Student encampments challenge Labor’s support for Israel

May 22, 2024
University of Melbourne student encampment
University of Melbourne student encampment. Photo: Jacob Andrewartha

The inspirational Gaza solidarity encampments, initiated by university students across the world, pose a sharp challenge to Western governments complicit in Israel’s genocide.

The student initiatives sprang up as public opinion on Israel’s war — now seven months long — shifts decisively against it.

The International Criminal Court’s May 20 announcement that it is seeking arrest warrants for Israeli and Hamas officials, including Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for war crimes and crimes against humanity is symbolic of this.

But the imperialist governments are hitting back, trying to eradicate and smear the campus protests.

In the United States, students face severe police repression in the very institutions that purport to be bastions of free speech.

Maintaining university-wide occupations is a very politicising experience, creating new avenues for solidarity between students, workers and the broader pro-Palestinian movement.

This is adding an important new layer of pressure on the Anthony Albanese Labor government, which is writhing between consistently siding with Israel and its supposed support for a ceasefire.

The National Tertiary Education Union is playing a positive role supporting the encampments, including making solidarity statements, defending students from police and organising support rallies.

The students’ modest demands — for universities to disclose all investments and divest from Israeli institutions and companies supporting and/or profiting from the genocide of Palestinians — exposed the institutional links that universities have with Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, Rosebank, Boeing and others.

The neoliberal university sector means that Australian universities often engage in multimillion dollar deals with weapons companies.

The longer the encampments continue, the greater the pressure on university administrations to take a stand against the Gaza genocide.

This is why some university administrations — which, early on, rejected calls for police to break up the encampments on the basis of “freedom of speech” — are now taking steps to remove the encampments.

While the corporate media have generally downplayed the growing Palestine solidarity movement, they take particular offence at the encampments.

Opposition leader Peter Dutton denounced the encampments as “racist” and anti-Jewish, even though the pro-Palestine movement has expressly condemned antisemitism.

Just as in the US, students are also being accused of antisemitism, and popular slogans or phrases — such as “From the river to the sea” and “Intifada [uprising]” — are being labelled as hate speech.

These protest chants are not hate speech, and many Jewish students feel safe enough to join in and, in some cases, lead the encampments.

The Palestine solidarity movement is overwhelmingly multi-racial and it is bringing people together from all walks of life.

The solidarity between oppressed groups is an ideological challenge to the ruling elite, which relies on whipping up racism to divide and rule.

Such solidarity, which is continuing to grow across the world, exposes the racist and oppressive character of the settler-colonial state of Israel and Zionism as the ideology of an ethnostate centred on Jewish supremacy.

Meanwhile, the rhetoric from Zionists is becoming increasingly unhinged. The Australian Jewish Association, which refers to the student protests as “Nazi encampments”, has encouraged people to take physical action against them, and some have.

Prime Minister Albanese, once a supporter of Palestine, has also criticised the encampments and described “From the river to the sea” as “very violent”.

But cracks are starting to appear in the Australian government’s public stance.

In early May, Australia voted for a mild United Nations resolution supporting Palestine’s bid to be admitted.

Western Australian Labor Senator Fatima Payman, on Nakba Day, called on her party to condemn Israel’s genocide, sanction, divest and stop trade with Israel. “We can call for a permanent ceasefire. We can call for the establishment of the Palestinian state,” she said.

Albanese has not rushed to expel Payman because he knows his party is deeply divided.

A series of pro-Palestine motions were passed at the Victorian Labor Conference over May 18–19, backed by several trade unions.

With the encampments holding firm and the movement for Palestine growing, these cracks have the potential to grow, especially in the lead-up to a federal election.

This should give us confidence that, with an inclusive mass approach, we can force the Labor government to end its support for Israel’s genocide, bring war criminals to account and ensure that Palestine achieves peace with justice.

[Jacob Andrewartha is a national co-convenor of Socialist Alliance.]

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