In Australia, Students Are Standing in Solidarity With Gaza

Over the last semester, students at Australian universities established camps in solidarity with Gaza. In the face of baseless accusations of antisemitism, they are demanding that universities cut ties with arms manufacturers.

A student protester speaks into a megaphone as pro-Palestinian students hold a sit-in at the University of Melbourne on May 15, 2024. (Martin Keep / AFP via Getty Images)

As in the United States, Australia’s university campuses are currently occupied by student encampments for Palestine. At the country’s wealthiest tertiary institution — the University of Melbourne (UoM) — protesters claimed the campus’s main arts building on May 15. They then rechristened it “Mahmoud’s Hall” in honor of Mahmoud Alnaouq, an Australia Awards Scholar and prospective UoM student who was killed by Israeli airstrikes in October of last year.

In response, the university canceled classes scheduled in Mahmoud’s Hall, locked its back doors, and disabled its elevators. But it did not call the police, despite having threatened to do so multiple times. In contrast with the United States, Australian university administrators have so far hesitated to initiate police crackdowns on encampments.

Instead, university managers have attempted to discredit the camps, accusing activists of spreading antisemitism, endangering student and staff safety, and causing property damage. In a leaked video, UoM deputy vice chancellor Michael Wesley stated that “the university’s patience is at an end” with “seriously intimidating” students who, he alleged, “caused considerable damage.”

Wesley has since had to put aside his impatience, as on May 22 UoM management met with student representatives from Unimelb for Palestine (UM4P) to negotiate. Knowing that the rapidly approaching end of semester will likely make it difficult to maintain the occupation, UM4P agreed to end the sit-in at Mahmoud’s Hall on the condition that UoM discloses its relationships with arms manufacturers. Although UoM has not released an official statement, UM4P regards this as a partial victory, reiterating that “divestment from those that profiteer from genocide remains our number one demand.”

The situation elsewhere is mixed and developing quickly. But it is clear that the student movement for Palestine is here to stay, and with good reason. In addition to protesting genocide, student activists and their allies in the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) are fighting to fundamentally redefine the university. Against them stand arms manufacturers, far-right Zionists, and university executive branches intent on maintaining untroubled ties to both.

The University of Melbourne and Lockheed Martin

Prior to UoM upholding its side of the agreement and disclosing all links to weapons manufacturers, UM4P research has identified multimillion dollar deals between the university and some of the world’s largest arms producers. These deals have funded UoM researchers to work on technologies crucial to the Israeli, American, and Australian militaries.

Lockheed Martin, for example, is the world’s largest weapons manufacturer. It is also a close partner of both UoM and the Australian Defence Force (ADF). In August 2023, the ADF announced Lockheed Martin’s stewardship of the AIR6500 Phase 1 Mission. Lockheed Martin’s role is to provide the Australian military with a Joint Air Battle Management System (JABMS), the core of the ADF’s future Integrated Air and Missile Defence (IAMD) capability. JABMS improves the ADF’s surveillance and control over advanced weaponry and during military operations as well as communication with the US military.

To bring the project to fruition, Lockheed Martin initiated a partnership with the UoM in 2016, under the auspices of the Defence Science Institute (DSI), a center maintained by state and federal governments, established “to facilitate the growth of defence science research networks between Victorian universities, government and defence industry.” Via the DSI, Lockheed Martin committed an “initial investment” of $13 million, funding the creation of STELaRLab, its first research center outside of the United States. The goal was to create a “resource pool” of postdoctoral engineering researchers working on “C4ISR advanced algorithms” and artificial intelligence (AI) systems that will develop Lockheed Martin’s arsenal.

In response to student demands for divestment, university managers have sought to distance themselves from their corporate partners. On December 19, 2023 — shortly after campus protests began — UoM amended its 2016 statement on the partnership. Previously, it emphasized Lockheed Martin’s $13 million investment. After amendment, the statement read:

STELaRLab was established and is wholly owned by Lockheed Martin. It is completely independent of the University of Melbourne and it is not located on campus . . . Since 2016, the University of Melbourne has received $3.5m in funding from Lockheed Martin Australia to support PhD scholarships and research projects in areas such as artificial intelligence/machine learning, resource allocation and optimization, and quantum sensing.

