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AU researchers sign a declaration of support for the Palestinian people – here they explain why

939 researchers and members of academic staff from the Nordic countries have declared their solidarity with the Palestinian people in a declaration of support that calls on Israel to stop its military action in Gaza. Israel is practising apartheid against the Palestinian people and committing genocide, the declaration claims. Several AU researchers have signed the declaration – read why in this article.

Photo: Colourbox
Maj Ørskov, postdoc in aesthetics and culture at the School of Communication and Culture at Aarhus University.
Morten Nissen, professor of psychology at the Danish School of Education, Aarhus University.

“We declare our solidarity with the Palestinian people in our call for an end to the genocide and occupation. We cannot allow Israel to continue its current war on Gaza, and we cannot allow a return to the status quo”.

These are the words of 939 researchers from the Nordic countries who signed a declaration of support which was published in the Danish newspaper Information, including over 100 researchers from Danish universities – 27 from Aarhus University.

The declaration was written in solidarity with the open letter written by Birzeit University in Palestine, which urges all academic institutions to take concrete action against what the university describes as the genocide of the Palestinian people.

In the declaration signed by researchers from the Nordic countries, Israel’s current siege of Gaza is described as genocide and ethnic cleansing. Researchers claim that “those behind the ongoing genocide, including those who support them, should be held accountable.” They also say that they view Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian population as apartheid. The declaration calls on all universities in the Nordic region to boycott Israeli institutions – but not researchers who distance themselves from “Israel’s colonial occupation, apartheid and current mass killing of the civilian Palestinian population.”

One of the researchers who has signed the declaration is Morten Nissen, professor of educational psychology at the Danish School of Education at Aarhus University. He wants to influence the debate with his signature.

“I share responsibility for the political stance that has been taken in the country in which I live. The Danish government, headed by Mette Frederiksen (Social Democrats), has taken a clearly pro-Israeli line, and I think this is problematic. I would like to help challenge this opinion in Denmark. I don’t have the time to devote myself to activism, so when I am presented with a petition on which someone has formulated something I stand for, I am keen to sign,” says Morten Nissen.

Another researcher who has signed the declaration is Maj Ørskov, postdoc in aesthetics and culture at the School of Communication and Culture at Aarhus University. She has a degree in Arab and Islamic studies, and her current research, which examines the interaction between artistic products and their environment, focuses on the Middle East. She signed the declaration to help put the war in context, she explains.

“As a researcher, I think it’s important to keep in mind that the world is so enormously complex that we cannot talk about isolated events as though they were happening in a vacuum. In my opinion, that’s what at least some parts of this declaration succeed in doing. It points out that, despite the horrific massacre that took place on 7 October this year, and despite each country’s right to defend itself, we need to talk about the events happening now in the context of a 75-year-long history. If the current conflict is ever to be resolved, we need to insist upon its complexity,” says Maj Ørskov.

Activism or research

The researchers’ declaration of solidarity has come at a time when the war between Israel and Hamas has reignited the question of the line between activism and research.

A few years ago, it was Morten Messerschmidt (Danish People’s Party) and Henrik Dahl (Liberal Alliance) who led the debate on activist research, as they believed it was spreading through Danish universities. They managed to pass a bill in the Danish Parliament which calls for university management to ensure that “politics is not disguised as science.”  

In October this year, Henrik Dahl brought the question into public debate again, when TV2 News used Sune Haugbølle, professor of global studies at Roskilde University, to assess and analyse the Israel-Hamas conflict. Henrik Dahl wrote on X (formerly Twitter):

“Hi TV2 News. Why are you using Sune Haugbølle as an ‘expert’? Sune Haugbølle is not an ‘expert’ at all.”

In 2021, Sune Haugbølle signed a manifesto that was published in Politiken with the title ‘Denmark should take a leading role in the fight against Israeli apartheid’. A number of researchers who specialise in the Middle East called on the Danish government to carry out a military embargo of Israel. “We stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people”, it stated in the manifesto, which also declared the researchers’ solidarity with the Palestinians’ right to “resist occupation, siege and discrimination.”

This rekindled debate led Jyllands-Posten and DR to concede that, whenever they use Sune Haugbølle as a source in the future, they will describe him as a ‘critic of Israel’.   

In light of the most recent declaration of support, Information asked Sune Haugbølle why he neglected to sign a second time. He had heard about the declaration before it was published, but he did not want to sign “in the current situation, when there are so many emotions at stake,” he explains.

Like Sune Haugbølle, Maj Ørskov also conducts research on the Middle East, while this is not the case for Morten Nissen. But he has worked in many areas that relate to the current conflict, such as general ethics, and he has explored the question of how situations are framed and with which consequences.

Signatory: I am worried

Before postdoc Maj Ørskov signed the declaration, she considered how the public would view a researcher signing something that could be interpreted as taking an active stance – and a stance influenced by opinions.

I am obviously worried because this debate is extremely heated.

“I am obviously worried because this debate is extremely heated, but I trust that we live in a free, democratic country in which we won’t get branded and jeopardise our careers just because we insist on having a multi-faceted debate,” she says.

The declaration by the 939 researchers underlines the importance of including an academic angle in the debate. They write, for example, that it is “our responsibility to generate well-founded and academic knowledge that can help create a fairer world.”

This academic starting point makes a difference for Maj Ørskov, she explains.

“It relates to some of the things I work on in my research, either directly or indirectly, so I feel obliged to do something.”

