The “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” often flashes in and out of public consciousness in Australia. Recently however, “Israel-Palestine” is increasingly entering public discourse, not as a distant and far away site of conflict, but as an issue on which civil society is taking action. A recent highly publicised example, being the student protest on Wednesday 11th March at the University of Sydney during a presentation by former British military Colonel, Richard Kemp. Regardless of one’s opinion concerning the use of protest as a tactic, there is a need to look beyond the rhetoric which has labelled the event as “radical”, “racist” and “anti-Semitic”, to ask why these students saw a need to protest, and why there has been such strong condemnation of this small non-violent demonstration.
The first question we should be asking is why did this protest occur? On one level it was due to Kemp’s well-known support for the Israeli Defence Force and his public sympathy for military actions against unarmed Palestinian civilians. On another, it was to challenge the University of Sydney’s decision to host Kemp as part of a wider speaking tour organised by the “United Israel Appeal”, an organisation with the stated mission “…to further the national priorities of the State of Israel”. What is important however, is asking why this matters. Why did students choose to protest a speaker who supports the Israeli Defence Force, and why would they challenge their university’s decision to host an event whose speaker prescribes to the narrative of the Israeli state?
Palestinians have been living under occupation in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza since 1967. Numerous international, Israeli and Palestinian human rights organisations have detailed the systematic and daily abuse of Palestinian rights, and yet in Australia we are made aware of a “conflict” in Israel-Palestine only during times of high intensity clashes, or when Israeli lives are lost. Rarely, are the day-to-day losses of Palestinian life and violations of fundamental rights mentioned. Rarely is the power dynamic of the Middle East’s strongest military vis-à-vis an occupied, dispossessed peoples acknowledged.
Does it not follow that students should wish to challenge an event that feeds into such a one-sided narrative?
Public discourse sees viewpoints which uncritically support and provide platforms for the justification of Israeli actions, as “legitimate’ and ‘moral”, dismissing voices that speak up against the oppression of Palestinians, as “crazies” and “racists”. Such responses are easy, they are accepted and they are the norm. They are not however, how I would expect students, who have grown up benefiting from the efforts of multiple rights movements, to respond. Was the women’s movement made-up of “crazies”? Was the indigenous rights movement a racist one? Or were these morally centred movements that disrupted the status quo and therefore received such titles at the time, but in reality worked to end oppression and promote equality?
A Palestinian living under Israeli occupation, or in a refugee camp in Syria, does not have access to such avenues of change. Meaning that time and time again the Palestinian people have called upon the international community to act where they cannot. In Australia we have so far responded by ridiculing or condemning those among us who have listened to their call as “crazies” or “racists”, or have resorted to conflating criticism of Israeli policies and actions with anti-Semitism, to shame and silence those who are criticising the actions of a regime, not a people. As students of the ANU, it is time that we challenge this hegemonic configuration of power. It is time that we educate ourselves, as to what is really happening in Israel-Palestine. The well- used trope that the situation is “too difficult”, is simply not good enough. Gross violations of human rights and the perpetuation of human suffering necessitate that we engage with complicated and difficult issues in a way that understands and challenges hegemonic narratives. Instead, Australia is in the habit of shaming and silencing. It is time that we understand the power dynamics that allow Israel to unconditionally violate the rights of Palestinians – the same power dynamics that allow supporters of Israel to speak without restraint, whilst Palestinian rights activists are silenced.
Photo by Natasha Lennard