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Email from the VC 30 May 2024

This email from Professor Charlie Jeffery was sent to all staff and students on Thursday 30 May.

The conflict in Gaza and Israel

Dear colleagues, dear students

I am writing today about the conflict in Gaza and Israel. My thoughts are prompted by recent conversations, including those I and colleagues have had with students camped out near Heslington Hall, with student societies, with staff around the University, and at the University’s Executive Board, Senate and Council. 

Through those conversations I am clear there is no single view on the situation in Gaza and Israel to which the whole of the University community could subscribe. So rather than trying to articulate a University view, I will start by making a personal reflection. Please bear with me as this is a long message, but it is important to consider all the aspects of a complex situation.

A personal reflection

The conflict that has unfolded since 7 October last year has anguished and appalled me. The atrocities committed by Hamas fighters that day, and afterwards in the treatment of hostages, are appalling. And the horrifying scale of civilian death and injury since the Israeli Government’s invasion, the scale of devastation wreaked on Gaza’s physical infrastructure (homes, hospitals, schools, universities and much more), the failure to allow adequate humanitarian relief into Gaza to alleviate civilian suffering: this too is atrocious and appalling. The extent of civilian harm committed in Gaza seems to me to be beyond all comprehension.

The conflict has to stop. It seemed a couple of weeks ago that there was the prospect of a ceasefire. It is a tragic dereliction that this opportunity was not taken up, especially in light of the escalation we have seen since. Hamas and the Israeli Government need urgently to resume talks, achieve a ceasefire, accelerate humanitarian relief, release hostages, and build from that to a sustainable peace. 

Impacts and responses at York

The conflict in Gaza and Israel has had many impacts here at York. Members of our community have direct family and community links to victims on both sides of the conflict. Our first concerns were and are to those who have been directly affected in this way. I met in October with our Palestinian and Jewish student societies and established an open line of communication for them with my colleague and Pro Vice Chancellor Kiran Trehan. 

This is a conflict with many and complex roots, to which deep emotions and sensitivities are attached. Opinion is easily inflamed. So we set up guidance for how we should discuss the conflict in the classroom, and with invited guest speakers, in ways which reflect York’s traditions of robust yet respectful debate. We were clear from the outset that racial or religious discrimination of any form was unacceptable and that the University must be a safe space for all its members. 

YUSU has given brilliant support and advice throughout. Outside York, Kiran, I and other members of the Executive Board have been part of national forums of UK universities which have shared ideas and helped us understand how we should (and how we should not) respond to the conflict and its resonances on campus. 

Last October, we shared information for students and for staff on our response to the conflict, and the support available for those affected. We are continuing to update those pages.

Latest impacts

Those resonances have moved into a new phase following the establishment of pro-Palestinian protest encampments at universities initially in the US and subsequently in other countries, including the UK and, since 15 May, at this university too. 

I met with some of the protestors that day, and Kiran has been in pretty much daily contact since, as has YUSU’s Chief Executive Ben Vulliamy. We have worked with the protestors to establish good lines of communication and to formulate agreed principles for the protest. The protest is well-organised, and I understand that it has been a venue for thoughtful debate. 

I also understand that some members of the University, in particular some of our Jewish students, feel uneasy about the encampment movement, including the camp here at York. I have met again with members of the Jewish students society so I can best understand those concerns, in particular that there are different perceptions - at York and more generally - of the dividing line between free speech and expressions of antisemitism. It is vital that we all understand those different perceptions and work to avoid that line being crossed.

Encampment demands

As some of you will know, the encampment protestors have issued a set of demands, which have been echoed in a wider petition signed by staff and students across the University. 

Kiran and I had a long discussion on these demands with delegates from the encampment last week. Some are more straightforward to address than others, in particular those that align to our commitment as a University of Sanctuary. I will reflect on these first.

University of Sanctuary: We are one of 33 universities accredited as ‘universities of sanctuary’. We have held this status since 2020. It rests on the expertise of academic units like our Centre for Applied Human Rights and the commitment of staff and students. Our membership of this network is founded on a simple, but powerful statement of principle: ‘the University of York welcomes those who are displaced.’ 

This commitment has led to support for student and academic refugees from a number of conflicts since 2020, most notably those fleeing Afghanistan following the takeover of the Taliban in 2021, and those fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. A new Sanctuary Fund has been set up to establish the principle of sanctuary as a major focus for philanthropic fundraising at the university. All these commitments and practices apply also in the case of Gaza - though each of the conflicts we have seen in recent years have different features, have different resonances within the university, and need to be considered in different ways.

Scholarships: In this case, we have earmarked initial funding to the value of £250,000 to support refugee students and at-risk academics from Gaza. More is likely to follow as the situation evolves. But I need to be clear that earmarking funding is only a starting point of a challenging process to get support to refugee students. There are no straightforward exit routes from Gaza. And there are no straightforward entry routes to the UK. In the Afghan and Ukrainian cases the UK government created special routes for the award of entry visas. There is no such special route currently in prospect for refugees from Gaza. So we are ready to explore other ways of enrolling students on scholarships, perhaps onto our online programmes, perhaps in cooperation with partners in places where the award of visas may be more straightforward. 

