We share this piece by Anaïs Duong-Pedica on the obstacles faced by the student solidarity movement for Palestinian liberation in Finland, originally published by Raster.fi. We find that it complements the reports we have been collecting from leftist activists in various locations in Europe, aiming to alert the activist communities across our region to the oppression that Palestinians and pro-Palestinian activists are facing. Due to the scope and length of this piece, we’ve divided it into three parts, of which this is the second. The first part you can read here.
Silencing of students and researchers in support of Palestine in Finnish higher education
In Finland, while we are currently witnessing an increasing academic repression of Palestine solidarity and Israel’s critics which correlates with the growing solidarity movement with Palestine, these silencing practices are not new. Indeed, Syksy Räsänen (2023), Senior researcher in theoretical physics at the University of Helsinki, chair of the Finland chapter of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition (ICAHD) and vice-chair of Sumud has written about how in 2018, the Israeli embassy and supporters of apartheid wrote to the Rector of the University of Helsinki to complain about an event on the intersections of research and activism organized as part of Israeli Apartheid Week at Tiedekulma at the University of Helsinki. While the event was allowed to run its course in 2018 after Räsänen explained “the strategy of the Israeli government and its supporters around the world is to silence critical voices by preventing access to facilities and funding,” the same cannot be said of a similar event organized in 2020. In fact, Tiedekulma refused that events organized as part of the Israeli Apartheid Week take place in its premises, justifying its decision by arguing that “political events may not be organized in the premises, and the events must be related to research.” Räsänen highlighted the hypocrisy of this decision by pointing to the fact that, around the same time, “an organization that supports Israeli apartheid and smears human rights defenders” organized an event that was held in Tiedekulma. Räsänen understands these practices as “part of the continuum of everyday political exercise of power, in this case dressed in the cloak of apolitical equality.” That is to say that “concepts of apoliticality and equality are used to advance political goals and suppress debate.”
More recently and with the rise in quantity and frequency of events in solidarity with Palestine taking place throughout Finland, students and researchers are increasingly experiencing silencing tactics from Finnish universities and members of the Finnish academic community. Thus far, the academic repression of Palestine solidarity and Israel’s critics have taken many forms in Finnish higher education, such as: universities preventing protests, walkouts or events on Palestine; universities calling the police on peaceful solidarity events or lectures on Palestine; preventing or punishing scholars and students for using academic mailing lists to disseminate information about open letters, statements or events related to Palestine; removal of posters and banners in university buildings; academic associations and networks preventing the release of statements of support for Palestine; university statements distancing themselves from political matters when it concerns Palestine; students and staff being threatened and/or silenced by peers and colleagues; and students and staff being investigated and/or disciplined for their anti-Zionist stance and/or solidarity towards Palestine on social media. In addition, as Robinson & Griffin (2017, p. 5) explain, those who are targeted by the lobby’s aggressive tactics are not evenly affected:
“Even the same exact tactics take different tolls depending on the status of the targeted individual. Instructors with precarious appointments such as single term lecturers and graduate students are far more vulnerable than tenured faculty, as are individual students over student groups that may draw on collective resources. The impacts and persecutions are similarly felt differentially across race , gender, and other social categories, with Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, and other racially or ethnically oppressed groups – and especially women from these groups – often placed in particularly vulnerable positions, so that fight-back can often place additional pressures on those that are already the most overburdened.”
This should move us to pay particular attention to and to support those most at risk of being targeted and experiencing the harshest repercussions on their personal and professional life. What follows are some examples of students and faculty members sharing their experiences of academic repression of Palestine solidarity.
Students at Aalto University have reported that posters in solidarity with Palestine and flyers promoting walkouts have been removed from the university buildings. On top of this, in November, students had made and hung banners saying, “Stop genocide” and “Free Palestine” in the Väre lobby of Aalto University. These were removed two working days later. While the Dean of the School of Engineering, Kari Tammi, has explained that the banners had been removed because “they were expressing political views in a way that are against university rules” and that “the university allows political events in situations where no clear sides are taken” (Välimaa 2023), one of the Aalto students has highlighted the hypocrisy of this reasoning:
“When we put the banners, there was already one huge banner saying “Täällä taistellaan ihmisoikeuksista”(Here we fight for human rights). It was left there earlier this autumn after the Aalto occupation, students’ protest against cuts. It was in the same place as our banners and it had been there for at least one month. Our banners were there for 4 days. […] Like in other universities in Finland, Aalto has been showing in multiple ways how they stand for Ukraine and Ukrainians. This is also political, and Aalto is taking a clear side. Allowing the students’ occupation to be held for weeks in school venues was also political. All this gives me the impression that Aalto supports fighting for human rights only when it’s about white people’s human rights.”
Upon enquiring about the removal of the banners, Alexander Vahera-Chibnik6, another student at the university as well as a student representative, was told by a university administrator that it was a university-level decision made by the President of the university and the head of security. He was then directed to the Aalto university head of communications for further information. The head of communication explained that the banners were in violation of a policy regarding the safety of work and study environment.
Vahera-Chibnik also mentioned a discussion he had during a meeting with members of the School of Arts’ leadership. He explained that towards the end of the meeting he raised a case he heard of:
“A staff member had taped the text “free palestine” on an interior window above the text “slava ukraini”. The school had ordered the “free palestine” text to be removed. The context for my question was a concern brought up by other students about the school censoring their attempts to organize in solidarity for Palestine. I made a statement to those present at the meeting that the school doesn’t have any business interfering with students’ rights to organize. Then I asked about the “free palestine” sticker.”
