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Gaza war polarizes universities in Sweden: freedom of expression allowed again

After days of protests, students in Gothenburg are now allowed to speak freely about politics again. An Israeli military company was behind it.

Striking architecture that expands cubically upwards and combines red and green colors

Chalmers University building in Gothenburg, Sweden Photo: Alexander Farnsworth/picture alliance

STOCKHOLM taz | The widespread protests were successful: last Friday afternoon, the rectorate of the Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg lifted the ban on political activities that had been imposed four days earlier Expressing opinions on campus back up.

The pressure on the university management had become increasingly massive over the past few days; for example, the student organizations of all parties represented in the Reichstag – with the exception of the Sweden Democrats – protested against the “shocking step”. They warned: Such a ban would threaten democracy.

Chalmers rector Martin Nilsson Jacobi had several reasons for his withdrawal. On the one hand, he admitted that he had made his decision rather hastily: not even the university’s governing bodies had been informed in advance. On the other hand, “the situation” because of which he thought he had to order this measure is now over.

In addition, he now suddenly claims that the ban was only intended to be temporary and for a limited period of time from the outset, but unfortunately he forgot to communicate it that way. Looking back, he admitted, a number of mistakes had been made.

Student associations

“In Sweden we have an enormous democracy problem at our universities”

Ban due to a single event

The “situation” due to which the ban was supposed to be introduced only temporarily and which no longer exists was apparently a single event planned at the university. On Tuesday last week, a few hours after Jacobi introduced his controversial measure, a job fair was held at Chalmers where companies could present themselves to students as possible future employers.

One of the companies invited was Israel’s largest military company Elbit. A company that specializes, among other things, in surveillance technology to ward off refugees and boasts that the drones it uses in Gaza are “battle-tested”. There have been protests against their performances in several countries in the past.

Apparently Chalmers had also expected protests after there had already been several recent protests in Gothenburg, where Elbit opened a branch a few months ago.

Ultimately, the Chalmers ban turned out to be unnecessary because Elbit was disinvited from taking part in the job fair at the last minute after severe criticism from students and Chalmers staff. When asked, however, the university rector was unable to explain why he did not withdraw the ban immediately, but instead took several days to do so and only reacted after further protests.

Democracy spaces instead of no-go zones

The fact that Chalmers had apparently declared the campus a no-go zone for political expression for the sole reason of preventing protests against a highly controversial Israeli military company, which, for example, the Swedish state pension fund had removed from its portfolio years ago, left this alone Criticism of this measure cannot be silenced. On the contrary, it gave her additional nutrition.

Education Minister Mats Persson is also criticized. He immediately backed the ban on political expression and declared that he “completely shares Chalmers’ view.”

One cannot really be surprised by what happened here, according to a joint statement from the political student associations: “We have an enormous problem of democracy at our universities in Sweden.” And this is especially true at a time when there is less and less People want to get involved in party politics. “In order for our country’s democracy to be preserved, we need people who are prepared to take on political roles,” and we need “arenas in which people can be part of democracy.” Attempts like Chalmers’s to reduce the size of these arenas damaged Sweden’s democracy.

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