How a US university that prides itself on freedom of speech dealt with student protests over Gaza

Instead of chanting incendiary slogans, it would be great for pro-Palestinian supporters to endorse the work of organisations such as The Parents Circle – Families Forum (PCFF) involving bereaved families from both sides

On a recent visit to Chicago, I was struck by the difference between the US and Ireland when it came to reactions to pro-Palestinian protest camps in universities.

At the University of Chicago, (UChicago) the pro-Palestinian protesters flew the Palestinian flag from the central University flagpole. The University subsequently removed the halyard so that no flag could be flown. A group of students were outraged that the US flag was not restored, so staged a counter-protest to reinstate it, pumping out the Springsteen song Born in the USA as they attempted to do so.

Like Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, the counter-protesters obviously mistook the thumping chorus for an endorsement of nationalistic fervour. In reality, Springsteen said the song is actually about a working-class man having a spiritual crisis where he feels lost, “.. isolated from the government. Isolated from his family.” Not exactly the look the counter-protesters were going for.

The counter-protest was well-handled by campus police in riot gear. (Like many US universities, UChicago has its own police force.) As they interposed themselves calmly between the pro-Palestinian protesters and those seeking to raise the US flag, at least some of the police must have been thinking about the irony that one of the demands of the pro-Palestinian group was that the campus police should be disbanded.


The University of Chicago prides itself on its commitment to freedom of expression, first promulgated in 2015 and emulated by more than 100 other colleges. In 2016, in a letter to new students, the University warned that it does not endorse “trigger warnings” or intellectual safe spaces where “individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with its own”. Students were told to expect to engage in rigorous debate, even to the point of discomfort. UChicago tolerated the pro-Palestinian tents longer than some other universities but the campus police – along with Cook Country sheriffs – dismantled the encampment at 4.30am on May 7th, after faculty sympathisers had left.

As an Irish visitor, it was impossible to gauge the level of student support for the pro-Palestinian camp. On a purely anecdotal level, I was interested in the reaction of one Jewish student, who opposes the devastation wrought by Israel in Gaza, but could not bring himself to join the protest because of the use of slogans that he judged did not just condemn Israel’s actions, but Israel’s right to exist at all. Similarly, other students involved in progressive politics in the local community were perplexed by the calls to disband the university police force. They believed that far from disbanding it, the local community wanted the force to extend its role to protect non-students from crime.

The University’s president, Paul Alivisatos, had said initially that he wanted to allow the protesters the greatest possible leeway, despite a campus policy against erecting structures such as tents and wooden fencing. He justified removing the camp on the grounds that it disrupted student life and degraded civility on campus. Counter-protesters were shouted down, Israeli flags were destroyed and some Jewish students reported feeling intimidated by slogans such as “Globalise Intifada”. Other universities cracked down even more harshly in a way that would be unthinkable in Ireland, including mobilising snipers.

Compared with US students, Irish pro-Palestinian student protesters have much more support. As John McManus pointed out, it is hard to generate much drama when your own Government is pushing for recognition of a Palestinian state. Yet here in Ireland, the Abrahamson family felt that Trinity had become a “no-go zone for Jews” and withdrew a bursary for disadvantaged students because, among other things, Trinity had turned a blind eye to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) flag being flown, even though it is designated a terrorist organisation by the EU.

Drawing the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is fraught. Israel’s actions in Gaza are indefensible. Hamas, a violent, anti-democratic, corrupt and terrorist organisation, is dedicated to the destruction of Israel, but does not pose an existential threat to Israel in the way Israel poses to Gaza. Criticism of the Israeli government’s grotesquely disproportionate response to Hamas’s brutal and sadistic October 7th incursion is absolutely justifiable. Nonetheless, some of the pro-Palestinian campus protests have failed to communicate that their problem is with Israel’s policies and actions, not with the existence of Israel. According to the Israeli government, nearly 80 per cent of Israeli Jews were born there. Even on a pragmatic level, never mind Israel’s reasons for seeking a Jewish homeland in the first place, seven million Jews are not going anywhere. At some stage, Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews are going to have to learn to live together unless they wish to endure an ever-increasing spiral of death and violence.

Instead of sometimes chanting incendiary slogans, it would be great to see pro-Palestinian supporters endorsing the work of, say, The Parents Circle – Families Forum (PCFF), which is a joint Israeli-Palestinian organisation of more than 600 bereaved families. They tell their stories of tragic loss to promote a non-violent solution. It would mean that potential Jewish allies do not feel threatened and alienated and it would do far more to advance the tragically tattered cause of peace.