One of the school administrators told him that:
“The sticker was removed after the leader of the Jewish congregation had been in contact with the school. That the school had heard from them that there are Israeli students and students of a certain religion who felt unsafe due to the sticker. He said that it was removed due to a rule they found regarding employees and political statements.”
While the deployment of the discourse of “safety” by the university constructs a narrative of students at threat vs. students who pose a threat by putting up “Free Palestine” banners and posters, Vahera-Chibnik refused this logic by asserting:
“I’m a Jew and I find it absolutely disgusting that the school would weaponize my identity in a way to silence students organizing.”
On top of restricting students’ expressions of solidarity and condemnations of genocide through removing visual displays, Aalto University also previously banned the organization of a demonstration in front of the university. This has prompted Aalto students to add a demand to the university as part of the student walkout and candlelight vigil organized on the campus on November 29th:
“We demand that Aalto University does not contribute to academic censorship but instead focuses its efforts on guaranteeing the safety and support of both the students and professionals impacted by the genocide and human rights violations perpetrated by Israel.”
Unfortunately, the university continued their repression as police cars were already present at the protest meeting point before its scheduled starting time. Vahera-Chibnik, who attended the protest, explained that he “wasn’t surprised, but it felt like a disproportionate response.” According to him, despite the fact that “organizers had wanted to organize the event in a good faith dialogue with the authorities and had given the police prior notice of the vigil,” the police argued with the students about their meeting place, “korkeakouluaukio.” While the place used to be public until a few weeks ago, it appears that the university has applied to change their jurisdiction to include the square in response to the previous student and staff demonstration organized early November on campus. Despite the fact that the Aalto University policy on political activity on university premises stipulates that: “Demonstrations or other peaceable events may be held outdoors in a street or similar public place that is suitable for the purpose in accordance with police instructions” (police with whom the students had been in contact with), the students were ordered to move to a different and less visible space. While most of the participants complied, Vahera-Chibnik decided to stay because he thought it was “ridiculous and shameful” for the university to use the police against students in this way.” When he tried to negotiate with the police, an officer suggested that the protestors were moved because of a “fire hazard.” Another student at Aalto University who was interviewed on the day reported similar events, and stated that “the university is using the police as a tool of oppression” (Students for Palestine Finland 2023).
Another story came from a researcher at the University of Turku who explained that after they shared an open letter and petition demanding that the university takes a stand and demands a ceasefire in Gaza in their faculty email lists, complaints were filed to the digital services at the university which led them to receiving a warning for breaking two rules: “propagandistic use” of mailing lists and prohibition of mass mailing. The researcher also highlighted a similar issue of double-standards raised by the Aalto University student, as well as questioned the apolitical stance of the university:
“The person who sent out the petition to support the No Cuts Turku protest which circulated within the University of Turku faculty email lists the same way as our email now in the early autumn semester, did not get negative feedback, only praise. […] The notice we got is an interesting example of how arbitrary it is which emails get to be assigned as breaking the rules. If no complaints had been made, no notice would have been given. The rules are also very vaguely stated: what is political/propagandistic in an institution and by researchers who by default are political actors in a society. […] We have no other means of reaching out across faculty boundaries at the University of Turku. There should be a way to communicate on issues of societal relevance across faculties and not only in our own social media bubbles. In my view, every member of our university community has the right to be informed of their possibility to join a statement like this.”
Much like the Aalto University student who spoke about banner removal, they also understand the atmosphere of silencing as being related to racism:
“Underneath the concerns for civilians, confusion and [fear of] stigmatization [if one signs an open letter], people have a lack of moral stamina/courage to stand for the lives and human rights of people who are non-white. Moreover, the selective action and solidarity within the leadership at the University of Turku clearly manifests as institutional racism.”
Still at the University of Turku, a Teach-in for Palestine which took place on November 6th and included presentations by researchers with expertise on Palestine such as Wassim Ghantous (Palestine Research Group, Tampere University) and Bram De Smet (Tampere Peace Research Institute, Tampere University) as well as by independent filmmaker and curator Christopher Wessels, the sharing of Palestinian poetry and the screening of a film, was met by the presence of police in front of the university building. One of the attendees explains how she saw the police car parked outside of the university building as she arrived and used the break to enquire about the officers’ presence:
“During the break I went up and asked why they were here. One of the officers replied: “Those Middle Eastern issues”. “Has the university called you here?” I asked. They answered “no, we have come here on our own initiative.” I asked if they start the morning by googling Palestine? “We only work at the grassroots level and follow directives”, was their answer. I noted that it was strange how much time they have to spend on Palestine, as the police rarely have time for domestic violence. “Those are local things, but these are global,” they replied. I didn’t ask anything more. Solidarity with Palestine, resistance to a genocide are more effectively patrolled than domestic violence.”
The surveillance of and suspicion around critical discussions on Palestine indicates a hostile environment for students, scholars and community members who advocate for Palestinian freedom or simply seek to learn more about Israel and Palestine. The justification of police presence as being related to an academic event on “Middle East issues” and global rather than local topics also underlies a taken-for-granted assumption by the police officer that such topics ought to be policed.
At the time this piece is being written, the open letter and petition at the University of Turku has drawn 1103 signatures from students and staff at the university demanding that the University of Turku takes public action toward protecting and advocating for the lives of the Palestinian people and against the State of Israel’s human rights violations. On November 20th, the Rector, Jukka Kola, and the university board published a short 100-word response to the letter7 (the open letter is over 3000-word long) on the university’s Intranet, therefore deciding not to make their reply public, while it dedicated a whole webpage to the Russian Invasion of Ukraine.
