Universities must remain places of dialogue

Pro-Palestine protest at the Freie Universität Berlin
Police officers secure a demonstration in support of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip at the Freie Universitaet Berlin, 8 February 2024 (image: REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch)

Discussions about the Middle East conflict naturally tend towards polarisation. In Germany, showing empathy for victims of political violence in Israel while drawing attention to the suffering of Gazan and West Bank Palestinians, who bear the brunt of any major confrontation, is a tricky balancing act

Essay by Jannis Julien Grimm

Since 7 October 2023, striking a balance has become increasingly difficult for those engaged in conflict and violence research. Polarising and dehumanising debates have reached fever pitch and led to a false impression of the conflict in Israel and Palestine as a globalised one, waged essentially between two antagonistic camps.

The first perceives Israel primarily as a symptom and representative of a colonial and imperialist Western policy in the region, and which interprets resistance to this as a legitimate act of liberation. The second focuses specifically on the democratic character of the Israeli state in a region dominated autocracies and its unrestricted right to self-defence against existential threats. 

Although this essentialist reading is currently in vogue, it does not do justice to the complexity of the conflict constellations in the Middle East, nor to the diversity of voices in global academia. There are countless examples of differentiated and deeply informed analyses that defy any binaries.

Relatives in Tel Aviv mourn their loved ones after the Hamas attack on 7 October
Relatives in Tel Aviv mourn their loved ones after the Hamas attack on 7 October (image: Erik Marmor/dpa/picture alliance)

Partisan views and polarising debates

Critical scholars – mostly in or from the Global South – have been consistent voices of reason since the outbreak of the fighting. They have made countless attempts to contribute with their experience and expertise to more analytical depth in an often shallow and violent public debate. 

But in Germany, these positions have been pushed to the margins by the polarising logic that shapes public discourse about the war on Gaza. Its two antagonistic poles – and corresponding calls to support one camp – have notably defined the field of tension in which German academics are currently operating.

Facing an unprecedented challenge

As the escalation of violence has reached a scale and scope unseen for decades, with the suffering of the civilian population in Gaza defying all comparison, the challenge to critical scholarship at universities, too, has become unprecedented in its dimensions.

Academics speaking in support of Palestinians, analysing Israeli war crimes, or merely historicising the current escalation of violence are disinvited and de-platformed at an alarming rate.

The number of researchers willing to expose themselves by contributing with their expertise to public debate has dwindled. Most of them justify their abstention by claiming a lack of specialist knowledge. 

And, indeed, empirical expertise on Israel and Palestine is as scarce at German universities as tenured Arab or Israeli faculty – not least because the described tensions have made the Middle East conflict a hot potato, which many researchers prefer to stay away from. 

At the same time, academics have rarely been as reluctant as they are now in the case of the war in Gaza to comment critically on a conflict situation on the basis of their limited professional expertise. The threshold for the expertise required has seldom been set so high.

Moreover, perceptions of insecurity and imminent threat are omnipresent among Jewish and Arab students, too. Amid growing tensions, confrontations between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli student bodies have culminated in physical altercations during solidarity demonstrations and, more recently, in a brutal assault on a prominent Jewish student and activist in Berlin

This escalation of political differences has put universities in a bind when dealing with demonstrations on campus. Concerned that they may be unable to adequately protect their own students, many administrations have pivoted towards a ban of protests on their premises.

Many events related to the war on Gaza or the Middle East conflict have either been cancelled or postponed until the war is over for the same reason – academic debate has effectively been stymied.

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For critical discussions look beyond the limelight

That is not to say that no discussions are taking place at academic institutions anymore. They are and always have, even before the October 7 massacres. But to have critical discussions without fear of repercussion many scholars have retreated to counterhegemonic and subaltern spaces outside of the limelight. 

Especially among scholars of contention and conflict with ample knowledge about the enabling conditions and effects of genocidal violence, the fear of being misunderstood or deliberately misinterpreted has worked as a strong deterrent against commenting on the conflict. 