Support for universities in Gaza: In calls for this university to support universities in Gaza the example of our twinning with Karazin Kharkiv National University (KKNU) in Ukraine is frequently mentioned. If we can twin there, why not Gaza too? The situation in Ukraine was very different. The governments of the UK and Ukraine were closely allied and supportive of university twinning. Organisations like the British Council and international education consultancies were already active on the ground in promoting links. This enabled Universities UK, our national association of universities, to set up a nationwide twinning scheme rapidly.

We do not have anything like these conditions in the case of Gaza. The UK government and Hamas are not allied. There are no on-the-ground brokers of links. And the devastation of Gaza’s universities has been extreme. 

This does not mean we are not working to develop links. Universities UK and an educational consultancy that was active in Ukraine have now begun to develop ideas for how UK universities could support student learning in Gaza. An initial stage may well be to establish cooperation with universities on the West Bank which could in due course act as a bridge to Gaza. And if we can establish that platform, initial support is most likely to be in the form of the provision of online learning materials and/or access to library resources. 

My colleague Ambrose Field, Pro Vice Chancellor for Global Strategy, is involved in these discussions with Universities UK, and he will be pushing hard to build the basis for collaboration. To be realistic though this is unlikely to have much prospect of success until there is an enduring ceasefire. But in principle we would like this process, over time, to result in a twinning agreement like that with KKNU, developed as part of a coordinated national response.

Support for York alumnus Fadi Hania: Fadi Hania is a University alumnus from the class of 2012. Students from York set up a crowdfunding appeal to help finance Fadi’s exit from Gaza, to which students, staff and other York residents individually contributed. Fadi has now succeeded in leaving Gaza. The question posed to the University is whether and how it can support Fadi. The answer we are exploring is whether we can sponsor Fadi as an ‘academic at risk’ using our relationships as a University of Sanctuary with the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA). We are a member of CARA and are exploring with them options to provide support to Fadi and indeed to other at-risk academics. Some of the same issues I note above apply, not least challenges of securing an entry visa to the UK. 

Other issues

There are two other issues raised by the protestors to which the University is unable to respond. I have explained my reasoning with delegates from the encampment and do so again here.

Disclose and cut ties with arms manufacturers: This demand refers to relationships (primarily in research projects) that individual academics have with companies involved in manufacturing arms. For very good reasons I am unable to tell academics what they can or cannot research or teach (presuming that the subject matter is within the law). 

I am forbidden from doing so in law, which entrenches the principle of academic freedom, that is the freedom of academics ‘to question and test received wisdom and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or the privileges they may have.’ 

That protection is fundamental, even if other members of the University object to the research some academics do, or the partnerships they build in doing it. It is fundamental because if I - or the government - were able to go beyond the law to specify an area of academic enquiry that was out of bounds, it would set a precedent. Such precedents have suppressed academic enquiry elsewhere. I have no desire to have, and should never have, the right to decide what questions academics can ask. And we should acknowledge that individual academics who work with arms companies do so for their own, considered reasons which may include strongly held moral beliefs on circumstances when the use of weapons is, to them, justified.

So ‘cutting’ ties that academics have made under the right they have to academic freedom is not possible. But I have asked our Pro Vice Chancellor for Research, Matthias Ruth, to explore how we might be able, routinely and transparently, to report on research funding sources which identify the level of funding support we have from different industries, including the arms industry. 

Condemn genocide: A final demand is for the University to ‘release a statement condemning genocide,’ using the case brought by the South African government to the International Court of Justice in January 2024 as an example. I note also the possibility that the International Criminal Court may issue arrest warrants for both Israeli government and Hamas leaders for alleged war crimes. These are legal processes initiated by organisations which have legal standing and are operating with reference to legal concepts such as ‘genocide’. The University does not have that standing. It cannot bring cases or issue warrants. 

But I am also clear that ‘the University’ is not a body or a community with a uniform set of  views. I have set out my own personal view above, but I am aware there are those within the University with very polarised views. There are over 25,000 individuals in our university community and I do not think it possible to distil the views of those many individuals into a single statement on a matter of law.

Final considerations

I have two final considerations. 

The first is a comment on the additional calls - beyond the five demands of the encampment protestors - in the petition that members of University staff have coordinated. These are about recognising the right to protest, including the encampment protest, assuring that no disciplinary measures affecting student or staff protestors are envisaged, and assuring the well-being and safety of the protestors are a primary concern. 

The short answer on all counts is yes, of course. We have discussed the conduct of the protest at length with the protestors, have discussed their welfare and safety and acted to support it, and have a clear understanding with them that the protest will have no hindrance as long as it remains within the law.  

The second is a wider reflection. The issues raised by the conflict in Gaza and Israel continue to test our society and our universities, including York. They have raised questions about the conduct of war, about civilian protections, about legal definitions and process. They have raised questions about academic freedom, and the balance between free speech and protection against discrimination and harassment. 

These are all questions universities are well-placed to address as places of enquiry, of challenging received wisdom, of contestation, but also - and this is where a York tradition of freedom of speech is important - of disagreeing well in ways which enable differences of view to be put, heard and discussed, if not necessarily agreed. That is an important tradition. Out of differences of view new ideas emerge which can hold out the possibility of progress. I hope we can continue to approach this conflict, and others that will test the University in future, in this spirit.

With all good wishes