On November 9th, UniArts Helsinki published a message on the notice boards of the university following the dissemination of the Open letter in support of Palestine by Uniarts students, alumni and staff in university mailing lists:
Many students reacted to this notice on social media in order to challenge the university’s double-standards since UniArts Helsinki had used its social media platforms and released a statement on its website to condemn Russia’s military actions in Ukraine in February 2022.8 This conversation continued on the university’s Intranet where Rector Kaarlo Hildén, shared a message entitled “It’s important that everyone can find UniArts Helsinki a safe environment” addressed to all students and staff, reiterating the prohibition of sharing “political messages” on mailing lists and repeating that everyone at the university has “a right to a safe learning and work environment” without contextualizing whose safety may be at risk and from what. Here again, the illusion of apoliticality and a supposed equality, paired with the uncontextualized discourse of “safety” and the unwillingness to engage with the power dynamics at play either between Israel and Palestine or in Palestine advocacy in Finland, are used to suppress critical conversations about the Israeli violations of Palestinians’ right to life and further a pro-Israel political agenda. In an email responding to the Rector, Sami Karkar, an Acoustics teacher and student at UniArts Helsinki, unpacked the rector’s call for an apolitical “safe space” of learning and raised several important questions on universities’ roles in supporting social dialogue within and outside the academic community and on the lack of application of university strategic goals when it does not serve dominant political interests:
“Whether one uses email lists of the university, or Artsi, or any other means of communication is a technicality, and contributes rather marginally to a safe or unsafe work and learning environment, in comparison to other things. What does highly contribute to a safe environment, however, is a space where people can voice out their concerns and values, and bring up the discussion on important society topics (which you encourage us to do, in your answer!). A place where they are not afraid of voicing their support for other oppressed humans, and where they are not afraid to publicly condemn war crimes. Where students are not afraid to be silenced, and teachers not afraid to lose their jobs, if they do voice out those things. This choice of focusing on the technicalities and not addressing more clearly the main topic does not reflect, in my humble opinion, the “courage” that is one of our university values. […]
As you may know better than me, dialogue with society is the focus of strategic goal number 3 of our university. How could we have a dialogue with society at large, if we’re not able to have a dialogue inside the university already? Also, what about the “vision” of our university, the “values” and “missions” in the strategy 2021-2030? Aren’t those part of the vision, mission, and values of this university: the engagement for a more equal and sustainable society? Openness?
Last, isn’t any engagement in or dialogue with society inherently political?
Should our art be just “pretty” but not question and provoke?
How could any Arts university be non-political?
How do we engage in an “inspiring dialogue with society” without being a “political operator”, to quote both our university strategic vision, and your words?”
Palestinian-American Professor of American Studies Steven Salaita (2017, p. 197) writes that supporters of academic repression against Israel’s critics “have to pretend that a higher purpose is at play, that their concern somehow portends the very survival of our profession. They must maintain a pretense of altruism and rectitude – of standards, a term that has played a critical role in the delegitimization of minority communities.” According to him, “this disingenuousness isn’t random [since] it informs a specific iteration of power on campus. The humanistic discourse of tolerance and inclusion reify the colonial hierarchies that structure academic governance.”
At Åbo Akademi University, the Facebook groups for the Gender Studies department and the Minority Studies profile both deleted a publication posted by a PhD researcher providing critical socio-political and historical context for Israel’s recent attacks on Gaza and the West Bank through RASTER’s letter of support for Palestinian resistance. In one of these instances, the group administrator explained that they had received a message from members of Åbo Akademi University research community “who had been offended by the statement.” They proceeded to cite the university’s guidelines for using social media which state that the content on Åbo Akademi University’s social media platforms is not allowed to offend the members of the Åbo Akademi community. Upon enquiring whether anti-racist and feminist publications would be deleted if racist and anti-feminist members of the university community would complain, the PhD researcher has received no reply.
The deployment of a discourse of “offense” to some members of the Åbo Akademi University community links back to the discourse of “safety” deployed at UniArts Helsinki and Aalto University. Some researchers have also shared that it was reported to them that receiving emails with an open letter calling for a ceasefire in Gaza had caused anxiety among some students and staff. The discourses of offense, safety and security suggest that any demonstration of solidarity for Palestine poses a threat to some members of the university community. In all those instances, whose anxiety, whose discomfort, whose safety, and whose offense, is left unsaid. We are supposed to be content with behaving in accordance with the well-being and security of this loose general figure of the “university community”, completely stripped of any power dynamics. As Salaita (2017, p. 203) argues “when upper administrators ask us to prioritize student comfort and safety, they generally have in mind only a certain type of students, one wholly invented by the managerial desire to restrict ideas while maintaining an illusion of humanism. The student with whom management is most concerned is the one who provides cover for the prosecution of a neoliberal agenda.” We must interrogate on whose behalf and for whose safety and comfort the suppression of critical discussions is enacted in universities, as academic freedom and freedom of speech depend on it. In fact, as has been showed by critical race theorists, migration and international relations scholars, “security” in Europe has been encoded in relation to whiteness, against the perceived threat of migration, racialized and Muslim Others most notably (see for example Bigo 2002; Fekete 2004; Giuliani 2016; Breen & Meer 2019; Baker 2021; Danewid 2022; and for Finland, see Keskinen 2014). As for the specific context of repression against Palestine advocacy and Israel’s critics, Younes (2020, p. 250) has argued that in the context of Germany, the discourse around anti-Semitism “makes use of the figure of the Jew for national security purposes (i.e. via the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the trope of the “dangerous Muslim”) and the politics of national identity.” Therefore, Finnish higher education institutions’ appeals to “safety” and “security”, issued in order to stifle student and university workers’ solidarity for Palestine, must be challenged in light of the racist European and national discourse of “security” in which they are embedded. In fact, these appeals cannot be separated from global neoliberal capitalism and the erosion of the welfare state which lead nation-states to manage perceived difference through securitization (Keskinen, Skaptadóttir & Toivanen 2019). In light of this, reports of racialized and Palestinian people being targeted by police during direct actions in solidarity with Palestine taking place in Helsinki should come as no surprise.
