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You can be passionate about peace in Gaza without dismissing the fears of Jewish students – ABC Religion & Ethics

Autor: ABC Religion Ethics

It has been a tense few weeks across Australian university campuses. If you simply went by the reporting, you’d be forgiven for thinking we are teetering on the brink of anarchy.

That has not been my read of the situation. As always, headlines and short social media clips only tell a partial story. In my observations of the student encampment at my own university, things were generally quiet and students mostly went about their day in peace. The encampment itself, now dismantled, was inhabited by only a small number of students. At various points, there were strong feelings expressed and heated words exchanged in either direction.

At other universities, the encampments are clearly larger in scale and more tense at times. By most reports, however, they too are quiet and peaceful, although some seem to be pushing the boundaries.

To protest against injustice and to partake in the dramatic narrative arcs of history is a rite-of-passage for many university students. I protested the Afghanistan and Iraq wars in my undergraduate years; my father joined any number of protests at Monash University in the late 1960s. No doubt my high school-aged son will participate when his time comes.

And now, as a university lecturer, I’m proud to see students who are passionate, engaged, and want to change the world for the better. I don’t always agree with their vision for a better world, but that’s part of the give-and-take of institutions in which difficult conversations and sharp disagreement are an inherent part of the fabric. And universities are places where young people can and do make their voices heard.

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Having researched the post-Holocaust Jewish left for nearly two decades, I’ve watched the rise of the encampments and student protests with a great deal of interest. Jews have always been a part of the left, as they are today — including among those in the university encampments.

What has alarmed me is the rise of Jewish students reporting feelings of insecurity, as well as images and accounts of clear antisemitism. Jewish university students across Australia have reported feeling unsafe, unwelcome, nervous, and at times, singled-out on their campuses.

I am the director of a centre for Jewish studies, and in this capacity I have spoken to many at my own university about their experiences on campus and heard many more stories second-hand. The students I have spoken to are not cynically deploying charges of antisemitism to shut down protest. They genuinely feel alienated by the nature and intensity of some of what they are seeing. And there is plenty of evidence from university campuses across the world that antisemitism is present in many of the student protests.

Perhaps it’s a bug rather than a feature, but it is not to be lightly dismissed. We don’t have to accept antisemitism as the cost of doing business. And just as we should take seriously the distress of any students, so too are Jewish students who feel distressed deserving of our support, rather than our rejection or dismissal.

As a lecturer, I support all my students and their journeys of inquiry, whether I agree with their politics or not. Our role as scholars is to teach, to inspire, to guide our students through these formative years. They won’t always get it right, but mostly they will. And whenever a student expresses their concern that they feel marginalised or unsafe, I take those claims seriously.

But we don’t have to be so antagonistic to our peers. We can vigorously argue for the end to Israel’s campaign in Gaza, show solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza and abroad, and recognise antisemitism where we see it. Being pro-Palestine does not have to mean being antisemitic — and for the most part, it doesn’t. But at times, the protest movement does see expressions of antisemitism come to the fore, and we shouldn’t deny those simply because it’s inconvenient.

And to say some things that to me seem obvious, but to many might seem as though they clash: I hope for Israel to end its campaign in Gaza immediately; I hope for the safe return of Israeli hostages to their families; I hope for the realisation of Palestinian national aspirations without delay; and I hope we see a robust transitional justice process developed that takes seriously the decades of violence that has brought us to where we are.

Australian society finds itself, once again, polarised over the issue of the student protests. Defenders of the encampments say that they are entirely peaceful and free of antisemitism; opponents say they are hotbeds of anti-Jewish hatred and harbingers of something much worse for Jewish students. As is often the case, the truth, I believe, is somewhere in the middle. The protesters are mostly passionate young people whose concern for Palestinians is genuine.

Our capacity for empathy ought to be expansive, not limited. We can both build social movements advocating for Palestinian lives and also recognise the hurt many Jewish students feel. No one is happy to be witness to the violence unfolding daily in Gaza. Perhaps that can be a starting point for more conversation.

David Slucki is the Director of Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation and the Loti Smorgon Associate Professor in Contemporary Jewish Life and Culture at Monash University.

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