Sydney University: Violent protest under investigation
lThe University of Sydney has started an investigation into Wednesday’s violent protest at a meeting being addressed by former UK military commander Colonel Richard Kemp.
Numbered among the protestors was Associate Professor Dr Jake Lynch, Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, who reportedly waved a $5 note in front of one of those attending the disrupted lecture.
A spokesperson for the university told J-Wire: “The University is deeply concerned about events surrounding a protest on campus and has commenced an investigation into the incidents.
The University is an institution which is fiercely committed to the protection of free speech within the limits of the law. It supports the right to protest and academic freedom for staff and students. It does not support violence, racial vilification or acts which prevent others from also having access to those rights.
While the investigation is underway, the University will not be commenting on the details of the incidents.
Richard Kemp and former Federal Labor MP Peter Baldwin who attended Kemp’s lecture have both written to university vice-chancellor Dr Michael Spence.
Kemp wrote: “I was invited to speak to students at the University of Sydney at lunch‐ time on 11 March 2015 in a session chaired by Dr Gil Merom, one of your senior lecturers. My subject was ethical dilemmas of military operations in relation to recent conflicts. I had intended to engage with students, present my practical experiences as a British military commander and stimulate a discussion.
Shortly after I had introduced my talk, covering the principles of necessity, proportionality and discrimination as they apply under the laws of armed conflict and giving examples from my experience in Northern Ireland and Afghanistan, the event was disrupted by the forceful entry of a group of students.
They entered the room aggressively and noisily. They had a loud‐speaker set at full volume into which one of the students was screaming abuse directed at me. The other students were chanting the same abusive words and some were waving banners and placards. They were shouting: “Richard Kemp, you can’t hide, you support genocide”. This group was joined in their chants by a few in the audience who had apparently positioned themselves in the room previously in order to join in the planned protest.
The protesters imposed themselves between the audience and me. This, combined with the loudness of their screaming and shouting, made continuation of my lecture impossible until after they had left. I observed the audience, and many of them, including some elderly visitors, were clearly intimidated by the aggression of these protesters. Several members of the audience appealed to the protesters to leave to allow the lecture to continue and these were met with even greater aggression including personal verbal abuse. In some cases I saw the protestors deliberately and aggressively invade the personal space of members of the audience, including at least one elderly woman.
University security officers who were already present in the room asked the protesters to leave. When they abusively refused to do so, the security officers attempted to physically move them out. They resisted and pushed and shoved the security officers, impeding them from doing their jobs.
It seemed to me that, in trying to eject the protesters, the security officers were acting out of concern for the safety of the audience members, as the intimidation by the protesters increased.
Associate Professor Jake Lynch, the Director of your Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, and Dr Nicholas Riemer, one of your senior lecturers, who were both apparently leading and encouraging the protesters, screamed at the security officers to desist. This seemed to be a clear attempt to impose their own authority as faculty members, thereby hoping to intimidate the security officers into allowing the abusive demonstration to continue.
At one point I observed Associate Professor Lynch waving money in the face of a Jewish student, a clearly aggressive and insulting act that seemed to invoke the stereotype of the ‘greedy Jew’. Although not Jewish myself, I found Associate Professor Lynch’s behavior deeply shocking and offensive.
I felt the language directed against me to be abusive and insulting. I have never supported a genocide nor the killing of civilians of which I was also accused by the protesters. In fact I have devoted my entire working life as a British soldier to defending my country and the countries of friends and allies; to preventing killing, terrorism and ethnic cleansing; to peace‐keeping and to humanitarian operations. I have frequently risked my own life to do so. I have often served alongside troops from your own country. Surely it is not right that I, as a guest of your university and a visitor to your country, should be subjected to such gratuitous insults and slander.
Although the students attempted to intimidate me as well as the audience members, I did not feel personally threatened, as I have faced considerably greater dangers and threats than could possibly be presented or contemplated by such people. However, many of the audience members undoubtedly felt threatened and intimidated by the naked aggression shown to them by these students. I ask you if it is right that students, members of staff and visitors to your university, including elderly people, should be subjected to this form of abuse? From my observations of the audience I have no doubt that some of them were greatly and understandably traumatised by this experience.
Many members of the audience were Jewish and I am sure the demonstrators knew this and set out with the intention of intimidating Jews at the University of Sydney. This of course is nothing other than anti‐Semitism and it compounds the acts of intimidation by the protesters.
On the basis of my observations, as I have mentioned, Associate Professor Lynch and Dr Riemer sought to incite and encourage the student protesters. Can it be right that members of your university staff should indulge in such disgraceful action?
Peaceful and reasonable demonstration, such as handing out leaflets, chanting dissenting views or holding placards with messages of opposition to the views of a speaker, is of course acceptable. Indeed, such a peaceful demonstration was under way outside when I entered the room for my lecture. I was offered and accepted a leaflet, which I read and I briefly engaged in discussion with a protester.
However the type of racially‐motivated aggression, intimidation and abuse that occurred at this event is wholly unacceptable. Also unacceptable in any respectable university is the curtailment of an invited and approved speaker’s freedom to speak and engage in legitimate academic discourse such as I experienced at your university.