Still at Åbo Akademi University, the organizer of a teach-in and film screening of Mohammed Bakri’s “Jenin, Jenin” (2002), due to take place at the university, was called by the building security manager an hour and a half before the event to enquire about whether the event was political, and specifically whether it would be about “the war between Hamas and Israel.” When the organizer specified that the film was about events that took place in the West Bank in the early 2000s (that is the massacres carried out by the Israeli army in the Jenin refugee camp in 2002), the event was allowed to be carried out. This exemplified Rabea Eghbariah’s (2023) observation that scholars prefer to “consider genocide in the past tense rather than contend with it in the present”, adding that “scholars tend to sharpen their pens after the smell of death has dissipated and moral clarity is no longer urgent.” Of course, while the building security manager is not a scholar, their action is on behalf of a scholarly institution, which has an Institute for Human Rights, a Master’s Degree programme in Social Exclusion and a Minority Research profile advertising “active societal engagement.”
Controversy also arose on November 17th when Students for Palestine Finland and the Student Movement Against Welfare Cuts at the University of Helsinki organized a walkout in solidarity with Palestine with a call to all educational institutions in the Helsinki region to join in. The students stated four demands to the Finnish government:
“1. Publicly call for a ceasefire, the opening of aid corridors, and an end to the genocide;
2. Immediately stop all arms trade with Israel;
3. Cut all trade relations and economic ties that sustain the Israeli apartheid state;
4. In the long term, we also demand that Finland as a state works towards dismantling Israeli apartheid and promotes the right to return for Palestinians, as well as the self-determination of Palestinian people.”
The walkout was to last two hours and involved marching out of classes and gathering in the main building where “music, speeches, coffee, stenciling, teach-in and hanging out” were organized. The walkout welcomed everyone. According to Havu Laakso, a student at the University of Helsinki and member of Students for Palestine, when the announcement of the walkout was sent to the university mailing list, some professors accused the students of “terrorist propaganda,” but there were also some positive replies. Laakso then explains that:
“45 minutes before [the walkout] was about to happen, the caretakers of the main building came to say that ‘you cannot hold this event because political activity in the university is not allowed,’ which is of course not true. The university is not a nonpolitical institution. Maybe the clearest example is when Russia attacked Ukraine, the university immediately made a statement, showed solidarity to Ukraine, condemned the Russian attacks. But then now when it’s about killing Palestinians, it’s too political to condemn genocide.”
Laakso also mentions the three-week long university occupation which the university mostly allowed. According to them, the building’s janitor explained that this was different because the current demands were not about the university. They challenged this reasoning by arguing that the petition addressed to the university contained demands specifically for the university, such as publicly calling for an immediate ceasefire, the opening of aid corridors and an end to the genocide, engaging in a boycott of all collaborations with Israeli academic institutions until Israel ends their regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid, withdrawing all economic investments that are complicit in the Israel apartheid state, and supporting and promoting Palestinian scholars & students. Despite threats to be removed, the students decided to hold the event but realized that the university had cut the electricity to prevent them from having speeches. The university then called the police on the peaceful walkout, and a police van arrived about an hour into the event. Lyd, another student from the University of Helsinki and part of the organizing team said that two students negotiated with the police to stay in the building until 15.00, which corresponded to the walkout/teach-in programme end time, after which people were encouraged to walk outside and chant:
“Many people went out with banners and chanted for some time. I think being outside brought more visibility to the event so there was a positive side to having to move out of the building at 15.00.”
Several of the students who shared their experience of organizing the first walkout spoke of the university sabotaging the event. Yet, similarly to the situation at Aalto University, students at the University of Helsinki experienced increased securitization and policing during their second walkout organized on November 29th. Onni Ahvonen, a PhD student at the University of Helsinki, explained that the police were called by the university and were present before the walkout was scheduled to take place. Despite that, the programme of speeches, music, chanting and open mic unfolded as planned, except for an aggressive security guard who was “pushing people around, causing minor disruptions.”
Coincidentally, the National Defence Training Association of Finland had rented the university’s Great Hall for its annual meeting and presidential election panel on this same day. The students had not planned anything in relation to the presidential panel since they were unaware about it until Helsingin Sanomat made an unfounded connection between the two events.9 Because of the presidential panel, and while many students had already left the premises, police gave the remaining students personal orders to leave and started removing people from the hall because of the noise disturbance. Forced to leave their own learning and meeting space, students gathered outside and continued chanting. They then made the collective decision to move to Porthania, another university building nearby, to set up banners and sit around in circles to talk among themselves.
The police arrived 45 minutes later and began removing people. Reports from some students who were part of the small group who were still present, identify there was one officer per student (that is between 40 and 60 officers). The presence of several police units (between 12 to 16 police cars) was also accompanied by several police dogs. Despite the fact that the majority of students complied and exited the building, one of them was aggressively pushed outside and fell. While no student reacted violently or in threatening ways, the student who fell was understandably frightened and shocked, and some students yelled at the police officers for using excessive force. About ten people refused to exit the building and were forcibly removed by police officers. One of these police officers used a wristlock on one of the students’ hand, further exemplifying police’s excessive use of violence and force. Following this, the student explained:
“After that, for the first time of my life, I had a panic attack: both of my hands completely froze like in a paralysis and it lasted for at least 30 minutes. The police reluctantly took photos of my hands after I had insisted on it several times and appealed to my legal protection. They also said that a doctor would look at my hands in 10 minutes, but it was more than an hour later, when a nurse came. Still three days later my right hand is aching and feels powerless. A doctor I visited yesterday said that the symptoms might last weeks. I filed a criminal complaint about the actions of the police officer, because I am concerned about the fact that they are and will be using unnecessary violence towards people who are in a more vulnerable position or state.”
