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When does a protest become intimidation?


On the University of Melbourne’s manicured and vibrant green South Lawn students have erected about 50 tents and are staying in them in solidarity with Gaza. They want disclosure of and divestment from university activities that support Israel and for the university to condemn Israel’s part in the Israel-Gaza War. Palestinian and Aboriginal flags adorn the encampment. Signs say, ‘Free Palestine’; ‘From the River to The Sea Palestine Will Be Free’; ‘Hope Lies in Culture of Resistance’ and ‘University of Melbourne Complicit in Genocide’.

The Melbourne encampment follows those set up at US universities. Other Australian universities such as Sydney, Monash, Queensland and the Australian National University have also set up Gaza solidarity encampments.

Many Jewish students and staff might find the encampments and signs disturbing. Jews, including students, staff, rabbis and community leaders assembled in early May at Melbourne University Square, well away from the encampment, where some told stories about feeling intimidated on campus.

Noah Loven, National President of the Australasian Union of Jewish Students, told a couple of hundred people that while the group supported free speech, antisemitism had no place in ‘on our university campuses’.

‘Jewish students are being vilified, and we are calling for universities and government to do more to tackle these groups who are being openly hostile towards Jewish students,’ he said.

The encampments around Australian universities, while intimidating for many Jews, will eventually go. La Trobe University students say their encampment is for three days. What is significant is the negative flow-on effect of the encampments, posters, flyers and graffiti (I have seen a message written on the inside of a toilet door in the Sidney Myer Building at Melbourne University calling for the ‘sacking’ of a Jewish academic, who was born in Israel).

The chilling effect is the silencing of Jews and stories about Jews on campus. I have seen this in my own classes among students who aren’t antisemitic but have little knowledge of the history of the Middle East and of Jews in general. Recently (last week) I was explaining to students how to find feature stories by showing them the Melbourne University diversity and inclusion calendar website. The site featured special days in May such as Orthodox Easter, Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and Sorry Day. We discussed how each day could be turned into a feature. One of my best students said Yom HaShoah couldn’t be done as a feature because ‘it’s too controversial’. I asked, ‘Why?’ and she responded because of the Israel-Gaza war. I explained that they were two separate stories and why this was the case.


'Could it be that students’ lack of historical knowledge about the Middle East and Jewish and Arab histories is partly responsible for some of the vociferous verbal attacks on Jewish students?'


I also feel silenced. I am a Jew who does not like Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies (nor do thousands of Israelis who have held demonstrations against their prime minister), but I believe that Israel should exist. I thought about applying for tutoring work in a journalism subject at the start of the year but decided not to after reading who was coordinating the subject. It was an academic who posts strong anti-Israeli material on ‘X’.

And an Israeli aerospace engineering academic was also silenced before he was due to give a talk to Melbourne University engineering staff and students. His talk was cancelled after the university deemed it would be unsafe to go ahead with it. The group unimelbforpalestine were planning to disrupt the talk. On its Instagram page, the group wrote last month that, ‘Melbourne University’s engineering faculty has succumbed to our pressure and canceled (sic) its event hosting an Israeli professor complicit in genocide.’ Another post accuses the professor of being ‘directly involved in the slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza’.

There is another reason why the dismantling of the encampments won’t make Jews feel safer. Well before October 7, Australian Jewish students were already feeling intimidated. In July last year a survey, commissioned by the Zionist Federation of Australia and the Australasian Union of Jewish Students, was released showing that two-thirds of Jewish students had faced antisemitism on campus. The nationwide survey also found that Jewish students were modifying their behaviour by hiding their Jewish identity or avoiding coming to campus.

The independent report, The Jewish University Experience prepared by the Social Research Centre in Melbourne, also highlighted that student reported hearing Israel being compared to Nazi Germany and tropes about Jewish money, power and influence. The survey also found that students were reluctant to report intimidation because they were not confident their university would do anything about it.

I suspect that Jewish students’ experience on campus has worsened since October 7 judging from the stories students were telling about intimidation on campus at Melbourne University Square earlier this month.

Could it be that students’ lack of historical knowledge about the Middle East and Jewish and Arab histories is partly responsible for some of the vociferous verbal attacks on Jewish students?

Even if students have historical insights, students will sometimes see history through a rigid ideological lens that distorts what has happened and ignores evidence. This is reflected in the idea that Israel is a settler-coloniser state. It has taken hold among pro-Palestinian students judging from what they say and write.

But you don’t have to be an activist to hold this belief. I overheard a first-year student in a subject I was teaching last year telling her friends that Israel had been populated by ‘white Jews who had come from Europe’. These people had ‘kicked’ the Palestinians out of their indigenous land and were settler-colonisers.

Acclaimed historian Simon Sebag Montefiore argues in his Atlantic article The Decolonization Narrative Is Dangerous and False that this narrative does not accurately describe either the foundation of Israel or the tragedy of the Palestinians.

‘The decolonization narrative has dehumanized Israelis to the extent that otherwise rational people excuse, deny, or support barbarity. It holds that Israel is an ‘imperialist-colonialist’ force, that Israelis are ‘settler-colonialists,’ and that Palestinians have a right to eliminate their oppressors. (On October 7, we all learned what that meant.) It casts Israelis as ‘white’ or ‘white-adjacent’ and Palestinians as ‘people of colour,’ Montefiore wrote two weeks after October 7.

