The scrutinized university in the wake of pro-Palestinian mobilizations

Since the student mobilizations in support of Gaza began, universities have become the focus of media and political curiosity. But what does the situation look like from the inside? A student familiar with the activist world gives us their view of what happened in the universities, the forces at play and the ambiguities that run through the pro-Palestinian mobilization.


Paris, April 2024. Sign reads: “Zionists. Out of our universities”


Anyone visiting higher education establishments in the Paris region at the end of May 2024 will have noticed a curious phenomenon, to say the least: while their e-mail lists, notice boards and facades remain the scene of more or less heated debates, their office and study buildings remain closed doors. Or, to be more precise, they seem to have tightened their entry protocols to the point of absurdity, with security personnel, badge requests and registration lists. As a result, students and staff alike have been turned away at the entrances to a number of establishments, despite the fact that the establishments remain administratively open and exams are still scheduled on the same dates. As for the libraries of the aforementioned establishments, students in the midst of their revision and writing periods are finding the door closed. Since the series of occupations and blockades of higher education establishments during the social opposition movement against the Labor Law in 2016, then against the pension reform in 2019 and 2021, university presidents seem to have developed a paradoxical method of appeasing political conflicts that spill over into the university. How can we not applaud the ingenuity of this new policy? To avoid any risk of student blockades, higher education authorities have resolved to block themselves.

For several months now, the various conferences and occupations in solidarity with Palestine have been increasingly attracting media and political attention to universities, first in the USA and then in Europe. In recent weeks, French universities have in part joined the movement, in the trail of the March 12 occupation and “filtering blockade” at Science Po Paris. Through the media, competing accounts of this occupation have multiplied, along with its political, administrative and judicial fallout. The event generated no fewer than twenty articles in the national and regional press, not to mention government interventions, from France’s Prime Minister Gabriel Attal and Minister of Higher Education Sylvie Retailleau’s visit to Science Po Paris to France’s President Emmanuel Macron’s invective in the Council of Ministers against “unspeakable and utterly intolerable” acts, and the school’s internal investigation. The affair crystallized around the exclusion of a student belonging to the French Union of Jewish Students (UEJF) from the Boutmy amphitheater, prompting accusations of antisemitism against which various reactions from mobilized students were put forward. This was notably the case for an article by Jewish students supporting the mobilization and criticizing UEJF statements suggesting that Jews were no longer welcome at Science Po because of the mobilization in support of Palestine against the Israeli offensive.

Is student consensus more than relative?

Judging by the many reactions, the university seems to be the spearhead of the solidarity movement with Palestine, both as a place where its supporters converge and as a space for elaborating its demands, which concern not only the ceasefire, but also the future of the region. But what is the reality? If we focus on its geographical extension, the movement has indeed spread to universities, notably in the Ile-de-France region, but also in Strasbourg, Reims, Menton, Rennes, Saint-Etienne, Lyon and Marseille, and, in the Ile-de-France region alone, Nanterre, Sorbonne Nouvelle University, School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS), ENS Ulm, Paris Diderot and so on. This massive support produced the image of a broad student consensus on support for Palestine and the call for a ceasefire, and more radically, on anti-Zionism.

The discussions that took place mostly left aside the question of the definitions used in the slogans. The minimal consensus is that Israel is guilty of the crimes of genocide, apartheid and colonization in Gaza…

But what is the consensus really about? Even before examining the details of its content, it can be explained by the structure of the movement, which remains very similar from one university to another. With the support of the Urgence Palestine collective and, to a lesser extent, BDS, activists sympathetic to the Palestinian cause adopt a set of readings of the conflict and communication materials. This take-up of pre-existing media (brochures, images, posters, etc.) is quite common in social movements that have resonance in universities or emanate from them, if we think, for example, simply of the driving role played by student unions. It reflects the more or less precocious state of a given mobilization, insofar as the internal differentiation of positions develops as the commissions and general assemblies progress, reflecting a gradual appropriation of the initial key words. The recurring pattern is therefore that of a “Palestine committee” coming from the university and calling on Urgence Palestine, or more rarely on other collectives such as Tsedek or the French Jewish Union for Peace (UJFP). These Palestine committees themselves interact with the “interfac” committee, which brings together the most organized Palestine committees. It is this common way of organizing that gives the impression of a highly unified movement, where the lack of ideological elaboration tends to indicate a facade of unity.