Another student was shown on a video circulating on social media being carelessly dragged by two police officers on the snow and concrete.The few students left were told to stay 30 meters away from the building’s entrance, to which they complied while chanting and filming students being removed and detained. The police then ordered the students to leave even though they were in a public street, in front of Tiedekulma. Since students refused to move from the public space, the police formed a chain and made them retreat to the closest metro station. Once again, there was unnecessary pushing by some police officers. Ahvonen commented that “the police were using their power in an absurd fashion.” Finally, this peaceful student-led event in solidarity with Palestine which, amongst other things, demanded “that the University of Helsinki publicly calls for a permanent ceasefire, the opening of humanitarian aid corridors and an end to the genocide” (Students for Palestine Finland 2023), ended with a small group of students chanting, questioning and filming the police’s actions, and 13 protesters being arrested. This exemplifies the ways in which students’ safety is selectively valued and guaranteed by universities. While in some universities, posters, banners, social media posts, and petitions are perceived and treated as threats to some students by administrators, other universities deploy actual force and violence against students, through outsourcing engagement with student protestors and their demands to the police. In fact, the events which unfolded at Aalto University and the University of Helsinki in the past weeks appear to demonstrate that it is becoming institutionally and socially acceptable to use policing and/or force against student protestors and point to a worrying increase in social control and criminalization of students’ public expressions of solidarity with Palestine.
At the University of Oulu, a university staff member shared a worrying report of a PhD student who had been warned by their supervisor not to go to protests in solidarity with Gaza or Palestine, even if those were outside of the university and not within working hours, suggesting that they might be kicked out of the university if they did. Still in the same university, several members tried to organize a peaceful demonstration following the explosion at al-Ahli Hospital on October 17th, which killed 471 people according to the Ministry of Health in Gaza. The demonstration’s main message was to demand that the killing of civilians and the bombing of hospitals stops. Indeed, between October 7th and November 12th, the World Health Organization (WHO) has recorded at least 137 Israeli attacks on healthcare in Gaza, affirming that “attacks on medical facilities and civilians are unacceptable and are a violation of International Humanitarian and Human Rights Law and Conventions” (WHO 2023). However, the administration at the University of Oulu rejected this request twice, stating that it was an “international conflict” which supposedly does not have its place at the university. This is despite the fact that, similarly to other universities in Finland, the University of Oulu has taken a political stance on the Russian attacks on Ukraine, and has allowed protests related to Mahsa Amini’s killing in Iran last year. The University of Oulu has even republished a statement by Universities Finland UNIFI expressing “its concern about the situation of Iranian students and university staff” in Iran, therefore demonstrating that universities in Finland do take political stances on or express concerns related to international political issues.
In light of this and all the other stories of silencing shared, including Räsänen’s 2020 experience with Tiedekulma, it seems that universities in Finland respond to Palestine solidarity events in various ways: while some events are tolerated, as long as they are not “too political” and do not draw much attention, others are prohibited. Some may also be canceled as the event is about to take place. The university’s toolbox to sabotage events in solidarity with Palestine and against genocide comprises intimidation tactics, such as involving the police, and creating barriers prior to and/or during the event to discourage organizers and participants. One way in which Finnish universities, without exception, do not respond, however, is by “publicly [affirming] the value of Palestinian life” (Salaita 2017, p. 204) or by condemning Israel’s human rights violations in Palestine and against the Palestinian people.
In another case, a university researcher at one of the technology universities in Finland faced consequences for attending one of the peaceful protests organized at the university which called for an end to the genocide in Gaza and a ceasefire. The researcher explains:
“Shockingly, after the protest, I found myself ensnared in a web of false accusations, falsely alleging that the demonstration advocated for the genocide of Jews. This malicious narrative, I discovered, was part of a vile political campaign orchestrated by Zionists in Finland, seeking to curtail the freedom of expression of those participating in the demonstration. The aftermath of my participation has been devastating. I am now the subject of a relentless investigation by my employer, and the normalcy of my work life has been shattered. Rather than receiving the support and understanding that one might expect, I have been left isolated, discriminated against, and abandoned in the merciless realm of work life.”
The researcher has been subjected to harassment online as well as smearing, common tactics of the Israel lobby. They have also not been allowed to perform their usual work activities. While they have reported the harassment to the police, the university has treated them suspiciously, evading one of its legal obligations as an employer, that is its duty to exercise care for the safety and health of its employees (see Occupational Health and Safety Act, Ministry of Social Affairs and Health 2023). Indeed, as the researcher explains, the investigation process has had a significant impact on their well-being:
“My workplace has become a battleground, my personal information weaponized against me, and the once-friendly environment now tainted by threats and hostility. Instead of standing by me and adhering to the mental health and safety rules for employees, my employer has chosen the path of abandonment, exacerbating the toll on my mental well-being. Two years of dedicated service to my employer, and in my moment of greatest need, I am met with isolation and stress. My immigrant background has become a source of discrimination, further aggravating my distress. Both my personal and professional life lie in tatters, casualties of an unjust campaign against me. The impact on my mental health is undeniable, leaving me a victim of circumstances that have unfolded in the supposed haven of happiness, Finland.”
