The University of Sydney is one of Australia’s most venerable higher education institutions. It should be a place where controversial issues are debated freely and openly with the contending sides able to present their cases without intimidation and harassment.
It should be governed by an administration that strongly affirms the importance of free debate and acts swiftly and decisively to protect it if it comes under threat. It should definitely not be a place where mob rule is allowed to prevail or where activist groups get to decide which viewpoints can be expressed.
Can that be said of Sydney University today? Based on an experience I had there recently, it would appear not.
On March 11 I attended a public meeting on the campus addressed by Richard Kemp, the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan. His talk was about the ethical dilemmas that faced military forces opposed by non-state groups.
Kemp was in Israel during the Gaza conflict in July-August last year, and he gave the Israel Defence Forces credit for their measures to minimise civilian casualties during their operations. He found it difficult to envisage what more they could have done given the need to counter attacks deliberately launched from within densely populated areas. In saying this, he did not deny there were serious errors and abuses by some IDF forces, including possible war crimes.
This, it seems, is sufficient to make him a pariah to some of Israel’s more extreme critics. Enough of a pariah to warrant silencing him wherever possible; and sad to say, today’s universities are places where this is possible.
Kemp was able to speak unimpeded for about 20 minutes, at which point 15 to 20 people pushed past a security guard and began loudly chanting “Richard Kemp you can’t hide, you support genocide”, led by a young woman with a megaphone set to maximum volume.
Kemp described the experience in these pages on March 17, so I won’t detail it all again. But at one point the lights went out, leaving some — including me — wondering what was to come next. It was a genuinely frightening experience; a systematic, planned attempt to wreck the meeting. The attempt to suppress speakers perceived as pro-Israeli on campus is part of a wider pattern at Australian universities and internationally spearheaded by supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign.
The young woman with the megaphone shouting down Kemp went on to defend the speech rights of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an extremist Islamist organisation that gained notoriety last year when its Australian spokesman pointedly and repeatedly refused during an ABC Lateline interview to condemn the tactics used by Islamic State (mass beheadings, crucifixions, selling women into slavery, and so on).
The clueless young woman with the megaphone shouted about Hibz ut-Tahrir’s opposition to US policy, but this group has a few other ideas such as the following reported in The Australian recently: “The top Australian cleric of extremist Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir has ramped up his hate speech in a rant referring to Jews as ‘the most evil creature of Allah’ who have ‘corrupted the world’ and will ‘pay for blood with blood’.”
In the latest tirade to surface, cleric Ismail al-Wahwah — representing an organisation whose stated aim is to take over the world — said recognising Jews constituted the “epitome of evil” because that would “strengthen the cancerous entity”.
The disrupters ludicrously charged Kemp with supporting genocide while they and the rest of the BDS brigade have nothing to say about the open and explicit support of genocide by Hamas, now part of a unity government with Fatah. The Hamas charter adopted in 1988 looks forward (in article seven) to exterminating every last Jew on earth and incorporating “every inch” of Palestine in an Islamic state. Hamas refuses to rescind this foul, evil document despite repeated calls to do so and, on the contrary, relentlessly promotes its genocidal goals in its propaganda and schools.
As someone affiliated with the Labor Left throughout my active political career I find this growing affinity between the far Left and the Islamists one of the strangest and most disconcerting developments of recent times.
The naivety is quite astounding. A quick Google search turned up an article by the megaphone woman on the website of the Trotskyist group Solidarity in which she extols workers’ control in, of all places, post-revolutionary Iran, where all the leftist groups instrumental in overthrowing the shah ruthlessly were crushed by the Khomeneists once they had fulfilled their “useful idiot” role. Some of the people she is defending would gladly stick her head and those of her Marxist colleagues on the end of a pike if they were ever to take over.
Two well-known pro-BDS academics were present: Jake Lynch, director of the Peace and Conflict Studies Centre; and Nick Riemer, a senior lecturer in the English department. Both denied involvement in the disruption but loudly supported it once it began.
How do they justify this stance? They have both gone on the record.
Columnist Gerard Henderson raised the following question with Lynch: “Since you support disrupting the Kemp lecture, do you also think it would be acceptable to disrupt speakers hosted by your centre such as John Pilger and Hanan Ashrawi? If not, how do you justify the double standard?”
Lynch replied: “I would dispute the parallel with John Pilger or Hanan Ashrawi. I have never heard either of them deliver a speech that was disingenuous or deceitful in the way of the remarks by Colonel Kemp.”
Riemer gives a detailed defence of the disruption in a long article in the online journal New Matilda. This piece of casuistic nonsense is worth reading in full as it says volumes about the mentality that defenders of free speech on campus have to contend with these days.
Here is a sample of his “reasoning”: “Many left-wing people, I believe, would defend the proposition that protesters have the right to disrupt any kind of public speaker, but that only disruptions of certain public speakers are right.”
Applied to the present case, this means anyone has the right to disrupt a pro or an anti-IDF speaker, but only interruptions of pro-IDF speakers are actually justified.
In the first paragraph Riemer asserts a general “right to disrupt” any speaker. This cannot be squared with any reasonable understanding of the right to free speech, the whole point and effect of disruption being to prevent the effective exercise of the latter. Bear in mind that we are not talking about the kind of interjection familiar from parliamentary debates but the systematic drowning out of a speaker with a megaphone and sustained chanting. There was specific provision in the meeting format for questions and critique, but the goal of the disrupters was to censor, not challenge, what Kemp had to say.
Note the second paragraph where Riemer, like Lynch, justifies disrupting the expression of one side of the debate. How does he rationalise this? He asserts the rightness of disrupting speech that is “extreme” or “hateful” or, in an Aristotelian touch, “fails to promote human flourishing”.
To label Kemp’s lucid and well-reasoned presentation as hateful or extreme is just bizarre. As for the stuff about failing to promote human flourishing, perhaps Riemer should consider that by turning Gaza into an armed camp, launching thousands of projectiles into Israel and pouring huge amounts of cement provided under aid programs into building a subterranean network of attack tunnels, Hamas and its supporters and apologists are failing to “promote human flourishing”.
Riemer goes on: “As such, his (Kemp’s) speech aims at the dismantling of the very democratic freedoms among Palestinians which commitment to the principle of free speech is supposed to embody.”
What “democratic freedoms” would those be? Is he familiar with the increasingly brutal crackdown on dissenters in the territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority, with dissidents jailed for long periods for “extending the tongue” against the authority? Or the vicious persecution of Christians, most of whom have now fled the territories? Or the far worse situation in Gaza where dissenters can expect a bullet in the head, where the death sentence is prescribed for homosexuality?
The only country in the region where any semblance of democratic freedoms exist is Israel, where the Arab-aligned parties emerged as the third largest force in the recent elections, where people of all faiths — and none — are safe, and where homosexuals can live free from fear.
Tel Aviv was named as the most popular gay tourist destination in the world recently. This was labelled “pinkwashing” by the BDS brigade, just a cunning Israeli plot to disguise their oppression of the Palestinians.
The intellectual arrogance of the campus BDS supporters, articulated by Lynch and Riemer, is quite astounding. No postmodern questioning of objective truth here; not only is the truth “out there” but Lynch and Riemer are in possession of it and are able to distinguish it from lies and deceit. No need to allow people to actually hear the contending cases presented fully and effectively, even in contexts such as the Kemp lecture where they can be challenged. Defend Israel in any respect and you are a warmonger, callously indifferent to the fate of oppressed people. You need to be silenced.
This is a truly sinister development, and one not confined to Australian universities. Jewish students at Sydney University with whom I corresponded report feeling increasingly insecure and fearful on campus. My sense is that increasingly anti-Zionism is a mask for occulted anti-Semitism.
Will the university administration, led by vice-chancellor Michael Spence, act decisively to defend free speech on campus in response to this outrage? Time will tell, but at this stage the portents are not encouraging.
The university has engaged a firm of workplace lawyers to investigate the incident and the responsibility of individual staff and students and consider all “allegations and counter-allegations”. It is profoundly disappointing, however, that so far the vice-chancellor has not gone on the public record to say that what happened was completely unacceptable and will not be tolerated in future.
There is absolutely no reason a clear statement of principle could not have been made right away. Does the vice-chancellor really need advice from a firm of workplace lawyers before doing this much? Of course decisions about individual culpability should be handled carefully, with those accused given an opportunity to respond to allegations.
Finally, I note a certain inconsistency in the university’s attention to procedural fairness.
In October last year Barry Spurr, a distinguished academic with a long association with the university, was suspended from his position and barred from the campus within a day following the disclosure of offensive language in some hacked private emails. He was subjected to this terrible public humiliation before being given any opportunity to give his defence that he was speaking in a joking or ironic voice.
No workplace lawyers to consider all sides before taking action in that case.
The common factor in these two incidents was the presence of chanting mobs of demonstrators, in one case silencing someone with whom they disagree, in the other demanding the peremptory sacking of an academic. In one case a panicked rush to action by the vice-chancellor, in the other a drawn-out process with all involved bound by strict confidentiality provisions — a procedural black hole.
It is hard to avoid the depressing conclusion that at Sydney University today mob rule works.
Peter Baldwin was minister for higher education (1990-93) in the Hawke-Keating government.