Behind this apparent unanimity, numbers also raise questions. These general assemblies are struggling to bring together the hundreds and sometimes thousands of people who used to gather to oppose the Labour Law or pension reforms. For the mobilized students, the relatively low turnout of other students is to be attributed to fear of sanctions from the administration, and police repression. As evidenced by the commission of inquiry targeting eight individuals at Science Po Paris, the multiple reports of apology for terrorism and, more generally, the police interventions to expel occupiers at the Sorbonne, EHESS and ENS Ulm, this repression is a reality. Nevertheless, this is nothing new for student mobilizations, and it is consequently also the inadequacy of support for the mobilization beyond its most active activists that makes it fragile in its balance of power with both the administrations and the police. More fundamentally, the issue of repression confines debates and statements to considerations of the movement’s criminalization and strategies of resistance, regularly leading to accusations of complicity on the part of the presidencies, more or less explicitly echoing the UJFP’s rhetoric on the subject of state-sponsored philosemitism.

To understand in greater detail the possible terms of convergence around solidarity with Palestine, we need to return to the precise course of the occupations. Apart from cases such as the one at Science Po Paris, where short debates were held to discuss terms such as “Zionism” or the legal qualification of events, many occupations were more organized around interventions by various pre-existing collectives or public readings of texts. At the EHESS and ENS Ulm, the Solidarité Kanaky collective intervened, inscribing the struggle for Palestine in the referents of the Algerian and Vietnam wars, alongside the current mobilization against the enlargement of the electorate in New Caledonia. Apart from this sharing of common references, the discussions that took place mostly left aside the question of the definitions used in the slogans.

Poster advertising to join the committee of Urgency Palestine
Contested slogans and porous positions

Beyond agreement on a certain lexicon to be used to describe the current situation, the watchwords for the movement’s political horizon have become much less clear-cut. The minimal consensus is that Israel is guilty of the crimes of genocide, apartheid and colonization in Gaza. But when it comes to demands beyond condemnation of the situation in Gaza and the boycott of Israeli companies and their allies, it’s much harder to discern precise positions. In other words, the consensual “Free Gaza” dominates, leaving the precise content of this liberation unclear. The fine gradations of positioning can be seen in some people’s reservations about subscribing to this or that formulation, between those who adopt “Palestine will live, Palestine will triumph” without batting an eyelid, and others who show a certain reticence about the potential implications of the second part of the slogan. Similarly, the use of Samidoun’s images for Palestinian prisoners has aroused reservations and opposition, because these are the only visual aids available on the subject of prisoners, and yet the association also published its condolences on the death of the Iranian president, and its support for the regime is public knowledge.

When it comes to demands beyond condemnation of the situation in Gaza and the boycott of Israeli companies and their allies, it’s much harder to discern precise positions. In other words, the consensual “Free Gaza” dominates, leaving the precise content of this liberation unclear..

One of these slogans in particular, “from the river to the sea”, has taken on the most diverse meanings, from the demand for a bi-national state to that of a return to historic Palestine (pre-1948). This slogan is often brandished by LFI (La France Insoumise, radical left-wing political party in France) figures, notably Rima Hassan, or by the Tsedek collective[1], who use it in a sense close to that given to it by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from the 1970s onwards, namely as referring to the demand for a single secular state with no right of return. But this clarification is rare if not non-existent on campuses, and is just one of many possible evocations of this slogan, which crystallizes not only conflicts of interpretation, but also equivocations that persist despite repetition. Other possibilities include its use by the Hamas charter, which calls for the eradication of Israel, or by the Ben Gvir and Smotrich parties, which claim exclusive Israeli sovereignty. Here again, the fact that historically charged supports and watchwords are taken up and transposed without any real appropriation by the movement may be a clue to understanding the prevailing confusion. However, in this case in particular, the hypothesis of a failure to pass on the political heritage of this slogan fails to account for its reuse and lack of explicitness: in fact, despite the many accusations of culpable ambiguity leveled against it, neither the militants’ adherence to this slogan nor the way in which they use it has changed. In fact, it begs the question whether the slogan’s success is not at least partly due to the maintenance of an ambiguity whose embarrassing nature can always be denied in the face of attempts to disqualify it, but which also serves as a strategic tool for rallying the most varied of supporters behind a porous positioning.

