Gaza solidarity encampments under attack

13 May 2024
Eleanor Morley
The Gaza solidarity encampment at the Australian National University in Canberra PHOTO: Wren Somerville

Australian university students have been accused of blindly following their American counterparts in setting up violent, hate-filled Gaza solidarity encampments. In a hysterical opinion piece for the Australian on 4 May, right-wing commentator Gerard Henderson wrote that they are playing an “imitation game”.

Henderson is just one voice among many in the Australian establishment denouncing and vilifying a bunch of university students who are registering their moral opposition to a genocide that has slaughtered more than 35,000 people.

The encampments, which have now spread to a dozen Australian campuses, were indeed inspired by the mass rebellion of US university students. Henderson thinks that this is embarrassing. It’s not as embarrassing as him having gainful employment only because he writes what his boss Rupert Murdoch thinks. Or as embarrassing as him styling his wardrobe after the boardroom directors he spends his life trying to please.

In fact, most of the political right takes its cues from across the Pacific.

Students in the US have faced a relentless torrent of abuse, repression and outright violence from university management, the president, Congress and the cops. It has been shocking. They have been called anti-Semites, suspended from their degrees and doused in chemical sprays before being arrested and dragged out of their campuses.

The right is agitating for the same things to happen here.

First, there is the ideological offensive against the encampments. US president Biden recently described the movement as fostering a “ferocious surge” of anti-Semitism. This is the same tired slander that has been used to demonise pro-Palestine activists for decades. Protesters have been accused of making campuses “unsafe” for Jewish students, despite the fact that the only serious attack—apart from the ones carried out by police—was when a large mob of Zionists violently attacked the encampment at the University of California, Los Angeles.

This line of attack has been taken up with gusto by the Australian establishment.

Sarah Henderson, the Liberal opposition’s education spokesperson, said in a press release on 9 May that the encampments have become “hotbeds of anti-Semitic activism”. Ten days earlier, she asserted that there was “escalating harassment, intimidation and threats of violence by pro-Palestinian activists”. Yet Henderson has not shared a shred of evidence to substantiate her extreme accusations. Indeed, the University of Sydney, which has been her main target, has not found a single case of anti-Semitism from the encampment, according to a spokesperson for the university.

These are just straight up lies, imported directly from America.

But you know who is under attack? The million people sheltering in Rafah, who have spent the week hiding from Israel’s carpet bombing, while their main supply line for humanitarian aid was cut off by the Israeli military.

In an address to Sydney’s Central Synagogue on 3 May, Liberal MP Julian Leeser said: “The idea that young Jewish Australians do not feel safe getting an education is anathema to me”. Again, these accusations were made without citing a single case where the safety of a Jewish student has been threatened by an encampment. The only documented case where a Jewish student’s safety has been at risk in recent weeks was when a group of Zionists hurled fireworks at the Adelaide University encampment, where an anti-Zionist Jewish activist was spending the night.

There is a group of students who cannot safely access an education right now—the students of Gaza. Israel has destroyed every single one of Gaza’s twelve universities, and more than 80 percent of schools have been severely damaged, according to the United Nations. Those that are still standing have been turned into refuges for internally displaced Palestinians. More than 14,000 children have been murdered.

Sydney shock jock Ray Hadley took the idiocy about a thousand levels further while he was interviewing Liberal Party leader Peter Dutton on his 2GB radio show. He said the university encampments were the “same type of thing” as the 1938 Kristallnacht Nazi pogrom in Germany, when Jewish-owned stores, buildings and synagogues were smashed, 30,000 Jewish men were arrested, and hundreds were killed. This is beyond hyperbole—it’s a cynical co-optation of one of history’s greatest crimes to slander a group of peace activists.

Labor prime minister Anthony Albanese agreed that the ubiquitous Palestine-solidarity chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is a “very violent statement”. The Group of Eight, a body representing Australia’s leading universities, has written to the attorney-general to seek advice on whether using the word “intifada”, which means “uprising” in Arabic, is a breach of federal law, vowing to act immediately if they are given clear legal authority.

Student activists in the US have been heavily penalised by university management. Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania and others suspended dozens of students who refused to pack down the encampments.

There are signs that Australia’s vice-chancellors are pursuing a similar line of repression. Students at some campuses have reportedly been issued with formal disciplinary proceedings for actions related to the encampments. Sydney University’s vice-chancellor Mark Scott wrote in an email to all staff and students that he “would not hesitate to take firm and decisive disciplinary action” if students engaged in activities that disrupt the regular functioning of the university.

But students are protesting precisely because of the obscenity that these institutions can carry on as normal while directly contributing to the genocide in Gaza through ties to weapons companies and partnerships with complicit Israeli institutions.

The most shocking scenes coming out of the US have been the hordes of police smashing up the camps. Hundreds of students have been grabbed, zip-tied and arrested by cops invited onto campus by university management. In many instances, cops ripped off the face masks of protesters afraid of being doxed and shoved them in front of the media’s cameras. At the University of Amsterdam, Dutch police drove a bulldozer straight into the encampment. This is the most severe state violence at Western university campuses since the 1970s.

While vice-chancellors have not yet called in the riot cops to clear the encampments here, there are voices in Australia calling for the same kind of treatment. Sarah Henderson demanded in a press release on 29 April that vice-chancellors should “expel students and call in the police”. Victoria Police told the Age that Deputy Commissioner Neil Paterson wrote to university chancellors encouraging them to shut down the camps. According to a report in the Guardian, Daniel Aghion, the president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, has been calling on education ministers and vice-chancellors to dismantle the camps.

They want to see the same kind of violence witnessed in the US. They want police to march onto campus, violently arrest staff and students, and destroy the encampments.

The Australian Jewish Association, a leading Zionist organisation, published what is basically an incitement to violence on X (formerly Twitter) on 7 May:

“It should surprise nobody that Nazi encampments on Australian universities make many people angry. We never condone anything illegal but with the Albanese Govt and university heads missing in action, nobody should be surprised if members of the public take matters into their own hands.”

If you call your opponents Nazis, then almost any kind of response is fair game. This is a statement justifying the Zionist violence at Monash and Adelaide universities, and justifying whatever may come next. We’ve already seen where this can lead at UCLA. For hours, Zionists attacked the camp with weapons and chemical spray while the cops stood and watched.

If an Islamic organisation tweeted a similar statement, they would be denounced, and potentially prosecuted, as violent terrorists. Macquarie University’s Randa Abdel-Fattah has been pilloried by the press for weeks for the crime of hosting a children’s event at the Sydney University encampment. Leading Liberal MPs have called on Macquarie University to strip her research funding. Yet a Zionist organisation can justify and condone actual violence meted out to peaceful protesters, and nobody bats an eyelid.

This is what the attacks on the encampments are all about—stifling criticism of Israel’s genocide in Gaza, by any means necessary. The entire Western establishment has lined up behind the bloodshed. Our politicians, media and universities are all complicit. But history will remember who was on the right side of this fight: the students and their supporters.

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