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Protests on Belgian campuses over the war in Gaza have a different tone

On the leafy campus of a Dutch-speaking university, students have for months demanded that their school cut ties with Israeli academia over the issue. war in Gaza.

Their campaign borrows a lot of words protests on American campuses drama. The students have set up camp. They have been holding daily protests. And sometimes they do slogan used which many Jews see as a call to eliminate Israel, such as “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

In the United States, protests took place in the background hyper-polarized political environment, controversial relations between students and administrators, and harsh hearing in Congress. But in the Belgian capital, the protest at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, or VUB, was much more peaceful thanks to a unique combination of factors: a supportive political environment (Belgium is a vocal critic of Israel) ; a proactive principal; strict protest rules; and most importantly, a small Jewish community on campus that chose not to confront the protesters despite discomfort with some of the demonstrations.

As a result, and as like-minded protests incited by the war caused chaos and violence to schools in the United States as in Europestudents on the Brussels campus were proud not only of the protest’s success but also of its vibe.

“It’s crazy to look at the United States and see what’s happening there,” Ruaa Khatib, a Palestinian-born protester, said as she woke up on a recent rainy morning after her late-night security shift. late at camp.

“It’s crazy to look at the United States and see what’s happening there,” said Ruaa, a protester of Palestinian descent. who said she did not want her full name used for privacy reasons.

The contrast between her campus layout and the protests students have seen online and on social media is stark, she said. In the United States, pro-Palestinian campaigns on college campuses have been amplified by widespread media coverage and the presidential election. There, the campus confrontations opened up a new line of attack for Republicans and forced President Biden to directly address an issue that has divided his party.

Differences in Brussels, This reflects the political context in Belgium, Ruaa said. The Belgian government has been one of the most outspoken critics of Israel’s conduct of the war in Gaza and was one of the first countries in the European Union to call for a ceasefire.

That did not avoid sometimes fierce debates about the war. Belgium is home to a significant Jewish population, as well as a significant Muslim minority of North African origin. Both anti-Semitism And Islamophobia rife, groups focusing on both trends report and have worsened since the October 7 attack.

At VUB, students are responsible for protecting their campsite by enforcing a set of rules posted on the wall. Drugs and alcohol are banned, as are outsiders, violence, anti-Semitism and hate speech.

Ruaa credited the university’s leadership for engaging with protesters from the beginning. Several pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel students at VUB said Jan Danckaert, the university’s president, began a campus listening tour shortly after Hamas-led attacks on Israel on the 7th. October. About 1,200 people were killed and more than 200 injured. Taking hostages in those attacks, according to Israeli authorities, sparked an aggressive Israeli military response that left more than 37,000 Gazans dead, according to medical officials there.

Pro-Palestinian students expressed disappointment that Mr. Danckaert did not do enough to support their cause. Pro-Israel students protested that he should do more to keep the campus neutral and free of graffiti and slogans. But both sides acknowledged that he was attentive to their concerns.

Mr. Danckaert authorized the encampment, but he designated a small space for it on the edge of campus and insisted on strict regulations for protesters. He has also pushed back against the demands and slogans of pro-Palestinian protesters, sometimes at the behest of Jewish students.

In an interview, Mr. Danckaert said he firmly supports freedom of speech but is strictly against hate. “As long as the actions are peaceful and respectful of the rest of the university community, we believe the protest falls within the freedom of expression and social engagement of our students,” he said. .”

In the United States, university presidents have tried to stay out of the controversy or appeared to dodge questions at congressional hearings, sometimes paid with their work.

And then there’s the important matter of money. In the United States, students are pushing their universities to divest from grants or investments linked to Israel or defense companies. In Europe, Universities are largely state-funded.

That has allowed pro-Palestinian student activists at VUB to focus more on the idea of ​​an academic boycott and to scrutinize their university’s partnerships with Israeli organizations.

In response to student requests, the university said its ethics committee is reviewing seven projects with Israeli partners and has announced it will withdraw from one of them.

Jouke Huijzer, a PhD student who teaches at VUB, said suspending the partnership on ethical grounds was a “courageous step”. But Mr. Huijzer, Ruaa and other students belong to the pro-Palestinian faction movement, has insisted that broader ties with Israeli academic institutions be suspended — a demand that Mr. Danckaert, the chancellor, has refused.

“VUB does not support academic boycotts in general, as we believe it is better to engage in dialogue with critical voices in Israel,” the university said in a statement last month. “Universities are often places of protest, or at least critical views of the government.”

In interviews with The New York Times, three Jewish students who requested anonymity because of safety concerns said there are only a handful of Jewish students at VUB but they do not have an organized representative group. Instead, some Jewish students spoke directly to Mr. Daeckert.

The university is a solidly secular institution, which is why, according to one student, many practicing Jews choose other schools. The small campus Jewish community also reflects the fact that most Brussels Jews speak French and prefer to attend Francophone universities such as the Université Libre de Bruxelles, or ULB, located near VUB in Brussels.

The three Jewish students were politically divided, expressing views ranging from largely pro-Palestinian to largely siding with the Israeli government. But they all say slogans like “Give it back to us ’48” and calls for a “global intifada” are threatening.

Some say that, although they feel safe — if sometimes awkward — on campus, they feel the tenor of the student protests is having its greatest impact outside VUB, contributing to a broader climate of tolerance of anti-Semitism.

At nearby Francophone ULB, which has a larger Jewish student population, some pro-Israel students directly confronted pro-Palestinian protesters, and in at least one case, there was the argument causing authorities to intervene.

All three Jewish students interviewed by The Times for this article said they experienced anti-Semitism on campus both before October 7 and since, including on student forums. members and WhatsApp groups.

Organizers of the VUB protest said they were determined to ensure that their pro-Palestinian message was not confused with anti-Semitism. They also rejected suggestions that the slogans they used were anti-Semitic, pointing out that pro-Palestinian Hebrew speakers spoke at their rallies.

“Anti-Semitism is real and Jews have faced a lot of hate throughout the years and right now,” Rua said.

The VUB protesters’ main goal, she said, is to end their university’s “complicity” in what they call genocide, a charge Israel strongly denies. It was not “to spread hate against anyone,” she added.

Koba Ryckewaert Contributing reports from Brussels, and Johnatan Reiss from Tel Aviv.


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