This danger of being misinterpreted applies even more when academics are Muslim or have an Arab family background. They are consistently put in the awkward position of having to distance themselves vocally from the attacks on 7 October before being accepted as authoritative speakers on this conflict. 

Most prominently, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier called on people with Palestinian and Arab roots in Germany to not allow themselves "to be instrumentalised by Hamas" and to "say no to terror " in his speech on 8 November 2023.

Fridays for Israel demonstration in front of the Freie Universität Berlin. Jewish students protest with placards against anti-Semitism and discrimination
Fridays for Israel demonstration in front of the Freie Universitaet Berlin: Jewish students protested with placards against anti-Semitism and discrimination, 9 February 2024 (image: Trappe/Caro/picture alliance | Trapp)

Such calls put many academics in a bind: in contrast to sensationalist and distorted media portrayals, hardly anyone with some expertise on the topic justified the Hamas assault of 7 October as an act of liberation. 

Colleagues across all disciplines unequivocally condemn them for what they are: acts of terror. But if they are to position themselves publicly as Muslims or as Arabs, this implies that they are not treated as scholars with expertise on the topic, but as potentially suspicious suspects. 

They are effectively asked to mark themselves as alien bodies and can only free themselves from this exclusion by making a public commitment. For many, the rejection of this implicit loyalty test is a weighty reason not to speak out at all. 

Empathy with different communities can coexist

But beyond Arab or Muslim scholars, too, a growing number of researchers are reluctant to buy into false binaries by positioning themselves publicly. A with-us-or-against-us logic simplifies the unfolding conflict as one between just two sides, reducing moral as well as empirical complexity.

Neither war nor empathy are zero-sum games. In conflict settings, multiple communities grieve and suffer at the same time. Likewise, empathy with different communities can coexist and is not always consistent: we grieve with some people at one point and suffer with others at another. 

Sometimes outrage over injustice compels us to speak up, sometimes we cope by logging off and trying to insulate ourselves. 

Grief manifests itself in a variety of ways, including through passivity and disengagement. Reading silence and absence from public discourse as tacit support for one conflict party over another thus misconstrues social reality in a particularly nefarious way. Above all, it discounts all those who refuse the hierarchisation of victimhood, either instinctively or as part of their academic ethos.

Furthermore, the demand to pick a side is effectively at odds with aspirations of differentiation which are (or should be, at least) part and parcel of the academic job description. In truth, the position of many scholars of conflict and violence simply defies dichotomous conflict logics as much as descriptions of the current moment as incommensurable. 

It is precisely owing to their knowledge of this fact that their voice is so dearly missing from public debates, which are marked by an absence of context and nuance. Certainly, there is always the justified concern that a contextualisation of violence dynamics will be used as a means of legitimisation. 

At the same time, it is clear to any violence researcher – regardless of their epistemological and normative location in debates on resistance, radicalisation and political violence – that the blockade of the Gaza Strip, as well as previous confrontations between Palestinian organisations and the Israeli army, formed a decisive context in which Hamas has emerged and thrived. This context is crucial to understanding the current escalation of violence.

Understanding through contextualisation and comparison

Understanding, acknowledging and explaining does not mean justifying the consequences. It also does not mean defending or whitewashing atrocities. But we can situate the current moment in larger logics of conflict and violence to grasp its reach. 

We must account for the idiosyncrasies of 7 October and of what we currently see unfolding in Gaza. But we must also relate it to past moments in history – make it comparable, so to speak – to produce informed analyses of where this war is heading and what may still be to come. 

This act of comparison does not deny the uniqueness of the current moment, but it shows that what is currently happening is not extraordinary. In fact, it is very much the norm that extremist ideological frameworks thrive under oppression, that occupation and deprivation produce actors that resort to asymmetric warfare to gain leverage. 

