High school students in Melbourne taught the government and right-wing media a lesson when they walked out of class in their thousands on 23 November in support of Palestine. From Werribee to Greenvale, students came from all over the city to show their horror at Israel’s war on the people of Gaza, half of whom are children, and their disgust at the Australian government’s backing of the genocide.
“I’m here to support the cause of a free Palestine and to oppose war and occupation. There has been an occupation and genocide for 75 years, 75 years of this”, a Caroline Springs student told Red Flag. “I care about the lives of innocent people and the freedom of these people”, a Fitzroy/Collingwood student said.
The students’ contempt for those who presumed to lecture them about knowing their place and staying in school was palpable. “Kids in Gaza can’t go to school and haven’t been able to for weeks”, a student from Pascoe Vale Girls’ School said. “That’s what we’re protesting for: the right of everyone to go to school. Missing one afternoon seems very unimportant when you think about that.”
A year 11 student from Caroline Springs, observed, “I’ve learned a lot coming here, meeting people and standing up with others for justice”, while another said they’d learned more being at the strike for two hours than “in an entire semester of history”. Another said that they were taught in school that genocide is bad and that so is remaining passive in the face of it, so it seemed natural to do what they could to prevent it happening again. “Isn’t that the point of education?”, the student asked.
One of the organisers, socialist activist Ivy Bertrand, argued that the government should practise what it preaches: “If school is so important, fund our schools properly and stop spending so much on the military, including military support for Israel and the US! Our taxpayer dollars are being used to bomb schools and hospitals in Gaza and kill children instead of funding education and health care. How dare they lecture us about the importance of young people learning!”
The solidarity the students repeatedly expressed for their fellow students in Gaza was profoundly moving, and stood in stark contrast to the daily efforts of the Albanese government to desensitise the public to the suffering it is greenlighting in Gaza. Whether it’s equivocating about the merits of starving an imprisoned population, as Foreign Minister Penny Wong infamously did, or repeating the absurd mantra about Israel “defending itself” while it slaughters defenceless civilians in cold blood, there is no atrocity too barbaric for the Australian Labor Party to defend.
And the mainstream media reinforce this, demonising Arabs and Muslims and tirelessly presenting Jewish people as the most important victims of the war. A letter from the Jewish community allegedly signed by more than 6,000 people expressing disapproval of the high school walkout and demanding the government take a tougher stance against it enjoyed substantial airtime in the lead-up to Thursday’s action.
Many of the strike attendees expressed bemusement as to why anyone, Jewish or otherwise, would feel unsafe because of young people protesting the state-sanctioned murder of other young people. “This is a movement against violence and racism”, a Northcote High student said. “This protest is inclusive, Jewish students are welcome here, and it doesn’t matter about ethnicity or religion or culture; this is about being human”. A Coburg High student said she thought some of those attitudes stemmed from a “fear of Muslims”.
The small number of Jewish participants in the march expressed similar views, with one woman, who was holding a placard which read “Jews say no to genocide of Palestinians. Not in my name”, telling Red Flag, “It’s not anti-Semitic to support the rights of oppressed people, and those people [the signatories to the letter] don’t represent the entire Jewish community”.
The large attendance and defiant attitudes of the strike participants was not only a repudiation of tut-tutting politicians and organised Zionists, but also reflected a cynicism towards and disengagement from the mainstream media and their efforts to shape attitudes, at least among a substantial minority of young people.
“The media is very biased”, the Caroline Springs student said. “Only one side of the story is pushed.” It’s not hard to see why, with journalists from the commercial news channels sent to cover the strike repeatedly challenging the students about whether they were informed enough to be protesting, and interviewing motorists they hoped would smear the protesters for disrupting traffic.
In contrast to the concern and solidarity on the part of school students for their counterparts in Gaza, not a single one of the six mainstream media journalists Red Flag asked confirmed that they were aware of Israel targeting journalists in its ongoing war against the Palestinians, including a report from just the day before of three journalists killed by Israel while reporting from the Lebanese border. This raises the question of who exactly belongs in school, as well as who has something to learn about compassion and solidarity.
Underpinning the government opprobrium, Jewish community calls to shut down the strike and biased media coverage is a simple truth that was not lost on attendees: the establishment in Australia backs Israel down the line. That means smearing, discrediting and all too often criminalising those who dare to speak out for the Palestinians currently enduring unspeakable suffering at the hands of Israel. The students’ humanity and defiance in the face of this onslaught is a lesson to us all.
PHOTO CREDIT: Matt Hrkac
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Asked how she stays hopeful as a 63-year-old socialist and Palestinian living in the diaspora, Reem Yunis replies: “I don’t have the luxury not to be inspired. My grandparents died without seeing a liberated Palestine, my parents died and were buried in the diaspora. Most of my people are living in the diaspora, and the ones in Palestine are being robbed of water, resources and every bit of land they have. We need to have hope and fight, because if we won’t fight for a free Palestine, who will?”