IN THE MEDIA

Antisemitic campus extremists don’t understand meaning of free speech

May 16, 2024 | Ran Porat

1

Sky News –

 

Much has changed since Hamas’ October 7 terror attack on Israel and the subsequent war in Gaza.

Pro-Palestinians and Pro-Israel supporters alike feel anger, rage, and fear.

Among Gazans, the casualty rates have been alarmingly high – so far, 35,000 individuals of all ages and genders, according to Hamas sources, while a third of these casualties are reportedly Hamas members, as claimed by Israel.

Meanwhile, thousands of Israelis – both civilians and soldiers – have lost their lives since October 7 and over 130 remain as hostages in Gaza.

The impact of the Gaza conflict has spilled over into the streets of Australian cities, where demonstrations and support rallies have persisted for months.

Recently, local supporters of the Palestinian cause took inspiration from actions seen in multiple US universities.

They established encampments within ten Australian campuses, mirroring the demands made in the US, demanding universities cease collaborations with Israeli academics and institutions, as well as severing ties with companies that allegedly assist the Israel Defence Forces (IDF).

As an Australian citizen who was brought up and educated in the Israeli democracy, I initially react with pride when I see protests.

I am fully aware that in many countries around the world – such as North Korea, Iran, and Russia – publicly or privately expressing opinions can lead to arrest and possible torture or death.

Freedom of speech should never be taken for granted.

We must all defend the right of everyone to voice their opinions and to protest.

Such protection is essential, even when we disagree with what the demonstrators are saying.

Israeli policies regarding the Palestinians and the IDF’s military strategies in Gaza are legitimate subjects for criticism.

Such scrutiny is common in Israel today and it is intense, pointed, and bitter.

Aristotle is attributed with the quote that “criticism is something you can easily avoid – by saying nothing, doing nothing and being nothing”.

Hamas and its hateful ideology, along with its tactics of using civilians as cannon fodder and human shields, deserve condemnation.

Palestinian society might benefit from self-reflection on the devastating effects of decades of indoctrinating and arming young people to hate and kill Jews.

However, the sacred right to freedom of speech comes with an asterisk.

While individuals have the right to express and share their views with the world, this does not grant a license to promote hate, violence, or reject others simply because they hold different opinions.

Accountability accompanies our words.

Freedom of speech does not equate to permission for harassment, threats, property damage, or undermining the rights of others.

Within our universities and the academic realm, these two facets of freedom of speech perpetually coexist and clash.

As I walk through my own campus and closely monitor reports from various Australian universities via mainstream and social media, I am both saddened and horrified.

Drawing from my personal experience of teaching the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for over a decade in Australian universities, I cannot recall an atmosphere ever being so tense and volatile.

The mood on university campuses is toxic, charged, and unpleasant.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrations have quickly deteriorated into violence, vandalism, and clashes with Jewish and pro-Israel students and staff.

The press has reported multiple incidents of agitation and clashes, such as at Sydney University and Monash University.

In some instances, like at Monash and the University of Queensland, police intervention was necessary to ensure public safety.

Pro-Palestinian groups at universities chant slogans like ‘From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free’- a phrase the Israeli side considers a call for the destruction of the Jewish state.

In late April, a children’s excursion to Sydney University saw young participants taught to chant ‘Israel is a terrorist state’ and ‘Intifada’ – the latter a reference to the Palestinian uprisings (1987-1991, 2000-2005) which included multiple suicide bombings and resulted in the deaths of thousands of Israeli and Palestinian civilians.

On social media, videos show residents of student encampments verbally abusing Jewish students and referring to Israel supporters as ‘Zio’s- a derogatory shorthand for ‘Zionists.’

Additionally, flyers on campuses have demanded that ‘Zionists’ be expelled.

Reports of blatant anti-Semitic gestures have also surfaced.

This type of anti-Zionism, which essentialises Zionism and Zionists as inherently evil, and uses terms like ‘Zionists’ and ‘Zios’ pejoratively, has long been recognised as a clear form of anti-Semitism.

It denies the right of the Jewish people to a national home in any part of their ancestral homeland.

At the same time, it should be crystal clear that aggravating, attacking or provoking the pro-Palestinian university demonstrations is wrong, unhelpful and plays into the hands of extremists.

The current state of affairs in our universities is both disheartening and cause for concern and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, spanning over a century, remains a complex issue.

Unfortunately, extremists are exploit the anguish, pain, and grief felt by ordinary people witnessing the events unfolding in Gaza.

Rather than fostering an environment of learning and understanding, they resort to finger-pointing.

Hate permeates the discourse, leading to dead ends and hollow slogans fuelled by ignorance, intolerance, and superficiality.

But there is hope for a brighter future – one grounded in dialogue based on facts, not myths, lies, or frightening narratives.

To achieve this, we must strive to comprehend the perspectives and traumas of both sides, acknowledging that each sees themselves as victims.

Maintaining an open heart and an open mind is crucial, focusing on solutions rather than accusations.

Notably, the last significant attempt at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian feud emerged in the early 1990s.

It began as an academic discussion between two Israeli historians, Ron Pundak and Yair Hirschfeld, and several Palestine Liberation Organisation officials in an isolated hotel in Oslo, Norway.

This endeavour, known as the Oslo Process, held promise for reconciliation until it was derailed by failed politicians, extremists, and terrorists during the bloody Second Intifada which began in 2000.

Israel-born Deakin University teacher Yotam Barazani was attempting to promote such a discussion with supporters of the Palestinian cause.

Last week he wore a sign at the university encampment inviting protesters to talk, with the message: “Let’s talk.”

In response, Mr Barazani was shoved during a scuffle and sustained injuries.

As a teacher of the conflict, my responsibility is not to take sides, but rather to present the complex picture and encourage students to develop their own point of view and to explore possible resolutions.

While researching the past is important, this task should be left to historians.

My hope is that young people will search for solutions to this complicated reality and think outside the box.

One of my favourite activities in class is the “making peace” simulation, where students receive an information package containing background details, maps, and graphs, as well as the respective positions of Israel and the Palestinians.

I challenge the students to devise solutions for the disagreements or to find a compromise that both sides might accept.

The goal is to expose students to the complexity of the conflict and to convey a hopeful message – that compromise may indeed be possible.

It is unclear if university students and academics can find a solution to the seemingly never-ending conflict.

Yet stifling a mature debate about it with violence on campus grounds is a certain recipe to kill the possibility that the development we all hope for would ever come from people who are the experts in their fields and their students.

Ran Porat is a lecturer on Israel and Middle Eastern Affairs at Monash University and a research associate at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC).

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