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Commencement demonstrations conclude year of Greater Boston student protests

A turbulent year of student protests in response to the war in Gaza has culminated in several demonstrations at college commencement ceremonies across Greater Boston.

At Boston University, the 2024 graduating class entered Nickerson Field in red and white for the 151st All-University Commencement ceremony on May 19. Student demonstrators took the opportunity to assert their stances on the conflict, which has heightened tensions on college campuses nationwide.

Graduates walk out of Boston University’s 2024 Commencement in protest of Israel’s occupation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Several demonstrations occurred at university commencement ceremonies, such as Boston University and Harvard University, in response to the war in Gaza. CLARE ONG/DFP PHOTOGRAPHER

Some graduating students remained seated during the national anthem as a form of protest. Student Commencement speaker Michael Arellano and several others draped keffiyehs — traditional Arab headdresses that have come to symbolize Palestinian freedom and solidarity, according to NPR — over their gowns.

The ceremony climaxed after bestselling author and journalist David Grann finished delivering the Commencement address. Roughly 100 graduates rose and walked out of the ceremony while chanting, “Free, free Palestine.” A banner held by protesters read “75+ Years of Colonialism” on one side and “All Eyes on Rafah” on the other.

The demonstration, organized by BU Students for Justice in Palestine, joined protesting members of both the BU Graduate Workers Union and the BU ResLife Union in an integrated picket line along Harry Agganis Way.

“It was a very community-building experience,” said Rakan Al Sarebi, a senior at BU and member of BU SJP. “It was amazing to see the solidarity between graduating students, undergrads and striking BUGWU workers.” 

The walkout concluded a year of many on-campus protests by BU SJP, calling for BU to disclose their investments and divest from companies connected to the Israeli military. 

“The whole mantra of those kinds of disruptive protests is that you cannot have your business continue as usual while you’re complicit in those things,” Al Sarebi said.

Since the fall, student protests have dominated news headlines and populated Greater Boston campuses. Mass student arrests, disciplinary action and antisemitism have divided campuses and escalated administrative discontent.

At Harvard University, the administration barred 13 undergraduate students from receiving their diplomas due to their involvement in on-campus protests in solidarity with Palestine, according to the New York Times.

“We’re in sympathy with those students,” said Cole Harrison, executive director of Massachusetts Peace Action, a non-profit organization focused on peaceful United States foreign policy. “Harvard should not discipline them, they should applaud them.”

Hundreds of students walked out of Harvard’s commencement ceremony on May 23, chanting, “Let them walk,” in reference to those 13 students. 

Massachusetts Peace Action also organized a vigil outside the ceremony to demand a ceasefire in Gaza, the release of hostages and Palestinian political prisoners and the rescindment of student suspensions, according to a press release. Outside the walls of Harvard Yard, protesters held up banners reading “Ceasefire now,” “Harvard out of occupied Palestine” and “Let Gaza live.”

Jon Hiratsuka, a retiree and vigil attendee, said the vigil supports an end to “the assault on Gaza” and the student protesters who have “put their careers on the line” to stand up for their beliefs.

“[The students] are turning outrage into action, instead of wringing their hands and looking the other way,” Hiratsuka said.

Rotem Spiegler, an alumnus of Harvard Law School, said she attended the vigil because many Jewish and Israeli students have felt “very excluded” from on-campus protests.

“A lot of Deans [are] taking a stand on graduation events, which made Jewish families just get up and walk out,” Spiegler said. “[The protesters] should not feel alone, so we want to show them a little bit of support.” 

Counter-protests in support of Israel and accusations of antisemitism have further intensified tensions on campuses.

Three days before Harvard’s commencement ceremony, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law filed a lawsuit against the university for failing to address “cruel anti-Semitic bullying, harassment and discrimination” within the institution, according to a press release.

Harrison said while there may have been instances of antisemitism at Harvard, he doesn’t think students protesting for Palestine inherently creates “a serious antisemitism problem.” 

“To say that all these student protesters are antisemitic is so far off the mark,” Harrison said. “It’s just complete B.S.” 

During BU’s Commencement, several attendees booed the BU SJP protestors when they walked out of the ceremony. At the same time, some held up Israeli flags in the crowd.

A counter-protest approached the picket line of BU SJP, BUGWU and ResLife student protesters holding a blended U.S. and Israeli flag. Boston Police formed a line dividing the two protests.

Shayna Dash, a junior at BU and co-president of BU Students for Israel, said she has been a “victim of antisemitism on campus one too many times.” She said some chants at demonstrations for Palestine are “blatantly antisemitic,” such as “from the river to the sea,” which she said calls for the elimination of the Jewish state.

Al Sarebi said the phrase has “nothing to do with the expulsion of Jews.” He said it calls for “decolonizing Palestine” and refers to the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, the original borders of Palestine before British colonization.

However, in mid-April, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning the phrase as antisemitic, according to the Times of Israel. 

Dash said she has always wanted to sit down with BU SJP and discuss how rhetoric used by both groups is “not making campus better.” 

“How do we do that together versus just going back and forth constantly?” Dash said. 

While the war in Gaza and resulting student protests have impacted college communities nationwide, student activism has received praise for its role in holding academic institutions accountable. 

Student demonstrations at such institutions as Columbia University, Brown University and the University of Southern California have made national headlines. Benjamin Punzalan, a sophomore at Columbia — which canceled its 2024 commencement ceremony after weeks of student protests — said there will be a “lasting” impact of these demonstrations on his campus.

“At least in my time [at Columbia], there will still be these kinds of tensions between administration and students,” Punzalan said. “A lot of students, no matter how they feel about the protests, don’t feel great about how the administration handled what happened.”

It is uncertain whether on-campus protests in the Greater Boston area may quiet down during the summer months. 

“The city of Boston has been focusing on the situation in Palestine like never before,” Harrison said. “We need much more attention on this, and we hope that the activism that’s come up around this genocide will be extended to broader peace classes as well.”

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