Pro-Palestine protesters cause chaos at Melbourne University as Anthony Albanese condemns MP’s chant

Remy Varga, Katina Curtis, Matthew Schrivell
The Nightly
5 Min Read
Pro-Palestine protesters cause chaos at Melbourne University as Anthony Albanese condemns Fatima Payman’s chant.
Pro-Palestine protesters cause chaos at Melbourne University as Anthony Albanese condemns Fatima Payman’s chant. Credit: The Nightly

A pro-Palestine rally forced Melbourne University to cancel 150 classes as Prime Minister Anthony Albanese faces increasing pressure over the war in Gaza.

Protesters refused to move from the university building for a second day as part of rolling sit-ins at universities in Australian capital cities.

It comes on the same days Mr Albanese was forced to condemn the actions of Labor Senator Fatima Payman, who broke ranks with her party to accuse Israel of genocide and repeat a slogan associated with the ethnic cleansing of the Jewish people.

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Shadow education minister Sarah Henderson on Thursday wrote to Mr Albanese demanding an independent judicial inquiry into reports of rising anti-Semitism on campuses in a letter that was signed by Coalition members and independents including Allegra Spender, Bob Katter and Jacqui Lambie.

Liberal Senate leader Simon Birmingham moved a motion for parliament to condemn the chant “from the river to the sea” while Shadow Home Affairs Minister James Patterson accused Mr Albanese of weak leadership amid a crisis of escalating anti-Semitism.

More than a hundred students slept overnight in tents after taking over the Arts West building at the University of Melbourne, disrupting the study and work of some 80,000 students and staff members.

The protesters have renamed the building Mahmoud’s Hall after Palestinian student Mahmoud Alnaouq was accepted to study at the University of Melbourne on scholarship before he was killed in an Israeli air strike on October 20.

They are refusing to leave the building until the University of Melbourne takes steps to divest ties with weapons manufacturers including BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin and disclose details about their ongoing partnership and research.

A Pro-Palestine rally at the University of Melbourne
Pro-Palestine students at universities across Australia have created more than a dozen encampments. Credit: James Ross/AAP

Social media vision shows tents and camping chairs on the floor of the building and banners and a Palestinian flag draped over a stairwell.

A University of Melbourne spokesperson said the escalation in protest action and property damage was deeply concerning and said about 150 classes had been cancelled for more than 6000 students.

“The continued occupation of University sites presents an unacceptable risk to the safety, security, and important work of our entire community,” said the spokesperson.

“We are talking with student leaders as we strive to bring about a peaceful solution.”

At Monash University, protesters have defied orders to end their encampment on campus as nine were asked to engage in a misconduct process amid reports they had been threatened with expulsion after standoffs with students supporting Israel on May 7 and 9.

“We are reviewing and investigating the reports in line with our policies and procedures, which has resulted in a number of formal allegations of student misconduct being issued,” said the spokesperson.

A pro-Palestinian encampment has remained at the University of Sydney for more than three weeks while students at the Australian National University in Canberra are defying orders to end their encampment.

University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor Mark Scott said he was aware some protesters were deliberately covering their faces, disrupting classes and acting in an intimidatory way.

“The University has an obligation to provide a safe learning environment for our students and a safe workplace for staff, and we will be taking disciplinary action against identified individuals involved in these incidents,” he said.

In Canberra, shadow education minister Sarah Henderson wrote to Mr Albanese renewing calls for an independent judicial inquiry into reports of rising anti-semitism on university campuses.

“We believe that a judicial inquiry will provide the best way to achieve broader cultural change in the university sector,” she wrote.

“If the Government does not instigate a judicial inquiry we would support a Senate inquiry as an alternative.”

Executive Council of Australian Jewry co-chief executive officer Peter Wertheim backed calls for the judicial inquiry and said the integrity of universities was being undermined by anti-democratic values.

“A judicial inquiry, as originally called for by Julian Leeser MP, would allow Jewish students and staff to give evidence in a closed hearing, without having to fear reprisals from the fanatical fringe of anti-Israel students, or victimisation from anti-Israel and antisemitic faculty members,” he said.

“There would be no opportunity for political grandstanding by any party, and the sole focus would be on getting to the truth.”

Liberal Senate leader Simon Birmingham moved a motion to condemn the chant “from the river to the sea” on Thursday, telling Parliament the phrase was fuelling anti-Semitism.

Labor Senator Fatima Payman in the Senate chamber at Parliament House in Canberra.
Labor Senator Fatima Payman in the Senate chamber at Parliament House in Canberra. Credit: MICK TSIKAS/AAPIMAGE

The motion passed with a vote of 56 to 12 with the support of Labor with the exception of WA Senator Fatima Payman, who wasn’t present, and the opposition by the Greens.

Senator Payman broke ranks with her party on Wednesday to accuse Israel of genocide and implore Mr Albanese to impose sanctions before ending her address by declaring “from the river to the sea”.

On Thursday Mr Albanese said he had not spoken to Senator Payman but said it was inappropriate for the young senator to have said the chant as he reiterated Labor’s support for a two-state solution.

“We are seeing enormous grief in Gaza that is having a significant impact on people who have relatives and friends in Gaza,” he told ABC Radio.

“That is a very traumatic occurrence, just as a lot of trauma is being experienced by Jewish Australians due to the rise in anti-Semitism that we’re seeing here, where people who happen to be Jewish are being held responsible for actions of the Netanyahu Government.”

Israel is attempting to eliminate what remains of Hamas’ fighters in the southern Gazan city of Rafah where more than a million people have sought refuge amid the ongoing conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people.

Shadow Home Affairs Minister James Patterson said Senator Payman escaping punishment was evidence of the weakness of Mr Albanese’s leadership as the nation grappled with growing anti-Semitism.

“It appears there are no consequences for calling for the annihilation of the state of Israel and millions of Jews who live there, even for a member of the federal parliamentary Labor Party,” he said.

“If the Prime Minister tolerates this from his own caucus, we’ve got no hope of tackling the anti-Semitism crisis in this country.”

Australian Jewish Association Chief Executive Officer Robert Gregory said Senator Payman was not fit to represent Western Australia and said Mr Albanese should remove her from the joint standing committee on foreign affairs, defence and trade.

“The phrase, ‘from the river to the sea’ is widely recognised as a call to destroy the Jewish State which has borders from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea,” he said.

“The Prime Minister explained Senator Payman’s remarks by labelling her, ‘young’ but her age can never justify the hateful words she spoke.”

Israel launched the operation after Hamas militants led an attack on civilians on October 7 last year, killing 1200 people and taking more than 250 hostages.

Independent senator David Pocock said it took a lot of courage for Senator Payman to speak up against her party’s line and said it would be frustrating to listening to communities one was elected to represent without being able to speak on their behalf.

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