Sound, fury and opposition, but no arrests at Deep South campus protests

Anti-Israel demonstration in Birmingham, November 2023 (SJL file)

While building takeovers and illegal “Free Palestine” encampments being cleared on college campuses across the country have been all over the news, demonstrations in the Deep South have generally been quieter — and faced more pushback.

Conversely, large protests at Tulane, Emory and Georgia have resulted in arrests.

A couple hundred anti-Israel protestors and counter-protestors faced off across rope barricades and a line of police on May 1 at the University of Alabama, in what many characterized as a couple groups shouting at each other for an hour and then going home.

Once news of the planned gathering emerged, Bama Hillel asked students “not to engage or bring attention to this group,” and said they would be open extended hours for Finals Week, with additional security.

The anti-Israel group gathered in front of the student center, behind a banner that said “Tide Against Genocide.” Other posters included “USA How Do Israeli Boots Taste,” “Jews Against Genocide” and “Where War Criminals Are Made: The University of Alabama Must Divest from the War Machine.”

Before the rally, university officials said no student group had asked for permission to hold a rally. The event was coordinated by the UA Leftist Collective, which focused on the university’s ties to Lockheed Martin. Among the six demands made by the group were to stop allowing the company to recruit on campus, and to no longer be a “partner university.”

Other demands included a public statement by the university calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, divesting “from corporations that are supporting the genocide in Gaza,” stop conducting research for the Department of Defense, and to rename Hewson Hall, which is named for a former CEO of Lockheed.

The group stated that “As students of the University of Alabama, we can no longer stand by in silent complicity as our institution supports a state-sponsored massacre of Palestinians,” and referred to Israel as an “apartheid state.”

The collective issued a notice that “if you see any statement in support of Hamas or antisemitism, that is not the UA Leftist Collective or anyone affiliated with the protest. We vehemently denounce all forms of racial or ethnic hatred, and our focus is on institutions here that need to change.”

The event did have an incident that went viral online — those in both the anti-Israel and pro-Israel groups were simultaneously chanting “F— Joe Biden.”

While the anti-Israel group chanted “Free Palestine,” the counter-protestors belted out the “Star Spangled Banner.”

Among the speakers were individuals looking to start a chapter of the anti-Israel Jewish Voice for Peace.

Rabbi Kussi Lipskier from Chabad at the University of Alabama attended the counter-demonstration to support the Jewish students and offer prayers. He told WVTM-TV that he was surprised there was a demonstratin because he figured students there were more knowledgeable on what is happening in the Middle East, and that Israel seeks only to defend itself from Hamas, not oppress Palestinians.

After the event, the university issued a statement saying they appreciate “that attendees peacefully exercised their free speech rights with no disruptions, violence, vandalism or arrests,” and noted that University staff and University Police were on hand to make sure the event remained peaceful and in compliance with university policies.

A small protest took place at the University of Mississippi on May 2, dwarfed by about 200 counter-protestors. The counter-protestors endeavored to drown out the anti-Israel group’s chants with “The Star Spangled Banner.” Mississippi Governor Tate reeves tweeted footage, saying it “warms my heart.”

Before the protest, Reeves said “peaceful protests are allowed and protected — no matter how outrageous those protestors views may seem to some of us. But unlawful behavior will  not be tolerated.”

An incident at the Mississippi event also went viral, as fraternity brothers mocked a Black woman who was among the protestors and who came outside the barricades to confront them, as middle finger salutes were exchanged. One fraternity member who apparently made “King Kong” noises at the woman was expelled from his fraternity.

On May 3, a small anti-Israel group at Louisiana State University was also met with counter-protestors waving American and Israeli flags, to chants of “USA.” One student was filmed asking the anti-Israel group how many Southeastern Conference championships Hamas has.

The anti-Israel group chanted “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free.”

The protestors were critical of LSU ties with Israel in energy exploration, which they said was off the shores of Gaza. The protest began outside the engineering building and then moved to Free Speech Alley. In 2020, the College of Engineering started a collaboration to run one of three U.S.-Israel Energy Centers, for the production of natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Most of the fields being developed by Israel are offshore in the northern part of the country. In June, Israel had approved opening an area off Gaza for natural gas production that would benefit the Palestinians, but that has been set back since Oct. 7.

Jewish student Gabriella Magenheim told WAFB-TV that “do I think the university is doing anything to protect us? Absolutely not.”

Hannah Poltorak added, “We feel so alone in the world and like Gabby just said, thank God we have our American friends here because I don’t know where we would be without them.”

On April 24, Students for Justice in Palestine at LSU held a “die-in” supporting Gaza on the steps of the student union. They demanded the university and state divest from pro-Israel companies.

While graduation ceremonies at many universities were interrupted by protestors, the University of Florida had no incidents at its graduation. Signs at the entrance stated that “Protesting not permitted inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.” There were also no incidents at Florida State.

Recently, University of Florida President Ben Sasse said that “we will always defend your rights to free speech and free assembly — but if you cross the line on clearly prohibited activities, you will be thrown off campus and suspended… We’re a university, not a daycare. We don’t coddle emotions, we wrestle with ideas.”