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UZH News

Middle East Conflict

“The basis is mutual respect”

UZH President Michael Schaepman emphasizes the key role of differentiated, open dialogue in the Middle East conflict. In the interview he also talks about the importance of showing empathy.
UZH Communications; English translation by Michael Craig


UZH Hauptgebäude

What can a university do in the Middle East conflict? 

Michael Schaepman: The most important thing UZH can do is provide knowledge, understanding and guidance. Our task is to analyze situations such as the Middle East conflict and get a read on them based on the facts. For example, we can help clarify questions of international law. And we can equip students and employees to understand the complexity of conflicts and acquire skills in dealing with them.

UZH as an institution can’t make a direct contribution to the diplomatic resolution of the conflict. But it can contribute to the quality of the public debate. The public mood in response to the conflict in the Middle East is increasingly polarized. So, it’s all the more important for the university to provide a safe framework for a differentiated and open discussion based on mutual respect.

On the Friday before last, the police carried out access controls at the university following reports of a disturbance. Access to the building was also severely restricted. What prompted the operation? 

It has been claimed that the police were called by the Executive Board of the University. But that’s not the case. At no point did UZH file a criminal complaint or call for the police to be deployed. The police may have information justifying intervention to ensure public safety. I assume that they acted with good reason on the basis of what they knew. We are in dialogue with the police about the incidents.

The Students for Palestine group and the University of Zurich Students Association (VSUZH) claim that UZH has a duty to break its silence on human rights violations. They complain that a climate of silence prevails. What’s the Executive Board’s view on this?

We’re not keeping silent; there’s manifestly a debate on the topic. We remain open to dialogue with all students, including Students for Palestine, trusting that people on all sides will respect the others’ points of view. 

But I would stress that it’s not UZH’s job to play politics. It’s our duty to provide a framework for a differentiated, open and objective discussion of political and social conflicts.

But it’s also important for us at UZH to show empathy. Many of our staff and students are personally affected by the conflict in the Middle East, as well as by the conflict in Ukraine. In fall 2023, in a statement on the UZH website, we clearly expressed our dismay at the suffering caused by violence. Because the situation required it, we later updated this statement together with the students.

We are deeply moved by violence and human suffering, and we must be allowed to articulate this. However, the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East also show that human suffering affects us to differing degrees depending on how close or distant the respective region or culture is to us. For example, the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar has triggered only a comparatively small response in this country. Public perception is selective. We should also bear this in mind when analyzing and interpreting global political events.

Jewish students are anxious about the demands made by Students for Palestine and the VSUZH. How does UZH guarantee their safety? What is it doing to ensure that no one at UZH has to feel compromised? 

We hear their concerns and understand them. Our position is clear and unambiguous: we do not tolerate racism, anti-Semitism or prejudice against people based on their origin or religion.

We do not tolerate violence, including verbal violence, among UZH students and staff. Verbal violence violates academic freedom. As president, it is my duty to ensure that all staff and students feel safe at UZH and can express their opinions freely and without fear. But the involvement of all members of UZH is also required: the duty has to be seen as both institutional and individual.

Michael Schaepman

Our task at UZH is to analyze situations such as the Middle East conflict and get a read on them based on the facts

Michael Schaepman
UZH President

Has UZH failed to take a clear enough stance on the Middle East conflict?  

No. We have spoken out clearly on this matter and, as I said earlier, have published our position on our website. We are still distressed by the events and the ongoing escalation in the Middle East conflict. Our thoughts are with the victims of the attack and their families, as well as the innocent civilians of all nationalities and backgrounds who are now suffering the consequences of the ongoing violence. We also reiterate our appeal and call on all those involved to respect international humanitarian law, and in particular the duty to spare civilians.   

The protesters and their demands are currently very much in the public eye. What about other voices? 

The opinions of students and staff are very diverse, as is the way these opinions reach the university or me and the way they’re formulated. Many are bothered by vociferous debate and would rather concentrate on their studies or research. While it’s important to provide space for the necessary debate, it’s also our role to support all students and employees as well. 

Students for Palestine and the VSUZH are calling for a boycott of Israeli institutions that support the war in Gaza. What’s UZH’s stance on this? 

Generalizations are harmful, and restricting academic freedom isn’t acceptable to the Executive Board. We therefore reject the proposed boycott. In line with this thinking, we also reject a boycott of Palestinian academic institutions. Excluding and discriminating against individuals or institutions that are part of the academic community on the basis of their nationality is contrary to all academic values. We’ve communicated this to both organizations and will communicate the same thing to anyone else who inquires. Academic cooperation always involves mutual exchange and fostering mutual understanding. We’re doing nothing to help resolve the conflict if we allow these bridges to be burned. We shouldn’t be abandoning relationships with people who uphold our academic values.

 Is UZH reviewing its collaborations and cooperation with Israeli and other partners? 

We regularly check whether our institutional partners are adhering to UZH’s ethical and academic values. At the same time, UZH researchers and instructors also gauge for themselves when collaboration with a particular partner is no longer appropriate. We’re currently analyzing our international orientation and knowledge security to be able to make even better recommendations in matters of responsible international cooperation.

What support does UZH offer to those affected by the Middle East conflict? 

Our advisors in the Global Student Experience and Global Affairs offices are particularly sensitive to the needs of people affected by the Middle East conflict. Our membership of the international Scholars at Risk organization also entails an active commitment to protecting researchers at risk.

How does UZH maintain dialogue with the student groups concerned? 

UZH continues to maintain a dialogue with all the student groups involved, especially the representatives of the accredited student associations. We’re currently planning dialogue formats that create space for a differentiated discussion of the Middle East conflict. Together with me in my capacity as president and the Center for Crisis Competence, the VSUZH has sent an email to employees and students calling on them to initiate events on this topic. These events should enable all UZH students and staff to contribute their views on the Middle East conflict, in the spirit of an open and differentiated debate based on mutual respect.

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