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The protest encampment at Trinity College Dublin. Sasko Lazarov
BDS

How Irish students are putting pressure on colleges over Israeli ties and getting results

The demands from students are largely the same on this side of the Atlantic as they are in the United States.

UNIVERSITIES AROUND THE world have been forced to reconsider their relationships with Israeli institutions and companies because of growing pressure from their own students and faculty since the latest war on Gaza began in October last year. 

Columbia University’s pro-Palestine encampment, which was established in mid-April, propagated a political tactic that has now been picked up by third-level students across the United States and beyond, including in Ireland, where students at Trinity College in Dublin set up tents on campus and blocked access to the lucrative Book of Kells exhibit. 

That action was successful and on Wednesday Trinity students agreed to disband the camp after the college committed to divesting from Israeli companies based in the occupied West Bank in Palestine.

On Thursday, two more colleges reached similar agreements with their students, University College Cork and Queen’s University Belfast. A building on the Belfast campus was occupied by the QUB Palestine Assembly on Tuesday in another example of students taking direct action to apply pressure to university management.  

Then on Friday, students at Maynooth University held a sit in and publicly read out a letter to college president Eeva Leinonen.

In a statement, which made reference to the effective activism at Trinity, the students and staff of the Maynooth BDS group said their aim was to “draw attention to the university’s silence and inaction on the genocide of Palestinians”.

They vowed to “escalate disruptive actions” until the college makes “a good faith commitment towards their demands”. 

Students at Technological University Dublin have taken note of successes like the one at Trinity and are planning similar forms of direct action if their demands are not met, Student Union president Brian Jordan told The Journal.

Faculty members and students are in an ongoing row with college executives over TUD’s neutral position on what many students see as a genocide being committed by Israel against the Palestinians. 

The demands from students are largely the same on this side of the Atlantic as they are in the United States. They want their universities to cut ties with Israeli institutions and to divest from Israeli businesses. Another common demand is for colleges to take a firm stance on the nature of the conflict, as many did when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022.

In some cases in the US, student demands have been met, or partially met, while in many others students and staff have faced resistance and police have been called in to break up camps and arrest protesters, often violently.

After her expulsion from an event honouring US politician Nancy Pelosi last month, UCD’s SU president Martha Ní Riada critcised what she described as “a worrying trend” of the repression of academic freedom and free expression at universities.

Irish students have not been met with a police crackdown like those seen in the USGermany and the Netherlands but they have – in the case of Trinity – borrowed the encampment tactic in order to push their own colleges towards changing their stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict. 

“The only way we’re ever going to get them to take this action is by setting up camp outside some of their buildings,” said Jordan.

israel-hamas-conflict Members of the Queen's University Belfast (QUB) Palestine Assembly hold a 'sit in' in the main Lanyon building of the campus in Belfast. PA PA

‘Ahead of the curve’

One example of college executives listening and responding to student demands is at the University of Galway, where college president Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh has agreed to review links with Israeli institutions and strengthen ties with Palestinian ones. 

Having made a statement in October that did not satisfy students, Ó hÓgartaigh issued a second, stronger statement on the conflict in March.

Student Union president Dean Kenny told The Journal that students and staff were “quite happy” with the president’s response, saying that it put the university “ahead of the curve” and that other student unions have taken note.

“We’ve a lot of student union officers coming to us asking, what did we do? How did we go about it? All we did was we presented our asks very reasonably and very articulately.”

“I mean, they’re not really big asks, especially what’s happening in Trinity. They’re only asking for them to cut ties with these institutions and with companies that are literally funding a genocide.” 

The success of this engagement with management at the University of Galway was due in large part to the efforts of a group of Palestinian students at the college, Kenny explained. 

“Full credit to the group of Palestinian students in the Palestinian Solidarity Society, who were really well researched and really articulate and really calm. And in fairness to university management and the president in particular, he listened and they listened and they came up with a revised statement and we’re really ahead of the curve in this country.

“Credit where credit is due,” he said of the president and management team. 

