Pro-Palestinian graduates stage walk-out during Commencement, host alternative ceremony and advocate for divestment from Israel

Early Sunday, graduating students filed into Wallace Wade as scheduled for Duke’s Class of 2024 Commencement Ceremony. Attendees cheered on the graduates, many of whom did not have a traditional high school graduation due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet, this would not be the only commencement ceremony occurring on Duke’s campus Sunday morning.

For many pro-Palestinian students, their graduation — although a monumental moment in their personal lives — was a platform to make their voice heard in addressing the “ongoing genocide” in Gaza.

After the graduates were all seated, the crowd saw four students silently get up and exit the stadium at around 10:06 a.m. The Commencement proceeded as usual, with a few more students leaving the stadium minutes later.

But at 10:35 a.m., President Vincent Price came to the podium to introduce this year’s commencement speaker, actor and comedian Jerry Seinfeld, which prompted about a hundred students to rise from their seats and leave the stadium amidst a sea of mixed boos and cheers.

“Jerry! Jerry!” some students and audience members cheered, with “Boo … Boo …,” “Disclose, divest — we will not stop, we will not rest” and “Free, free, free Palestine” also echoing in the stadium as Price continued to introduce Seinfeld.

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Duke announced its plans to have Seinfeld deliver the commencement address in a video during halftime at the Duke-UNC game at Cameron Indoor Stadium March 9. Since the Oct. 7 attacks, Seinfeld has spoken of his experience as a Jewish person, saying that he has felt “very close to the struggle of being Jewish in the world.”

Seinfeld has drawn criticism for his public support of Israel, notably following a December visit to Tel Aviv, Israel where he met with the families of some of the hostages of the Oct. 7 attacks. His wife also recently sparked controversy for making a $5,000 contribution to a counterprotest of a pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of California, Los Angeles that turned violent.

Senior Skijler Hutson, one of the student organizers of the walk-out, wrote in a May 12 email to The Chronicle that the University’s decision to have Seinfeld speak at the ceremony “only solidified what has long been obvious: Duke University is more concerned with the interests of its donors than with taking action against genocide.”

“We’re excited and delighted for the Class of 2024 and their families,” wrote Frank Tramble, vice president of communications, marketing and public affairs, in a May 12 email to The Chronicle. “We understand the depth of feeling in our community, and as we have all year, we respect the right of everyone at Duke to express their views peacefully, without preventing graduates and their families from celebrating their achievement.”

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Even though the Class of 2024 has faced challenges and losses, wrote Hutson and senior Shreya Joshi, another student organizer, in a May 11 email to The Chronicle, they felt an obligation to act as their class’ Commencement “takes place as the genocide of the Palestinian people enters its eighth bloody month.”

Senior Jen Gobaira said they decided to leave the stadium when Seinfeld began his speech by sharing how Price and the Board of Trustees brought him to speak because the students needed some “light entertainment.”

“I was like: Actually, that’s not what I need right now,” they said.

Others believed the walk-out would have “happened with any other speaker."

Senior Zella Hanson, another student organizer and anti-Zionist Jew, said that in addition to the University’s decision to allow Seinfeld to speak at the Commencement Ceremony — despite him being “an avid supporter of the Israeli military … [that] is committing genocide in Gaza” — students also sought to protest the “scholasticide” and how “every university in Gaza has been destroyed.”

The student organizers distributed flyers in advance of Duke's Commencement Ceremony to share the demands of the walk-out, which included calling on Duke to disclose its investments in Israel, divest from its holdings in companies “profiting from the occupation of Palestine,” boycott academic partnerships with universities in Israel and speak on an immediate cease-fire.

University administration declined to respond to The Chronicle’s request for comment on the student demands.

Some of the graduates who chose to participate in the walk-out also acknowledged the decision of the students who stayed at the official ceremony, sharing how they understand that they may have wanted to have a graduation after missing out on a high school ceremony.

However, others felt the focus should be on the conflict in Gaza, not their personal milestones.

“At the end of the day, me listening to part of this commencement or hosting an alternative one means nothing in the face of the fact that there are no commencements in Gaza,” Joshi said.

The graduates, accompanied by Duke faculty, family members and community members, marched to the Languages Building from Wallace Wade Stadium at around 11:07 a.m., waving Palestinian flags and chanting “From the river to the sea — Palestine will be free.” There, they continued to chant before conducting their own commencement ceremony with student speeches and the conferral of honorary degrees.

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“Our rights of peaceful protest and free expression have continued to be under attack … Universities are trying to accuse us of being antisemitic,” said Jacob Ginn, a Jewish doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in a speech during the alternative commencement ceremony.

