Nick Riemer: ‘Keep mobilising for Palestine, for as long as it takes’

May 13, 2024
Palestine protest in Gadigal/Sydney on May 12. Nick Riemer (in white hat) helps lead the front banner. Photo: Peter Boyle

The following is an abridged version of a speech given by Nick Riemer, president of the University of Sydney branch of the National Tertiary Education Union, to the Palestine rally on May 12.

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The pro-Palestine demonstrations around the country have been the most powerful and sustained show of support for Palestine ever seen in Australia.

National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) members from my branch and from all the other universities in Sydney have proudly been here right from the start.

We will keep on coming out with our purple flags for as long as it takes, along with other union members in the Unionists for Palestine contingent. If you’re in a union, come and march with us.

And, as we assemble here again today, there’s a question that I’m sure is on many of our minds: What will it actually take for Australia to stop enabling this genocide?

What can we do to put an end to the major parties’ support for the fascists and racists in Israel?

The seeds of the answer are here: in the inspirational collective power and solidarity that we express every time we come together for Palestine. Every week for seven months, we have planted the Palestinian flag in the very centre of this city. We have brought traffic to a halt. We’ve cost the state government millions of dollars in police overtime.

Together, we have made Palestine the issue and we’ve shown tens of thousands of people what a movement for peace and justice looks like — not the faces of politicians with their hypocrisies and equivocations — a movement of ordinary people who aren’t afraid to stand up to say three simple things in loud and clear voices: Israel is committing genocide in Gaza; Zionism is an abhorrent ideology of dispossession and extermination; and Palestine must be free.

We’re in dark times.

It can’t take another 100,000 Gazans being killed or wounded for our politicians to agree with those three self-evident propositions. So we need to increase the pressure.

We’re a long way off still, but we’re making progress.

A few weeks ago we an important statement from the Australian Council of Trade Unions called for an end to all military trade with Israel and for targeted sanctions on Israeli officials.

That statement should have been issued months ago. The fact that it’s come now is testament to the power of our movement and a sign that the institutions of Australian society can be shifted in our direction.

This week, as the magnificent student Gaza encampment at Sydney University entered its third week, I’m very proud to say that NTEU members in our branch took a decisive step forward for Palestinian rights.

At our biggest meeting in almost a year, we overwhelmingly voted (93%) to endorse the institutional academic boycott of Israel, and to call on Sydney University to cut its ties with the war industry.

This is an important development in the struggle for Palestine in Australian universities and in the union movement. Our vote builds on years of work for Palestine in the NTEU, locally and nationally. I take my hat off to the union comrades who worked tirelessly for this result for so long. And it paid off.

Don’t let anyone tell you that Palestine isn't union business: union members at Australia’s first university, in the largest or second largest NTEU branch in the country, have unambiguously chosen their side: the side of freedom; the side of equality; the side of peace — the side of Palestine. We look forward to other NTEU branches doing the same.

With this mandate, we will intensify our efforts to end the university’s complicity with apartheid and genocide. It is a shameful blight on our reputation that our outgoing chancellor, Belinda Hutchinson, is on the board of the arms manufacturer Thales.

I call on the university’s Vice-Chancellor Mark Scott to end the collaboration with all arms companies and to cut ties with Israeli universities, as Palestinians have been asking.

I also call on him to assume his responsibilities as the head of an institution that is supposed to tell the truth about the world, especially when the truth is unwelcome to political power.

It beggars belief that Vice-Chancellors wrote to the Attorney General last week, to clarify whether the term “intifada” and the phrase “From the river to the sea” constitute hate speech.

When I last looked, it wasn’t the government that decided what words mean.

As we have said time and time again, those words express our movement’s aspirations for peace and equality for everyone, regardless of background or religion. Yet Zionists have the effrontery to tell us that, actually, we mean something different.

How dare they tell us what we mean? And how dare the Vice-Chancellors concede an inch to them? How dare they accuse us of violence when they themselves are courting deeper and deeper links with the war industry?

We don’t see this same hysteria over the word “uprising”, but this is exactly what intifada means in Arabic. Stigmatising it is racism, pure and simple.

As the student encampments are reminding us, universities are meant to be centres of independent thought and truth-telling. In seeking the government’s intervention, Mark Scott and other Vice-Chancellors have completely abrogated their responsibilities and shown what university independence means for them: absolutely nothing. They are unworthy of their positions.

Every Sunday, we chant about the need to shut the whole damn system down. We should mean those words.

A political system is sick if it looks to the arms trade to fuel the economy, if it puts the interests of Zionist lobbyists ahead of that of the tens of thousands of people protesting in the streets. So we don’t need to just shut the system down: we need to replace it with a whole new way of doing politics, a whole new way of power. Among many other things, that includes free, independent, publicly funded higher education.

On March 25, there will be national demonstrations at ports around the country against the Israeli shipping line ZIM. We will be marching at Port Botany at midday to demand that ZIM be kicked out of the Port: join us.

The road ahead for our movement certainly isn’t easy. Like Palestinian roads, our road is filled with checkpoints and obstacles and barriers.

But every protest like this one just strengthens the movement calling for freedom for Palestine, and we can be confident that we, here, are on the side of justice and that we will win.

We’re part of a slow tidal wave of global solidarity and justice, and the day will come when that wave will crash over Israeli apartheid, sweep it away, and replace it with democracy for Muslims, Jews, Christians, atheists and everyone else.

It’s only a matter of time before stolen Palestinian land is restored.

It’s only a matter of time before Palestinian keys turn once more in Palestinian doors.

It’s only a matter of time before the walls and barriers are ripped down, before Gaza is finally uncaged and rebuilt, and Palestine is finally free.

The olive tree senselessly uprooted today will be replanted strong and green tomorrow, and our campaign, an intifada of justice, equality and freedom for all, will make it happen.

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