Why we started Students for Palestine 15 years ago, and what we achieved

12 May 2024
Vashti Fox
A rally organised by Students for Palestine in Melbourne in the early 2010s PHOTO: James Plested

Operation Cast Lead was a massacre. Launched against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip in late December 2008, the Israeli military bombed apartment blocks, mosques, markets, schools, universities and UN compounds. It used white phosphorous, a chemical weapon that melts flesh.

More than 1,500 were killed over the course of three weeks.

Like today, the scenes of horror enraged millions and prompted demonstrations across the world. In Australia, thousands took to the streets in Melbourne, Sydney and other capital cities. Unlike today, however, the demonstrations were dominated by Australia’s Arab and Muslim populations.

The official parties of Australian capitalism, even the Greens, refused to speak at the initial mobilisations. The ALP, in government at the time, was mealy-mouthed in its response while maintaining trade, diplomatic and military ties with Israel.

Undeterred by the lack of official support, several Palestinian and socialist students in Victoria decided that we should establish the campuses as sites of Palestine solidarity activism.

I was a Melbourne University student and had been the education officer in the student union in 2006 when Israel launched its bloody war on Lebanon. At that time, I helped found a group called Students Against War. We had worked with Lebanese and Palestinian students and built relationships with some non-student organisations who supported our activism.

Those existing relationships meant that even after a ceasefire was declared in Gaza in 2009, we had some basis to push for action when students returned after the summer break.

At the start of the campus year, Students for Palestine chapters were established at Melbourne, La Trobe and Monash universities. Individuals from Swinburne, RMIT and the Australian Catholic University attended our cross-campus meetings.

The argument we put to the broader student population was: The immediate intensity of the Israeli offensive might have ended, but justice for the Palestinians is still a long way off. We need to join and build the global solidarity campaign, like the campaign against apartheid in South Africa.

We also maintained that lobbying politicians was inadequate and that educating and activating young people in the cause was key.

Students for Palestine groups were established across the country. We worked with many Islamic students’ societies as well as several Malaysian and Arabic student clubs. In Melbourne, we called Palestine Solidarity Weeks, raised the Palestinian flag, toured speakers such as Palestinian leader Haneen Zouabi and held feasts with support from the broader community.

Raising consciousness about Palestine was key to Students for Palestine’s activities. But we also wanted to challenge our own government’s complicity in the occupation of the Palestinian territories. We organised many protests off campus, and participated in many of the early Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions actions in several states.

We picketed Israeli politicians and military officers when they came to town. Key figures who today carry out the genocide in Gaza visited Melbourne and were picketed by Students for Palestine activists. Their events were invariably hosted in fancy hotels by both Labor and Liberal politicians. They were protected by Victoria’s police, who, at a student-led picket against the then Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, pepper sprayed students.

Socialist Alternative was central to Students for Palestine’s day-to-day work and helped shape the politics of the group. We were determined to try and push the campaign for Palestine in a more activist and radical direction. While many other Palestine groups were still formally committed to the two-state “solution” (a formulation for the struggle developed by the co-opted Palestinian leadership, and which has provided cover for Israeli land theft), Students for Palestine’s founding aims pushed to the left.

We declared that we were for the right of return and the dismantling of all settlements, and we called for a solution in which all people of the region could live side by side with no special privileges for one group over another. This opened a more radical space for students to step into. Over time, the position has become more accepted in Palestinian activist circles. But at the time it was an outlier. This was an important political stand to take.

Campaigning for Palestine was not easy. We were a minority and up against a vigorous and aggressive Zionist movement. I remember one moment very clearly. Australians for Palestine hosted the performance of a play called “Seven Jewish Children”, which was written by British playwright Caryl Churchill.

Zionist organisations were outraged because the play was critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. They picketed the event and claimed that prominent Jewish actress Miriam Margolyes was anti-Semitic because she agreed to perform in the play. Students for Palestine mobilised to defend the performance, arguing that being critical of the Israeli state was not anti-Semitic. Our activists were vilified in the press, our clubs had their registrations threatened on various campuses and some of us were physically threatened.

Today, a new generation of students across the world is standing unequivocally for Palestine. They are operating as a moral compass for us all. In Australia, Arabs and Muslims have been joined at the rallies not only by socialists, but by the broader left forces that for so long were absent. The establishment of Students for Palestine helped lay the groundwork for this.

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