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How Pro-Palestinian Students Pushed Trinity College Dublin to Divest

Discontent over the war in Gaza had been building for months at Trinity College Dublin, but what had been a rumble last week suddenly became a roar. News broke that Trinity had demanded a heavy sum from the student union after protests had blocked tourist access to the Book of Kells, a major attraction for paying visitors.

Trinity’s request for about $230,000 enraged students and brought a surge of media attention, and last Friday some anti-war demonstrators set up an encampment like those at American schools.

Irish lawmakers worried that the university was trying to stifle independent protest, and there were offers of help from lawyers and pro-Palestinian groups. The university closed parts of its campus that day, citing security concerns.

As the campus dispute became a national one, Trinity, Ireland’s oldest and most prestigious university, agreed on Monday to negotiate with pro-Palestinian demonstrators. Capping several head-spinning days, Trinity agreed first to abandon some Israeli investments, a step that nearly all U.S. colleges and universities have so far resisted, and then said on Wednesday that it would look into divesting from all such investments.

“It felt like we had won,” said Jenny Maguire, president-elect of the student union. “Not just us, but every person that campaigned for this had won. We got exactly what we wanted and what we came there to do.

She said of the university, “It was shocking how quickly they turned around.”

Soon the encampment of tents and two Palestinian flags, which about 60 students had hurried to erect just days earlier, was packing up. On Wednesday evening, students wearing checkered kaffiyeh scarves collected their gear and left. Within minutes, discolored patches of grass were all that remained.

A spokeswoman for Trinity declined to comment on any link between its turnabout, the monetary demand and the resulting scrutiny. The invoice, as the university called it, against the student union had not been discussed in divestment negotiations but would be discussed later, she said. Student leaders said that they hoped that it would be rescinded.

But to some students and outside observers, it was obvious that Trinity had badly miscalculated. Rather than quelling them, it had added fuel to the protests that were threatening not only the finances but also the reputation of a university whose alumni include writers like Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker and Samuel Beckett and a procession of illustrious politicians, physicists and philosophers.

“The message that fine sent was that Trinity was trying to quash and union-bust student protest,” said Aiesha Wong, a spokeswoman for the student union, who called it a “fear-mongering tactic.”

David Wolfe, editor in chief of Trinity News, the student newspaper, said, “They may have decided that it would cost us less to divest from Israel than it would to not divest.”

The pro-Palestinian movement has been active at Trinity for years, a part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. And at Trinity, as at other campuses around the world, it gained momentum after the current war began seven months ago.

Students, faculty and staff members have pressed the university to more strongly condemn Israel’s military offensive in Gaza. Pro-Palestinian groups have shared petitions, written open letters and staged disruptions of campus meetings.

But nothing drew as much attention as the 214,000-euro fee the university assessed for blocking the entrance to the Book of Kells, a world-renowned illuminated manuscript some 12 centuries old that is housed in the university library.

Each year, the book draws about a million paying visitors. Their tourism financially supplements the university, and past protests that had nothing to do with Israel have impeded access to it as a way of putting pressure on the Trinity administration. The invoice covered protests for other causes that obstructed entry to the Book of Kells exhibition, but it was the pro-Palestinian demonstrators who drew most of the attention.

In the days after news of the fine became public, more students became involved in the anti-Israel movement, the student union said. Plans were already being made for an encampment, but the timetable was accelerated.

Lawmakers called on Trinity to withdraw what they described as a “drastic fine,” and a group of them sent a letter to the university asking officials to ensure that students had space to protest.

As at universities in the United States and elsewhere, there were some complaints that student leaders had failed to address antisemitism rising in tandem with anti-Zionism. Jewish students felt excluded by the student union’s stance, Agne Kniuraite, the chairwoman of the college’s Jewish society, said in an article last month.

“Jewish students have been subjected to an unending barrage of prejudice and spoken of the isolation, fear and sense of rejection they have experienced on campus this year,” she wrote.

On Monday, anti-Israel protest leaders and the university met in the office of a senior dean to negotiate an agreement.

“They made it clear that they would immediately divest from companies in the occupied territories,” said Ms. Maguire, the president-elect of the student union, in what she described as a startling shift from Trinity’s earlier statements. The university agreed not to call in outside forces to disband the protests or the encampment, as some U.S. schools have done, and in a statement released after the meeting, Trinity called the response of other institutions “disproportionate.”

The school said it would divest from three Israeli companies listed by the U.N. for involvement with settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, and had offered a place to and waived fees for eight Palestinian scholars.

Protest leaders said that they pushed for a stronger stance, and on Wednesday, the university agreed to explore divesting its endowment of all Israeli ties. The students are still negotiating with administrators on how to ensure that the university keeps its commitments over the long run.

A university spokeswoman declined to say how much money it has invested in Israel, but said it involved 13 companies and was a “very tiny percentage” of the college’s 250 million euro endowment; American universities have said similar things about their own investments. Ms. Maguire said that students were told in meetings with administrators that the investments totaled at least 70,000 euros.

Aidan Regan, an associate professor of politics and international relations at University College Dublin, said he imagined that Trinity’s management would have weighed the financial and reputational cost of clearing away protesters and instead looked for a deal.

With public opinion in Ireland favoring the students, he said, it was “unthinkable” that the university would call in the police to forcibly remove them.

Many Irish people have drawn parallels between Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and centuries of British rule in their country.

“Ireland has a long history of Palestine solidarity, motivated by a shared colonial history,” said Hannah Boast, a fellow at the University of Edinburgh who has worked on politics and culture in Israel and Palestine, and said the encampment would have added to the pressure on the university to act.

A decision on divestment was too big to be attributed to image rehabilitation after inadvertent bad press, she said, but “the divestment announcement certainly seems to have made the bad press from the fine go away.”

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