The implication is that these PhDs are not connected with weapons development. However, as student protesters have pointed out, Lockheed Martin’s algorithmic research is directly linked to the development of F-35 fighter jets, which it supplies to the Israeli military. Indeed, F-35 fighter jets are designed, built, and maintained in partnership with BAE systems. In addition to being a key supplier of titanium to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), BAE has also funded five UoM research partnerships aimed at refining AI and autonomous systems.

Beyond Lockheed Martin and BAE, research undertaken by UM4P has highlighted six partnerships between UoM and other arms manufacturers. These include Thales, a French multinational with ties to the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Elbit Systems, the Israeli arms company awarded $917 million by the ADF to supply systems for infantry fighting vehicles, including the “hunter-killer” Fire Control Systems, which offer infantrymen a “high first-round hit probability against moving targets.” Elbit also produce Sea Serpent guided missiles, military border surveillance equipment and UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) Tactical Systems, which comprise 85 percent of Israel’s drone technology.

The university has two research partnerships with Raytheon, which manufactures the Paveway II precision-guided missile for the Israeli military and maintains the Israeli fleet of F-15, F-16, and F-35 fighter jets. As a result, the university has channeled students into quantum computing research and the development of MANTIS (the Mutual-Axis Neuromorphic Twin Imaging System). MANTIS is a sensor designed to detect high-speed drones; it uses AI “that mimics a human brain” in its ability to capture data.

All of these projects are in step with the aim of the ADF’s AIR6500-1 program — that is, the wholesale “transformation” of Australia’s technological capabilities as part of the United States’ Joint All Domain Operations (JADO) — a model of warfare that operates across “sea, land, air, space, and cyberspace.”

Over the last eight months, UM4P members presented their research to the university administration. The university refused their demands and denied any material relation to the research development of weapons programs.

Accusations of Antisemitism

Given escalating student protests and mounting evidence of UoM’s involvement in weapons research, it is not difficult to see why university managers would want to reframe the narrative. To that end, they have accused protesters of endangering staff and student safety and of antisemitism.

On-campus accusations of antisemitism have also come from members of the Australasian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS). According to AUJS, it is the “federal body for Jewish student societies” and is “based on four pillars — Judaism, Zionism, Pluralism and Activism.” As the AUJS website notes, its “famous Israel programs send hundreds of students to Israel each year.”

Although AUJS often presents itself as representing Jewish students in general, this is not true. Rather, AUJS is a membership organization committed to promoting Zionism at Australian university campuses. Founded at the University of Sydney following Israel’s 1948 declaration of independence, AUJS subscribes to the “Zionist ideals” presented in the World Zionist Organisation’s Jerusalem Program, and its members “seek to promote a positive image of Israel on campus.” They have organized counterprotests against Palestine solidarity camps at the Australian National University, UoM, and the University of Sydney.

AUJS president Noah Loven and vice president Zac Morris are frequently quoted in media reports on the safety of Jewish students. At Sydney University, for example, Morris stated that,

students are afraid to go to class, they’re missing lectures and tutorials . . . They’re being filmed, followed, intimidated . . . It’s terrifying. We respect freedom of speech but there is a line that should be clear. Chanting for intifada is traumatic for us, however it is intended.

Although the University of Sydney has received seventeen formal reports related to the student encampment, a university spokesperson asserted that “no breaches related to antisemitism have been found.”

Loven previously stood as a candidate for the Monash University student union in 2022. His campaign promised to pressure the university to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism as informing its anti-racism policy. The definition classifies as antisemitic protests and critiques “targeting the state of Israel,” and has so far been adopted by five Australian universities, including Monash and UoM.

At a joint NTEU-UM4P rally, Dr Na’ama Carlin, a University of New South Wales lecturer and a member of the newly formed Jewish Council of Australia (JCA), addressed the IHRA definition of antisemitism. As Na’ama explained,

One of Zionism’s biggest lies is that Jewish safety is contingent on Palestinian suffering. . . . There are those who wish to tell you that Zionism and Jewish identity are enmeshed, that they are one and the same, but it is Zionism that has embedded itself in Jewish life and not the other way around.

Indeed, progressive Jewish activists formed the JCA “in response to the rise in racism and antisemitism in Australia,” and it has rapidly established itself as an alternative to right-wing, pro-Israel groups that claim to represent Jewish people.

