A fortnight ago controversial former British army Colonel Richard Kemp, a vocal supporter of Israel, was set to present a lecture on military tactics. Several students organised a protest of the event because of Kemp’s particularly strident views. Since then, claims and counter-claims of anti-Semitism and violence have dogged both protestors and lecture attendees. We asked four students who were there to give their sides of the story.
Why I Protest
Fahad Ali is the President of Students for Justice in Palestine.
Children killed in their sleep; this is an affront to all of us, a source of universal shame. Today the world stands disgraced.”These were the words of Pierre Krähenbühl, Commissioner-General for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNWRA) after Israeli forces shelled a UN designated shelter housing some 3,000 refugees,killing 17 civilians, mainly women and children.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon called this “unjustifiable”. Meanwhile, Amnesty International concluded that “Israeli forces committed war crimes, including disproportionate and indiscriminate attacks on Gaza’s densely populated civilian areas as well as targeted attacks on schools sheltering civilians and other civilian buildings,” a finding which was shared by multiple human rights organisations,including many within Israel.
Here’s a man who thinks otherwise: former British army officer Col. Richard Kemp, a man who insisted that “the Israeli Defense Forces did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in the combat zones than any other army in the history of warfare” following the 2008 assault on Gaza, in which Israeli forces killed 759 civilians, launched white phosphorous at hospitals and humanitarian shelters, and thought it would be fun to scrawl graffiti reading “death to Arabs” on civilian properties. Kemp also infuriated many Arab students on campus when he Tweeted an article suggesting that Hitler was a hero to the Arab community in Palestine.
Skewed coverage of the protest against Kemp’s recent talk, in which he attempted to justify Israeli war crimes, has ranged between hyperbolic and purposely deceitful. Contrary to media reports, this was a student protest—members of staff, including Associate Professor Jake Lynch, took absolutely no part in the protest, nor were they aware that the protest was to go ahead. The speak-out may have been disruptive (that is the entire point of protest) but it was entirely peaceful. The only violence was from a number of over-zealous attendees who assaulted both student protestors and passive supporters of Palestine in the audience.
Professor Lynch, Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, was accused of anti-Semitism based on a widely-circulated and out-of-context photograph. Nonetheless, video footage has absolved him of any wrongdoing. Multiple witnesses, including those from Sydney-based Jews Against the Occupation, contest the allegation that Professor Lynch had waved money in the face of Jewish students.
Michael Brull,a co-founder of Independent Australian Jewish Voices, drawing upon video evidence, exposed much of this media distortion in a recent piece for New Matilda. “The real story here,” he writes, “is yet another attempt to smear opponents of Israeli massacres as anti-Semites, and the ongoing campaign to destroy Jake Lynch’s career for his principled opposition to how Israel treats the Palestinians.”
In our recent media release, a Jewish member of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) stressed that “the absurd notion that any criticism of Israel is a form of anti-Semitism […] undermines attempts to combat real anti-Semitism in some elements of pro-Palestinian campaigns and in society more generally.”
SJP does not tolerate anti-Semitism. But neither will we tolerate justifications for war crimes and violations of international humanitarian law. Freedom of expression is freedom to engage in peaceful protest, and it is our moral obligation to protest against war crime apologists.
This is not an even conflict; there is an occupying power and an occupied people. The world is slowly coming to accept this fact. Those who oppose the campaign for peace and justice within Israel and Palestine would do well to heed the advice of Dorothy Zellner, a Jewish pro-Palestine activist and American Civil Rights veteran: “If you only care about your own, you’re not kosher.”
It Felt Wrong
Elias Visontay is the Vice-President of the Australasian Union of Jewish Students at Sydney University.
The incident which occured during Colonel Kemp’s lecture last week represents how the entire dynamic of campus discussion has changed. It was academics—individuals whom the university trusts to facilitate in the exchange of views—who supported the dismantling of the discussion and the intimidation of the Jewish students entering the lecture. The hijacking of a lecture which attracts Jewish students is now expected. Jewish students feel intimidated when they enter these lectures to see campus security present, in preparation for when the lecture theatre is stormed.
The exchange of views on campus is a right afforded to all, contributing to a healthy environment in which students can form their own opinions. But Jewish students who exercise this right are forcibly silenced, by voices shouting that they support ‘genocide’ and ‘apartheid’.
The feeling of being forced to repress our cultural identification is now a widespread sentiment among Jewish students on campus. The effect of this is that Jewish students feel alienated from the student body and unable to partake in campus life and politics without concealing their identity. Many feel uncomfortable even identifying and participating in social activities with Australasian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS), for fear of these events being targeted.
As I entered the lecture theatre that day, I had to walk past Assoc. Prof. Jake Lynch as he held his camera to record every person entering the lecture theatre. It was as if we were being documented as criminals to be reported. The clear intent of this was to harass and intimidate.
Assoc. Prof. Lynch’s waving of money in the faces of Jewish students and a Jewish member of the audience further emphasised his targeted and anti-Semitic objective.
