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Pro-Palestinian demonstrations grow at UNT, without police response; rabbi offers insight

Leaders of the University of North Texas Palestinian Committee lead protesters in chants and a march from the Willis Library mall to Hurley Administration Building and back Tuesday.
Lucinda Breeding-Gonzales
Denton Record-Chronicle
Leaders of the University of North Texas Palestinian Committee lead protesters in chants and a march from the Willis Library mall to Hurley Administration Building and back Tuesday.

Hundreds of University of North Texas students joined a walkout in support of Palestinians in Gaza on Tuesday afternoon.

News helicopters hovered over UNT’s campus and television reporters jogged to keep up with students who walked out of classes in protest. Since the previous demonstration during the university’s Israel Week in April, the number of students protesting on Tuesday appeared to surge.

UNT students demonstrated against the backdrop of large protests at colleges across the country, where students have agitated administrators to divest — to sell off their universities’ investments in companies that have businesses or investments in Israel. Some protesters have created encampments on their campuses to extend and expand their demonstrations, and at some schools, including the University of Texas, police have arrested students.

The UNT demonstration on Tuesday was peaceful, and campus police watched from a distance.

Hillel International, a global Jewish student organization, has tracked antisemitism on college campuses and reported on its website last week that it tracked 1,395 reported antisemitic incidents on college campuses since Oct. 7, when Hamas struck Israel. The militant group struck with rockets and moved into more than 20 locations outside of the Gaza Strip. By the close of 2023, the Hamas attack had killed more than 1,300 Israelis and wounded more than 1,000 more. The group also took more than 100 hostages.

Hillel reports that between Oct. 7 and Nov. 7, it tracked 306 reported incidents of antisemitism on 129 campuses. Fifty-nine of those campuses reported multiple incidents during that time.

Leaders of the University of North Texas Palestinian Committee lead protesters in chants and a march from the Willis Library mall to Hurley Administration Building and back Tuesday.
Lucinda Breeding-Gonzales
Denton Record-Chronicle
Leaders of the University of North Texas Palestinian Committee lead protesters in chants and a march from the Willis Library mall to Hurley Administration Building and back Tuesday.

On Tuesday at UNT, protesters chanted, “Down with Zionism, up with Judaism,” and focused on UNT administrators, Texas legislators and President Joe Biden for the United States’ billions in support for Israel and what they called censorship of Palestinian, Arab and supporters’ voices.

Talia Irshad, a UNT junior and vice president of the UNT Palestinian Solidarity Committee, which organized the walkout, said the group will continue to press the UNT administration to meet four demands:

In an email sent to UNT faculty on Tuesday, Provost Michael McPherson said some faculty members had been asked to join the demonstration.

“This week is a stressful time for our students,” McPherson said. “Many are presenting their end of semester projects, participating in final exam review or even taking early finals. Disrupting our educational mission and foregoing our responsibility by cancelling classes is not acceptable.”

McPherson acknowledged that faculty are citizens as well as members of the UNT community, and instructed them to speak as citizens and not representatives of the university. He also reminded faculty that they can’t use university resources to further personal expression, including email.

Irshad said state legislators have tried to chill free speech on college campuses.

“We’re disgusted at attempts to silence students who are fighting this just fight,” Irshad said. “We’re disgusted by administrations like [University of Texas] and Colombia [University] who suspend their students for demanding that their universities cut ties with genocide, cut ties with apartheid.

“We understand that what is happening in Palestine is a 75-year-long colonial project and occupation of Palestine. And we’re disgusted that, when people rightfully protest ... they are met with state violence, and they are met with police violence and met with militarization of their campuses. They are met with forced homelessness because they are kicked out of their campus accommodations.”

Nancy Stockdale, who teaches Palestinian history at UNT, said she thinks the surge in support for Palestinians is related to the history education students have received.

“I have noticed over the years more and more students who essentially are kind of blank slates to this history,” she said. “And when they actually learn about the history of Palestine and its interactions with the Israeli state, they recognize that as oppressive. You couple that with people who are not really on either side, and then they see this really disproportionate response from Israel, that has killed at least 34,000 people.”

Stockdale said students have learned about the scale of the devastation in Gaza, with tens of thousands of people wounded and the displacement of millions.

“It’s coming into their phones every single day through social media. So they’re saying enough is enough,” Stockdale said.

Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis, who serves Congregation Kol Ami and teaches in the UNT Jewish Studies program, said he went to the recent Israel Week session that was met with protest. He wasn’t able to get into the session, and instead talked with students who came to protest the event. Dennis said it looked as if a confrontation was brewing, but, he said, a conversation unfolded.

“I went into full professor mode, and I talked about things like the interference with sovereignty transfer. I talked about Ottoman land law, and the arcane things that actually make the difference in the history of modern Israel. And they were engaged.

“As a general rule, I had some very positive conversations with them,” he said.

Protesters continued talking as attendees left the Israel Week session on campus.

“The people coming out of the event were not harassed because most of the protesters were, I’d say, constructively engaged in talking and arguing with Jews gathered outside,” Dennis said. “So it was it was intense, but it wasn’t violent or confrontational. I consider that all a plus.”

Dennis said there’s no way to understand what all the participants mean as they protest, even as their chants push buttons that make many Jews nervous. “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is heard as some as a call to exterminate Jews. The same could be true of the chant “There is only one solution — intifada, revolution.”

“That could mean any number of things,” Dennis said. “And in fact, it probably does mean any number of things to the thousands of people reciting it.”

One protester might be chanting for the creation of two states where Israelis and Palestinians have equal rights. Another might be chanting to exterminate every Jew in Israel.

“For Jews, the anxiety is the intersection of declarations that lie between, or whatever it is that we’re hearing that and what exactly do they mean. And we don’t know, and that lack of knowledge produces fear,” Dennis said.

“I’m probably most disturbed by the G-word,” he said. “By people declaring that the Israelis are engaging in genocide.

“Once you declare your opponent to be committing genocide, there’s really nothing to negotiate. There’s no compromise. There’s no talk. You’ve labeled them Nazis and they need to be destroyed.”

Dennis said Israel isn’t perpetuating genocide, though demonstrators across the country and UNT say it is.

“I don’t think that most protesters understand the definition of genocide,” he said. “They may not know that there is a definition of genocide. But I do know the definition of genocide. And Israel’s definitely not engaged in that, however terrible some of the policy decisions of the Israeli government are. ... And so that’s a fighting word for me.”

Dennis isn’t about fighting, though. He hopes for dialogue.

“The clearest thing I want people to come away with is the understanding is that most Jews, most Israelis, they want peace, too,” he said.

“They want a ceasefire. But reasonable ceasefire means, at the very least, the return of the kidnapped. A unilateral ceasefire without some gesture from Hamas is not going to be acceptable.”

LUCINDA BREEDING-GONZALES can be reached at 940-566-6877 and