This researcher’s experience echoes many students and scholars’ narratives about such practices and illustrates the ways in which racism and xenophobia can not only drive particular accusations, but also affect the ways in which universities and departments unevenly deal with such cases. Associate Professor of Ethnic/Race and Resistance Studies at San Francisco State University, Rabab Abdulhadi (2017, pp. 98-99) explains that “one intended effects of such campaigns of harassment and intimidation by the lobby, even when these campaigns do not result in official sanctions, is to subject those targeted to prolonged psychological stress, to undermining their professional and political activities, and to smearing their public reputations”. According to her, this amounts to “political bullying”, which objective is to “stifle and criminalize any and all discussions of Palestine or Palestinians in order to shield Israel from accountability in its continued violations of Palestinian rights” (Abdulhadi 2017, p. 104).
Another testimony was shared by a research scientist who had a permanent employment contract at VTT – Technical Research Centre of Finland (Teknologian tutkimuskeskus VTT Oy) which was terminated following publications in support of Palestine on their personal Twitter and Linkedin accounts. According to VTT’s website, the company “is one of Europe’s leading research institutions.” While not an academic institution, it is owned by the Finnish state and its aim is to “advance the utilisation and commercialisation of research and technology in commerce and society.” On October 16th, the scientist’s supervisor contacted them to let them know it would be preferable for them to remove all their posts about Gaza from their social media accounts. When the researcher refused, the supervisor then requested that they remove their affiliation to VTT, which they did, adding in their bio that their opinions only represented them. Three days later, the research scientist was asked to have a meeting at the company’s office, where human resources announced that their contract was terminated due to not fitting in the company culture because of their supposed defense of terrorism. It seemed that their publications had been reported to the company management by a supporter of Zionism from outside the company. The researcher had also received threats from several Zionists through comments on their Linkedin account prior to this. VTT justified their decision by arguing that they could not employ someone who seems to support “extreme actions” especially as their work influences the domains of security and defense.
VTT itself has professional relations with Israel. For example, in a blogpost published on their website earlier this year, it is described how employees from the company went on a four-day trip to Israel organized by the Israeli embassy in Finland to learn more about “their way of working,” notably through getting “an extensive overview of how Israel’s universities, research institutes, incubators, accelerators, and public funding organizations function within their startup ecosystem” (Tenhunen 2023). The blogpost idealizes Israel’s “startup success” and ignores Israeli settler colonialism, occupation and apartheid. While the company terminated the contract of one of their employees for their support for Palestinian freedom and stated that “VTT stands and acts according to our values and defends democracy, human equality and tolerance” in their termination notice, they do not seem to have an issue with partnering with a genocidal state for their business ventures.
It is important to note that Finnish institutions and members of the academic community can respond differently to students and faculty members advocating for a free Palestine and for the end of the ongoing genocide. For example, Laura Junka-Aikio, Professor of Northern Politics and Government at the University of Lapland, faced a smear campaign online around mid-October, whereby multiple anonymous trolls portrayed her as spreading “Hamas’ terrorist propaganda”. Before she realized the extent of the targeting, her employer contacted her with words of support, reminding her that the university had a protocol to counter hate speech. They offered their support in case she needed it. Junka-Aikio further explains:
“I also think they might have contacted some of the people who engaged in the hate speech on my behalf. This support was super valuable at the time. Not having it would not have stopped me from speaking out for Palestine, but knowing that my employer is there to support me, recognizing also my right for protection from hate speech and online harassment, was of course really reassuring.”
“Wishing you all a good day, away from the bombs”10
Recently, at a board meeting of the Sibelius Academy11 at UniArts, Dean Emilie Gardberg commented that the university has been and is still open to host charity events, as long as they were not too strongly political. Since Palestine is not a charity case, the movement for Palestinian freedom refuses such depoliticization and whitewashing of the issue at end, which sees Palestinians only as helpless victims in need of Western money. While the question of Palestine partly becomes a humanitarian issue when Israel dispossesses Palestinians to the extent that they are dependent on aid, and become refugees in their own country, the making of Palestinians into humanitarian subjects is a deeply political issue related to Israel’s settler colonial expansionism in Palestinian territories and its annihilation of Palestinian Indigenous life, supported by the United States and European governments, including Finland’s. Charity will not cut it.
In a short statement released on November 22nd, University of Helsinki rector Sari Lindblom asserted that “the societal task of universities is to be a bridge builder between different views,” adding her voice to the chorus of depoliticized approaches to universities’ responsibility in standing against state violence and genocide, and to a power-evasive understanding of Israel’s colonial relation to Palestine and the Palestinian people. In all the cases described above, a clear thread appears in that university rules or ethics do not apply equally to all causes. Indeed, in a few of these instances, silencing takes place when the university subjectively judges that an event or message is “political” or “too political” or when a or several member(s) of the academic community or external to it complain(s). These complaints cannot always be discussed, and university, faculty or department leaders’ or administrators’ decisions cannot always be appealed.
Unlike in other contexts in Europe or in the United States, Finnish universities usually do not outwardly justify their silencing practices based on a strategic conflation between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, but by distancing themselves from any socio-political responsibility, whether discursively or materially.12 The reluctance of Finnish academia to engage politically sensitive subjects is not new and is connected to the political desire to construct a homogenous nation-state to maintain its security.13 However, as students and researchers have commented, the political character of events and communications seems to only bother universities when it relates to Palestine solidarity and criticism of Israel’s colonial violence; and this would suggest that the problem is specifically about some members of the academic community and about university leaders’ refusal that Finnish universities are/become spaces where Palestinian human rights are asserted. In the context of the US, Marc Lamont Hill and Mitchell Plitnick (2021) have characterized this ethical and political contradiction as being “progressive except for Palestine,” that is “when the topic turns to Palestine, the same people who consistently advocate for freedom and justice fail to live up to their professed ideals.”