The talks and activism led the university president to commit to setting up a working group tasked with examining the university’s relationships with Israeli institutions. 

The Student Union will not be represented in the working group but Kenny said they will “keep the pressure on” to make sure it gets to work as quickly as possible. 

‘Ongoing silence’ 

The picture is quite different at Technological University Dublin, where the college’s executive team has maintained the neutral position established by now former university president David Fitzpatrick in a statement he made earlier this year. 

After receiving a letter from staff and students in February asking him to end the university’s “ongoing silence”, Fitzpatrick said: 

“My guiding principle is my belief that universities should take the lead in providing a neutral setting to bring all members of society into a conversation.”

Students and staff were unhappy with this response and pointed to the university’s condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 as an apparent contradiction. 

TUD SU president Brian Jordan said that students are now considering taking “direct action” if the university does not change its position and agree to their demands. 

As Jordan explains, students want the college “to acknowledge the ongoing genocide that’s occurring in Palestine and to acknowledge that is a genocide, and not just call it a conflict”.

South Africa has taken a case against Israel at the International Court of Justice, accusing it of breaching the Genocide Convention during its campaign in Gaza. The UN special rapporteur on the human rights of Palestinians has said, “There are reasonable grounds to believe that the threshold indicating the commission of the crime of genocide…has been met”. 

TUD students also want the college to adopt a BDS (Boycott Divestment and Sanctions) policy towards Israel.

“So for example, first of all, to remove things on the international BDS list from their supplier lists.”

The students had called for the university to divest from Israeli businesses, although a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by the union found that TUD does not have such investments. They also called for TUD to cut academic ties with Israeli institutions.

After submitting their FOI request, the students were informed that TUD does use the services of one Israeli company, Photonicsys Ltd., which makes scientific research equipment. The FOI request also revealed that the college has no academic partnerships with Israeli institutions. 

‘Direct action’

More recently, students and faculty members at TUD have grown increasingly frustrated with the intransigence of college executives. 

“You’ve gotten to a point where the entire academic staff and student population want the university to stand a certain way and they’re refusing to for whatever reason,” Jordan said.

He described the university’s neutral position on what students see as a genocide as “shocking”. 

“It is disappointing to see that those at the top, who hold the most power and influence, seem to be turning a blind eye and refuse to do anything that might make them uncomfortable.”

The TUD executive team are due to meet next week to discuss the issue but Jordan is not hopeful of a change in stance from the newly appointed interim president, John Doran.

“Unfortunately, I don’t get the vibe from the new president or the university executives that they’re going to have any really different stance,” he said. 

If nothing changes, Jordan said that the students would then have to consider taking direct action similar to what took place at Trinity College, which he said shows “what’s possible”. 

Targeting sources of college revenue like Trinity’s Book of Kells exhibit is something TUD students are now considering in the event of the executive team refusing to budge. 

But because TUD is spread across eight campuses, the Students Union there will have to adapt those kinds of tactics to suit their situation, Jordan explained. 

“The only way we’re ever going to get them to take this action is by setting up camp outside some of their buildings. And again, we don’t have the same commercial entities such as the Book of Kells, but our east quad, for example, is definitely home to a huge amount of soirees and events,” he said. 

“Do we need to suddenly blockade that for several weeks and destroy our relationship with the university executive team just to achieve this? It’s disappointing but at the same time, if it means them actually making a statement against genocide, then maybe it’s the right thing to do.”

In the meantime, the TUD Student Council is setting up a BDS subcommittee that will focus on the subject of Israel and Palestine, another tactic borrowed from other Irish universities. 

On the phenomenon of campus encampments more generally, Jordan sees the growing movement as a positive development for student activism. 

“It’s amazing to see and it’s exactly what we were looking for post Covid. We were kind of worried that maybe that part of student activism was dead.

“But it’s a great example of when something comes along that you can’t just fix via certain committees and functions, and when those in power just refuse to take something on board, even if their entire population of staff and students are advocating for it, then maybe it’s time to do something like that.”

 

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