‘This ideology, powerful in the academy but long overdue for serious challenge, is a toxic, historically nonsensical mix of Marxist theory, Soviet propaganda, and traditional anti-Semitism from the Middle Ages and the 19th century.’

Montefiore writes that the current understanding of the ideology also includes a ‘concept of race that derives from the American experience’. This means that Jews cannot suffer racism because they are ‘white’ and ‘privileged’ and therefore the ‘oppressors’.

‘When this clumsy analysis collides with the realities of the Middle East, it loses all touch with historical facts,’ Montefiore writes.

How do you counter a lack of historical knowledge and challenge ideology? How do you get across that Jews are indigenous to the Holy land? How do you tell people that Israel comprises Ethiopian Jews, and a large percentage – about half the population - are Mizrahi, the descendants of Jews from Arab and Persian lands? As Montefiore points out, ‘They are neither ‘settlers’ nor ‘colonialists’ nor ‘white’ Europeans at all but inhabitants of Baghdad and Cairo and Beirut for many centuries, even millennia, who were driven out after 1948.’

One way is through education. A start might be having a compulsory university subject on world history which is light on ideology.




Dr Erica Cervini is a freelance journalist and sessional academic.

Main image: Students rally at the student Gaza solidarity encampment at Sydney University on Friday 3 May (Supplied)

Topic tags: Erica Cervini, Gaza, University, Protest, Israel, Palestine



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Existing comments

So pleasing to read an evidence-based reflection on this controversy that doesn't present a binary view claiming that one form of nationalism is good, and the other nationalism is evil.

philip mendes | 09 May 2024  

The encampments have been loud in their disavowal of anti-semitism. There are also a number of Jewish members protesting for Palestine. I understand there is a historical context as to why Jewish people fear persecution. However, after 75 years of subjugating the Palestinian people in numerous ways, Israel needs to be called to account for it’s crimes. The problem goes much deeper than Netanyahu. We all need to live with discomfort as we face the truth of what we are seeing.

Anna | 09 May 2024  

If there is space in the university curriculum for a unit on world history it could be a help in all subjects. Unfortunately there is no space in the curricula at lower levels of education for yet more units on this subject. Consequently a generation that seems to get most of its views from very flawed social media rarely has time or inclination to find out the real facts or to explore the sources of their gained life-views more deeply. In these circumstances, it is understandable that emotion has greater influence than reason and joining a demo (or should it be recognised as a 'gang') of like-minded people can be very affirming. Dr Cervini's article warrants wider circulation.

Joe | 09 May 2024  

Great piece on the idiocy, hypocrisy and bullying on campus. It is intolerable. Ideology attempting to trump freedom of thought and the right of students and lecturers to study and work in safety, freedom and equality.

David Marlow | 10 May 2024  

In the U.S. , Senator Bernie Sanders gave this speech on May 2:


Joseph Fernandez | 10 May 2024  
Show Responses

"No Mr Netanyahu, it is not anti-semitic or pro-Hamas to point out that in a little over six months your extremist government has killed 34,000 Palestinians and wounded more than 78,000 - 70% of whom are women and children.

It is not anti-semitic to point out that your bombing has completely destroyed more than 221,000 housing units in Gaza leaving more than a million people homeless almost half the population.

It is not anti-semitic to note that your government has obliterated Gaza's civilian infrastructure electricity water and sewage.

It is not anti-semitic to realize that your government has annihilated Gaza's health care system knocking 26 hospitals out of service and killing more than 400 healthcare workers

It is not anti-semitic to condemn your government's destruction of all of Gaza's 12 universities and 56 of its schools with hundreds more damage leaving 625,000 students with no educational opportunities.

It is not anti-semitic to agree with virtually every humanitarian organization in saying that your government in violation of American law has unreasonably blocked humanitarian aid coming into Gaza creating the conditions in which so many thousands of children face malnutrition and famine."

- Bernie Sanders on 26th April 2024

Brett Burnard Stokes | 10 May 2024  

An important essay. The Sidney Myer building in which the antisemitic comment was scrawled, is named after a Jew escaping Russian pogroms, starting with a lowly job manufacturing lingerie in Flinders Lane. SImcha Baevki arrived with nothing and founded the Myer Emporium today. What a pity students don't learn the complete history of multicultural Australia.

Chickon Chapel | 11 May 2024  

Of course 'antisemitism' is disgraceful and ought to be discouraged, but let's get things in perspective. All the wringing of hands in the face of these protests reminds me of the reporter asking 'Other than that, Mrs Lincoln, did you enjoy the play' and Cathy Wilcox's cartoon 'American Obscenity (Look Away)' < https://www.cathywilcox.com.au/shop/american-obscenity-look-away-print?rq=look%20away > . The harm that is being caused to Jewish Australians by a few misguided protestors is minuscule compared to the atrocities that are being perpetrated by the government of Israel on the whole of the Palestinian people. Even Biden seems to have realised that now.

Ginger Eggs | 14 May 2024  

I'm not surprised that a talk at Melbourne University by an Israeli aerospace engineering academic was the subject of a planned protest by students supporting Palestinians. 

Mark | 15 May 2024