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Students on Middle Eastern studies: »We talk about the war from a pro-Palestinian point of view«

The war between Israel and Hamas is in almost all of the conversations on the Middle Eastern studies programme at the University of Copenhagen. Students disagree over subtle details: but all the sympathy is on one side, says one student on the Arabic-language line.

At lectures, you don’t see many laptops that are not adorned with a #freepalestine sticker.

And during breaks, conversations are typically on who will be attending today’s demonstration for Palestine.

This is according to Arina Kaki, who is a master’s student on the Middle Eastern language and society (MØS) programme at the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies (ToRS) at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH). Here, the war between Israel and Hamas is just about the only topic of discussion among students.

Many of the students have been involved in the area for several years and are therefore able to discuss the topic on an academic and informed basis, says Arina Kaki, who points out that the discussion is always based on the same premise.

I believe that there should be a space for everyone of course, but many of my fellow students are quite activist in favour of Palestine right now

Arina Kaki, student, MØS

»We talk about the war from a pro-Palestinian point of view. There may well be subtle disagreements within this framework, but we all agree that this is the basic premise of the conversation,« says Kaki.

On the bachelor’s degree programme, all students start in Middle Eastern languages and society, where they specialise in either Arabic, Persian, Turkish or Hebrew and have common subjects in Modern History, Religion, and Society.

Arina Kaki has studied Arabic herself, and her closest fellow students are therefore primarily Arabic students, with whom she has taken language courses. According to her, the proportion of Arabic students is significantly higher than the proportion of Hebrew students. She herself has only studied with two Hebrew students.

»I have often wondered why there are no more students on the Hebrew track. There is no one from Hebrew in the courses I have today. I also don’t know what it would be like for them right now – especially if they have an Israeli background,« says Arina Kaki and continues.

»I believe that there should be a space for everyone of course, but many of my fellow students are quite activist in favour of Palestine right now.«


Arina Kaki is currently taking the master’s course ‘Protest, Revolution and Resilience’. It is the only subject, so far, where Arina Kaki has experienced that the current situation in Israel and Palestine has been directly addressed. Otherwise, the conversations about the war have primarily taken place outside the classrooms.

»We have heard about this conflict since we started the study programme. So it was really nice that it was addressed in class the Monday after Hamas had attacked Israel,« says Arina Kaki.

She says the teacher addressed the subject in »a very nice and respectful way.«

On the study programme, we agree that a reaction was expected after so many years of repression. But we disagree over the role of Hamas

Arina Kaki, student, MØS

»On the study programme, we are very aware of the aggressions that Israel has committed against the Palestinian people throughout the years. When terror is suddenly committed against Israel, some might call it ‘a necessity’ – an act of resistance,« Arina Kaki says and continues:

»But our teacher began by emphasizing that he does not believe Hamas operates as a resistance movement when, in addition to murdering women, men and children, it also commits sexual violence against women. How would that liberate anyone?«

Ariana Kaki does not agree that all forms of resistance can be justified and necessary.

»Hamas’ actions do nothing good for Palestine, instead they are going to be devastating. On the study programme, we agree that a reaction was expected after so many years of repression, but we can disagree over the role of Hamas. There are a lot of discussions on this topic.«

Arina Kaki herself has a Kurdish background, and although she mostly shares her fellow students’ condemnation of Israel’s actions against the Palestinian people, her own personal origins can sometimes make it both difficult and vulnerable for her to enter into the many discussions on the subject.

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»In many ways, the situation is ambivalent to me. Israelis and Kurds have historically stood together because they have recognized each other’s wish for statehood. They have been each other’s allies,« says Arina Kaki, adding:

»Privately, I support Palestine, but I don’t participate in demonstrations. During my studies, I only experience respect and understanding when I talk about my thoughts as a Kurd, and why I do not want to take to the streets in protest.«

»I’m of two minds«

Terese Lindegaard Andreasen is a student on the master’s degree programme in Cross-Cultural Studies. She has a bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern languages and society with an Arabic language specialisation.

»I am currently doing an internship at the department, so I have no classes, but I am in contact with my fellow students and teachers. As to the question of how much the war is talked about on the study programme — in short: The war is a part of everything,« she says.

Terese Lindegaard Andreasen confirms that the conversations between the students are rooted in a pro-Palestinian premise and that the disagreements primarily lie in the details.

»There have been many petitions in circulation recently. At the beginning of November, I myself signed a declaration from the [pro-Palestine, ed.] Students Against the Occupation demanding that the University of Copenhagen stop investing in companies operating in illegal Israeli settlements,« says Terese Lindegaard Andreasen, who is herself active in the organization.

I find it problematic to attend a study programme where what we should be talking about – namely the bombing of Gaza – has hardly been a part of the teaching

Rebecca Knirke, student, MØS

Other petitions have called for the University of Copenhagen to boycott all collaboration with Israeli universities. Terese Lindegaard Andreasen also signs this type of declaration, but not without having her doubts.

»I am unsure whether a boycott of Israeli universities is the right place to start. This was after a conversation with my instructor, who did not believe that this was where we should use our resources,« she says and continues:

»I’m of two minds. Because of course we have to be careful not to be too one-sided. But I am still signing, because in these times I need to denounce what I believe to be an apartheid state that is committing genocide. I find it hard to see how you can collaborate on that basis.«

Terese Lindegaard Andreasen generally finds that the debate on Israel and Palestine can become »too harsh and extremist,« because it is associated with many emotions.

»But I think that the conversations we have on the study programme set the stage for more subtle discussions, because we are surrounded by well-reflected experts who have worked in the field for many years.«

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All students on the streets for Palestine

Rebecca Knirke is a third-semester undergraduate student studying Arabic. In addition to her studies, she is vice-chair in the association NASIM — a network for academics and students with an interest in the Middle East. She is also active in the ‘Student against the Occupation’ group.

»It’s a really brutal reality that we’re living in right now, so we often seek each other out on the study programme to talk about what we’ve seen and heard. And then we talk a lot about upcoming demonstrations, who is going, and so on. It’s nice that you always have someone to go with,« she says.

What if someone says they don’t want to go to a demonstration?

»I’m of two minds. Because of course we have to be careful not to be too one-sided.

Terese Lindegaard Andreasen, student, Cross-Cultural Studies

»I haven’t actually experienced that. Of course, there were some people who just couldn’t make it that day. But I haven’t come across anyone who actively opts out. If someone said that, I’d probably just ask why — but of course it’s okay if you for various reasons don’t want to.«

According to her, the war does not takes up enough space on the agenda as it should do, on a study programme that is about the region where it all takes place.

»I find it problematic to attend a study programme where what we should be talking about – the bombing of Gaza – has hardly been a part of the teaching. Almost everything that has been organized has been on the initiative of the students,« says Rebecca Knirke.

She does not currently have courses with any students of Hebrew, so most of her conversations are with her fellow students on the Arabic language line.

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In Middle Eastern studies – perhaps in particular on the Hebrew line – there are probably some people who have an Israeli background. Is there sympathy in the conversations on the study programme for both Israeli and Palestinian civilian losses?

»Yes, of course. All civilian losses are awful. But our academic competences from the study programme allow us to see that there is a hugely unequal power relationship between Israel and Palestine, which is also clearly reflected in the death toll. It is therefore important that the focus is on the bombing of Gaza and the occupation of Palestine,« she says.

The University Post has not been able to get students on the Hebrew language line to comment. According to our information, this language line on the bachelor programme currently consists of only six students. We have been in contact with one of these students, who then withdrew from an interview for fear of being misunderstood.