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Friday, June 28, 2024

At the University of Rome: Protesting the War in Gaza, May/June 2024

This spring, while living in two locations near the main campus of Rome's largest university--La Sapienza--we naturally were interested in exploring the role of the university, and especially its students, in engaging the conflict in Gaza. We made three purposeful excursions onto the campus. We had heard that a group of students were protesting Israel’s incursion into Gaza and "occupying" a portion of the campus. But (we're embarrassed to say), on our first trip to the campus we failed to find any evidence of a student occupation. There was evidence of a protest movement in the writing on some of the university's walls, and some posters, but no tents, or so we thought. 

At left, a pro-Palestinian phrase suggesting that 
Palestine should encompass all of what is now Israel. 
At right, "In Gaza there are no universities." 

All Eyes on Rafah (a city in southern Gaza, under siege)

The war has its origins here. Boycott!

One poster notified students of an upcoming student demonstration in Piazza Vittorio against the government of Giorgia Meloni, and including solidarity with Palestine:

A "Free Palestine" poster advocated shutting down Sapienza ("Blocchiamo Sapienza"), which these students understood to be complicit in the conflict:

In most respects, the campus seemed normal, undisturbed by the war in Gaza.

In this area of the campus, more centrally located and prominent than the site
occupied by the protesters, everything seemed normal. 

The second trip a couple of weeks later proved more fruitful. Rather than search the campus once again, we asked a maintenance worker if he knew of an occupation and, if so, where it might be. He pointed to a road leading to the back of the campus, behind the main piazza. And there it was, tucked in an area that was a few feet below ground--below the rest of the campus. About 30 pop-up tents. An information table. And, gathered around a picnic-type table nearby, a half dozen students--maybe planning something (or maybe not). 

The encampment was accompanied by kite-like stanchions, featuring slogans in script. The general theme seemed to be, "while you're eating a nice lunch, the folks in Gaza are starving."  

On the standard at left, the Palestinian flag and the word "Nakba," which means "catastrophe" in Arabic and refers to the dispossession of Palestinians during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. The protesters apparently had WiFi. 

We also took more careful note of the anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian wall writing, this time looking for evidence of the students dislike of the way the Rector--Antonella Polimeni, a physician--was handling the issue. Although neither the wall writings nor the posters explicitly mention it, a key issue for the students was the university's participation in "il bando Maeci"--an agreement that institutionalized cooperation in science and research between Israel and Italy. 

Some sort of student march to protest the situation in Gaza took place off campus in the week that followed this second visit. We did not attend. But we did return to the campus to chronicle any changes. What we found was surprising: all that remained of the campus occupation were spots and indentations in the grass where the tents had been. 

We later read that the University may have driven the students out by scheduling "repair" work for that area; we had seen some of that nearby when the tents were there and wondered if the construction project wasn't a kind of harassment. We also read that the students had apparently decided to end the 6-week occupation voluntarily. A spokesperson for the students told Il Messaggero (a Rome daily newspaper) that the occupation had not, indeed, changed university policy, but that the students had learned that a change in tactics was necessary, one that featured increased contact and involvement with faculty and university departments, perhaps leading to a boycott. The students also looked forward to a protest on the 24th of June, on the occasion of a meeting of the university's academic senate.  


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