This is not about whether the protestors support the Palestinian cause, hate Israel, or dislike Colonel Kemp. This is about anti-Semitism and the undeniable and very real feeling that Jewish students have of being unsafe on campus because of the intimidatory actions of those at last week’s event.
The great thing about university is the right to participate and engage in campus discussion. But we Jewish students, having had verbal abuse hurled at us and intimidated when peacefully exercising this right, realise our right to discuss and exchange our views is respected only if our views are approved by others.
Clare Fester is a former Jewish Studies, Yiddish and Classical Hebrew student and works in Yiddish education.
Accusing pro-Palestine activists of anti-Semitism is the oldest trick in the book, and it is a shameful misuse of the term. Far from being anti-Semitic, fighting for Palestinian rights is itself a fight against racism—racism that allows for an entire people to be dehumanised, displaced, stateless, and subject to routine slaughter.
Following our recent disruptive pro- test of Richard Kemp, an apologist for Israel’s militarism and war crimes, right wing media and Zionist organisations have accused students and staff of an- ti-Semitism. VC Michael Spence dis- gracefully bolstered this rumour in a mass email to students and staff on Thursday last week.
There have been loud calls from Kemp, the Australasian Union of Jewish Students and pro-Israel organisations to discipline Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies professor and outspoken BDS proponent Jake Lynch—ostensibly for holding mon- ey in a student’s face. But video footage clearly shows this was Lynch’s reaction to an audience member repeatedly attacking him. He was warning expensive legal ac- tion if she continued assaulting people. In light of this evidence even the Jewish press is back peddling from its initial claims of anti-Semitism.
But it is no wonder they have launched a witch-hunt against Lynch. Lynch recent- ly fought, and won, a long battle in court against spurious charges of breaching the Racial Discrimination Act for implement- ing an academic boycott of Israel.
These accusations always unravel because there is nothing anti-Semitic about pro- testing the actions of the Israeli state: the occupation of Palestine, the military blockade, growing settler violence, or the routine shelling of the Gaza strip.
Nor is there anything anti-Semitic about challenging the political ideology that underpins the Israeli state—Zionism. Zi- onism is but one hotly contested strand of Jewish nationalism. It has never reperesented all Jews historically and nor does it today.
The more international condemnation Israel faces, the more its belligerent de- fenders must scramble for legitimacy. They stoop to falsely conflating justified cri- tiques of Israel with anti-Semitism in or- der to discredit the pro-Palestinian cause. But bundling the two together obscures real anti-Semitism. This undermines the fight against racism in all its forms.
Associate Professor of Jewish Studies Su- zanne Rutland claims that when protestors chant, “free Palestine,” what they mean is the dismantling of the Zionist entity which means genocide against Israel’s Jewish population.” But when we chant “free Palestine” we mean dismantling the military occupation that systematically denies an entire people their basic human rights. We mean fighting for a world where Arabs and Jews live side by side as equals, just as they did for most of their history before the occupation. There is nothing anti-Semitic about coexistence.
Why students were right to protest Kemp
Bonus online content from Erima Dall, who participated in the protest.
Students have a proud tradition of welcoming conservatives onto campus with vigorous protest. Liberal politicians Julie Bishop, Chris Pyne, and John Howard were met with protests and megaphones. Labor politicians got it too: Bob Carr for his anti-refugee position, Martin Ferguson for plans to dump nuclear waste on Aboriginal land. Nuclear advocate Ziggy Switkowski, disgraced racist lecturer Barry Spur, and our own Vice Chancellor are all familiar with our speak-outs and sit-ins.
Richard Kemp got the welcome he deserved. The former British commander of troops in Afghanistan has made a name for himself as an arch defender of Israeli militarism. He is a darling of the Zionist lobby, and has given evidence to the UN fact-finding mission on the 2008-9 Gaza conflict.
When someone with influence whitewashes war crimes, as Kemp does, it demands a response. While Palestinians remain stateless and voiceless and under military occupation, denying Richard Kemp 20 minutes of speaking time seems only fair.
Kemp’s reaction to our protest says it all: “I was in Israel during the 2014 summer conflict and I do believe that the IDF…were doing everything they could to protect civilians”.
That would be the same IDF that killed over 1500 civilians in its 2014 attack. The same IDF that bombed a school sheltering civilians. The same IDF that attacked paramedics as they treated the wounded and retrieved bodies.
Kemp’s hawk’s-eye-view was well established before our protest. He shamelessly defended Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2008-9, which killed 1391 Palestinians and infamously used white phosphorous shells. His version? The IDF “did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare”.
This is why we chanted: Richard Kemp, you can’t hide, you support genocide; Israel, USA, how many kids did you kill today?; Free free Palestine!
Some will say we should have politely asked Kemp tough questions or held our own counter-lecture. Well, we could have. Meanwhile, Israel expands its settlements, continues the economic blockade of Gaza, and denies the right of return to refugees. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was just re-elected on a promise to forever deny Palestinians a state. Israel is not waiting for the academic debate to be settled before it acts. We cannot afford to either.