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Belgian Campus Protests Over War in Gaza Take Different Tone

On the leafy campus of a Dutch-speaking college, college students have for months been demanding that their establishment break ties with Israeli academia over the battle in Gaza.

Their marketing campaign borrows extensively from the U.S. campus protest playbook. The college students have arrange an encampment. They have staged day by day demonstrations. And they’ve generally used slogans that many Jews view as a name for the elimination of Israel, like, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

In the United States, the protests have taken place amid a hyper-polarized political setting, contentious relations between college students and directors, and acrimonious hearings in Congress. But in Belgium’s capital, the protest at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, or V.U.B., has been much more peaceable due to a singular mixture of things: a supportive political setting (Belgium is a vocal critic of Israel); a proactive rector; strict protest guidelines; and, crucially, a tiny campus Jewish neighborhood that has chosen to not confront protesters regardless of discomfort over among the protests.

As a end result, and as like-minded protests incited by the battle have introduced dysfunction and violence to campuses in the United States in addition to in Europe, the scholars on the Brussels campus have taken delight not solely in the success of their protest, but in addition in its vibe.

“It’s really crazy to look at the United States and see what’s happening there,” mentioned Ruaa, a protester who has Palestinian roots, who mentioned she didn’t need her full identify used for safety causes.

The distinction between her campus’s setup and the protests the scholars have seen on-line and on social media has been stark, she mentioned. In the United States, pro-Palestinian campaigns on faculty campuses have been amplified by widespread information media protection and a presidential election. There, campus confrontations have opened up a brand new line of assault for Republicans and compelled President Biden to immediately deal with a difficulty that has divided his occasion.

The distinction in Brussels, Ruaa mentioned, was a mirrored image of the political context in Belgium. The Belgian authorities has been among the many most outspoken critics of Israel’s conduct of its battle in Gaza, and was among the many first in the European Union to name for a cease-fire.

That has not spared it from the generally fierce debate in regards to the battle. Belgium is dwelling to a considerable Jewish inhabitants, in addition to a major Muslim minority of primarily North African descent. Both antisemitism and Islamophobia are rife, teams targeted on each tendencies report, and have gotten worse since the Oct. 7 attacks.

At V.U.B., college students are tasked with safeguarding their encampment by implementing a algorithm plastered on partitions. Drugs and alcohol are prohibited, as are outsiders, violence, antisemitism and hate speech.

Ruaa credited the college’s management for partaking with the protesters from the beginning. Several pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel college students at V.U.B. mentioned that Jan Danckaert, the college’s rector, had began a listening tour of the campus quickly after Hamas led assaults on Israel on Oct. 7. About 1,200 individuals have been killed and greater than 200 have been taken hostage in these assaults, in accordance with the Israeli authorities, setting off an aggressive Israeli army response that has killed greater than 37,000 Gazans, in accordance with well being officers there.

Pro-Palestinian college students specific frustration that Mr. Danckaert just isn’t doing sufficient to assist their trigger. Pro-Israel college students counter that he ought to do extra to maintain the campus impartial and freed from graffiti and slogans. But either side concede that he’s paying attention to their issues.

Mr. Danckaert approved the encampment, however he designated a small house for it on the sting of the campus and insisted on stringent guidelines for the protesters. He has additionally pushed again on calls for and slogans from the pro-Palestinian protesters, generally on the behest of Jewish college students.

In an interview, Mr. Danckaert mentioned he was firmly professional free speech however strictly anti-hate. “As long as the actions are peaceful and respectful toward the rest of the university community,” he mentioned, “we believe that the protest falls under the freedom of expression and societal engagement of our students.”

In the United States, college presidents who’ve tried to remain above the fray, or appeared to evade questions at congressional hearings, have generally paid with their jobs.

And then there may be the essential concern of cash. In the United States, college students have been pushing their faculties to divest from endowments or investments which might be linked to Israel or protection firms. In Europe, universities are largely state-funded.

That has allowed the pro-Palestinian scholar activists at V.U.B. to focus extra narrowly on the concept of educational boycotts, and on scrutinizing their college’s partnership with Israeli establishments.

Responding to college students’ calls for, the college mentioned its ethics committee was reviewing seven initiatives with Israeli companions and has already mentioned it will pull out of one among them.

Jouke Huijzer, a doctoral scholar who teaches at V.U.B., mentioned suspending that partnership on moral grounds was a “courageous step.” But Mr. Huijzer, Ruaa and different college students who’re a part of the pro-Palestinian motion, have been adamant that there wanted to be a broader suspension of ties to Israeli tutorial establishments — a requirement that Mr. Danckaert, the rector, has rejected.

“V.U.B. does not advocate a general academic boycott, as we believe it is better to engage in dialogue with critical voices within Israel,” the college mentioned in a press release final month. “Universities are often places of resistance, or at least offer a critical perspective towards authorities.”

In interviews with The New York Times, three Jewish college students who requested to not be recognized due to security issues mentioned that there have been solely a handful of Jewish college students at V.U.B. however that they didn’t have an organized consultant group. Instead, among the Jewish college students have spoken to Mr. Daeckert immediately.

The college is a staunchly secular establishment, which is why, in accordance with one of many college students, many working towards Jews select different colleges. The small campus Jewish neighborhood additionally displays the truth that most Brussels-based Jews are French-speaking and like to attend Francophone universities just like the Université Libre de Bruxelles, or U.L.B., which is down the highway from V.U.B. in Brussels.

The three Jewish college students disagreed on politics, expressing views starting from principally pro-Palestinian to largely siding with the Israeli authorities line. But all mentioned that slogans like “Give us back ’48” and requires a “global intifada” have been menacing.

Some mentioned that, whereas they felt protected — if at instances awkward — on campus, they felt the tenor of the scholar protests was having its greatest impact outdoors V.U.B., contributing to a broader ambiance that tolerates antisemitism.

At the Francophone U.L.B. close by, the place there’s a bigger Jewish scholar physique, some pro-Israel college students have immediately confronted pro-Palestinian protesters, and in at the very least one occasion, there have been altercations that led the authorities to intervene.

All three of the Jewish college students interviewed by The Times for this text mentioned they’d skilled antisemitism on campus each earlier than Oct. 7 and since, together with on scholar boards and WhatsApp teams.

Organizers on the V.U.B. protest mentioned they have been decided to make sure that their pro-Palestinian message was not confused with antisemitism. They additionally rejected strategies that slogans they’ve used have been anti-Jewish, stating that pro-Palestinian Jewish audio system had spoken at their protests.

“Antisemitism is a real thing, and Jewish people have faced a lot of hate throughout the years and right now,” Ruaa mentioned.

The V.U.B. protesters’ essential objective, she mentioned, is to finish their college’s “complicity” in what they label a genocide, a cost that Israel strongly denies. It just isn’t, she added, “to spread hate against anyone.”

Koba Ryckewaert contributed reporting from Brussels, and Johnatan Reiss from Tel Aviv.

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