All posts

Suffocating the academic and student solidarity movement for Palestinian liberation in Finnish higher education (Part 3)

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 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 and the second you can read here.

“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.”

The Laocoön group’s sculpture in the University of Helsinki’s main building adorned with keffiyehs and a poster stating “THE WHOLE WORLD SUPPORTS PALESTINE”
A sign propped up on one of the police cars at the second walkout organized by students in the Helsinki region on November 29th. Photo credit: Hannu Häkkinen

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:

An Instagram post by Students for Palestine Finland answering the question “Why are we directing our demands to the University of Helsinki?”

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.

Students in solidarity with Palestine in front of the main building of the University of Helsinki on November 29th. Photo credit: Hannu Häkkinen

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.

Author’s acknowledgements

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.

References (for parts 1-3)

Abdulhadi, Rabab . 2017. Speaking Truth to Power: Advocating for Justice in/for Palestine. In W. I. Robinson and M. S. Griffin (Eds.), We Will Not Be Silenced: The Academic Repression of Israel’s Critics, London: Pluto Press, pp. 98-106.

Ahonen, Paavo, Muir, Simo, and Silvennoinen, Oula. 2020. The Study of Antisemitism in Finland: Past, Present, and Future. In J. Adams and C. Heß (Eds.), Antisemitism in the North: History and State of Research, Berlin & Boston: De Gruyter, pp. 139-153.

Elia, Nada. 2023. Greater Than the Sum of Our Parts: Feminism, Inter/Nationalism & Palestine. London: Pluto Press.

European Support Legal Center. 2023. Suppressing Palestinian Rights Advocacy through the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism. Amsterdam.

Falk, Richard A. 2017. Preface.  In W. I. Robinson and M. S. Griffin (Eds.), We Will Not Be Silenced: The Academic Repression of Israel’s Critics, London: Pluto Press, pp. xi-xviii.

Ghantous, Wassim & Joronen, Mikko. 2022. Dromoelimination: Accelerating settler colonialism in Palestine. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 40(3), pp. 393-412.

Halberstam, Jack. 2013. The Wild Beyond: With and For the Undercommons. In S. Harney and F. Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. New York: Minor Compositions, pp. 2-12.

Harney, Stephano & Moten, Fred. 2013. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. New York: Minor Compositions.

Keskinen, Suvi, Skaptadóttir, Unnur D., and Toivanen, Mari. 2019. Narrations of homogeneity, waning welfare states, and the politics of solidarity. In S. Keskinen, U. D. Skaptadóttir and M. Toivanen (Eds.), Undoing Homogeneity in the Nordic Region, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 1-17.

Kuokkanen, Rauna. 2007. Reshaping the University: Responsibility, Indigenous Epistemes, and the Logic of the Gift. Vancouver and Toronto: UBC Press.

Lamont Hill, Marc & Plitnick, Mitchell. 2021. Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics. New York and London: The New Press.

Lentin, Alana. 2020. Why Race Still Matters. Cambridge: Polity.

Lentin, Alana. 2023. Anti-Zionism, Anti-Semitism, Decolonization & Islamophobia with Alana LentinMillennials Are Killing Capitalism [Online].

Poutanen, Mikko, Tomperi, Tuukka, Kuusela, Hanna, Kaleva, Veera & Tervasmäki, Tuomas. 2022. From democracy to managerialism: foundation universities as the embodiment of Finnish university policiesJournal of Education Policy 37(3), 419-442.

Robinson, William I.  & Griffin, Maryam S. 2017. Introduction: Academic Repression on US University Campuses.  In W. I. Robinson and M. S. Griffin (Eds.), We Will Not Be Silenced: The Academic Repression of Israel’s Critics, London: Pluto Press, pp. 1-19.

Salaita, Steven. 2017. Interrupted Destinies: Before and After and Forthwith.  In W. I. Robinson and M. S. Griffin (Eds.), We Will Not Be Silenced: The Academic Repression of Israel’s Critics, London: Pluto Press, pp. 191-205.

Sayegh, Fayez A. 1965. Zionist Colonialism in Palestine. Beirut: Palestine Liberation Organization.

Välimaa, Jussi. 2011. The Corporatization of National Universities in Finland. In B. Pusser, K. Kempner, S. Marginson, and I. Odorika (Eds.), Universities and the Public Sphere: Knowledge Creation and State Building in the Era of Globalization, London: Routledge, pp. 101–119. 

Younes, Anna-Esther. 2020. Fighting Anti-Semitism in Contemporary GermanyIslamophobia Studies Journal, 5(2), pp. 249-266.

Yuval-Davis, Nira. 2020. Introduction to ‘Antisemitism, Anti-Racism and Zionism: Old Debates, Contemporary Contestations’: reflecting back on my article ‘Zionism, antisemitism and the struggle against racism: some reflections on a current painful debate among feminists’, Spare Rib, September 1984. Feminist Review, 126, pp. 173-177.

Yuval-Davis, Nira. 2023. Antisemitism is a Form of Racism – or is it?Sociology, pp. 1-17.

Zakai, Orian. 2017. Antisemitism on the American College Campus in the Age of Corporate Education, Identity Politics and Power-Blindness. In Jewish Voice for Peace (Ed.), On Anti-Semitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice, Chicago: Haymarket Books, pp. 173-180.

Endnotes (for parts 1-3)

  1. See also the Association of Finnish Student Unions (SYL)’s call for an “immediate action from Finland to fulfill humanitarian law in Gaza.” ↩︎
  2. 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.” ↩︎
  3. 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. ↩︎
  4. 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). ↩︎
  5. This conflation has a long history which is succinctly debunked by DecolonizePalestine on their “Myth: Anti-Zionism is Antisemitism” webpage. ↩︎
  6. While some students and university workers have chosen to remain anonymous, others have given their permission for their names to be used. ↩︎
  7. 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. ↩︎
  8. 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. ↩︎
  9. This claim has been removed by the newspaper after the students denied having been aware of the event (see Students for Palestine Finland 2023). ↩︎
  10. 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. ↩︎
  11. 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). ↩︎
  12. 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. ↩︎
  13. 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.” ↩︎
  14. 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. ↩︎
  15. See also critical pieces written by university workers and students on Finnish universities: Hortelano 2015Duong-Pedica 2018Collective 2021Laine 2021Students at Åbo Akademi 2021Jones 2023Laine, Kajava & Ahvonen 2023↩︎