and principled approach to upholding academic freedom. Academic institutions must reevaluate their stance to ensure that they serve as bastions of open dialogue, inclusivity, and genuine support for humanitarian causes, irrespective of the political nature of the events.
The struggle for academic freedom is inherently linked to the pursuit of social justice. It’s imperative for academic institutions to rearm their dedication to these principles, cultivating an environment where diverse perspectives, even on contentious issues, are not just tolerated but actively nurtured.
The events of the latter months of 2023 have starkly highlighted the burgeoning presence of the Palestinian cause within academic spheres, notably within the academic landscape of Lausanne. As a testament to this growing solidarity, we invite you to witness the visual narrative captured in a collection of self-taken pictures, showcasing the unwavering support and solidarity of Lausanne’s students with Palestine. In these moments, we’re reminded that academic freedom isn’t confined to lecture halls or written papers—it’s a beacon for social change, urging us to create spaces where every voice finds validation and where solidarity transcends boundaries.

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