These conflicts between university leaders and students and faculty members who speak truth to power on the question of Palestine raise concerns over free speech and academic freedom.14 However, as Salaita (2017, p. 194) points “academic freedom is often negligible when it comes to structural critique of racism, colonization, militarism, or state power.” That is why any analysis of academic freedom must be understood as part of the “systemic phenomena that frame its definition and performance” (Ibid.) That is to say that any serious consideration of academic freedom must critically interrogate the systemic foundations of freedom in Western academia. As Sámi Professor of Arctic Indigenous Politics at the University of Lapland Rauna Kuokkanen (2007, p. 14) has explained, universities “have been established to support the historical processes of colonization; they have been founded on the denial of the collective existence of indigenous peoples.” Universities can therefore be seen as a form of cultural, epistemic but also, in this instance, political imperialism.15 In the specific context of university responses to Palestine advocacy and the increasing corporatization of higher education in the US, Assistant Professor of Hebrew/Israeli literature and culture at George Washington University Orian Zakai (2017, p. 175) argues that the backlash directed at critics of Israel “intersect with the rising anxiety among academic administrators about institutions being held accountable for the way social relations of power manifest themselves on campus grounds through acts of aggression and micro-aggression against students of traditionally underrepresented populations.” Zakai observes that universities tend to adopt diversity and inclusivity discourses that fail to understand discrimination in terms of power, which then lead to developing “power-blind policies.” This is notably exemplified in several cases cited above, such as that of the researcher under investigation by their university, Åbo Akademi’s discourse on “offense” to members of the university community, UniArts Helsinki’s discourse on “safety” and Aalto University’s discourse on “security.”
Much like in the US, the repression of critics of Israel targets students and scholars in particular because university campuses “have become the epicenter of this burgeoning movement in solidarity with Palestinians and in support of the BDS [movement]” (Robinson & Griffin 2017, p. 15). Critical students and scholars also understand that universities are not innocent institutions in the perpetuation of Israeli settler colonialism and occupation. For example, a publication made by the Students for Palestine Finland collective pointed to the complicity of universities through various concrete and symbolic connections:
This critical consciousness of the role Finnish higher education institutions play in Israel’s regime of occupation, settler colonialism and apartheid notably builds on the BDS’ call for an academic boycott of Israeli universities which is referenced in several open letters written by Finnish scholars and students.
The movement in solidarity with Palestine is a multiracial, intergenerational, international and cross-political movement that “stands united in difference,” much like the Students Against Cuts movement, from which it takes much of its energy. Indeed, many students from the Students Against Cuts movement have joined the movement for a free Palestine, understanding the convergence of struggles. This is particularly the case in light of the fact that “restrictions on academic freedom are inseparable from the decline of the public university,” that is the “erosion of the notion of the ‘public’ and its traditional meaning” (Salaita 2017, p. 199) that comes with the privatization of public goods, including universities. In Finland specifically, and in line with the global shift towards neoliberal economic policies, there has been an ongoing process of corporatization of national universities which started during the economic recession in the 1990s. This shift toward corporate governance in universities manifested through a decrease in proportion of public funding of higher education by the Ministry of Education, and an increase in external funding, the proletarianization of Finnish university staff members, a normalization of “cooperation with companies, industry, and other sectors of the society” and a political connection made between universities, knowledge production and economic competitiveness in Finland (Välimaa 2011, pp. 105-107). In the past decades, Finnish legislators have attempted to increase the institutional autonomy of universities. According to Finnish Education studies professor Jussi Välimaa (2011), this is done through separating universities from the state budget, making University Boards responsible for decisions on university management and strategy, increasing university rectors’ power, and changing academic staff’s relationship to the university from one of civil servant to employee. While the aim of these changes is to generate more efficiency and accountability, and create internationally competitive universities, the shift to “corporate universities with clear management structures and strategies” (Välimaa 2011, p. 111) has led to a de-democratisation of Finnish universities and the perception of “community democracy as a hindrance” (Poutanen et al. 2022, p. 420). This historical and political context is essential to make sense of the threats to academic freedom and free speech universities are posing for students and university workers who are standing against colonialism, racism and state violence, notably through the power of University Boards, rectors and the deployment, instrumentalization and weaponization of university corporate strategies and arbitrary safety rules.
Critical students and researchers in Finland are understanding the plight of the Palestinian people as a social justice, anti-racist, anti-colonial and feminist issue, as exemplified by the Students Against Cuts Movement (2023) stating: “we stand in solidarity with the colonized and the oppressed.” Pushing against the logic of capital, they refuse the neoliberal university’s terms of engagement and business-as-usual mentality in time of colonial genocide. This refusal manifests in students’ decision to carry out events that the university prohibits; in speaking loudly and shouting to make up for not being able to use a microphone due to the electricity having been cut; in students not letting themselves be intimidated by the presence and involvement of the police in their learning spaces; in students and researchers writing open letters and petitions, and circulating them in mailing lists despite university rules; in the creation of alternative modes and platforms of communication and dissemination; in retrieving banners that have been confiscated and putting them back up, or remaking them again and again; in researchers booking rooms to hold teach-ins despite fears of retribution; in students chanting for a free Palestine as they are being pushed around and removed by police officers; in students’ asserting their right to be present in and speak from their universities; in the organization of detainee support for detained protestors; in students’ emailing rectors and deans to question them or let them know they reject their university’s stance, and using sarcasm as they sign off…
As Jack Halberstam (2013, p. 8) writes in their preface of Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s The Undercommons, “the path to the wild beyond is paved with refusal.” What we are currently witnessing and experiencing is students and faculty members refusing the neoliberal university’s “call to order,” thus refusing to be instruments and subjects of state and institutional governance, and letting “new kinds of things […] emerge out of the capacity to refuse” (Harney & Moten 2013, p. 126). Among these “new kinds of things” might be profound solidarity with and care for the Palestinian people and each other, courage and endurance in political mobilization which involve risks, and insurgent political conscientization in relation not only to the liberation of Palestine, but of all people living under oppression.