A rigorous anti-Zionism

The greatest novelty of this mobilization, even in the history of the various pro-Palestinian movements in France, is its coordination: anti-Zionism seems to have become a sine qua non of progressive discourse on the conflict. Symptomatically, the main banner of the interfaculties committee held at the Sorbonne Nouvelle displayed on the speakers’ table, and thus more prominently than its other slogans, read: “Sionistes hors de nos facs” (“Zionists out of our universities”). Conversely, those who reject anti-Zionism as a condition for an audible voice on the conflict are gradually being pushed to the margins of the movement, following the example of the Golem collective.

Golem[2] was created the day after the October 7 march against antisemitism. Its members initially came together around anti-fascist principles and a shared determination to fight against the acceptance of the Rassemblement National (far-right political party in France) representatives’ appearance at the march. The collective plays an active part in the student mobilization, even if it means trying to shift certain positions that it considers not only counter-productive from the point of view of joining the ceasefire movement, but more fundamentally as sometimes feeding on antisemitism. As early as the mobilization at Science Po Paris, Golem denounced slogans that were not picked up by any media, despite the scale of the controversy… Once again, the disagreement crystallized around certain slogans, such as “Warsaw, Treblinka, and now Gaza”, or “Globalize the Intifada”. The collective has set out to denounce the tendency within the movement to compete in memory or to essentialize Israelis, trivializing or even encouraging all forms of violence against them, on the pretext that they are committing the worst (genocide). But this concern for the fate of Israeli civilians already appears suspicious in the eyes of anti-Zionism, as was the case with the denunciation of the rapes of October 7.

Jewish organizations that accept this prerequisite of anti-Zionism are perfectly integrated and put forward, like the UJFP or Tsedek, which seem to have become systematic bulwarks against any questioning of the antisemitic components and drifts present in the movement.

By refusing other coordinates that had become tokens of belonging to the mobilization, such as the term “genocide”, the collective gradually became a target. On May 21, its members were prevented from speaking at a conference organized by the presidency of the University of Lille on the theme “Israel-Palestine: How a university community commits itself”. They were insulted and booed by activists from the Libre Palestine association, calling for “the decolonization of the whole of historic Palestine”. Here again, it was the fact that Golem did not claim to be anti-Zionist that seemed to authorize the invectives and amalgams hurled at them from the audience: “Zionists, fascists, you’re the terrorists”, or “You’re settlers”. That day, the Golem activists were removed by the security service, while the university president, Régis Bordet, and part of his office in the room remained silent throughout Libre Palestine’s intervention. Later, in its statement on May 21, the University of Lille lamented the difficulty of having a respectful dialogue, managing to completely omit the term antisemitism in the description of the events.

Conversely, Jewish organizations that accept this prerequisite of anti-Zionism are perfectly integrated and put forward, like the UJFP[3] or Tsedek, which are incidentally mentioned by the Libre Palestine activists who disqualified Golem as a way of clearing themselves in advance of any accusations of antisemitism. These collectives are also involved in all the occupations, and seem to have become systematic bulwarks against any questioning of the antisemitic components and excesses present in the movement, according to a now well-known mechanism of rampant “tokenization”. How can a mobilization be antisemitism if Jewish organizations are part of it? Better still, wouldn’t it be even more impossible if these organizations even explained that anti-Zionism is a condition for fighting antisemitism? Whether we’re talking about Golem, Tsedek or Oy Gevalt[4], these are all organizations born or made visible in the aftermath of October 7, in what now appears to be a major shift in the ideological landscape of the Left. Some of these organizations taking part in the Palestine solidarity mobilization at universities had already existed prior to October 7, such as Juifs et Juives Révolutionnaires (JJR – transl.: Jewish revolutionaries) or Oraaj[5], but all are experiencing at first hand the reconfiguration of the ideological framework through which the Left understands this conflict, as well as its repercussions on Jews here. For some of these activists, the secondarization and possible denial of antisemitism appeared for the first time, even though they had never wanted to politicize themselves specifically around antisemitism or the Middle East conflict. Others have been more sensitive to the injunction to position themselves as Jewish and the systematic suspicion of Zionism, which has motivated a movement of disassociation with the Israeli offensive, increasingly taking the form of anti-Zionism. In any case, the members of these new collectives include activists from student union organizations such as Solidaires (French group of trade unions; tends to represent radical left views), the NPA (New Anticapitalist party, far-left political party in France) and LFI, some of whose statements and speeches have become imperceptible to their members from one day to the next.

In the anti-Zionist movement at university, in particular, we are witnessing a radical questioning not only of the lever of international law – already discredited for a long time – but also and above all of the state framework as an adequate paradigm for thinking about the conflict, although no alternative framework is proposed.

