Matters of conscience

The high personal cost of speaking out about Gaza’s plight

At some point in our lives, many of us will be forced to make a decision about what we are willing to sacrifice in terms of personal relationships, careers, reputations and livelihoods to oppose injustice.

Over the last nine months, in response to Hamas killing over 1000 Israelis and taking over 200 hostage, Israel has killed over 37,000 Palestinians and wounded over 87,000 others in Gaza. Leading human rights scholars and UN experts have found there are reasonable grounds to believe that Israel is committing the international ‘crime of all crimes’: that of genocide. A recent UN report concluded 96 per cent of Gaza’s population is food insecure and half a million face “catastrophic levels” of hunger. Our phones are filled with images of children starving to death, slaughtered, beheaded, buried in rubble, and of their mourning families left behind. Quite simply, we are watching one of this era’s greatest humanitarian disasters play out, in real time, on our screens. 

Yet, while our government has called for a ceasefire, they refuse to name Israel’s crimes or take the material action many have called for under international law, including implementing sanctions and throwing our weight behind a global arms embargo. As Palestinian human rights lawyer Rabea Eghbariah asked in a 2023 essay commissioned but then censured by Harvard Law Review, “does one have to wait for a genocide to be successfully completed to name it?” 

In the face of institutional inaction, individuals, journalists and parliamentarians are left to decide for themselves what it means to oppose the crime of all crimes, and to face the consequences.

Last week, the University of Melbourne emailed anti-war student protesters with disciplinary notices. In the face of the university’s failure to disclose and divest from relationships with Israeli weapons manufacturers, the students had occupied a building on campus and named it ‘Mahmoud’s Hall’. The name was given in honour of Mahmoud Alnaouq, a 25-year-old Gazan student who had been awarded a scholarship to study at the University of Melbourne, before he was killed, with 20 of his family members, by an Israeli missile in October. 

Other students participating in predominantly peaceful anti-war protests at ANU, Deakin, Monash and La Trobe, have also faced disciplinary action, including expulsion. For universities, it appears that protesting on lawns and peacefully occupying buildings is a greater injustice than maintaining partnerships with weapons companies complicit in the mass slaughter of Palestinians.

As powerfully put by Randa Abdel-Fattah, “It is because of the moral failure of universities across the Western world to bear witness to and engage with the most profoundly significant, shattering moment of our time that students and youth of the world are doing what legal institutions, academic faculties, human rights bodies and governments have failed to do.” 

While universities initially defended students’ free speech and right to protest, many now cave to the interests of those beating the drums of war. The risk these institutions face if they choose to defend free speech is undoubtedly real. The University of Sydney, which merely agreed to publicly disclose defence and security research partnerships – a level of transparency which should already be the bare minimum for a public institution – is now being subjected to relentless criticism by those with a track record of stifling calls for Palestinian human rights.

In January this year, journalist Antoinette Lattouf was fired from the ABC for posting a Human Rights Watch report that made the case that Israel is using starvation as a weapon of war – a case supported by the UN’s most senior human rights official.

Senator Fatima Payman’s brave decision to risk her political position by crossing the floor on a motion to recognise a Palestinian state – a motion which, it should be noted, is in line with Labor party policy – indicates the moral urgency with which many consider this issue. Albanese’s decision to indefinitely suspend her from caucus has received widespread backlash. Many see it as sending a message to diverse communities that they will be silenced, rather than respectfully listened to, if they speak out on issues of importance to their communities. 

So long as our government and institutions refuse to take material action, ordinary people will continue to risk their jobs, university degrees, reputations and personal relationships to speak out. If there is a credible case to be made for the crime of genocide, which there surely is, is it not our individual and collective moral responsibility to sound the alarm, and to do so no matter the cost?

Sarah Schwartz is a lawyer, lecturer and executive officer of the Jewish Council of Australia.

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