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Interview with Rector Hester Bijl: ‘There is no place for antisemitism here’

Leiden University is under fire: it is allegedly doing too little to tackle antisemitism. Rector Hester Bijl responds to this accusation and to a video from 2014 on social media in which extreme remarks are made. ‘We can be short about such comments: they are unacceptable. The university is and always will be a place for debate, but calls for violence, hate speech and racism/antisemitism will not be tolerated here.’

In the WNL broadcast on 28 January, the university was accused of not doing anything to tackle antisemitism. The same happened in the EO/Joodse Omroep documentary ‘Na 7/10: antisemitisme in Nederland’ (‘After 7/10: antisemitism in the Netherlands’) on 21 January.

‘I really do understand the upset and that affects me personally too’, says Hester Bijl. ‘But we cannot accept the accusation that we are turning a blind eye. As a university that bears the legacy of Rudolph Cleveringa, this is something that we really cannot identify with.’

Bijl adds, ‘Giving a media interview in which I did not give a clear answer to every question is one thing. I have myself to blame for that. But the way things are now being taken out of context and are taking on a life of their own is something I really do distance myself from.’ Bijl is referring to the interview in the EO documentary in which Rob Oudkerk asks her to respond to a video that has been doing the rounds on social media. In it, a member of the university’s staff calls for violence against Tel Aviv.

Video from 2014

‘That question caught me off my guard’, says Bijl. ‘I looked it up afterwards and it turned out to be a video from ten years ago, from 2014, that was recorded during a demonstration in London when the person involved was still a student.

‘When this video resurfaced in the media in 2021, we immediately had stern words with the lecturer involved and investigated the matter. I will not mention him by name but he is an excellent teacher. The investigation that we conducted at the time showed that his comments in that video from 2014 had not influenced the content or quality of his research and teaching. As is customary with internal investigations, we did not make this public at the time but are doing so now because this continues to circulate.

‘I have now spoken to him again. He has assured me he has not made such statements since, nor would he ever make them again. He regrets all the commotion.’

Feeling (un)safe

In the TV broadcasts about antisemitism, more accusations are levelled at the university. ‘We are said to be doing too little about Jewish students who feel unsafe, for example’, says Bijl. ‘I think it’s terrible that students feel that way. For me, it is crystal clear that as a university, we have to protect the safety of our students and staff at all times.’

Bijl adds, ‘Much is already being done but that is not always visible to the outside world because it is meant for our own student and staff community. There are discussions, there is a task force that is advising us, there are more opportunities to meet up and our researchers are providing an analysis of the war. We also offer a lot of content in a clearly structured web dossier and psychologists are offering help and support in how to talk about the subject. And if more is needed, we will take action. We are going to intensify our contact with our alumni in the coming period to learn their perspectives on what is going on.

‘Is this enough? Perhaps not. The polarisation is so great and it is such a fierce conflict. To stand any real chance of success, we have to continue to seek each other out and treat each other with respect.’


 ‘Yes, a university is a teaching and knowledge institution’, Bijl continues. ‘We do not shy away from lively debate and this can be heated at times. Students and staff are obviously entitled to their own political opinions. This diversity can also contribute to the debate. But we also want to work from a place of connection.

‘I would urge everyone: no matter how difficult it is, do not shy away from contact with others. Keep on talking, even if you disagree with each other. And take it from me that we take firm action against calls for violence, hate speech and the like. There really is no place for antisemitism nor any other form of discrimination at our university.’

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