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VOICES

Opinion Protesting Israel's war on Gaza isn't antisemitic — it's a display of humanity

Emma DeSouza looks at the large number of student protests against Israel’s war in Gaza.

WHAT BEGAN AS a steadily growing wave of pro-Palestine protests at universities across the United States quickly swelled into a global student revolt as young people in Ireland, the UK, Australia, Spain, Canada, Germany and beyond organised to demand action from academic institutions.

This isn’t student politics; this is a wake-up call for our collective humanity. Young people are demanding that their schools sever any direct or indirect financial and academic links with Israel, including by divesting from companies with ties to Israel. In the US, student protests have occurred in 45 out of 50 states and the District of Columbia, with encampments, walkouts or sit-ins occurring on almost 140 campuses in across the country.

Despite evidence that the protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful, over 2,800 students have been arrested along with over 50 professors – professors and educators across the US have vocally defended their students’ right to protest. Many governing boards, management committees and university presidents who have asked the police to intervene have been accused of heavy-handed responses.

‘Sparked a movement’

The repressive response from American campus representatives has sparked a movement; last week elite UK universities including Cambridge and Oxford joined the protests, while in Ireland students at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), Queen’s University Belfast, and now University College Dublin (UCD) launched sit-ins and encampments.

After just five days of protests, TCD issued a statement that the university “will complete a divestment from investments in Israeli companies that have activities in the occupied Palestinian Territory and appear on the UN blacklist in this regard.” It was a surprisingly quick concession considering the university had issued a €214,000 fine to the Students Union over alleged university losses in tourist revenue due to protests over student fees, the cost of rent and Israel’s war in Gaza.

At Queen’s University Belfast, an agreement was reached even quicker with an announcement one day following the sit-in that the university would “divest investments” from companies listed by the UN as being involved in actions in Palestine. The university also said it would “strongly support a programme to restore educational structures in Gaza as soon as this is possible”, including an offer to establish a partnership with a university in Palestine. Students at University College Dublin (UCD) set up an encampment over the weekend, the initiative is backed by the university’s Students’ Union.

Clearly, protest works. However, achieving a positive outcome in Ireland – a country that has long supported the rights of the Palestinian people and opposed Israel’s occupation – is demonstrably easier than challenging the political hegemony in the United States – Israel’s most ardent supporter and by far the largest supplier of military weapons to Netanyahu’s government. Students have faced suspension, expulsion, arrest and condemnation, and now US lawmakers are seeking to curtail their free speech with new legislation that enshrines a controversial definition of antisemitism, that fails to appreciate the nuance between criticism of the actions of a government, and prejudice toward a population based on race or religion.

The steadfast defiance of young people in the face of these threats is to be commended; they are on the right side of history, and they know it. Organising people requires significant logistical planning, and maintaining a peaceful protest with antagonists and counter-protesters sparring for escalation takes skill.

On 1 May, US Congress voted 320-91 in favour of the “Antisemitism Awareness Act”, a bill which directs the Department of Education to take the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of ‘antisemitism’ into consideration when determining whether the alleged harassment was motivated by antisemitic intent.

Antisemitism?

By 10 May, more than 700 Jewish professors had signed a letter to political leaders urging them “to reject any effort to codify into federal law a definition of antisemitism that conflates antisemitism with criticism of the state of Israel. This includes ongoing efforts to codify the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, which has been internationally criticised for conflating antisemitism with legitimate criticism of Israel.”

The IHRA definition of antisemitism has long been criticised for conflating antisemitism with anti-Zionism, contentious not least due to its potential to shield Israel from criticism.

The UK government adopted the definition in 2016 with a majority of UK universities incorporating the definition. A 2023 report from the European Legal Support Center (ELSC) and the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) indicated that the definition has been used to falsely accuse students and professors of antisemitism, which has the grave potential to destroy lives and cultivates a dangerous prescient that encourages self-censorship. The report cited 40 cases of antisemitism, 38 of which were determined to be baseless and subsequently closed, the remaining two are pending. Of course, the damage to those accused had already been done.

Should the Antisemitism Awareness Act pass through US legislators with the IHRA definition of antisemitism, it will be used to curtail free political speech; It is not anti-Semitic to criticise the actions of the Israeli government, and any legislative move to conflate antisemitism with anti-Zionism would be nothing short of draconian.

Voice of a generation

University campuses in the US have long been vectors for political movements and protests, often with success; The anti-war protests during the late 1960s into the early 1970s ultimately resulted in the US government electing to withdraw their troops from Cambodia, and the 1980s saw students successfully pressure multiple universities nationwide to divest from South-Africa-related investments during the anti-apartheid movement.

Time and again, young people mobilise to collectively promote reform in the hopes of affecting positive change. With a global rise in pro-Palestine demonstrations and an increasing number of students demanding divestment from Israel, going forward many academic institutions will struggle to maintain their culture of moral complacency while the world is watching genocide in live action.

Over 35,000 people have been killed in Gaza in seven months, including over 17,000 children; the student demands for divestment are minuscule in the shadow of such acute carnage. Israel is poised to launch a full-scale assault on Rafah, where 1.4 million people have been corralled into what could become a killing field.

Where is the wider public’s collective horror? Our humanity? The student protests should remind us all that we do have power in numbers, and together we must stand up for the people of Palestine.

Emma DeSouza is a writer and campaigner. 

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