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Society

Pro-Palestinian Protests Dwindle to Tiny Numbers and Subtle Defiant Acts at US College Graduations

DURHAM – 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 decade-long namesake show became one of the most popular in U.S. television history and who continues to draw legions of fans to his Netflix specials and TV appearances such as “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” was there to receive an honorary doctorate from the university.

“After spending four years at what is considered one of the finest institutions of higher education in the world, they apparently feel that perhaps some light entertainment will get you all to the final realization, ‘You know, I think I’ve really had enough of this place,’” Seinfeld said.

The stand-up turned actor and recent star, director and co-writer of the movie “Unfrosted,” has publicly supported Israel since it invaded Gaza to dismantle Hamas after the organization attacked the country and killed some 1,200 people in southern Israel on Oct. 7. The ensuing war has killed nearly 35,000 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which doesn’t distinguish between civilians and combatants.

Students at campuses across the U.S. responded this spring by setting up encampments and calling 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.

A graduate twirls with her Palestinian flag cape during the Emerson College commencement ceremony at Boston University’s Agganis Arena, Sunday, May 12, 2024, in Boston. Many students verbally protested throughout the ceremony. (Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via AP)

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 counterprotests, 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.”

The small student protest Sunday at Duke’s graduation in Durham, North Carolina, was emblematic of campus events across the U.S. Sunday after weeks of student protests roiled U.S. campuses in recent weeks and resulted in nearly 2,900 arrests at 57 colleges and universities.

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 kaffiyeh, the black and white checkered scarf commonly worn by Palestinians, and flashed a watermelon painted on her hand. Both are symbols of solidarity with those living in the occupied territories.

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.

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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