Trinity College’s tolerance of antisemitism is a betrayal of its Jewish staff and students

How Ireland’s best university showed that Jews don’t count


A Palestine sticker on a sign at the entrance to Trinity College in Dublin. (Alamy)

May 10, 2024 14:33

One of my most treasured memories with my dad is a walk we took down the pier next to my parent’s home shortly after I got into Trinity College Dublin.

On our walk, my dad got emotional saying how proud he was that his eldest child got accepted into the best university in the country.

I studied at Trinity between 2011 and 2015, an immensely fulfilling four years at an institution that fostered my intellectual and emotional growth. During those four years, I observed no serious instances of antisemitism. When asked by classmates what my background was based on my surname or darker features, no one batted an eyelid when I disclosed my Jewish heritage.

But when I returned as a PhD student in 2021, I found the college culture unrecognisable from the inclusive, welcoming, intellectually challenging place I once knew.

This shift in college culture is the result of systemic issues within Trinity that have, for many years, stealthily fomented a hateful ideology that grips far too many of the students and faculty. As the readers of the Jewish Chronicle will be acutely aware, this ideology is not confined to Trinity, nor even to academia more broadly.

When I returned to Trinity, I perceived an exclusion of Jews that I'd never encountered before. I could see that the blanket perception of Jews being ‘white Europeans’ not only led to Jews being a cohort deemed undeserving of the protections afforded to other minorities; it also meant that Jews were people towards whom derision would be deemed acceptable as Jews were part of the ‘white privileged majority’.

This reductive notion of Jewishness is not just an erasure of Mizrahi, Sephardic, and Ethiopian Jewish identity (groups who collectively comprise the majority of Jews in Israel), it’s also an insult to Ashkenazi Jews who, less than 80 years ago, endured an industrial-scale genocide specifically for not being ‘white European’ enough.

This warping of Jewish identity in academic circles was directly tied with something else I noted upon my return to Trinity: a significantly increased obsession with Israel/Palestine above all other global issues and a truly astounding prevalence of ignorance about both the conflict and the region. During my undergraduate, conversations regarding this topic were not uncommon, but returning as a PhD student I was alarmed that discourse on this topic was now not focused on what Israel did, but, rather, what it was. The righteous line of thought was no longer advocating for the improvement of the livelihood and dignity of Palestinians or their right to statehood and independence side-by-side with Israelis. Rather, it had become the violent expression of the righteous need to destroy Israel’s existence as a Jewish state completely as the only route towards Palestinian liberation.

The endorsement of the atrocities of October 7th in elite academic circles has only been made possible through years of dehumanising, demonising, and scapegoating of Israeli Jews as the current pinnacle of societal evil, this conception of Israelis as the ‘white European coloniser’. This rebranding of Jewish identity has been cynically weaponised to deny Jewish connection and right to sovereignty in the Jewish ancestral homeland. It has been an essential tool to strip the Israel/Palestine conflict of all nuance: morphing Jews in Israel as alien interlopers, rather than a people returning home. Jews were, once again, the embodiment of evil in this story.

This narrative is one parroted by respected Trinity academics, taught in course modules, and espoused by Trinity’s Student Union, which has had a BDS mandate since 2018. Acceptance as a Jew will be granted to you in Trinity if you clearly distinguish yourself from the mainstream Jewish opinion and denounce Zionism as an evil enterprise. Denying your people’s right to self-determination, embracing ‘diasporism’, and allowing yourself to be tokenised by fellow students will bring you significant societal reward in Trinity.

As someone raised Catholic and of paternal Jewish heritage, I would never have the audacity to tell anyone how to identify with their Jewishness. Jews whose views, experiences, and connections to Judaism diverge from the mainstream should be listened to. However, the reality is that these experiences and senses of identity are the only ones that are accepted in Trinity. The opinions of this vocal minority are cynically platformed by Trinity staff and students to bolster their ideological/political/professional agendas and provide a shield for their prejudice. These Jews are positioned as ‘good’ and ‘enlightened’ at the expense of the rest of the perfidious Jews for whom Zionism is a core aspect of their Jewish identity: Jews being an ethnoreligious land-based tribe.

This pervasive ideology that morphs the majority of Jews as either oppressors or supporters of oppression, has meant that my PhD journey has been marked by noted hostility within the college towards a core aspect of my identity that no one cared about just a few years before. This hostility has drastically escalated to one of hatefulness since 7/10.

