Riot at Sydney University
Protesters have disrupted a lecture, fighting with security guards, at the University of Sydney.
The lecture was being given by retired British military officer Colonel Richard Kemp, a world-renowned expert on armed conflict, the Middle East and a prolific media commentator,
Colonel Kemp had been invited by the University to speak on “Ethical Dilemmas of Military Tactics” and “Dealing with non-state armed groups,” in light of Australia’s military engagement with non-state actors, including ISIS.
Kemp began his talk with a brief explanation of his career and a joke about England’s cricket loss to Bangladesh on Monday. He went on to discuss non-state militant groups in Ireland and Afghanistan and the obligations of soldiers when engaging with civilians and civilian groups. Before he could go into any detail or discuss any other issues, he was interrupted by over a dozen students bursting into the lecture hall screaming “Richard Kemp, you can’t hide, you support genocide.”
A demonstrator with a megaphone drowned out any attempts by the moderator to get the lecture back on track. Protestors wrestled with security guards who had asked them to leave and were then forced to remove them. Protestors stood on chairs, began to push students and shout loudly at those who objected to their behaviour.
Professor Jake Lynch, the director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS) and an ardent opponent of Israel, shouted in the faces of students, including at a senior officer of the Jewish student union. He then proceeded to stand on chairs and film attendees. Lynch screamed that attempts to remove the protestors was a violent attack on freedom of speech by security guards. When another academic suggested that he ask a question, Lynch responded that was not what this is about, only later opting to ask a question when invited by the Colonel.
One student commented that Kemp “hadn’t even mentioned Israel or Palestine” in the time he had to talk. Another student mentioned that she did not have strong views on either side of this issue, was studying international relations and had come expecting a talk, not an ambush.
After about 20 minutes of shouting, the protestors were finally removed from the hall, having objected loudly to their treatment by the security guards and some others present. Kemp, resuming as if nothing had happened, continued to speak on engagement with non-civilian groups in armed conflict. Concluding his talk, Kemp briefly addressed what he termed a “commercial break.”
“This protest was about my perspective on the IDF… I was in Israel during the 2014 summer conflict and I do believe that the IDF in their attack on Hamas in Gaza… were doing everything they could to protect civilians… People have told me I am wrong, but no one has told me what more steps Israel could take to minimize civilian casualties.”
Students, academics and other interested people had come from all over to hear an expert speak on a topical and important subject. Sydney University academic Professor Suzanne Rutland was present at the event and I spoke to her shortly following its conclusion:
“I feel that the demonstration really showed clearly that the anti-Israel group speaks in slogans without any sort of understanding of the intricacies of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and without any sort of acknowledgement that when they stand there chanting, “free Palestine,” what they mean is the dismantling of the Zionist entity which means genocide against Israel’s Jewish population.”
Professor Rutland said, “Accusing Israel of committing genocide has no academic basis whatsoever; they even said the Colonel (Kemp) was responsible for genocide. I strongly support legitimate criticism and when we teach about Israel we try to present a critical, balanced voice which is part of academic learning.”
“What I think the demonstration represented was the struggle faced by myself and others on campus who are opposed to Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions. While we try to follow the rules of polite debate, the BDS supporters will often not allow an alternative voice and this is what happened during the lecture.”
“Given the anti-Israel bias on campus we were grateful Dr Gil Merom agreed to chair the function and advertise it to his students.”
Peter Wertheim, the Executive Director of the ECAJ, which facilitated the lecture, was scathing about the disruption to the event, telling J-Wire:
“The attempt by about 15 students and academics to shout down and censor a public lecture at the University of Sydney by Col Richard Kemp, an internationally renowned, much-decorated expert on military and security affairs, is an utter disgrace. Their attempts to bully campus security personnel who restored order was also shameful. These are the same people who have on numerous occasions invoked the principle of academic freedom to justify their engagement in political advocacy on campus. Their hypocrisy is now obvious. For them, academic freedom does not apply to views they disagree with. They are cowards who are afraid of the truth. Fortunately, the lecture was resumed after a 15 minute disruption and Richard Kemp’s presentation was so compelling that even academics who had participated in the earlier protest asked him questions and were given comprehensive answers. The ECAJ is proud to have facilitated the lecture.”
An outstanding interview of Richard Kemp on ABC Radio National, prior to the lecture, can be heard at http://www.abc.net.au/radio/programitem/pgNyGERDD6?play=true
Glen Falkenstein is a Policy Analyst/Staff Writer at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC)