Trinity College Dublin Students Endorse Boycott of Israel
Students at Trinity College Dublin voted this week to endorse the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.
A referendum urging the Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) to “adopt a long-term policy on Palestine and in support of” BDS passed on Thursday with 1,287 votes, representing over 60 percent of all 2,050 ballots cast — the minimum threshold for approval.
Trinity Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) called for the motion in February, after gathering some 1,200 signatures on a petition asking TCDSU to “comply with the principles of BDS” in all union operations, and to lobby the administration to adopt a “total boycott of the State of Israel.” The group also seeks to form a “BDS implementation group” to ensure the union’s compliance.
SJP received support from both incoming TCDSU President Shane De Rís and President-elect of the Graduate Students’ Union Oisín Vince Coulter, and promoted their message on campus and social media through the “Trinity BDS Campaign.”
Some peers who opposed the boycott launched a counter-campaign the week of the referendum, dubbed “Vote No, Vote Neutrality for Trinity.” Yet the effort faced significant challenges from the outset, said Eoin, a second year student at the school who asked to withhold his last name.
“We found ourselves with a smaller support base to start with than the SJP group,” he told The Algemeiner, pointing out that Trinity does not have a pro-Israel organization, and that some members of the Jewish community were involved with the pro-BDS campaign.
“Apart from a lecturer in the School of Computer Science who is Israeli and a few Erasmus [exchange] students I met during the campaigning, there [isn’t] a large presence for Israelis in Trinity, or Ireland in general, like there might be in American colleges,” Eoin explained. “I do believe that this is in part why the majority of people in Trinity, and Ireland by extension are apathetic to Israel as it is unlikely for most of us to have ever met anyone from Israel.”
In contrast, “pro-Palestine sentiment is extremely common among the Socialist far-left in Ireland,” he continued. “These movements see a resemblance between an occupation of Ireland under Britain with what they perceive as an occupation of Palestine by an [alien government].”
Among a minority in the college, antisemitic attitudes toward Jews and Israelis seem to be entrenched, Eoin observed. He shared pictures of graffiti found in bathrooms on campus, ranging from the message “stop Zionism,” to a lengthy note denying the number of Jewish Holocaust victims, written under the banner, “Israel did 9/11.” One vandal specifically targeted Trinity professor David Abrahamson, calling him a “f**king Jew.”
“Antisemitic graffiti is an extremely common trend,” and is often found alongside communist messages, Eoin said.
Ultimately, when it came time to campaign against the BDS referendum, Eoin — who was involved in a successful effort to defeat BDS at Trinity in 2017 — said that his group was “outnumbered by at-least about 10 to one.”
This disadvantage was compounded by the difficulty of recruiting activists to publicly support their effort.
“Most people I spoke to, even those who really sympathised with our campaign, were too shy to speak out on such a controversial topic,” he said.
Eoin accused BDS activists of breaking “all the guidelines” in the lead-up to the vote, including by campaigning during off-hours and bringing in councillors and other representatives from the socialist People Before Profit party, even though “support from outside the college wasn’t allowed.”
“They canvassed directly beside the voting booth as people were voting, and people have confided in me that they felt intimidated trying to vote against BDS when someone wearing a Palestine flag around their collar was breathing down their neck at the voting station,” Eoin said.
Following complaints by the “Vote No” team, the BDS campaign was penalized by the Electoral Commission for a violation of TCDSU’s constitution earlier this week, and had its promotional materials confiscated for a day. However, a spokesperson for the BDS campaign insisted that the group “didn’t break any rules to win this referendum.”
“We stuck to the campaigning times exactly, canvassed in agreed upon areas of the college not beside the polls and our campaign team was made up entirely of trinity students,” Seán Egan told The Algemeiner.
He denied charges that elected representatives “contributed to this student campaign,” and said that his “team didn’t intimidate anyone and in fact were very disciplined and fortified in response to horrendous abuse from a small group of hateful individuals.”
“This campaign was won because we had a large group of dedicated activists and an anti-racist, anti-colonial message that resonated with Trinity students,” he said.
Yet Eoin was still encouraged by the successes the anti-BDS campaign achieved. “I was expecting total defeat, but the fact that BDS only won by slight margin shows that we did something.”
He nonetheless expressed concern that if the college decides to abide by the BDS campaign’s demands, exchange “students from Israel will probably not be able to study here.”
“The same goes for staff, as I wonder what would become of my Computer Design professor who previously taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem,” he added. “BDS is in my mind a real form of discrimination.”
Some students are already considering an attempt to repeal TCDSU’s endorsement of BDS in a few years, Eoin said. However, “this campaign took its toll of stress on all of us, and it took a level of bravery to be lone wolfs against such a massive and well organised campaign, and I wouldn’t blame anyone if they decided they would never want to go through that hurdle again,” he cautioned.
In a celebratory social media post on Friday, the Trinity BDS Campaign urged supporters to continue fighting “for academic decency and for a strong, socially just union.”
“Trinity’s financial and research ties with Israeli Apartheid makes us all complicit in the violence and inequality of its occupation,” it warned.
SJP was fined by the university last February after taking over the campus venue where a talk with the Israeli ambassador to Ireland was scheduled to occur, forcing its cancellation.
Later that year, Trinity hosted a conference on academic boycotts of Israel with speakers including Steven Salaita, a former professor who once claimed that “Zionists” have been “transforming ‘antisemitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.”
A 2016 study by Brandeis University found that “one of the strongest predictors of perceiving a hostile climate toward Israel and Jews is the presence of an active SJP group on campus.” Likewise, a 2015 study by the watchdog group AMCHA Initiative found that activity related to BDS — which SJP chapters often promote — “is the strongest predictor of anti-Jewish hostility on campus.”
Advocates of the BDS campaign say it is a human rights movement aimed at pressuring Israel to comply with international law. Critics argue that BDS aims to end the country’s continued existence as a Jewish nation-state, a position repeatedly acknowledged by its leading supporters.
Representatives for TCDSU and Trinity College did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Update: A TCDSU official, who also serves as secretary to the Electoral Commission, told The Algemeiner on Monday that “no evidence of campaigning during off hours was provided, nor was it witnessed by the EC.
Accusations of sponsorship (outside support) were also investigated. We asked the campaigner in question for their student number and have confirmed that they are currently a registered student of the University — and therefore permitted to campaign as they liked.”
The representative also dismissed charges of campaigning in the polling area, saying, “one member of the EC was always at the polling booth, ensuring that the rule was strictly enforced.”