Given existing connections between Zionist groups and militant far-right groups and individuals, the JCA’s work is timely. A counterprotest organized by AUJS on May 2 saw the UoM encampment confronted by Zionist, pro-war protesters. Among the small, mostly nonstudent group of pro-Israel activists was Avi Yemini, a far right-wing vlogger and convicted domestic abuser. UM4P organizers committed to a policy of nonengagement, and a line of marshals trained in coordination with the radical indigenous group Warriors for the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR) formed a barrier, turning their backs between police and AUJS protesters. Despite the protesters’ nonviolent approach, tensions were raised when one of Yemini’s bodyguards pushed a student encampment member to the ground. Pro–Palestinian protesters described being called “towelhead,” “parasite,” and “leech,” among other slurs.

On the same day, Dr Jordana Silverstein, a senior research fellow at Melbourne Law School, delivered a teach-in on anti-Zionist Jewish activism. Silverstein, also a member of the JCA, stressed that because the movement in solidarity with Palestine is “actively anti-racist, we are opposed to all forms of racism — and that includes antisemitism.”

Similar sentiments have been repeated at pro-Palestine camps around the country. At the University of Queensland (UQ), camp organizer and socialist Liam Parry spoke to the importance of Jewish camp participants:

We know many Jewish students and staff at UQ do not support Zionism or the State of Israel, and they are an important part of our movement. We’ve made it clear that we oppose antisemitism alongside every form of racism and bigotry. Judaism is not the same as Zionism no matter what pro-Israel propagandists say.

By comparison, AUJS has comparatively little sway at UQ. Although there is a pro-Israel camp at the university, Parry observed that it is attended by “two to five people each day,” while the pro-Palestine camp’s opening rally was attended by more than 350. According to some, these are the biggest protests on Australian campuses since the 1970s.

Solidarity Grows

NTEU branches across the country have also stood in solidarity with the student encampments. In the last fortnight, the University of Sydney’s branch has voted to endorse the institutional academic boycott of Israeli universities and cut ties with the weapons industry. The UQ NTEU branch committee voted to endorse the camp on its first day, while on May 16, the UoM branch unanimously passed four motions in support of Palestine.

The NTEU is also doing everything in its power to ensure student safety, with UoM members meeting with university management to raise concerns in the event of police interference.

Sarah Roberts, NTEU Victorian division secretary, spoke at a joint NTEU-UM4P rally. “The message I want to bring from the NTEU,” Roberts said, “is that the NTEU stands in solidarity with everybody here, with the students of the Gaza encampment, student encampments around the world, at universities around the world, and, importantly, the people of Gaza.”

In her speech, Roberts also challenged the attempt to conflate criticism of Israel and Zionism with antisemitism, explaining that the NTEU has received feedback from members on the IHRA definition of antisemitism. As Roberts explained, NTEU members regard the prohibition on criticism of Israel as antisemitic as

a direct threat to their academic and intellectual freedom. It meant that very topic that they were educated to research into and to publish into was against university policy, so that their very activity at this university was against university policy.

UoM deputy vice chancellor Michael Wesley also invoked academic freedom to justify the university’s refusal to divest from arms manufacturers, stating that

the university’s animating principle is that of academic freedom. If we start restricting the ability of our academics and students to work on certain topics and with certain companies . . . where does this end?

There are, then, two different ideas of academic freedom at play. In Wesley’s conception, academic freedom means freedom to conduct research funded and determined by corporate weapons manufacturers. And the freedom to conduct this research does not entail the freedom of students to protest it — for, even without police crackdowns, universities have already begun disciplinary procedures against protesters, citing health and safety violations.

In short, it has become clear to both sides that the student encampments for Gaza are beginning to confront the corporate, pro-establishment regime of Australian university managers who are, in turn, working out how to clamp down on the protests with minimal reputational damage. So far, however, the universities — alongside politicians and conservative media — are losing political ground. Only last week, they were blaming the protests on “professional activists” or “outside agitators.”

This line was convenient insofar as it allowed university administrators to ignore or downplay the radicalization taking place on campuses. But it is hard to see how they will be able to blame protests on external actors, after negotiating with UM4P and conceding to its demand for disclosure.

By contrast, the student movement is growing, becoming more clear-eyed, and winning the argument. First, students witnessed a genocide. Then, they witnessed the majority of Australia’s political and media class deny the reality of that genocide. So, they did something — they formed activist groups and organized protests. Now, the students are watching as the same establishment defames them as antisemites — while pro-Israel agitators harass and assault Palestinian activists with impunity.

And now, as at the University of Melbourne, they are beginning to witness the power of organized, collective action.