'Deeply troubling'

Why we need a judicial inquiry into hate

The antisemitism we are seeing on Australian campuses is not new.

The ostensibly Pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of Sydney.
 Photo: AAP Image/Dean Lewins
The ostensibly Pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of Sydney. Photo: AAP Image/Dean Lewins

There is a particular tragedy about campus antisemitism which seeks to exclude Jews from the intellectual life of the nation.

Because the Jewish tradition values education as one of its highest virtues. Jews are taught to have arguments for the sake of heaven – to arrive at truth through debate and discussion. This is the essence of a university.

At their best, universities are life-changing places. They are where the next generation of leaders are formed.

That is why it is so important that antisemitism does not take hold. It is why students need to be taught about the evils of antisemitism. It is why it is always important to reject antisemitism however it manifests.

If we are not teaching this to the next generation then we are setting our society on a course for a future based in conspiracy, not fact. On othering, not personal responsibility. On social discord, not social harmony. It’s for this reason that addressing antisemitism on campus is so important because what happens on campus today sets the tone for the Australia of tomorrow.

Today, young Jewish Australians who are taking their first steps into the adult world are facing unprecedented levels of antisemitism. The next generation of contributors are turning up to university open days, to lectures, to university lawns, and being met with a clear message: Jews are not welcome here.

We should not accept that in Australia.

The antisemitism we are seeing on Australian campuses is not new. And while antisemitism was already a problem before October 7, since then it is off the charts.

We have seen encampments, where students chanting “intifada” and “river to the sea” are deciding who should be allowed access to university buildings based on their religion.

There are other stories which are deeply troubling. Like the student living in on-campus accommodation who held a Shabbat dinner for Jewish and non-Jewish students. It had nothing to do with the Israel-Hamas war – it was simply an opportunity to gather for a meal and to share their traditions.

But the following morning, that student woke up to find Palestinian flags shoved under their door.

At another university, a Jewish student wearing a kippah had to walk past a pro-Palestine gathering to get to where he was going. He was approached and asked, “do you support the murdering of babies and the genocide in the Middle East?”

There are multiples stories of Jewish students being spat on and taunted with swastikas.

It’s happening to Jewish staff too. In one incident, an ex-pat Israeli staff members’ working area was urinated on and the word “resign” scribbled on their desk.

It’s not just students and outside activists propagating this stuff – it’s professors and PhDs. We have seen academics say Jews do not deserve cultural safety. And last week we saw another academic deny that the rapes on October 7 even occurred.

Hamas deniers are no different than Holocaust deniers.

But for academics in places of learning and truth to deny the truth of human testimony and history is to make a mockery of their mission.

Long before October 7, universities were failing to take antisemitism seriously and to act to protect Jewish students in the way that they protect other minorities on campus. But now we see:

• Vice-chancellors negotiating research contracts with protesters.

• University encampments allowed to run and fester.

• Universities unwilling and unable to evict professional agitators from the far-left and people carrying Jihadi flags.

• Jewish students harassed and intimidated in lectures and tutorials.

• Student learning and staff teaching disrupted by protesters.

• Complaints mechanisms that are mere tick-a-box exercises.

• Vice-chancellors implying that hate-fuelled protests are just the price Jewish students have to pay for free speech.

• And a collective statement from 39 university chancellors which was so weak it did not even mention the words “Jew” or “antisemitism”.

I don’t believe university leaders are antisemitic. But I do believe that they are wilfully blind.

The vice-chancellors of our universities do know better – and that’s why their complicity is such a problem.

That is why we need a judicial inquiry into their systemic failures on this issue.

My bill provides for the establishment of a Commission of inquiry with Royal Commission powers led by a current or former judge to inquire into antisemitism on university campuses.

The inquiry will examine incidents of antisemitic activity on campus both before and after October 7, 2023. It will consider whether the response of university leaders, regulators, representative organisations and others has been adequate.

Among other things, it will examine whether the universities adequately define and recognise the modern manifestations of antisemitism and whether they have put in place appropriate policy responses to prevent, reject and deal with it.

A judicial inquiry is crucial to ensure that the rise of antisemitism on campus in Australia can be effectively investigated.

Led by an independent, respected jurist with full investigatory powers, assisted by skilled cross-examiners, the inquiry could hear evidence confidentially without witnesses fearing reprisals.

Such an inquiry provides the best chance to ensure that antisemitism on campus – a long running cultural problem which is a serious concern for the social cohesion of Australia – is properly addressed.

Julian Leeser is the federal Member for Berowra. This is an edited version of his speech in the House of Representatives on Monday.

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