The struggle continues.
Anaïs Duong-Pedica is a PhD researcher from Kanaky/New Caledonia based at Åbo Akademi University. Her work focuses on French settler colonialism and race as well as revolutionary and anti-colonial feminist practices and histories in Kanaky/New Caledonia. She has been participating to the international movement for the liberation of Palestine from Finland for a few years.
I am grateful to all the students and researchers who shared their experiences of academic repression and interactions with their institutions. I would also like to warmly thank the artist and photographers (credited and anonymous) for the important work they do and for agreeing to their work being published to illustrate the essay. I also would like to share my deep appreciation for the peer reviewers who read and commented on the text and for the RASTER editorial team for publishing it with urgency. Most importantly, my gratitude and respect to the enduring student movement in solidarity with Palestine in Finland, whose courage and energy feeds our vision of a world in which Palestine is free.
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- See also the Association of Finnish Student Unions (SYL)’s call for an “immediate action from Finland to fulfill humanitarian law in Gaza.” ↩︎
- Many of these are documented and shared by the Researchers for Gaza collective. Thus far, teachers and researchers’ unions have not been involved, except for Tampereen yliopiston tieteentekijät – TATTE publishing a statement “calling for a ceasefire and for an end to apartheid and occupation in Palestine.” ↩︎
- The article contains the narratives of nine students, five researchers and one event attendee external to the university spread between seven universities and one state-funded research center. It should be noted that this essay does not aim to make a full inventory of all of the practices of academic repression which have taken place in the past two months in relation to the movement in solidarity with Palestine. There have been more instances of repression than those cited in this essay. In fact, the author was made aware of a few cases of silencing practices used against faculty members who decided not to share their experiences. ↩︎
- Zionism is a political and nationalist ideology that originated in Europe in the late 1800s and that supports the creation of a Jewish state. It is the colonial movement that is “responsible for the establishment of Israel and the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians” (Decolonize Palestine, n.d.) and should be understood as being “grounded in Europe eighteenth and nineteenth-century imperialism” (Elia 2023, p. 32). The political embodiment of Zionist colonialism is the settler State of Israel which is characterized by and rests on racism, violence and terrorism, and territorial expansion (Sayegh 1965, pp. 21-38). ↩︎
- This conflation has a long history which is succinctly debunked by DecolonizePalestine on their “Myth: Anti-Zionism is Antisemitism” webpage. ↩︎
- While some students and university workers have chosen to remain anonymous, others have given their permission for their names to be used. ↩︎
- The short letter broadly expressed its concern about “the serious humanitarian consequences of the conflict in Gaza” and the “need for immediate action to protect the civilian population in the area and to secure humanitarian aid.” However, the letter did not address the demands, including the one requesting a declaration of support for an immediate ceasefire. ↩︎
- The essay is not arguing that universities should not have publicly condemned Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine. On the contrary, the author believes that universities have a social and political responsibility to contribute to social justice and challenge oppression. This should include Israeli settler colonialism, occupation, apartheid and violence against Palestinians. ↩︎
- This claim has been removed by the newspaper after the students denied having been aware of the event (see Students for Palestine Finland 2023). ↩︎
- The sign off that Sami Karkar used at the end of his email to UniArts rector Kaarlo Hildén and to all staff and students at the university. ↩︎
- For an exploration of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’ antisemitism and more specifically Finnish musicologists and Finnish society’s difficulty to discuss the widespread character of antisemitism in Finnish society beyond the National Socialist racial antisemitism and Nazi Germany, see Ahonen, Muir, and Silvennoinen (2020, p. 150). ↩︎
- This does not mean however that the logic used by Finnish university leadership is completely unrelated to the broader Western political context. University justifications should be critically analyzed through the prism of European history and contemporary manifestations of racism and colonialism, as well as through more local histories and manifestations of racism and colonialism. Moreover, as we have seen, this rhetoric is deployed at Aalto University, albeit not publicly. ↩︎
- For example, Paavo Ahonen, Simo Muir, and Oula Silvennoinen (2020, p. 141) noted that in the postwar period “this tendency to avoid politically sensitive subjects” influenced the topics that were researched, as “scholarly investigations into the nature and influence of fascism in Finland were few and far between.” ↩︎
- Of course, this is taking place in an environment that is increasingly hostile to academic freedom, as evidenced by the current government’s intervention in refusing to approve an Academy of Finland research programme on migration, notably because it did not consider the “negative effects of migration.” Additionally, Niko Ohvo, a special assistant to the True Finns far-right party in power, has suggested that it would be beneficial for such a research programme to also address “current issues” such as the rise of anti-Semitism (Junkkari 2023). The connection made between anti-Semitism, migration by a far-right politician needs to be understood as an instrumentalization of anti-Seminitism for anti-migration political purposes. It bears reminding that there have been “widespread and strong anti-Jewish attitudes” in Finland reported as early as the 20th century (Ahonen, Muir & Silvennoinen 2020, p. 139) and far-right political groups have actively contributed to antisemitism. ↩︎
- See also critical pieces written by university workers and students on Finnish universities: Hortelano 2015; Duong-Pedica 2018; Collective 2021; Laine 2021; Students at Åbo Akademi 2021; Jones 2023; Laine, Kajava & Ahvonen 2023. ↩︎