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Reporter’s Notebook: College campus protests over Gaza spread overseas



From London to Geneva, demonstrators are rallying over the Israel-Hamas war. But some European nations have tried to restrict protests. One Palestinian lawmakers predicts campus protests will spread.


From London to Geneva, dueling groups of pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel demonstrators in Europe have for months been holding solidarity rallies, marches and vigils in connection with the Israel-Hamas war.

But for the most part they haven’t looked like the Columbia University protest encampments and confrontations, which now appear to be spreading to other U.S. universities.

From Oct. 7 last year to mid-April, there have been more than 3,100 demonstrations in Europe related to the war in the Gaza Strip. In the U.S., over the same period, there have been about 2,700 such events, according to data provided by ACLED, an organization that tracks and analyzes global political activity and violence.

Pro-Palestinian protesters have demanded a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and more aid for suffering Palestinians, called on their governments to stop supplying arms to Israel, and urged other forms of divestment. Some pro-Palestinian protesters have also appeared to glorify Hamas and drawn comparisons between Israel’s government and the Nazis. Pro-Israel demonstrations have focused on raising awareness about Israel’s hostages held by Hamas and combating what they say is antisemitism that has made Jews feel less safe all around the world.

But unlike in the U.S., where some of the most prestigious universities have been trying to defuse campus tensions over the war, standoffs on European college campuses have either appeared limited or have flown under the radar.

Precisely why that is, political experts and campaigners say, is not easy to explain.

They say it could be because of different protesting cultures, demographics, speech laws, university regulations, policing habits, lack of viral traction on social media where many people receive their news, and even opportunity. Some European governments have actively sought to place restrictions on the right to protest in support of Palestinian rights. Some say these standoffs have taken place and the media has largely ignored them.

More: Hamas and Iran celebrate anti-Gaza war protests taking US colleges by storm

Pro-Palestinian protests every Saturday in London

Matt Beech, who directs the Center for British Politics at the University of Hull, said one reason there may be fewer combative on-campus protests in the U.K. compared with the U.S. could be because there are regular, larger-scale demonstrations, most of them pro-Palestinian, in London and other British cities each Saturday.

At these marches in London, which are routinely attended by tens of thousands of people, Beech said “students may feel they are making a difference and having their voices heard” as part of a bigger protest community, where they have a bigger audience.

The frequent pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel rallies in the U.S., by contrast, have not matched the ones in London each weekend.

Beech, who also sometimes lectures and teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, said the First Amendment may also explain why some U.S. campuses have erupted, and Britain’s haven’t, over the Israel-Hamas war.

‘Robust exchanges’ in the U.S. are not exactly ‘parliamentary language’

The First Amendment, he said, allows students in the U.S. to engage publicly in what Beech described as “robust exchanges” involving “unparliamentary language.”

Hate speech laws in the U.K. may act as a deterrent on what people are willing to say in a campus environment, when these statements can easily slide into Islamophobia and antisemitism, as both sides in the U.S. campus protests say.

Government action in Europe may also be a factor.

In Germany, which has long viewed itself as having a unique responsibility to stand up for Jews and Israel because of the Holocaust, officials have repeatedly refused to authorize many pro-Palestinian protests, saying limits are needed to prevent public disorder and antisemitism.

German police cleared a small group of pro-Palestinian protesters who set up a camp Friday outside Germany’s Parliament in Berlin, apparently inspired by the U.S. campus protests.

In France, home to large Muslim and Jewish communities, a series of legal proceedings ended with courts deciding to allow protests on a case-by-case basis after authorities said they could lead to incitement to hatred.

Threats of visas getting revoked for praising Hamas

In Britain, officials have threatened to revoke visas or expel foreign students who praise Hamas. The country has also given police new powers to arrest protesters who threaten or intimidate others during marches amid a large increase in antisemitic incidents since Oct. 7.

Stella Swain, a youth and student coordinator for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which describes itself as Europe’s largest Palestinian advocacy organization, nevertheless said there have been student “occupations” of university campuses in the U.K. and elsewhere − it’s just that nobody has paid much attention.

Swain pointed out that student protesters at Goldsmiths, University of London, shut down some of the college’s departments for more than a month earlier this year.

The students demanded that the university cut all its ties with Israel’s government and divest from companies that support Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territory. Similar protests have taken place in British colleges in Bristol and Leeds.

However, Swain said, it would be “very unusual” for British police to be called to a “student occupation,” as has happened at Columbia, Yale, New York University and other elite U.S. college campuses in recent days.

She also claimed that there has been a “concerted effort” by British authorities over the past decade to “shut down the ability to organize” protests and other advocacy on Palestinian-related issues.

The protests in the U.K. and Europe, on and off campus, have not, in other words, been tension-free even if ACLED data show the vast majority − more than 90% − have been peaceful. (The figure for the U.S. is similar.)

One example: Pro-Palestinian activists in early April attempted to block an event at Sorbonne University in Paris about the rights of Israeli and Iranian women. It was organized by the Union of French Jewish Students. Protesters carried a banner that read “Zionists, fascists out of our campuses!

‘Openly Jewish’

It has also often been difficult to distinguish good information from bad.

In mid-March, about 100 students from the elite French university Sciences Po were accused of trying to prevent a Jewish student from entering the college as part of a pro-Palestinian demonstration. Some claimed the student had been confronted because she had intimidated pro-Palestinian students. Either way, it drew a reaction from French President Emmanuel Macron, an of alum of Sciences Po, who said it was “perfectly intolerable.”

On Friday, Sciences Po students blocked access to a campus building, prompting administrators to move all classes online.

And in Britain, an antisemitism campaigner named Gideon Falter called last weekend for London’s most senior police official to resign after an officer described Falter as “openly Jewish.” At the time, the officer was trying to prevent Falter from “provoking” a pro-Palestinian march by crossing its route in central London. Falter, CEO of Campaign Against Antisemitism, had been wearing a yarmulke.

“What happened to me was a disgrace. Imagine what it felt like to be told by police officers that being ‘quite openly Jewish’ would ‘antagonize’ people and so I must leave the area on pain of arrest,” Falter said in a statement after the incident.

London Metropolitan Police Commissioner Mark Rowley acknowledged that the officer’s use of the phrase “openly Jewish” was “clumsy and offensive,” but he insisted his officer was trying to keep Falter safe and do the right thing. Police released a 13-minute video of the incident this week to British media to give context to a 55-second clip released by Falter. In the video, the officer and Falter appear to have a nuanced, polite conversation.

In an emailed statement on Wednesday, Campaign Against Antisemitism said “the hatred and objectives of antisemites on campuses in the U.K. is the same as in the U.S.: to intimidate Jewish students and ostracize them.”

But Palestinian lawmaker Mustafa Barghouti disagreed with that assessment. He said in a WhatsApp message Thursday that the college campus protests in the U.S. resembled protests and activism against the war in Vietnam and South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement.

“It will spread,” he predicted, “to other universities in the world.”

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