Ginn added that he has “never experienced antisemitism in the movement for Palestinian liberation,” and that “Universities do not have an antisemitism crisis, [but] a complicity in genocide crisis.”

“We felt like it would be a really powerful day of action to protest … what we see as an incredible injustice that none of those students [in Gaza] will be having that same privilege [of graduating],” Hanson added.

In his speech, Seinfeld also acknowledged the privilege associated with graduating from a university like Duke, advising the students in attendance to “use [that] privilege” and be proud of their education.

At around 11:23 a.m., the protesting graduates concluded their remarks in front of the Languages Building and redirected the student protesters to the Duke Chapel, as the bells rang their daily melody. The voices of the students similarly rang in chants — “Disclose, divest, we will not stop, we will not rest” and “Free, free, free Palestine” — as they held a banner reading “Seniors Against Apartheid; Take a Moral Stand” and wove Palestinian flags.

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Student organizers shared their intention for the group to recreate the scene from the 1985 Commencement walk-out calling for Duke to divest from South Africa in response to its apartheid. That demonstration, in addition to other student-staged protests, led to the Board of Trustees’ May 4, 1986 decision to vote to sell its holdings.

“I hate to see Duke University on the wrong side of a great moral issue,” trustee Samuel Cook of New Orleans was quoted as telling the Board in the May 8, 1986 issue of The Chronicle. “The ultimate issue is moral, moral in the sense of the vision of Duke University — what we are about.”

Members of the Class of 2024 expressed a similar goal to the Class of 1985 with regard to Duke’s holdings in Israel.

“A year after the 1985 Commencement protest … the Board of Trustees did vote to divest from South Africa. So ideally, here, that’s what we’re asking for to happen,” Joshi said.

She added that the demonstrators “were not interrupting” the speakers during the Commencement Ceremony and “didn’t chant anything when [they] left.”

The protesters’ presence at the Chapel drew the attention of other commencement-goers and their families who did not join the walk-out.

“Today, we graduate from an institution that professes to value contributions to the international community — free and open inquiry and a deep appreciation for ‘the range of human difference and potential. A sense of the obligations and rewards of citizenship and the commitment to learning freedom and truth,’” said a student speaker, as the demonstrators settled on the Chapel lawn. “This same institution is too cowardly to condemn an active genocide in Gaza, let alone cease from profiting from its contract with an apartheid state. Where is this commitment to learning freedom and truth?”

Adam Rosenblatt, associate professor of the practice of the international comparative studies program, wore a homemade t-shirt identifying himself as a Jewish professor in support of the “free Palestine” movement.

He shared his admiration for the students who decided to “take a day which they really have a right to make about them” to join together to hold the University accountable “to its highest purpose of being a space of dialogue [to address the Palestinian] struggle for liberation.”

“I also want to point out for the people who might have not been there that it was also a really joyful community,” Rosenblatt said. “There was really a celebratory element of students showing up for each other and honoring each others’ beliefs.”

Although students have not hosted an encampment on Duke’s campus, Rosenblatt emphasized that the University’s student body should not be “misrepresented” as not being engaged in the protests and that these protests are not isolated, but a part of a collective national movement.

Amidst rising tensions on college campuses across the country, several schools elected to cancel their commencement ceremonies altogether citing “security concerns.” Columbia University canceled its main commencement ceremonies May 6, while Emory University decided to move the event off campus the same day.

The University of Southern California also canceled its primary commencement ceremony in favor of individual school events. The move came after university administration announced that it would not allow its student commencement speaker, valedictorian Asna Tabassum, to make her speech following complaints from a number of pro-Israel organizations that she “[promoted] antisemitic views,” citing reposted content from accounts that called for the “abolition of Israel.”

Joshi and Hutson wrote in the May 11 email that “dominant narratives pin the blame for national losses of commencements on students acting in protest of genocide, rather than institutional repression.”

Gobaira shared that if they had more time at Duke, they would want to go into the University archives to piece together the timeline of student activism. They added that Duke tends to “tout” the 1969 Allen Building Takeover as the pillar of activism culture, and that students need a “history of activism that [they] can relate to” in order to inspire a greater activism culture on campus.

After concluding their chants, the graduates posed for a photo outside of the Chapel meant to resemble the scene from 1985. They then moved their tassels from the right to the left, throwing their caps in the air in celebration of their commencement.

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“This was the greatest point of political leverage that [we] might have in the next few years,” Hanson said of the demonstration. “I hope that the tassels turn inside Wallace Wade Stadium was worth it, because I think what we did today was really important and joyful — and hopefully made a difference.”

Ryan Kilgallen contributed reporting.

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Abby Spiller | Editor-in-Chief

Abby Spiller is a Trinity sophomore and editor-in-chief of The Chronicle's 120th volume.


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