Otago Staff and Alumni Urge University to Back Palestine In Open Letter

Otago Staff and Alumni Urge University to Back Palestine In Open Letter

More than 200 Otago signatories declared their support amid the Israel-Palestine conflict

Last November, 221 Otago University staff and alumni signed an open letter calling for Vice Chancellors at universities across New Zealand to issue a joint statement in solidarity with Palestinians. The letter came a month after Hamas’ October 7th attack on Southern Israel, re-igniting a conflict* that has left 1,410 Israeli and nearly 30,000 Palestinians citizens dead, in what has been repeatedly deemed by foreign policy analysts as one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our time. 

The open letter reads: “We urge all Vice-Chancellors to release a joint statement in solidarity with Palestine that condemns Israel’s genocidal attacks on Palestinians and calls for an immediate ceasefire and end to Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine.” It urges Vice Chancellors to issue separate statements if they cannot agree to issue one unanimously. 

The open letter from staff follows on from a growing protest movement which has woven throughout the nation. Signatories and protesters view the Israel Defence Force’s attacks on Palestinians since October 7th as genocide. The Israeli Government claims it is acting in self-defense and has rejected South Africa’s 84 page proceedings against them in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as “distorted”, stating civilian harm is “unintentional but lawful.” However, the ICJ has ruled it “plausible” that Israel has committed acts that violate the Genocide Convention and will issue an official decision at a later date. 

The October 7th attack came after 75 years of conflict surrounding Jewish immigration to Palestine and the establishment of Israel as a state in 1948. In 2004, the ICJ ruled that a separation barrier, built by Israel through east Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank, was “contrary to international law,” and is currently considering the legality of Israel’s 57-year occupation of the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. The letter’s signatories have deemed Israel's ongoing occupation as an extension of "settler colonialism,” one which has resulted in the displacement, dispossession, and persecution of Palestinians. 

The letter places emphasis on the bombing of universities, alleging that a key part of “Israel’s genocide against Palestine” is “epistemicide” due to targeted attacks on universities in Gaza. The letter states: “These attacks are not only murdering Palestine’s University communities, they are also systematically destroying the rich knowledge, histories and literatures of Palestine, without which our world, and our understanding of it, will forever be incomplete […] Universities that fail to condemn these attacks can no longer claim to be genuinely committed to the pursuit of knowledge and any meaningful vision of a local and global scholarly community.” 

Acting Vice-Chancellor Professor Helen Nicholson has responded to the letter in a comment to Critic Te Ārohi, stating: “The University of Otago community includes more than 25,000 staff and students from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences. Our deepest sympathies are with the people of Gaza, and we continue to do all we can to ensure that all of our community feels safe and protected at this difficult time.”

Dunedin for Justice in Palestine coordinator Rinad Tamimi says she is “disappointed” in the University of Otago’s silence. Rinad, who grew up in Hebron, Palestine and graduated from Otago in 2017, believes the University could be “doing so much more” given the “diversity” of the student population, many of whom may be impacted by the devastation overseas. 

National chair of the Palestinian Solidarity Network of Aotearoa John Minto also agreed that the University of Otago should “stand up,” commenting to Critic Te Ārohi: “In the 1930s Western institutions looked the other way to the looming genocide in Nazi Germany and the result was the Holocaust. The world said ‘never again.’ We must say ‘never again’ today for Palestinians in Gaza.” 

The Zionist Federation of New Zealand did not respond to request for comment in time for print. 

*Pursuant to principle 4 of the NZ Media Council Statement of Principles, Critic Te Ārohi will not use the descriptive term ‘genocide’ outside of the reporting on opinion, opinion pieces, and editorials unless the International Court of Justice, or other relevant authority, declares it so. The ICJ found it is "plausible" that Israel has committed acts that violate the Genocide Convention but is yet to make a final determination. 

This article first appeared in Issue 1, 2024.
Posted 5:22pm Sunday 25th February 2024 by Iris Hehir.