It is very much the norm that these actors bank on the consequences of their actions and are willing to accept a tremendous human toll among their own populations as long as it fortifies their moral position. 

It is also very much the norm that democratic states break their legal obligations and betray their liberal promises when battling insurgency. 

Likewise, critical junctures, such as the massacre of 7 October, are not without historical parallels. Conflict scholars have long explored the impact of discrete events on conflict trajectories, pointing out how they are often followed by moral shocks which compel formerly contention averse people to throw their weight behind often brutal and violent policies. 

Prominent examples are the Bloody Sunday massacre in Northern Ireland or the Rabaa massacre in Egypt. Such moral shocks often empower extremists who capitalise on the uncertainty of the moment to promote their agenda – an effect that is clearly reflected by current developments in Palestine where polls show a rise in Hamas support, as well as in Israel where an emboldened settler movement and right-wing politicians are advocating the reconstruction of illegal settlements in occupied Gaza. 

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Shifting the boundaries of violence

Like other instances of mass violence, 7 October has altered the horizon of the thinkable and possible, decisively shifting the boundaries of the violence that conflict parties are willing to inflict, and of the human suffering they are willing to tolerate. Highlighting these parallels to prior critical junctures does not deny the uniqueness of the current moment. 

It does not relativise or lessen the suffering – of people in Gaza, of the families of hostages – as just another case in a long sequence of similar tragedies. On the contrary, it allows us to look at general aspects of the murder, exclusion, stigmatisation, persecution and displacement of people and to avoid a hierarchisation of victims of violence. This is particularly relevant in Germany. 

As Jurgen Zimmerer argued in a recent interview with Qantara.de, there is no need to discuss whether we should draw lessons from our history, but rather what lessons we want to derive from it. In other words: we do not need to ask ourselves whether past genocidal crimes were unique. They were. The question should be which of their elements can give us a better understanding of the atrocities unfolding before our eyes.

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Defending spaces for critical inquiry

Universities must provide safe and protected spaces for such critical inquiry and shield scholarship from the pressures of a flawed dichotomous conflict logic. 

They must create the conditions in which conflict scholars can explore tension between uniqueness and comparability and contextualise contemporary violence dynamics without being accused of legitimising them. 

They must provide the support structures – emotional, communicational, legal – that allow scholars of all demographic backgrounds, affective dispositions, and political stances to express their views and feel secure at their host institutions. They must defend their role as a safe and firm platform from which scholars can take part in public debates. 

Otherwise, they reproduce the same epistemic violence that has all but insulated public discourse from critical intervention over the past months.

But creating the structural and cultural conditions is not enough: researchers must also make use of these spaces, and they must do so with integrity and in defiance of partisan logic. A commitment to rigorous analysis means not shying away from inconvenient truths, regardless of whether they hurt or support the agenda of one conflict party. 

This does not mean discounting divergent interpretations of the havoc wrought by Israel's military campaign in Gaza. On the contrary, we need to take these experiences and the normativities they generate seriously and question ourselves whether our own positionality might not make us blind to the multiplicity of perceptions of social reality, and – potentially – to some of the most abhorrent forms of domination and destruction unfolding today. 

Universities must be the place for such reflections. And we must all make sure that they remain so.

Jannis Julien Grimm

© Qantara.de 2024

Dr. Jannis Julien Grimm heads the Research Group "Radical Spaces" at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Peace and Conflict Research at Freie Universität Berlin. His work focuses on interrelation between violent experiences and social mobilisation in the context of mass protest in the Middle East and North Africa, and on the conditions and effects of radical politics and violent resistance. Jannis Grimm is also an associate researcher at the Institute for Protest and Social Movement Research (ipb) in Berlin and a member of the editorial board of FJSB, the German journal of social movement studies. He is the author of the handbook "Safer Field Research in the Social Sciences", published by SAGE in 2020. His monograph "Contested Legitimacies” on the role of massacres and repression in the restauration of Egypt’s security state was published by Amsterdam University Press in 2022.