Feeling uncomfortable is not the same as feeling unsafe

As one of the speakers at the 3 November teach-in, Dr Jeff Handmaker feels ‘compelled to clarify some crucial matters’ that were not portrayed correctly in Delta, he argues.

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On 30 November 2023, an article was published in Delta, entitled: Hamas’ role in the suffering of Jews and Palestinians is not even mentioned.


As one of the speakers at this very well-organised, professional and multi-sided teach-in event on 3 November 2023 at TU Delft, I feel compelled to clarify some crucial matters that were not accurately reported in this article. Moreover, I wish to express my disappointment that such a one-sided article can be published without incorporating the views of those whom the article is about.


To start off with, I openly identified myself as Jewish, and so the suggestion in the article that there were ‘no speakers from the Jewish or Israeli perspective’ is patently false. In a similar vein, the very title of the article is misleading. Vague and general references to ‘violent demonstrations in The Netherlands’ cannot possibly be verified.


It is also relevant to point out that I am not the only Jewish person feeling this way. Indeed, a group of 20 Jewish scholars and students produced a statement explaining our concern at how antisemitism and criticisms of Israel were routinely being conflated.


Returning to the 3 November event at TU Delft, it was simply not the case that ‘Hamas’ role’ was not mentioned at the teach-in, as was implied in the article. Several speakers and members of the audience also made reference to the attacks on 7 October, although to be fair, this was perhaps after the staff member had left the room.


Moreover, it is important to point out that I did not experience the hatred at this event, at least not from the organisers or most of those in the audience. The atmosphere was professional, and the mood was collegial – apart from one member of the audience who interrupted my talk and then chose to leave the event altogether. Despite the inaccurate portrayal in this article that there was no balance, there were in fact many different perspectives expressed at this event, both by the panellists and by those in the audience, who were given an opportunity – in one instance an elaborate opportunity – to express themselves. Moreover, those with critical views were encouraged to stay. And they did, or at least most did.


To be clear, it is quite understandable for me that many people feel incredibly uncomfortable, especially Israelis and some members of the Jewish community. I also do not deny that some have even felt unsafe after the gruesome violence perpetrated against Israelis, and subsequently Palestinians, since 7 October. However, it is deeply concerning to me that there appears to be no equivalent thought given to the increasing Islamophobia in the Netherlands. Indeed, Muslims in the Netherlands also feel unsafe, all the more so since 7 October.


It is, however, imperative to explain why one feels unsafe, which will always be a combination of objective facts and subjective feelings.  


It is never okay to feel unsafe, particularly in an academic environment. This is why one must establish, at the start of any event, including the teach-in at TU Delft on 3 November, that it would not be accepted if anyone used language that is Islamophobic, antisemitic, homophobic, sexist, racist. Moreover, it is not acceptable to attack someone in an ad hominem way – in other words, attacking someone personally, rather than engaging with their views. Observing these basic rules in an academic discussion is crucial to protecting academic freedom, all the more so when the topic being discussed makes a lot of people feel uncomfortable.


Claims that one doesn’t feel safe need to be based on arguments, which were not provided in this article, apart from one “Free Palestine” remark, which itself is debatable. It should not be the case that we make an exception to academic freedom when discussing a topic that includes a Palestinian perspective.

Dr Jeff Handmaker is Associate Professor of Legal Sociology at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam and was one of the speakers at the 3 November 2023 teach-in at TU Delft.

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