Almost four months into Israel’s siege of the Gaza Strip, students and staff are calling on the University to take a stance supporting Palestinians.
Students at the University have formed the Students for Palestine Canberra collective which organises petitions, boycotts and rallies in support of Palestinians. The collective is set to rally in Kambri on the 29th of February, in the second week of the first semester.
On campus, ANUSA President Phi O’Neil (they/them) maintains the Union “stands with Palestine”, noting, “The Student Representative Council has passed several motions with the purpose of affirming the importance of international solidarity with Palestinians and their continued resistance to violence, repression and apartheid.”
Similarly, the ANUSA officer for the Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) Department, Selena Wania (she/her) says the “department will continue to stand in solidarity and advocate for Palestinian freedom and liberation”, after the Department was one of the first collectives on campus to publicly stand in solidarity with Palestinians late last year.
In addition, ANU creatives, academics and historians have signed open letters in support of Palestine. Among many demands, these open letters call for universities to “uphold the core principle of academic freedom of speech to protect the right of staff and students to speak, research and engage in activism on Palestine”and “disinvest in Israeli companies and arms manufacturers”.
Within the context of the ANU, for the latter demand, the University provides the Northrop Grumman Scholarship and is exchange partners with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Northrop is reported to develop manned missile systems used by the Israel Air Force in its airstrikes in Palestine. This demand coincides with ANUSA’s demands to the University.
While acting Vice-Chancellor Professor Grady Venville wrote to students last October, in the University’s On Campus student letter, acknowledging that “the escalating conflict in the Middle East is deeply concerning”, the University has yet to issue any other statements.
An ANU spokesperson told Woroni, “ANU is a place of respectful debate. All students and staff at ANU are covered by the University’s policies of academic freedom and free speech, and are free to express themselves on any issue in line with Australian law”.
The University’s policies on academic freedom and freedom of speech allow students and staff to engage in “all forms of lawful expressive conduct”. This entails a “duty to foster well being of staff and students”, which includes the duty to ensure that no staff or student “sufferers an unfair disadvantage” , “is subject to threatening or intimidating behavior” and “support proportionate measures to prevent to prevent any person from lawful speech…(which is likely to) humiliate or intimidate any other person or persons”.
The duty to foster well being however, “does not extend to a duty to protect any person from feeling offended, shocked or insulted by the lawful speech of another”.
The ANU spokesperson continued, “The University has a wide range of support available for any member of the ANU community affected by the ongoing conflict in Gaza, (in addition) to actively encouraging all members…to be respectful when expressing views on the current conflict”.
The support mainly encompasses ANU Counselling Services which is a non-diagnostic mental health service, and the ANU Student Safety and Wellbeing services, which is a longer-term case management service.
However, for many students, the University’s statement and the current resources are perfunctory and inadequate.
As one postgraduate student explains, “On an institutional level, it is good that the University has issued statements against Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. But (this risks) constructing this crisis as an age-old ‘religious conflict’ between historically warring communities, which is far from true”.
Students like Madhumitha Mallichetty (she/her) believe, “The ANU has a responsibility to demonstrate to it’s students it is against genocide and inhumane atrocities”, she continues, “The University cannot teach and condemn past genocides whilst enabling a current one”.
Mallichetty, who organised a petition calling the University to stand in solidarity and take actions for Palestinians, tells Woroni she felt, “uncomfortable and betrayed by the University’s silence on the issue, (when in comparison) students have been relentlessly organising protests and mobilising the community for months”.
The petition, which currently has over 500 signatures, demands three actions from the University:
- The ANU must condemn the Palestinian genocide.
- The ANU takes direct action to ensure student safety on campus, acknowledging Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and racism.
- The ANU must cut ties with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The Hebrew University is an Israeli University, and has been targeted by multiple Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movements across Australian Universities in an effort to show solidarity with Palestinians.
Activism and similar calls for action have stirred community tensions within ANU, creating further fear, insecurity and division among Jewish, Israeli, Palestinian, Muslim, Arab and other students.
In response to this, Mallichetty says, ”The petition has student safety at its core. Last year, students were subjected to various kinds of attacks and felt unsupported and unsafe on campus. This must change“.
“Students are inevitably affected by the genocide in Palestine, either personally or vicariously…The University’s silence only leaves students unsupported in their suffering” she continues, “By acknowledging the genocide, ANU can work towards a safe campus for students, (providing) appropriate services and (by) thoroughly educating and empowering students on the issue”.
For academics and postgraduates, the University’s silence on the matter poses risks to academic inquiry and academic freedom.
As one post-graduate expressed, “Far from the university taking an ethical position to support a ceasefire, there has been a near complete absence of substantive discussion or public seminars on the crisis in Gaza–which gives the impression that there is little departure between academic positions in the University and Australian government’s position on the crisis”.
They continue, “At the very least, the University can facilitate substantive discussions on the crisis”.
For many such academics, standing in solidarity with Palestinians is integral to ANU’s responsibilities as a higher education institution. As one member from the teaching staff told Woroni, “As an institution that speaks of commitment to peace and freedom as the basis of academic inquiry, I think it is important that the University publicly expresses its solidarity with Palestinian people in their struggle for sovereignty and freedom, and offer support for universities and academics in Palestine”.
Moving into the first semester of the year, the Students for Palestine Canberra contingent promises to place greater pressure on the University to support Palestinians. It is yet to be seen whether there will be stronger calls of action from staff, and ultimately if either cohort can motivate the University to take a stance.
If you or anyone you know is affected by the content of this piece, please contact one of the support services below:
ANU BIPOC Department
ANU Indigenous Department
(02) 6125 2442
1800 737 732
ANU Women’s Department
ANU Queer* Department
ANU Respectful Relationships Unit
We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present and emerging. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.