I urge you to investigate this incident and to take action against the students and staff members who were responsible for the behavior that I have described. If you fail to do so then you will be failing to discourage such action in your university in the future. You will thus be failing in your duty to ensure that your students, visitors and guest speakers may take part in debate within the precincts of the University of Sydney without fear or concern for their own safety.
I would add that you have a particular responsibility in respect of the racist, anti‐Semitic nature of this protest. As you know anti‐Semitism is a rising phenomenon in the world. Jews in many places live in increasing fear and concern that they will be singled out and discriminated against. Only by taking firm action against anti‐Semitic abuse and hatred whenever and wherever it occurs can this situation be reversed. Sydney University has the opportunity here to set an example to other academic institutions that lack the moral courage to face up to the modern scourge of anti‐Semitism.
Colonel Richard Kemp CBE
In the meantime, former federal Labor MP Peter Baldwin, who attended Colonel Kemp’s address, wrote:
Dear Dr Spence,
On Wednesday 11 March I attended a meeting at Sydney University that was addressed by Colonel Richard Kemp, the former commander of UK forces in Afghanistan. Colonel Kemp was scheduled to speak about the ethical dilemmas that face military forces confronted by non-state adversaries, especially those that deliberately conduct their operations in close proximity to civilian populations with the goal of gaining propaganda advantage from the inevitable casualties. He was in Israel during the Gaza conflict of July-August last year. He stated at the time that he was impressed by the IDF’s measures to minimize Palestinian civilian casualties and that he had difficulty envisaging what more they could do to this end given the reality of military operations.
By way of background, I am a former politician: the Labor MP for the seat of Sydney for fifteen years, and a member of the federal ministry for six years. For three of those years (1990-93) I was the Minister for Higher Education. During that period I visited a great many campuses and was, more than once, the target of student protest demonstrations.
But I never experienced anything quite as repulsive as what I witnessed last Wednesday, partly captured in this YouTube video.
I learned about the meeting from an email flyer forwarded by the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, though I understand the meeting was sponsored by the Australian Union of Jewish Students. The gathering was attended by a varied audience of students and others, including one other former parliamentary colleague.
When I arrived at the meeting there was a group at the door handing out leaflets supporting the BDS campaign against Israel. After Colonel Kemp had spoken for about twenty minutes there was a kerfuffle and around 15-20 people forced their way in led by a young woman who repeatedly screeched “Richard Kemp supports genocide” into a megaphone that was set to maximum volume. The group chanted continuously and defied the (very restrained) efforts of the security guards to evict them. They clearly intended to disrupt the meeting to the point where it could not continue. It was only after a concerted effort by the security people, with the protestors resisting violently, that the talk could be resumed. This was a truly frightening episode. At one point the lights went out, leading people to wonder what might come next.
In amongst the robotic chanting a few things stood out. The screeching young woman can be clearly heard expressing sympathy for the extremist organisation Hitz ut-Tahrir, whose Australian spokesman gained notoriety last year for refusing (on ABC Lateline) to condemn the tactics of Islamic State (beheadings, crucifixions, incinerations, selling women into slavery). When one of the protestors was accused of fascistic behaviour, he responded “we are not fascists, we’re Marxist-Leninists” – another totalitarian ideology responsible for tens of millions of deaths
The disruptors tried to suppress the views of Colonel Kemp, who gave a lucid and well-reasoned account of the moral issues in this kind of conflict in the limited time he had available, yet insist on the right of Hitz ut-Tahrir to spout their genocidal ideology, a sample of which was reported in today’s Australian newspaper:
THE top Australian cleric of extremist Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir has ramped up his hate speech in a rant referring to Jews as “the most evil creature of Allah” who have “corrupted the world” and will “pay for blood with blood”.
In the latest tirade to surface, cleric Ismail al-Wahwah — representing an organisation whose stated aim is to take over the world — said recognising Jews constituted the “epitome of evil” because that would “strengthen the cancerous entity”.
This, apparently, is acceptable speech to these champions of the ‘left’ – a striking confirmation of the old trope about extremes of Left and Right meeting at some point. The group primarily responsible for this outrage, a Trotskyist group calling itself the ‘Socialist Alternative’, has a record of this kind of thing at your university (this incident for example).
It seems you have active at your university a bunch of totalitarians who think they have a right of veto on the expression of views they disapprove of, and who will try to enforce this veto by violent disruption. The effect this will have on the free exchange of ideas is obvious. Potential speakers will think twice about the prospect of being subjected to this kind of thing. The expression of certain viewpoints will quietly disappear from campuses and students will increasingly inhabit an intellectual monoculture in which only approved opinions are sayable.
According to one Jewish student who I communicated with today the climate at Sydney University is becoming increasingly poisonous and fearful for identifiably Jewish students, especially those who have the temerity to defend Israel.
Do you agree with me, Dr Spence, that these are deeply sinister developments? Do you accept that an institution where such behaviour is tolerated has ceased, in one crucial respect, to deserve to be called a University?
More to the point, will you:
- Unequivocally condemn this behaviour and make clear it will not be tolerated in future
- Take steps to ensure the perpetrators are dealt with under university disciplinary procedures
- Commit to restoring a genuine climate of free debate at Sydney University in which all can participate without fear of intimidation?
I look forward to your response.