Published: 12:35, May 19, 2024 | Updated: 11:09, May 20, 2024
Students throw themselves bodily into the gears of the Western genocide machine
By Scott Burchill

In December it will be 60 years since Mario Savio stood on the steps of Sproul Hall at the Berkeley campus of the University of California and delivered the most powerful speech in the history of student activism:

There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop!

And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you are free the machine will be prevented from working at all.

The steps of the hall, which now feature a plaque bearing his name, mark the place and time when the Free Speech Movement began in the United States. In the 1960s students were leading players in both the struggle for civil rights and the anti-Vietnam War movement, making educational, career and at Kent State University, physical sacrifices to build a more humane, freer and less violent society.

That tradition of student activism continues today across the Western world, with students protesting against Israel’s genocidal slaughter in Gaza and the research and commercial links their universities maintain with a state which UN agencies and human rights organizations have accused of practicing apartheid, ethnic cleansing and mass starvation.

There is little doubt that today’s students will be on the right side of history just as their forebears were. What today seems radical, inexplicable and disruptive will tomorrow be seen as just, inspiring and eventually passé.

However, in 2024 students confront the same opponents as those who came before them did: timid and often hostile university administrators who pay lip service to free speech while doing everything they can to shut down peaceful pro-Palestine encampments on university grounds.

Disciplinary threats to their enrolment at institutions they pay large fees to attend have already been issued. And now state police are enjoined by university bureaucrats to do the dirty work of dismantling the encampments, as if the issue will disappear as easily as the tents and trestle tables.

The only question is which university moves against the students first, and how can the ugly video coverage of the attack be minimised or censored from public viewing entirely.

Spurious and exaggerated claims of widespread anti-Semitism on campuses made by state and federal governments, independent MPs with significant Jewish constituencies, and right wing commercial media, arose about a month ago. There was a clear reason for the shift of emphasis.

With so much horrendous film available from unmediated sources, it was no longer possible to defend the slaughter of 35,000 civilians as “Israel’s right to self-defence” so the script was flipped to the growing threat of anti-Semitism, with “reports” of Jewish students afraid to attend their classes. Unsurprisingly there has been little media coverage of agent provocateurs, false flag operations and pro-Israel counter-protests which have seen violent attacks.

Those politicians confecting a moral panic about anti-Semitism on Australia’s university campuses have two things in common: they have never visited an encampment nor taken the trouble to talk directly to protesting students about their concerns. This is cowardice and borders on professional misconduct.

Lacking sufficient intestinal fortitude to confront even their own constituents amongst the protesting student body, MPs prefer to rely on hostile coverage by mainstream commercial and state media, with only a few honorable exceptions.

Keeping a distance from the universities and students they are happy to criticize in press releases and sound bites suggests they are heavily influenced by well organized social media mobilizations, their email in-boxes and fears that they will be branded “soft on anti-Semitism”.

In Goldstein and Wentworth, incumbent “teals” know they will need every Jewish vote they can muster to get over the line again, hence their call for the appointment of an “anti-Semitism envoy”, whatever that might be beyond performative pandering to an influential sectional interest group.

Overall, one is left with the impression that the confectioners are more concerned with inflammatory rhetoric and robust debates at Australian universities than they are with mass graves and the premeditated extermination of Gaza’s civilian population. Their deliberate misrepresentation and misunderstanding of slogans such as “From the river to the see …” is not just embarrassing and ill-informed, it reflects their deep censorious instincts.

I have visited the pro-Palestine encampments and led a teach-in at Deakin University. There was no violence, no abuse, no intimidation, nor any threatening behavior. They were entirely peaceful and only university security guards impeded the free circulation of the students. Claims to the contrary are mostly lies and disinformation.

Noam Chomsky reminds us that “the whole educational and professional training system is a very elaborate filter, which just weeds out people who are too independent, and who think for themselves, and who don’t know how to be submissive, and so on, because they’re dysfunctional to the institutions”.

The most effective filter is the commodification of education, which neutralizes activism and organized politics by forcing students to rack up enormous debts to pay for their tuition: in the US where there is no HECS scheme, these are loans taken out at commercial interest rates.

This encourages students to gravitate towards vocational and professional degrees rather than those in the humanities and social sciences, and requires them to immediately focus on finding employment. It leaves little time for the pursuit of knowledge or agitating for a fairer, more just society.

Corporatized universities run by businessmen instead of academics have no understanding of the historical role of universities in pre-figuring social change. In the United States, today’s university administrators have little experience with moral outrage and non-violent protests. They are slaves to wealthy alumni, philanthropists, investors and the tied donations of corporate backers. It is hardly surprising that they instinctively side with state power and violence whenever the status quo is challenged.

Higher education in Australia is heading down a similar path, which makes the moral leadership and resistance of our students, appalled by what the International Court of Justice declared was a plausible case of genocide conducted by Israel in Gaza, all the more remarkable and admirable. Sometimes, there is nothing else to do: you have to throw your bodies on the gears to make it stop.

Dr Scott Burchill is Honorary Fellow in International Relations at Deakin University. He is the author of The National Interest in International Relations Theory (Palgrave Macmillan 2005), Misunderstanding International Relations (Palgrave Macmillan 2020) and co-author and editor of Theories of International Relations (5th ed Palgrave Macmillan 2013). He has also taught at Monash University, the University of Melbourne and the University of Tasmania. He is a regular commentator on ABC Radio and TV.

The article is a republication from PEARLS & IRRITATIONS website at

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