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Student protests echo Vietnam as pro-war lobby cracks down on peaceful protests

by Michael Sainsbury | May 22, 2024 | Comment & Analysis, Latest Posts

Australian university students channelled their peers around the world with encampments protesting the Gaza genocide. Will university leaders cow to pressure from the Zionist lobby and shut down free speech? Michael Sainsbury reports.

While the extreme right wing Australian Jewish Association claims ‘Hitler youth rallies’, the Australian university protests over Israel’s war crimes in Gaza are more like student protests against the Vietnam War in the Sixties and early Seventies which led to riots and students being shot by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University in 1970, a milestone in American history and the beginning of the end of America’s direct involvement in Indochina.

Meanwhile Downunder, leadership in Australian universities is fast hardening against pro-Palestine encampments on their campuses. Thanks to powerful and sometimes hysterical lobbying. The University of Melbourne, a member of the elite Group of Eight universities, has demanded students occupying the Arts West building on its Parkville campus, pack up and leave – or they will bring in police.

Melbourne Uni’s Vice-chancellor, Duncan Maskell, issued a notice to protesters saying the demonstration had become “increasingly disruptive and unsafe”.

“Camping is not allowed on university premises. Occupation of buildings is not permitted,” he said Monday, May 20. He has also threatened them with disciplinary action.

At Brisbane’s Queensland University, two students were arrested Monday for scaling a building as the institution attempted to ban phrases like “Out Israel, out” and “intifada”.

Pushed by pro-Israel lobbies, Melbourne Uni has joined other Australian universities in trying to silence free speech and crimp freedom of assembly by removing or trying to remove encampments of pro-Palestine protesters on their campuses. In the past week, Monash, La Trobe, Deakin, Brisbane and Australian National Universities have either shut down or promised to shut down camps.

Students rally against Gaza atrocities – and the weapons industry which funds their universities

War lobby fuelling the fire

The Australian Jewish Association has hit out at the camps, saying on X that it does not condone anything illegal but “nobody should be surprised if members of the public take matters into their own hands”, comparing the protests to “Nazi encampments”. It has dubbed the peace protests “Hitler Youth Rallies.”

“In July 2023, we warned the Minister and university leadership about rising antisemitism following the release of the Jewish University Experience Survey,” the Association of Australasian Jewish Students said after a recent meeting with Federal Education Minister Jason Clare.

“Despite assurances these concerns would be addressed, Jewish students have seen no evidence of any decisive action by universities or government. As a result, Jewish students are significantly less safe than a year ago.”

Although there is yet to surface any evidence of harassment, let alone harm. The Zionist lobby was contacted for comment about the evidence for their claims but did not respond.

Indeed the progressive Jewish Council of Australia has called for a halt to action against peace protestors.

Peaceful protests

Australian campus organisers insist they have been peaceful but are bumping up against well-organised and funded pro-Israel groups lobbying university chiefs and politicians.

“Opposition to the state of Israel and to Zionism as an ideology is not antisemitism,” a statement by the Palestine solidarity encampments at the University of Sydney, University of Adelaide, University of Queensland, Curtin University, Monash University, RMIT University, Deakin University, University of Tasmania, Latrobe University, Australian National University, and University of Wollongong said.

“Many of the student leaders of our protests are Jewish. We stand alongside Jewish people against discrimination, and we see ourselves as standing on the shoulders of a long line of Jewish pro-Palestine and anti-war activists.

We welcome Jewish participants in the encampments.

Amnesty International Australia has backed them up, stating, “Peaceful protest is a powerful exercise of the fundamental human rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, of expression, and of association. These rights are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

Encampments worldwide

Starting at New York’s Columbia University in April, the camps and protests have spread to hundreds of universities worldwide: more than 140 campuses in the US, 25 in the UK, and campuses across France, Spain, Canada, Turkey, Tunisia, Mexico, Holland, Ireland, Bangladesh, India, Cuba, Germany, Italy, South Korea, Egypt, and Switzerland.

