Global student peace rallies mark a pivotal moment for universities

Global student peace rallies mark a pivotal moment for universities

What started as a few pro-peace rallies and encampments by American university students on 17 April 2024 has now spread to become a global movement involving millions of young people demanding a major policy shift by their governments.

The latest student protests add to a growing movement calling for an end to the war in Gaza, which in the space of six months has killed more than 34,600 civilians - including 13,800 children - and displaced more than 1.7 million people, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and Save the Children International.

Over the past two weeks, the student sit-ins have spread from the U.S. to more than 15 countries, including Australia, Japan, Argentina, India, Kuwait, the UK and Egypt.

In solidarity with the protests overseas, Australian students at The University of Sydney, the University of Queensland, the University of Melbourne, and Monash University have set up ‘tent cities’ on campus, refusing to move until these institutions cut ties with weapons manufacturers, and condemn Israel’s war in Gaza.

Universities ‘ignoring concerns’

Teachers for Peace has been working to counter the influence of the defence industry in education, and to promote the far-reaching benefits of peace and disarmament.

Already, the organisation has changed education policies in a number of Australian states, successfully convincing education departments that the weapons industry should not be able to advertise itself to children.

“Students and teachers have, for some time, been raising serious concerns about education's links with the global weapons industry,” Teachers for Peace director, Elise West told The Educator.

“Universities have largely ignored these concerns, and have continued to accept money from Elbit, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, BAE Systems and other corporations profiting from war and human misery.”

West says these financial relationships matter because they “influence curricula and research agendas, funnel students into careers in the weapons industry, fuel arms races, and normalise a violent and inequitable global status quo.”

“The ongoing genocide in Gaza has absolutely sharpened students' resolve to shift universities on this issue. Students don't want to be complicit with apartheid and genocide in Gaza – or anywhere else – and are acting in accordance with their conscience,” West said.

“Throughout history, in Australia and around the world, students and young people have been the vanguard of movements for peace and justice. They've been prepared to take risks, break rules, be uncomfortable, be challenged – and they've pushed the rest of us out of complacency, and into action.”

A galvanising cause

Recent days have seen surreal and alarming scenes, with riot police cracking down on student protests in several American universities across the country. As of 2 May, more than 2,000 pro-peace protesters have been arrested, including faculty members, on more than 40 U.S. campuses.

While Australia’s universities are so far allowing the student encampments to continue uninterrupted, Melbourne and Monash universities have warned they “won’t tolerate occupation of buildings, property damage, violence, harassment or racism, or the disruption of university activity such as lectures.”

Peaceful or not, some groups want the protests to end immediately.

On Monday, the Australian Jewish Association (AJA) slammed the student encampments at the University of Sydney as “Hitler Youth rallies” and warned that they won’t go unanswered.

“We are again making a public call for all Jewish donors to cut all funds from the University of Sydney,” the AJA posted on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.

“We understand many of the major donors are Jewish, including the largest donor in the university's history. If you know a donor, please urgently alert them to the hatred coming from the University of Sydney and urge them to cut funds.”

Protests 'must not inhibit the freedom of our community'

A University of Sydney spokesperson said any donors who have concerns should reach out and discuss them directly with the University.

"At Sydney, we have a long tradition of understanding that peaceful protests and freedom of expression can be important demonstrations of free speech – but exercising that expression must not inhibit the freedom of our community," the spokesperson told The Educator. 

"We need to be a place that appreciates the contest of ideas and welcomes the diversity in our midst."

The spokesperson said the University remains "absolutely committed to freedom of speech and academic freedom". 

"We have zero tolerance for any form of racism, threats to safety, hate speech, intimidation, threatening speech, bullying or unlawful harassment, including antisemitic or anti-Muslim language or behaviour," the spokesperson said.

"It’s more important than ever that our campuses continue to be a welcoming and safe space for all our community, and we’ll continue to carefully monitor the gathering at our Quadrangle and actively engage with our community in a civil and peaceful manner."

‘A total failure of university leadership’

Robert Gregory, CEO of the Australian Jewish Association believes the encampments on Australian universities are “motivated by hatred of Jews and the Jewish State.”

“No other conflict generates this response,” Gregory told The Educator.

“Countless Jewish students and staff tell us they don’t feel safe on campus. Jewish students report harassment on their way to classes and even in classrooms by radical activists. If any other minority was targeted like this, the encampments would have been removed long ago.”

Gregory said that as the protests in Australian universities continue, there has been “a total failure of university leadership and the federal government to stand with the Jewish community.”

“Almost all Australian Jews are proud Zionists. The Jewish community largely came to Australia as penniless refugees, and many achieved great success,” Gregory said, noting that Jews make some of the largest donations to Australian universities, including donations of many tens of millions by families like the Wakils and Lowys.

“These donations are made in good faith and as a way to give back to the society that has provided so much but with university heads seemingly ok with protesters who state their aim to make the institutions ‘unsafe’ for Zionists, it seems logical that these donations should stop.”

Gregory said he is aware of two donors who will no longer make contributions.

“The universities will only have themselves to blame if the quality of research or the job environment for educators suffers but they have chosen the weak option of siding with racist agitators rather than standing up for Jewish students. Perhaps they can pass a collection tin around at one of the protest camps.”

‘It’s crazy how bad faith the discourse has become’

While some groups label the protests as "Anti-Jewish", others point out that the encampments and rallies include many Jewish students themselves, eager to show that they oppose the war in Gaza.

In a recent article published by The Independent, Ben-Menachem – one of many Jewish students who joined the protests at Columbia University and other universities across the U.S. – said he has “watched with amazement” as the media and political figures have attempted to characterise the protests as antisemitic and dangerous, despite Jewish student organisations playing a central role in them.

“There has been this discourse that Columbia is this hotbed of antisemitism, but it’s just a bunch of nerds sitting on the ground praying, chanting and doing homework. There was a Passover Seder held on Monday,” Mr Ben-Menachem told The Independent. “It’s crazy how bad faith that discourse has become.”

Robert P. Jackson, a Senior Lecturer in Political Thought at Manchester Metropolitan University, recently saw the student protests firsthand, noting that the “overwhelming majority” of those protesting have been “modelling the peaceful coexistence of religious expression”.

“There has been a huge breadth of cultural celebration – including Latinx music and Punjabi and Dabke dancing,” Jackson, who witnessed the student protests firsthand, wrote in The Conversation recently.

“There have also been diverse religious services including by both Muslim and Jewish students, as well as liturgical readings by Union Theological Seminary speakers taking place within the encampments.

“These have been largely ignored by most media reports.”

The National Tertiary Education Union and Universities Australia have been contacted for comment.