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Attorney-General gives universities’ advice on pro-Palestine protests

Written by on May 9, 2024

The federal government has told the chiefs of two of Australia’s largest universities that no students should be targeted because of their race or religion as leaders grapple with rising anger over the use of pro-Palestinian chants on campuses.

Hundreds of students have set up encampments outside university buildings across Australia calling on university administrators to cut ties with companies associated with weapons manufacturing and Israel.

Meanwhile, reports of assault allegations against campus security guards and pro-Palestinian activists heard chanting “from the river to the sea” and referencing “intifada” have fuelled concerns for the safety of Jewish students.

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus wrote to University of Sydney vice-chancellor Mark Scott and University of Adelaide vice-chancellor Peter Høj on Thursday pointing to anti-discrimination laws after university leaders sought advice on how to deal with the use of divisive phrases.

“The government believes all Australians have the right to exercise their freedom of speech but only in a manner that respects the individual and collective rights enjoyed by other Australians, and which allows others to live in dignity, and free from violence and the threat of violence,” he wrote.

Mr Dreyfus said he was not providing legal advice but provided information that Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 “makes it a civil offence to do a public act that is reasonably likely to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate people because of their race colour or national or ethnic origins.”

Intifada is an Arabic word that is understood to mean a civil uprising in the Palestinian context, but is considered inherently anti-Semitic by people of the Jewish faith who argue it calls for violence against Israel.

A spokesman from the University of Sydney said the university had taken disciplinary action on “one camp-related matter” and a “range of other actions” on camp-related activities since protests began three weeks ago.

“There have been no substantiated complaints related to anti Semitism, hate speech or harassment,” they said.

Police at the University of Queensland have said they were investigating the alleged assault of two security guards after rival protesters pitched tents at opposite ends of the university grounds last week.

The university is also investigating claims that a Jewish academic’s office was allegedly broken into and “urinated” in.

On Thursday, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton accused Education Minister Jason Clare of refusing to condemn pro-Palestinian protests to appease Muslim voters in his electorate, after he and Assistant Health Minister Ged Kearney suggested that protests chants could be interpreted in different ways.

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“If they’re trying to make some sort of headroom for another interpretation that would be against what we know in the Western world for that dreadful chant to be, and I don’t know, I mean, are they doing it for political reasons?,” Mr Dutton told 2GB.

“Are they willing to sacrifice the safety of the Jewish community and to try and encourage some of these lunatics that we’re seeing at university campuses at the moment? Are they worried about preselections within the Labor Party because they’ve got a high Muslim vote within some of those branches?

Jason Clare has been contacted for comment.