Anti-Israel protests begin to fade as US universities close spring semester

As some graduating students use commencements to display support for Palestinians, University of Southern California cancels valedictorian speech over ‘security concerns’

A student sits with her cap decorated to read "Free Palestine" while attending the University of Minnesota's College of Liberal Arts graduation ceremony, on May 12, 2024, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Angelina Katsanis/AP)
A student sits with her cap decorated to read "Free Palestine" while attending the University of Minnesota's College of Liberal Arts graduation ceremony, on May 12, 2024, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Angelina Katsanis/AP)

Anti-Israel protests are starting to dwindle on US campuses as universities wrap up the semester and adjourn for summer break, but the sentiments that drove the protests over the past few weeks still remain, with many college students taking advantage of graduation ceremonies to publicly oppose Israel’s ongoing war against Hamas in Gaza.

A tiny contingent of Duke University graduates opposed pro-Israel comedian Jerry Seinfeld speaking at their commencement in North Carolina Sunday, with about 30 of the 7,000 students leaving their seats and chanting “Free Palestine” amid a mix of boos and cheers.

Some waved the red, green, black and white Palestinian flag. Seinfeld, whose namesake sitcom was one of the most popular in US television history, was there to receive an honorary doctorate from the university.

The standup comic-turned-actor, who stars in the new Netflix movie “Unfrosted,” has publicly supported Israel since it invaded Gaza to dismantle Hamas after the terror group attacked the country and killed some 1,200 people in southern Israel on October 7.

The ensuing war has killed over 35,000 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which doesn’t distinguish between civilians and combatants.

The small student protest Sunday at Duke’s graduation in Durham, North Carolina, was one of many campus events across the US this weekend, after weeks of student protests resulted in nearly 2,900 arrests at 57 colleges and universities.

Jerry Seinfeld speaks during Duke University’s graduation ceremony on May 12, 2024, in Durham, North Carolina. (Bill Snead/Duke University via AP)

In a wave of unrest, students at campuses across the US set up encampments and called for their schools to cut ties with Israel and businesses that support it. Students and others on campuses whom law enforcement authorities have identified as outside agitators have taken part in the protests from Columbia University in New York City to UCLA.

Police escorted graduates’ families past a few dozen pro-Palestinian protesters who tried to block access to Sunday evening’s commencement for Southern California’s Pomona College.

After demonstrators set up an encampment last week on the campus’ ceremony stage, the small liberal arts school moved the event 30 miles (48 kilometers) from Claremont to the Shrine Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles. Tickets were required to attend the event, which the school said would be protected with additional security measures.

In April, police wearing riot gear arrested 19 protesters who had occupied the president’s office at the college, which has about 1,700 undergraduates.

Demonstrator Anwar Mohmed, a 21-year-old Pomona senior, said the school has repeatedly ignored calls to consider divesting its endowment funds from corporations tied to Israel in the war in Gaza.

“We’ve been time and time again ignored by the institution,” Mohmed said outside the Shrine on Sunday. “So today we have to say, it’s not business as usual.”

At the University of California, Berkeley, on Saturday, a small group of pro-Palestinian demonstrators waved flags and chanted during commencement and were escorted to the back of the stadium, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. There were no major counter-protests, but some attendees voiced frustration.

“I feel like they’re ruining it for those of us who paid for tickets and came to show our pride for our graduates,” said Annie Ramos, whose daughter is a student. “There’s a time and a place, and this is not it.”

This weekend’s commencement events remained largely peaceful.

At Emerson College in Boston, some students took off their graduation robes and left them on stage. Others emblazoned “free Palestine” on their mortar boards.

One woman, staring at a camera broadcasting a livestream to the public, unzipped her robe to show a keffiyeh, the black and white checkered scarf commonly worn by Palestinians, and flashed a watermelon painted on her hand. The keffiyeh and the watermelon are both symbols of the Palestinian national movement.

Others displayed messages for a camera situated on stage, but the livestream quickly shifted to a different view, preventing them from being seen for long. Chants during some of the speeches were difficult to decipher.

Palestinian flags are taken from protesters as they walk out of UNC Chapel Hill’s commencement ceremonies at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on May 11, 2024. (Ethan Hyman/AP)

Protests at Columbia University, where student uprisings inspired others at campuses across the country, led the school to cancel its main graduation ceremony in favor of smaller gatherings.

The University of Southern California told its valedictorian, who publicly backed Palestinians, that she could not deliver her keynote speech at its graduation ceremony because of security concerns. It later canceled its main graduation ceremony.

At DePaul University in Chicago, graduation is more than a month away. But as the academic year closes, school leaders said they had reached an “impasse” with the school’s pro-Palestinian protesters, leaving the future of their encampment on the Chicago campus unclear.

The student-led DePaul Divestment Coalition, which is calling on the university to divest from economic interests tied to Israel, set up the encampment nearly two weeks ago. The group alleged university officials walked away from talks and tried to force students into signing an agreement, according to a student statement late Saturday.

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