Students at a pro-Palestine protest outside University College Dublin’s University Club during an awards ceremony for Rep. Nancy Pelosi, April 22, 2024 (Kathy Rose O’Brien)

EA is privileged to publish this project from Master’s candidates of the Clinton Institute and CNN Academy, University College Dublin.

Analysis is by Kathy Rose O’Brien, with multi-media material from Susanna Mollen, Sean Taormina, Shereen Shaji, and Owen Kingsbury.

EA on BBC: Gaza, University Protests, and US Politics

As Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker of the US House, received her honorary doctorate at University College Dublin on April 22, students were divided.

Some were in the audience celebrating the career and ideas of Pelosi, the first woman in the Speaker’s chair. However, others were outside the University Club waving Palestinian flags, banging drums, and accompanying chants with megaphones to ensure their concern over Israel’s war on Gaza were heard. Amid Irish police and University security, they condemned her and President Joe Biden for their continued moral, political, and military support of the Israeli leadership.

Inside the room, as Pelosi began her acceptance speech, Student Union President Martha Ní Riada stood up and shouted.

Pelosi did not immediately respond, but moments laters, she said the protests and Ni Riada’s interruption illustrated that the situation in Gaza must be resolved quickly.

Across the Atlantic in the US, the spread of pro=Palestinian protests on university campuses was rising to the top of headlines. The anger over Gaza was interacting with the polarization in American cultural and political life. A House hearing on anti-semitism had forced the resignation of the President of the University of Pennsylvania and put pressure on counterparts at Harvard and MIT to quit or be fired.

As Pelosi accepted the James Joyce Award “for a long-lasting legacy that will serve as an inspiration for future generations to come” and then the Sutherland Leadership Award at an evening dinner, the UCD protests continued. It was a juxtaposition of Pelosi’s reputation for compromise and negotiation of complex relationships with a deadly war in which no compromise — in Gaza, in Ireland, and in the US — appears possible.

Escalation in America

Spring term ended at UCD last Friday. The protests have dissipated, although the demands for University disinvestment from Israel continued at Trinity College Dublin. One campus, the University of Galway took the step in February.

But in the US, there is no pause. To the contrary, law enforcement has been summoned to break up protests, with police officers tackling both professors and students to the ground at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Campus officers and state police arrested people on campuses from Indiana University to Ohio State to Northeastern University in Boston.

A hyperbolic speech from the current House Speaker, Republican Rep. Mike Johnson, called for the resignation of the President of New York’s Columbia University — and for the intervention of the National Guard. Despite the lack of evidence for Johnson’s “lawless agitators” threatening Jewish students on campus, the University leadership warned protestors that they would be expelled unless an encampment is broken up. When students responded by occupying a University building, President Minouche Shafik called in police, who arrested more than 100 protesters.

At the University of Pennsylvania, the interim President, J. Larry Jameson sent an e-mail warning that the “harassing and intimidating comments and actions” by some protesters violate the school’s open expression guidelines as well as state and federal law. He said anti-semitic graffiti “will be investigated as a hate crime”.

The campus’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors challenged the President. They said the e-mail “mischaracterizes the overall nature of an antiwar protest that necessarily involves strong emotions on both sides but has not, to our knowledge, involved any actual violence or threats of violence to individuals on our campus”.

Contrary to headline representations of the protests, many of the students involved have displayed understanding of the complexity of the moment. Ian Berlin, a Jewish student at Yale University, summarized:

When people see pro-Palestinian protesters arrested at the same time as President Joe Biden and others are warning about a surge of anti-semitism on college campuses, they apply the same tired framework — supposedly antisemitic pro-Palestine activists pitted against Jewish pro-Israel activists — to Yale.

It could not be further from the truth. At every turn, I have encountered a community of activists and organizers that is eager to listen, ready to learn and committed to inclusion of Jewish voices and perspectives.

Columbia University Professor Reinhold Martin emphasized to Sky News, “This is a debate about a war.” He said accused Speaker Johnson’s denuncation of University President Shafik and students is a ‘political project’ that has “very little, if anything, to do with the claims that are being made about anti-semitism”.

The rhetorical attacks of Johnson and other politics “are being used disingenuously and instrumentally to drive a wedge into these institutions that are sites of democratic governance”, Martin noted. Recognizing that anti semitism is a problem in US society and accusations must be “taken very seriously”, he said, “The impression that all of this is completely out of control is not accurate.”

Is Dialogue Possible?

At UCD, students from the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions group were full-throated in their cries of “Shame!” as Pelosi arrived for her day of engagements. Outside the gala dinner fêting the Speaker Emerita, they hosted Richard Boyd Barrett, a member of the Irish Parliament. He declared:

We are here to state the obvious truth, that the massacres inflicted on the people of Gaza couldn’t have happened was it not for the weapons and political support and impunity provided by the United States and by people like Nancy Pelosi.

Barrett pointed out the legislator’s comments suggesting some pro-Palestinian protestors have ties to Russia: “Pelosi condemned, earlier this year, people like you who were out protesting against the massacre of children and women and condemned them as Russian spies and Chinese stooges.”

Zaid Albarghouthi of the Union of Students in Ireland was equally passionate in his concern: “We believe that when the university exercises such a prestigious and influential power, the voices of students and staff must be central to it and there is no way Nancy Pelosi would have been chosen by students and staff based on what has been happening on this campus for the past six months.”

Éabha Hughes, one of the organizers with UCD BDS, added:

We want a full divestment from Israeli institutions and Israeli companies, we want any and all business to stop with Israeli companies….

We’ll keep protesting, we’ll keep picketing, we’ll keep occupying, until they call for a ceasefire. Until they adequately support the Palestinian students and staff who are directly affected by this.

Still, the praise and protest of Pelosi at the same moment in the same location was — even as the megaphones outside mingled with the speeches inside — a marker that discussion over Gaza is still possible at Irish universities. There was no violence, no aggression from law enforcement, and no sign of outside agitators from Russia or elsewhere.

Whether that discussion is possible in the US — as the death toll in Gaza since October 7 nears 35,000 and millions are at risk from deprivation as well as attacks — is a more challenging issue.

Kathy Rose O’Brien is a journalist and award-winning actor. Sean Taormina is a writer and reporter from Detroit, Michigan, focusing on inequality, climate, peace and conflict, dissent, and discontents. Shereen Shaji is a student journalist and writer, contributing to publications such as Vogue Arabia and occasionally writing for Brown History. Susanna Mollen and Owen Kingsbury are multi-media journalists based in Dublin.