Helsingin yliopisto. (Kuva: Wikimedia Commons.)

Speech: Genocide and academic responsibility

In the Night of Science on January 25 2024 in Helsinki, Juulia Kela was scheduled to speak about HIV and Affect in the Finnish Criminal Courtroom at the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Helsinki. She chose to speak about Israeli apartheid instead, and ceded part of her time to the chair of ICAHD Finland, Syksy Räsänen, and Janette Kotivirta from Students for Palestine. Räsänen gave the following speech.

My name is Syksy Räsänen. I am the chair of the Finnish branch of the Israeli human rights organisation ICAHD (Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions), and the vice-chair of Sumud – the Finnish Palestine Network. I am also a senior researcher at the University of Helsinki.

Thinking of the response of the University of Helsinki leadership to the genocide being committed by Israel in Gaza, I am reminded of a scene in Michael Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 9/11.

As the US president George W. Bush is informed that a second plane has hit the World Trade Center, he continues to read fairy tales with children, unable to process the magnitude of what has occurred and his own position of responsibility.

On Tuesday last week, a group of independent United Nations Special Rapporteurs issued their fourth warning about genocide in the Gaza Strip. No longer do they speak of “risk” or “grave risk” of genocide, nor even “genocide in the making”. They now write that Israel is “knowingly and intentionally imposing a high rate of disease, prolonged malnutrition, dehydration, and starvation” as part of what they term the ”unfolding genocide”.

The response by the University of Helsinki to the events in Gaza, to student demonstrations calling on the university to act, and to the letter sent by our organisation Sumud to the university display apparent lack of understanding about the enormity of genocide and the role of academic institutions.

Israeli universities, with the possible exception of the Open University, provide support to the genocide. This includes grants and other financial support, as well as special tuition, to students who serve in the military, taking part in the intentional and systematic destruction of Palestinian life in Gaza. Students in combat units are promised special grants. Students taking part in the genocide also receive academic credits.

This is but the latest stage of the active support of all Israeli universities for the apartheid regime (again, possibly excepting the Open University). This includes joint work with arms companies and the Israeli military, for example students taking part in weapons development as part of their studies. The cooperation is so extensive that at least one university has even established an army base on campus. Universities are also directly involved in military training, discrimination against Palestinians, and suppressing protests against apartheid. In some cases, universities are partially or completely located on territories occupied and illegally annexed by Israel.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, University of Helsinki condemned Russian military action and imposed an academic boycott on all Russian institutions and affiliated individuals.

A comprehensive representation of Palestinian civil society, called the BDS Movement, has been calling for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions complicit in occupation and apartheid for almost 20 years. When asked to condemn the Israeli attack and cut ties to those institutions, the University of Helsinki’s refusal had two prongs.

First, the university emphasised that when it takes a position, it does so on its own initiative and according to its own principles.

Second, the university highlighted that ending cooperation with Russian institutions was based on decisions by the EU and instructions from the Ministry of Education, and that there are no such decisions or instructions regarding Gaza.

It would perhaps be worth considering the logical and moral consistency of this position, or pondering the delegation of moral responsibility to orders given by authorities from above. Or reflecting this position against the university’s self-described values, which include moral conscience, freedom, and autonomy and responsibility of the university.

Not only has the university leadership refused to cut ties to Israeli institutions complicit in genocide, it has rebuffed repeated requests for a meeting to discuss the issue. It is quite striking to observe that the Ministry of Defence is more open to dialogue and appreciative of civil society’s role than the University of Helsinki. The university should correct its position as a matter of urgency.

Thank you.

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