Comment & Analysis
Aug 19, 2018

The Provost is Betraying Trinity’s Anti-Apartheid Legacy

Provost Patrick Prendergast’s lofty goal of defending freedom of speech is an attempt to justify the unjustifiable, writes Seán Egan.

Seán EganOp-Ed Contributor
Students celebrating the result of the TCDSU boycott, divest and sanction referendum in March.
Eleanor O’Mahony for The University Times

Provost Patrick Prendergast could have broached a number of topics during his trip to Jerusalem: the recent assaults on Gaza or the passage of Israel’s new Nation State Bill, which cements the second-class citizenship of its Palestinian residents or the unilateral declaration to make Jerusalem the capital of Israel – a disastrous plan that undermined all existent frameworks for achieving peace in the region. But Prendergast chose instead to decry a student protest that happened almost a year and a half ago in Trinity’s Arts Block.

I was baffled that in spite of the life and death issues that deserve attention, Prendergast felt compelled to re-condemn some of his students apparently with the lofty goal of defending the free exchange of ideas.

In February 2017, I helped organise a protest of about 40 people in the Arts Block. We felt that it was imperative to demonstrate that the warm welcome and unbridled admiration Israeli Ambassador to Ireland Ze’ev Boker was sure to receive – courtesy of the aspiring diplomats in the Society for International Affairs – didn’t represent our campus community and its commitment to fighting racism and calling out injustice. We stood outside the lecture hall with some Palestinian flags and some chants about freedom, peace and justice. After some time, the Gardaí made the decision to cancel the ambassador’s speech so we went home.


I woke up the next morning with a sore throat and was surprised to find that in some quarters, we were being blamed for the end of free speech, the unviability of peace in the Middle East and were being labelled as both violent leftist thugs and fragile liberal snowflakes. It was a strange experience to say the least, made only more bizarre when the Israeli foreign ministry described us as “vicious” and “genocidal”. Instead of coming to the defence of students being slandered by a foreign government, Prendergast described us as “the antithesis of what Trinity stands for”. His statement was refuted by the overwhelming support for a boycott of Israel in this year’s Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) referendum. Clearly it is Prendergast who is out of touch with the values that underscore our academic community. Still, it is worth unpacking his appeals for “the free exchange of ideas” in order to understand how that phrase is regularly used to justify the unjustifiable and to suppress calls for serious action against injustice.

I’m sure all readers are familiar with the interminable debate about freedom of speech. It has produced a steady stream of broadsheet-friendly scandal and right-wing delusions of victimhood as this or that bigot is uninvited to speak from some university or television programme. What is ignored by the free speech warriors is that while speech should not be criminalised, there has never been an open marketplace of ideas. Systems of power and influence have always determined which voices are heard and which are silenced. The free exchange of ideas does not mean we have to be content with being misled, lied to and patronised by hypocrites, racists and apologists for war crimes. The only way dissident voices have been able to break through has been protest, upsetting decorum and the sensibilities of the comfortable. We have a collective moral responsibility to resist the whitewashing of Israeli war crimes, the presentation of war-mongering propaganda is not the free exchange of ideas.

The Israeli ambassador had a speech cancelled – a minor inconvenience compared to the daily violence and humiliation visited upon the Palestinians, be they second-class citizens in Israel, prisoners in Gaza or refugees in Jordan. I wish that Prendergast would extend them the same sympathy and concern. I wish that his defence of free speech extended to Palestinians like Dareen Tatour, who is languishing in an Israeli jail for her poetry. It is worth noting that the Palestinian ambassador to Ireland is not given the same recognition as other ambassadors because despite a unanimous Dáil vote to do so in late 2014, the government has yet to recognise Palestinian statehood. It’s a stark dichotomy that helps to illustrate the unequal playing field.

The corporatisation of College doesn’t just make student life worse, it also degrades the moral value of academia and betrays Trinity’s anti-apartheid legacy

So just why is our Provost so anxious to apologise for students’ actions? As I’m sure you’ve guessed, its money related. The College has investments and research connections that tie it to Israeli apartheid and the occupation of Palestine. The School of Engineering has collaborated with drone manufacturers Elbit Systems and €800,000 of Trinity’s endowment fund is invested in weapons companies Lockheed Martin and BAE systems, which have provided weapons used against Palestinian civilians. Trinity has research ties with Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which is built in occupied East Jerusalem in violation of international law.

Prendergast seeks to deepen these relationships despite clear opposition from the student body. One of the pitfalls of running a university like a business is that money-making supersedes academic responsibility and professional ethics. The corporatisation of College doesn’t just make student life worse, it also degrades the moral value of academia and betrays Trinity’s anti-apartheid legacy. Trinity was once at the centre of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement. Exiled South African Kader Asmal taught law here and led the fight for a boycott of apartheid in South Africa. In 1971, Trinity stood up to the plate and became a symbol of real solidarity. Eventually other institutions followed. The economic and diplomatic toll of the international movement against apartheid is largely credited with the release of political prisoners like Nelson Mandela in 1990 and the negotiations that led to South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. This is the inspiration of the boycott, divest and sanction movement. Pressure needs to be put on the state of Israel to stop the brutalisation of Palestinians and there needs to be a real peace process that halts the expansion of Israeli settlements into Palestinian land. Israel will continue to act with impunity until it is made to pay a price on the international stage. It’s an enormous project but we all have a responsibility to pursue it in our communities, colleges, churches and trade unions.

Prendergast said that Students for Justice in Palestine represents the “antithesis of what Trinity stands for”. But does he get to define what Trinity is about?

Our protest of the ambassador had its drawbacks – I regret that many chose to focus on abstract notions of free speech rather than the material suffering caused by the ambassador and the regime he represents. But the protest helped launch a Palestine solidarity campaign in Trinity that has gone from strength to strength. The TCDSU referendum result last year was a marvellous moral victory. Now it’s up to all of us to make it a material one. It’s time to challenge College’s connections to apartheid and occupation. We need to learn the lessons of Take Back Trinity: in order to make real change we have to mobilize the student body and make it impossible for the administration to ignore us. It’s time that students had a say over the intellectual life of our College and it’s time to put people and principles before profiteering. Prendergast said that Students for Justice in Palestine represents the “antithesis of what Trinity stands for”. But does he get to define what Trinity stands for? Does Prendergast’s money-grubbing, glad-handing and suppression of student protest represent Trinity?

We stand in the tradition of Kader Asmal and all the other activists that fight for a better College and a fairer world. It takes courage to stand on the right side of history, courage Prendergast doesn’t seem to have. We need to reclaim Trinity’s proud legacy of fighting apartheid. We need to sever our links to Israel and support the Palestinian struggle for freedom.

Seán Egan is a member of Students for Justice in Palestine. He was the campaign manager for the yes side in the TCDSU boycott, divest and sanction referendum.

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