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Intolerance is thriving in Australia’s universities

Trans activists and anti-Israel protesters are silencing and intimidating opponents with impunity.

by Tunae

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Intolerance is rife in Australian universities. And nowhere more so than at the University of Melbourne.

This was brought home earlier this month when administrators abruptly cancelled a lecture due to be given by Professor Tal Shima, an Israeli aerospace engineer. A pro-Palestinian student group, called UniMelbforPalestine, demanded the cancellation of the lecture on account of Shima’s position at the Israeli Institute of Technology. UniMelbforPalestine threatened to ‘severely disrupt’ the event unless it was called off. The administrators quickly caved.

We shouldn’t be surprised by this. Free speech at Melbourne, one of Australia’s most prestigious universities, has been under constant attack in recent years.

The treatment of feminist philosopher Holly Lawford-Smith is a case in point. In the past few years, she has been harassed and intimidated by student trans activists for defending women’s sex-based rights. University security has even had to escort her to and from her office.

Last June, Lawford-Smith filed a formal complaint with the university on the grounds it had failed to protect her safety at work. Yet instead of defending her and academic freedom more generally, Melbourne introduced an LGBTQIA+ inclusion ‘action plan’ that empowered students to attack courses – and, by association, academics – they disliked. Lawford-Smith and her course on feminism were put firmly in activists’ sights.

‘My question is whether they are introducing [the action plan] in order to have formal processes to get rid of my course or me’, Lawford-Smith said at the time. This failure to unequivocally defend a lecturer and her feminism course was a low moment for the University of Melbourne. It symbolised its decline since the days when the likes of Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries and Helen Garner were students there.

Less than a year on from throwing Lawford-Smith to the trans activists, Melbourne capitulated again to a censor-happy mob. After the cancellation of Shima’s lecture, UniMelbForPalestine, posted a celebratory Instagram message: ‘Yet another win for justice and accountability by Melbourne University’s community against this corrupt Zionist management.’

The university’s cowardice has clearly only emboldened those seeking to silence debate and to hector their perceived opponents. So, after successfully cancelling an academic because he was Israeli, pro-Palestine student activists have reportedly taken to brazenly interfering in day-to-day classes. The Herald Sun reports that activists are now turning up in classrooms and taking photos of students after asking for a show of hands to indicate who agrees with their anti-Israel views. Jewish students are said to have been very distressed by the activists’ tactics. Many are said to be fearful of attending lectures at the university.

Melbourne’s response to this behaviour suggests an institution that has become scared of its own shadow. After issuing a perfunctory criticism of the activists for photographing students, the dean of the arts faculty proceeded to warn lecturers to ‘think carefully’ about how they express their views on the Israel-Hamas conflict.

After Melbourne’s failure to stand up to trans activists, it is now failing to stand up to anti-Israel activists. And so an Israeli professor has been silenced and Jewish students have been intimidated with impunity.

The broader media and political silence that has greeted this eruption of anti-Israel sentiment at Australia’s second-oldest university is unconscionable. Now might be the time for the Australian Human Rights Commission to start justifying its $40million budget and address not only the lack of free speech, but also the intimidation of Jewish students. As the proudly Jewish Liberal MP, Julian Leeser, recently pointed out, the AHRC has been mute over the outbreak of anti-Semitism in Australia after 7 October.

Of course, Melbourne University is far from the only educational institution in the West gripped by anti-Israel protests. But it does provide a lesson in the dangers of appeasing the intolerant. Caving to demands for censorship only ever emboldens and empowers the censors.

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