On the morning of 7/10, as the massacre of civilians and children was still ongoing, a Trinity professor wrote on X: ‘Nothing lasts forever. Solidarity and strength to those who demand to be free’. It was accompanied by a cartoon image of a man donning a keffiyeh and holding a gun with the caption: ‘The revolution continues’. A Trinity member of staff has informed me that she made a formal complaint to the Provost Linda Doyle and the Chair of the Board about this, but was rebuffed.

This sentiment was echoed by the President of the Student’s Union who wrote on X on 7/10: ‘Palestinians have a right to resist the brutal conditions imposed on them by the apartheid regime of Israel’. A fellow Trinity PhD student stated on X that it should be ‘celebrated and supported’, that ‘it is beautiful.’

This hatred amongst the student body has been acutely felt by many Jewish students.

TCD’s Chanukah event after 7/10 was described as an uncomfortable and unpleasant experience that Trinity refused to publicly promote, citing safety concerns. In February, an extremist figure was allowed to give a lecture in Trinity. Jewish students were sent the following: ‘College security are aware of the potential for trouble, but the event will be going ahead. Perhaps you should let Jewish students and staff know that it might be best for them to avoid the Art building between 6.00pm and 10.00pm’.

The hostility towards Jews at Trinity has been advertised to the world with the recent four-day encampment that contained explicitly antisemitic and pro-terrorist banners. In one notable example, there was a Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) flag flown from the window of Trinity and two PFLP banners hung outside and inside the grounds. The PFLP is, of course, a proscribed terrorist organisation by the EU. Trinity’s response to these concerns? ‘We respect the strong stance expressed by those participating in the encampment’.

Trinity leadership claimed in their public statement on the encampment on the 6th of May: ‘We also continue to engage with our Jewish staff and students who are impacted’. Jewish students received no communication from Trinity leadership. Indeed, we emailed more than one department requesting a meeting. We received no response.

More worryingly, Trinity’s response to the encampment was to capitulate quickly to some BDS demands, including a commitment to ‘work towards total divestment from Israel’.

While the reality may be more complicated, the way that university officials gave in shows that there is no challenging of these protests and the fact that an academic boycott specifically was in any way capitulated to showcases a profound lack of moral clarity within Trinity leadership. They not only didn’t condemn the racism displayed in the encampment but rewarded it: yielding to their demands.

Most devastatingly: this is a heartbreaking betrayal of the Jewish and Israeli staff members and students who have contributed to our college in infinite ways. My field specifically, deaf studies and sign linguistics, has benefited immensely from the scholarship of numerous Jewish researchers and Israeli researchers. This work, by extension, has enriched the lives of the Deaf community globally. Not one single academic in my field publicly stood up to say that they opposed the academic boycott specifically, even though they have worked with Jewish researchers and benefitted from Jewish endeavour their entire careers. I will never view them the same way again.

Trinity has cultural weight in Ireland: where it leads, others follow. 

I have been in touch with one Jewish Trinity graduate who has made the heartbreaking decision to withdraw a bursary for disadvantaged students made in his late father’s name, which had been a source of immense pride for his family.

It is often said that antisemitism is the canary in the coalmine and is a signifier of broader societal ills. This is certainly the case with respect to Trinity.

Antisemitism is a fundamentally anti-intellectual, conspiratorial belief system and any institution that tolerates it has abandoned the original mission of a university. It is unsurprising to me that the rise in antisemitism has coincided with what I perceive to be a drop in academic standards and a college culture where authoritarianism, cruelty and intolerance has most certainly increased since my time as an undergraduate.

Trinity’s acceptance of antisemitism is also emblematic of the profound infection of cowardice that has plagued ‘good’ people and respected institutions to such an extent that they cower down and capitulate in the face of extremism and hatred. How did we get here? What will the future in Trinity, academia and society generally look like for Jews in this climate?

What I do know is that I have been awed at the leadership, pride and moral fortitude of young Jewish students at Trinity in the face of such adversity. The searing and eloquent statement from Jewish Students at Columbia University illustrates that Trinity students are not outliers in this regard.

The youngest generation of Jews are courageous and strong. As prestigious universities abandon their core ethos in yielding to mob rule, I take solace in the fact there are young Jews staying true to the defining resilience of spirit that has sustained Jewish life through the adversities faced for millennia.

May 10, 2024 14:33

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive