Patrick Wolfe: scholar, activist and friend of Palestine

1 March 2016
Kim Bullimore

Respected Australian scholar and Palestine solidarity campaigner Patrick Wolfe passed away unexpectedly on 18 February. A long-time advocate for Palestinian human rights, self-determination and justice, Wolfe was a groundbreaking scholar.

He researched and taught in Australia and internationally on race, colonialism, imperialism, genocide, the history of anthropology and Aboriginal history. His research examined race and settler colonialism in Australia, the USA, Israel, Brazil and India.

Settler colonialism and the transformation of anthropology initiated a major reassessment of the role of settlement in colonisation. This seminal study examined the European settlement and colonisation of Australia, demonstrating that the settlers operated as if the country were “empty” despite it being occupied by an indigenous population.

Wolfe explained that “invasion is a structure, not an event” and that settler colonialism is premised on the “elimination of the native”, this being achieved through either physical elimination or assimilation policies that sought to transform indigenous populations into “white people”. As he explained in a 2012 interview with Camryn Douglass of Stanford University:

“Settler-colonialism is a form of colonialism that is exclusive. It’s a ‘winner take all’, a zero-sum game, whereby outsiders come to a country, and seek to take it away from the people who already live there, remove them, replace them, and displace them, and take over the country, and make it their own.”

Wolfe regularly spoke at and participated in Palestine solidarity activities both in Melbourne and internationally. He was a solid supporter of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign, which was launched by Palestinian civil society in 2005 – a call for non-violent punitive measures to be maintained until Israel meets its international obligations and complies with international law.

He was a participant in the first national Australian BDS conference in 2010 and later lent his name, along with Noam Chomsky, John Pilger and Norman Finkelstein, to a defence letter in support of 19 activists arrested and charged over a peaceful BDS action in Melbourne.

In 2014, he joined more than 400 Middle Eastern scholars and librarians at the height of Israel’s 50-day bombing campaign of Gaza to condemn the murderous assault and to reiterate the call for the academic boycott of Israel.

Despite losing his house and much of his research work in 2009, when the Black Saturday fires swept through Healesville on the outskirts of Melbourne, Wolfe continued to contribute to settler colonial studies. Just one month before his death, he published two new books.

The first, Traces of history: elementary structures of race, outlines a new approach to race and comparative settler colonial studies. The second, The settler complex: recuperating binarism in colonial studies, is an edited volume of essays examining the assimilationist agendas in settler colonial states around the world.

With Wolfe’s passing, not only has the academic world lost a giant, but the Palestinian people have lost a dedicated champion.

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