“This declaration has highlighted the duty of academia. I read it as both input from and a defence of some of the research being conducted in this area. The declaration also makes reference to some of the human rights organisations that have documented a number of problematic practices being carried out by Israel over decades. I think it’s possible to take a stance on this even if it’s not your subject area. But it is of course up to the individual,” she says.

The issue of taking sides ignores the historical context

In current media coverage, Maj Ørskov sees a picture emerging of two distinct sides without room for nuance. It’s a difficult landscape to navigate as a researcher, she thinks.

“I’m aware that there are many pitfalls when trying to engage in a media picture that thrives on sharply drawn distinctions. For me, it’s important not to go along with the kind of football language that’s used – where you can ‘stick with’ one out of two teams – when we’re talking about something as complex and long-standing as the current conflict,” says Maj Ørskov.

You view your signature as a way of you – and your co-signatories – pointing out specific problems. But won’t other people interpret your signature as you taking sides in the conflict?

“I think the whole issue of taking sides is problematic, uninteresting and ignores the historical context. For me, it’s very difficult to talk about two distinct sides in this conflict, which is impacting an unimaginable number of civilian lives, even though the media, the Israeli state, the Palestinian self-governing authorities and several other political actors have interests in portraying it that way. It’s precisely this portrayal that I think we as researchers have a duty to challenge,” says Maj Ørskov.

In the declaration, researchers have signed a formulation that reads: “Israel’s imposition of apartheid against the Palestinian people is well documented.” An issue that is much debated.

Did you think about this issue?

“I did, and I hope that those who have good arguments to refute the claims made in the report by Human Rights Watch, which is cited in the declaration, will invite us to discuss the issue,” she says.

When asked how she feels about Hamas, Maj Ørskov argues that it must be possible to talk about the conflict and the actions of the Israeli state without having to answer counter-questions about Hamas.

“It should be possible to discuss the Israeli state and how it has exercised its sovereignty over the last 75 years despite the massacre on 7 October, which I cannot imagine any of the signatories would want to professionally defend or condone. I don’t accept the premise that one excludes the other,” she says.

The declaration does not mention Hamas but states that the signatories express their “deep grief for all the Palestinian and Israeli civilians who have been killed since 7 October.”

Professor: Israel is an apartheid regime

When asked about Hamas, Professor Morten Nissen refers to the section in the declaration in which it states that the signatories mourn the civilians who have been killed by Hamas. 

“Regardless of whether the killing of civilians is called a war crime, terror or genocide, and regardless of who perpetrates it, we hope that an international order can be established to hold the guilty accountable and to prevent it happening again. In the current war, the Israeli forces have killed at least ten times more civilians than Hamas has on its conscience – and we shouldn’t lose sight of this. But the acts of terror and war crimes committed by Hamas must of course also be condemned and, if possible, brought before an international court,” says Morten Nissen.

Like Maj Ørskov, Morten Nissen also insists that we recognise the nuances in the conflict and that we view the current war in a context that goes back 75 years to 1948, when the state of Israel was founded, he explains. He supports the declaration’s claims about genocide and apartheid.

The UN has not declared Israel an apartheid regime, but I don’t think that’s a reason not to talk about it.

“The UN has not declared Israel an apartheid regime, but I don’t think that’s a reason not to talk about it. A number of humanitarian organisations have made this comparison. And I think it’s a correct comparison. One section of the population has more rights than the other, and the population is geographically divided. There are several parallels,” says Morten Nissen.

He also believes that it’s right to boycott Israeli universities and researchers. It’s a move that stems from the BDS movement (ed. Boytcott, Divestment and Sanctions movement) which, for example, also demands that we boycott Puma because they sponsor the Israeli football team and boycott Israeli fruit and vegetables because they are produced on “stolen Palestinian land.”

“I think it’s right to make a boycott policy. And that it’s right to draw the line and say: We will not collaborate with researchers if they do not actively oppose the aggressive apartheid policy of the brutal right-wing Israeli government. This is one of the tools we can use to try and change this situation, which has led to such tragic events – both Hamas’ attacks on Israeli civilians and Israel’s attacks on Palestinian civilians.

Why have you signed to say that you will not collaborate with Israeli researchers who do not distance themselves from the actions of the Israeli government?

“This is the thumbscrew of the boycott approach. It also affects individual Israeli companies, so we could also say: Well, they aren’t guilty, they just produce orange juice. That’s just the nature of a boycott. It’s clear that there will always be a process before we get to where we want to be. If I were to collaborate with Eva Illouz, the French sociologist working in Israel, I would ask how she is dealing with the conflict,” says Morten Nissen.

Praise from colleagues 

Just like Maj Ørskov, Morten Nissen has also considered the public take on him giving his opinion as a researcher.

“I have thought about it, and I think that people can see that I am not claiming to be an expert and providing neutral, objective knowledge,” he says.

I have received praise from colleagues for daring to sign, he explains. Some of his colleagues told him they were not brave enough to do so. 

In the declaration published in Information, Maj Ørskov does not appear on the list of signatories. This is a mistake, and she has confirmed to Omnibus that she has signed the declaration. 

Rector: Staff are free to express themselves freely

In connection with a petition among students at Aarhus University in solidarity with the Palestinian people, Rector Brian Bech Nielsen has told Omnibus that staff are free to sign such petitions and declarations.

“The war in the Middle East and the impact it will have on the civilian population on both sides is deeply tragic. AU employees are free to express their opinions and sign petitions like anyone else. AU is a state institution and follows the government line on matters concerning foreign policy – including any criticism of the actions of other nations”, the rector said in a written statement.