At a recent demonstration outside UCD’s O’Reilly Hall, hundreds of students and faculty members gathered at a Palestinian solidarity demonstration.
The stated aim of the gathering, organised by the university’s students’ union and the Academics for Palestine group, was to call for a ceasefire in Gaza and a boycott of Israeli institutions.
However, included among placards such as “stop the Gaza bombing” was a flag near the top of the platform for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
The group, designated as a terrorist organisation by the EU and other jurisdictions, has praised the Hamas massacre of an estimated 1,200 people in Israel, mostly civilians, on October 7th last.
For Dr Edward Burke, assistant professor in UCD’s school of history, it is the latest troubling incident for Jewish students and staff who are also mourning the “worst anti-Semitic atrocity committed this century”.
While he says is he is horrified at the disproportionate use of violence by Israel and slaughter of civilians, he feels the display of support for a terrorist organisation is troubling.
“This was a chilling sight for our Jewish colleagues and friends,” says Dr Burke. “The PFLP, in words and deeds, is an anti-Semitic, terrorist organisation. They have boasted about and celebrated what happened during October 7th. ”
Burke has also pointed to messages on social media by some students which have appeared to downplay the Hamas attacks as “military operations” or justify them in the days after the October 7th attacks.
University, he says, is supposed to be a place of tolerance and principled dissent – but he says the response to the mass murder of Jews suggests “all is not well in the sacred spaces of our democracy”.
In response to the flag incident, UCD Students’ Union president Martha Ní Riada said the gathering was a “peaceful, strong show of solidarity” which stood against the rise of both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism”.
“We stand opposed to both, and indeed all forms of bigotry and hated,” she said.
On the question of the acceptability of the flag, she said that “while it may have been an outlier at the protest, it is really a question of to whom it is acceptable and it is not the role of the union to confiscate flags.”
A member of Academics for Palestine rejected any links to anti-Semitism.
Dr David Landy, assistant professor lecturer in TCD’s department of sociology, who is Jewish, is a member of Academics for Palestine. He says “leading Palestinian human rights groups” are also labelled as terrorist organisations by the EU.
“I’m a bit impatient with these designations. If it was a flag for Hamas, that would be entirely different, but PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) is a left-wing political party who are trying to provide loyal opposition within the Palestinian Authority,” he says.
“So, is any Palestinian political expression acceptable? For a lot of Jewish people, Israel is very much tied up with their identity. Political opposition to Israel can feel like anti-Semitism – but that is not to say that it is. This, however, does not mean that the movement shouldn’t be extremely vigilant about any expressions of anti-Semitism.”
The incident is just one example of how the meaning of protests, slogans and language surrounding the Israel-Hamas conflict is being hotly debated on campus.
Most university presidents have remained silent, in contrast to the statements of solidarity with Ukraine following the Russian invasion in 2022, although UCD president Prof Orla Feely said yesterday the university was committed to supporting all staff and students to feel safe and supported in their learning, work and wider engagement. She added that it was not her policy to “express positions on behalf of UCD in respect of geopolitical issues”.
While a small minority of students on Irish campuses are Jewish or Israeli, there are more extensive ties between Irish universities and Israel through EU-funded research projects and other collaborations.
The question of whether to boycott Israeli universities has divided academics.
A group of about 600 academics and scholars signed a letter earlier this month calling on all universities in Ireland to “immediately sever any existing institutional partnerships or affiliations with Israeli institutions”.
“Those ties should be suspended until the occupation of Palestinian territory is ended, the Palestinian rights to equality and self-determination are vindicated, and the right of Palestinian refugees to return is facilitated,” it said.
The letter also described Israel’s war in Gaza as a “campaign of ethnic cleansing and, according to many experts, genocidal violence” and described the Hamas attacks as an “incursion by Palestinian armed groups”, which “included criminal attacks against civilians”.
Dr Harry Browne, a senior lecturer at TU Dublin’s school of media and member of Academics for Palestine, is one of the signatories. He says the links include areas with military and security applications. He estimates there are about 500 ties alone in EU-funded research involving Irish institutions.
Withdrawing from such institutional co-operation can, he says, be a “form of leverage to push in the right direction”.
The boycott, he notes, is a Palestinian call and “not a whim of privileged western activists deciding that Israel is worse than any other country in the world”.
In response, a group of more than 20 academics rejected the call for a boycott of Israeli universities and expressed disappointment that the group’s letter did not call for the release of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza.
The signatories said a boycott of universities in Israel would be counterproductive at a time when more dialogue is needed, not less.
“Universities are vital bridges for connecting critical and dissenting voices worldwide. There are indeed Israeli universities that have voiced clear opposition to policies of the current ultranationalist coalition which are aimed at curtailing human rights. We call on fellow academics to stand with them in their opposition and not weaken them,” it states.
One signatory of the letter, who asked not to be identified, said if an Israeli boycott does goes ahead, the next question will be “what country is next?”
“So, do we cut off links to the US, the UK or any countries where we have profound disagreements over human rights or foreign policy? Where does it stop? Many academics in Israeli universities are fiercely critical of what is happening,” the academic stated.
More generally, Burke, one of the signatories, says there is a fear among some Jewish students on campus.
He said some feel they are expected to keep their heads down, while others have suffered online abuse and ended up deleting their social media profiles.
Many feel the campus has become a hostile environment given the rise in anti-Semitic comments in some student forums.
He cites the example of a debate last week by UCD’s Literary and Historical Society on how “the West has failed Palestine”. It was cut short amid disruption from audience members, while one man repeatedly shouted “Allahu akbar” at an Israeli student.
“They feel like a very small, isolated community. At present, they don’t feel protected or that their identity is being protected. Some are reconsidering whether they should study here,” he says.
In relation to the Literary and Historical Society debate, a UCD spokesman said it was working to identify if the individual who engaged in “this entirely unacceptable behaviour” is a registered student of the university. If so, the spokesman said the matter will be dealt with under student disciplinary procedures.
Jewish and Palestinian students based in Ireland who were approached for comment asked not to be identified or quoted in this article.
Browne, meanwhile, says being opposed to Israel – however strongly – is not anti-Semitic per se, “just as it was not anti-white to oppose apartheid in South Africa”.
“I would never be part of an organisation or movement that had any tolerance for anti-Semitism, and I respect honest disagreement about any issue,” he says. “In 20 years of closely observing Palestine solidarity in Ireland, and 10 years of deep involvement in it, I have seen zero tolerance for anti-Semitism.
“It doesn’t happen often at all, because the movement’s internal and public culture of antiracism is very, very strong, but when any hint of anti-Semitism is detected, anyone involved is excluded from actions and activities.”
He adds: “But we, and Palestinians, are not going to shut up about genocide because some a**hole somewhere graffitied a slur. And, no, ‘genocide’, ‘ethnic cleansing’, ‘apartheid’ and ‘colonialism’ are not anti-Semitic slurs.”
Landy notes that the meaning of slogans such as “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” are heavily contested. On one hand, it is considered by many to be a call to end Israeli occupation of the West Bank and a statement of solidarity; on the other, some Jewish groups see it as an intimidating or anti-Semitic slogan.
“In a context where thousands of innocents are being killed, people will be angry,” says Landy. “It’s easy to believe the anger is directed at oneself if one identified with either side, when it is directed – in my experience – pretty exclusively at the slaughter. I guess one of our concerns is to ensure it remains targeted at the right place.”