On Wednesday 1st of November 2023, three weeks after the re-eruption of hostilities in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and followed by atrocities and deaths of citizens, especially in the Gaza Strip on Palestinian land, the University College of Maastricht was occupied by the autonomous Maastricht-based AutonoMa group.
The autonomous group organized the protest in a very structural and secret manner to get a chance to raise awareness about the situation for civilians of Palestine in Gaza. It elaborated demands for the University to move out of silence. The group handed out flyers for the protest schedule and descriptive information texts on the situation in Gaza. It started with an introduction speech, then a communal lunch to build a fundraiser supporting Gaza. The rest of the day followed with information sessions on the annual arms fair of the Dutch arms industry, a conversation with Sara Mardini, a former Syrian swimmer and a human rights activist, a movie screening, and a Q&A session. AutonoMa described the protest as going “smoothly” and supported by UCM and other faculty students. They did feel a similar support coming from UCM staff. However, this support faded once the protest impacted the students’ learning process.
To get more insights and perspectives on the whole situation within Maastricht University, we got to ask some questions to the Dean of UCM, Wolfgang Giernalczyk, and the members of the Autonoma Association.
Despite denouncing the lack of action by UM, Autonoma shared its motives for the protest. These mainly relied on the content of UCM’s curriculum. While other universities discuss topics around international law, justice, and Human rights, helping the discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Autonoma claims that UCM does not address topics to encourage discussion on the conflict. Autonoma’s feelings are also linked to the tag put on UCM’s steps claiming: "Will you decolonize the curriculum before they bomb a hospital?". This contrast shows very divergent opinions between students, staff, supporters of Palestine, and the University.
The AutonoMa protest stressed the importance of UCM staff, teachers, and administration, denouncing what AutonoMa calls, “a genocide unfolding before our eyes”.
But why is such action required in the eyes of members of AutonoMa and a great portion of students? The historical and social complexity of the conflict is however a notion that the University has to think thoroughly and consider. Indeed, the current situation has inspired acts of anti-semitism all around Europe that represent threats to the Jewish and Israeli communities in Europe. The European Commission stated on the 5th of November that “antisemitic incidents across Europe have reached extraordinary levels in the last few days” At the core of what Maastricht represents as “the centre of Europe”, the population is concerned as well. The Dean of UCM, Wolfgang Giernalczyk, ought to understand the situation while making UCM a safe environment for students and has expressed his willingness to comprehend all concerns around the subject of the conflict while keeping the faculty safe. Autonoma also informs on the conflict, though taking a side for Palestine, while insisting on the inclusivity of the protest and the act of protesting against anti-Semitism in general, supporting the Dean in keeping the faculty safe and inclusive.
On the 20th of October, The Dean sent an email to the UCM community to not only express his sadness around the violence and loss of lives in the conflict but also to remind the UCM community of how in these dark times, we have to stay "mindful that our opinions and actions do not make others feel unsafe or unwelcome". The necessity for this message regarding the Dean’s perspective was to ensure that all students felt safe not only about their opinions but also their respective attachment to the situation: the message also included the part that "If our students or staff are apprehensive about coming to their college because they are worried or scared, then we are not what we aspire to be." Indeed, after discussing the message with M.Giernalczyk, he conveyed that students had come to him to express their insecurity and discomfort in the discussions around the conflict, before and after the occupation by Autonoma.
It is a fact that University Maastricht remains silent in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While UM sent information emails and psychological help during the Ukraine war, none of these actions were perceived for the current situation in Gaza, clearly affecting students. During a discussion about the topic, a student stated: “As a student, I feel the widening of the rift between the institution's ideals and its actions. If you speak up and provide space for Ukraine, and are unmoved for Palestine, your empathy and activism are rooted in Western supremacy”. Further, UM has removed protest posters in support of Palestine, still debating on the validity of the term ‘genocide’ to describe the situation in Gaza. Regarding the current situation for Palestinians, the ones asking for a UM response consider that it is not only a time for debate and discussion, but also a time for the university to proclaim a clear stance and support for the Palestinians.
Many students and members of AutonoMa, and other associations like 'UM Students for Palestine" have expressed the claim that UM is reacting disproportionately compared to previous conflict situations, and their silence is no longer acceptable. The official stance of the University of Maastricht is not to take a side, which as an institution, is understandable regarding its apolitical position. However, if the University decided to support and take sides in previous conflicts, like the war in Ukraine, it seems fair to say that they need to give the same amount of support to their students.
UM’s website claims inclusivity, support, and diversity. In the UM environment, students feel those values and moral standards are breached by silence towards the conflict. As a student claimed: “By saying that their strength lays in diversity and an inclusive culture they present a false narrative to what their actions are actually saying - hypocrisy”. Students need a space to discuss the current situation in Gaza and to express their feelings and concerns. Students are affected, hurt, and severely concerned. Autonoma did contact UM to express this general concern. However, the president of UM, Rianne Letshert, stated that she could not meet Autonoma’s expectations and needed to talk with each faculty executive member. This is the latest information received from UM.
UCM needs to be set as a case apart, as it is only a part of UM. Though Autonoma disagreed, the Dean does insist that, as part of UM, there is only little he can do on the faculty level.
With this article, we seek to represent both sides, between Autonoma’s thoughts during the protest and the position of the Dean. By doing so, our first goal is to represent the reasons for such a protest while explaining the concerns of students facing the lack of response from UM. Through this article, we also ought to explain the Dean’s position as only a part of UM and his concern arising from the e-mails and worries of some students. As journalists, our job is primarily to inform and discuss why such concerns are raised in this complex issue.