This is, in fact, a whole generation that grew up after the Second Intifada, and for whom the two-state perspective never really existed, since the Palestinian question had gradually disappeared from the surface of debates through the withdrawal of the Israeli occupation and the impasse in processes designed to lead to a lasting peace. In this relative ideological desert, the work of long-established minority organizations was finally able to find an echo it had never known in the past, notably as regards the reading proposed by the UJFP alongside Jewish Voice for Peace and Urgence Palestine, or even the Indigènes de la République (self-proclaimed anti-racist and “decolonial” political movement), including Houria Bouteldja. In the anti-Zionist movement at university, in particular, we are witnessing a radical questioning not only of the lever of international law – already discredited for a long time – but also and above all of the state framework as an adequate paradigm for thinking about the conflict, although no substitute framework is proposed. In this vacuum, suspicions will continue to lodge, and rightly so, when the worst is simply not proven to be true.

ENS Lyon, May 2024
The guilty silence of presidencies in the face of antisemitism

Even beyond Palestine solidarity activists, the movement and its slogans are having an effect on all students, to which Jewish students are exposed in a particular and new way. Whether at the University of Nanterre, Paris Diderot, Strasbourg or Lille, the various testimonies range from tags and attacks on online student conversation groups to acts of physical aggression and harassment. The climate is such that many Jewish students say they prefer to anticipate and stay as far back as possible, if not simply stop going to class. When denunciations of antisemitism are based on statistics from the French Union of Jewish Students (UEJF), they are immediately disqualified, as is the case when the qualification comes from the courts or university presidents. Whenever antisemitism is mentioned in discussion groups or roundtables, the risk of its instrumentalization is always first mentioned, as if the existence of a media denunciation of antisemitism made it unthinkable that its violence would be deployed within society. For a significant proportion of anti-Zionists, the possibility that the issue of antisemitism could be used to support Israel seems to justify always casting a wary eye on it, which can only result in making Jews more and more disrespectful. Whether the essentialist discourse is expressed in the name of assimilating Jews to settlers, or in the name of more classic motives, the multiplication of such discourse in fact creates a liberation from antisemitism for all, even when it has nothing to do with attributing Zionist opinions.

In this respect, university presidents bear an even greater responsibility than students. The letter from Sylvie Retailleau published in the days following October 7, which purported to punish all forms of hateful behavior, merely insisted on “preventing any situation likely to cause a disturbance to public order”, including, as in Lille, when this meant remaining silent in the face of antisemitism. Lorenzo of the Golem collective, for example, recounts how, despite reports of harassment in the department of UFR Lettres, Arts, Cinéma at Paris Diderot, the university initially refused a series of proposals to organize a conference on antisemitism, for fear that it would cause trouble, despite the UFR’s agreement. Although this is a legal obligation, the university has no antisemitism referent, so the only option is to turn to the two “inclusivity” referents: One simply advised a student who had been the victim of antisemitic harassment to move to another university, while the other stated that a conference to raise awareness of antisemitism would be seen as the administration’s support for Jewish students, which in her view could provoke antisemitism, as it could be perceived as “preferential treatment”. It was not until two months after the first hearing that the report was finally made official, and a first conference was held in the UFR on February 6 with JJR, Golem and the UEJF. The conference was well received. The concern for neutrality and the pacification of debates that presidencies continue to use to prevent such events from taking place on campus is no longer just a pretext for inaction: it is mobilized as a bulwark against the accusation of philosemitism, which soon shifts from supporting the Israeli offensive to simply protecting Jewish students.

Given that the problem of antisemitism in student circles will not be solved by individual condemnations and disciplinary procedures, universities are today faced with a much more general task of raising awareness, which they can only accomplish by accepting the risk of “disturbing public order”, even if this order is presumed to be disturbed by preventive discourse… Yet this order, in universities now closed or under close surveillance, fulfils neither its claims to preserve freedom of assembly and demonstration, nor to combat the discrimination in the name of which it represses mobilization.

Tal Rosenthal



1 organization defining itself as a “Jewish decolonial collective”.
2 An organization that claims on Instagram to be “Mouvement des Juifves de gauche contre l’antisemitism d’où qu’il vient.”
3 An organization that claims, according to its website to work “for the right to self-determination for the Palestinian people. “
4 an organization that claims to be a “Jewish queer anti-racist collective based in France”
5 Organisation claiming on Instagram to be an Antiracist Antipatriarchal Jewish Revolutionary Organization in Paris / Jewish, women, trans collective /”

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