The first Australian encampment began at the University of Sydney last month, and encampments and protests have spread to more than a dozen universities across Australia, including but not limited to La Trobe, Monash, RMIT, Deakin, ANU, the University of Adelaide, the University of Queensland, Curtin, Newcastle and Wollongong.

The step up in aggression from university management in Australia comes after violent scenes on April 30 when police arrested 109 demonstrators at Columbia and 173 other demonstrators at City College in uptown Manhattan. Police cleared protesters across dozens of US campuses, with non-profit US news site The Appeal reporting there have been more than 3,000 arrests at more than 100 campuses across the US.

Students call for financial transparency and divestment of the universities’ financial links with Israeli companies, particularly those in the arms industry. They are also demanding that institutions cut ties with Israeli universities and increase resources for the rebuilding of higher education in Palestine.

”Adelaide University’s hands are drenched in the blood of every Palestinian who has been murdered with the weapons provided by companies Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Thales, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, etc,” Students for Palestine Adelaide said in a recent Facebook post.

The camps have highlighted the complex situation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its impact on Australian campuses. Jewish students at some universities have reportedly claimed they “felt distressed by the protests”, fearing an atmosphere of “antisemitism”. But to the knowledge of MWM, none has suffered any physical harm so far.

The latest threats by UniMelb follow an ultimatum issued last Tuesday by protesters at Deakin University, who had been camped at the Burwood campus for weeks, urging the university to cut ties with weapons manufacturers. The university eventually ordered them to leave, threatening further action if they didn’t comply, becoming the first Australian university to demand its pro-Palestine camp be dismantled. On Friday, LaTrobe University followed suit.

Monash University students also demanded the university disclose its connections with ‘Israeli genocide’, and nine students claimed they were expelled from the encampment and face disciplinary action. University management has also attempted to ban people from outside the university from joining the protests.

Some universities back students

Students at the Adelaide University Gaza solidarity encampment were reportedly targeted with fireworks from an unknown source over two nights earlier this month, but management there is still backing students. At Perth’s Curtin University, a protest has continued unthreatened for the past three weeks.

And at the same time the University of Melbourne was escalating its threats against protesters, the University of Sydney has taken a different tack with the backing of its Vice-Chancellor Mark Scott, who, while apologising to staff and students who feel ‘unsafe’ said he would not force the encampment to be removed like at other universities.

Scott said he would not go down the “United States path” and clear the protest, which has “triggered terrible violence.” He added that he understood that for some of our staff and students, it is “upsetting that there is an encampment here,

but there is an encampment, and it embodies debate and discussion and free speech and protest, and that’s always been part of university life.

For now, there may be some respite for university management, with the half-year break looming for most campuses. But that respite may only last as long as those breaks. Deakin students have stated they would decamp on May 23 but would return next semester. Expect similar moves elsewhere.

Student casualties mounting in Gaza

Israel has launched a vastly disproportionate campaign against Palestinians in Gaza and across the Occupied Territories in response to the widely condemned October 7 attacks by Hamas.

Israel Defence Force ( IDF) has murdered over 5,479 students, 261 teachers and 95 university professors while obliterating every higher educational institution in Gaza, creating a ‘scholasticide’ in the strangled Palestinian enclave, according to the United Nations.

Overall, at least 34,800 Palestinians have been murdered in Gaza, most of whom are women and children. Israel has restricted aid and killed aid workers, engineering a dire famine; the IDF has targeted and executed over 100 journalists, silencing the besieged population; over 480 healthcare workers have been killed and 160 more captured, adding to the decimation of health provision in the Gaza Strip.

Israel and Australia’s “transparent” inquiry into the World Central Kitchen killings in Gaza

Michael Sainsbury is a former China correspondent who has lived and worked across North, Southeast and South Asia for 11 years. Now based in regional Australia, he has more than 25 years’ experience writing about business, politics and human rights in Australia and the Indo-Pacific. He has worked for News Corp, Fairfax, Nikkei and a range of independent media outlets and has won multiple awards in Australia and Asia for his reporting. He is a fierce believer in the importance of independent media.

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