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University campuses across Australia have seen a new and vibrant student movement for Palestine taking shape in the wake of Israel’s destruction of Gaza at the beginning of the year. These past two weeks have produced a flurry of films, talks, exhibitions, stalls and cultural events solely on Palestine not seen to that extent since the 1970s.
Yesterday’s Palestinian feast brought together some 300 students at my alma mater. The University of Melbourne was immensely heart-warming. It rejuvenated my own hope for a generation of young people determined to bring Palestine into the mainstream.
The Arab-Australian Student Association we formed back in 1970 was then a trailblazer and stood its ground against an aggressively cocky Zionist movement riding on Israel’s triumphalism in the 1967 war. But, like all organizations new blood was needed to keep it strong and healthy. We had all left and it did not help that fiercely competitive career-driven studies and ever-tightening budgets dampened the next generation’s enthusiasm for political activism.
Nor did it help that Middle Eastern studies departments were gradually phased out or bundled in with Islamic studies or even Jewish studies. For more than two decades, it seemed that Palestine would only ever be taken up by socialist groups as part of a larger agenda rather than a cause on its own. That is no longer the case.
Michael Shaik from Australians for Palestine (AFP) took the universities upon himself almost two years ago and slowly began cultivating and encouraging a handful of students to show Palestinian films and documentaries on campus. From just one university and a handful of students, the film screenings have spread across all campuses and are attracting larger and larger audiences.
It was not long before AFP was asked to take part in debates, talks and seminars and soon this germ of an idea began spreading. It was Israel’s attack on Gaza that rallied the students into a movement called Students for Gaza which began a revival of support for Palestine on university campuses.
On Monday, Michael Shaik spoke to an audience of about 150 students at Monash University as part of a cross-campus Palestine Week of activities. Despite the obvious Zionist presence and some interjections, the lunchtime rally was remarkably good-humoured and invigorating for those who had come in support of Palestine.
It was a sight for sore eyes to see the Palestinian flag fluttering in the summery breeze while students cheered Michael and the immensely funny MC, Nazeem Hussain, from the comedy show Salam Cafe. The university administration didn’t find anything objectionable about the gathering of students as they devoured free sausages while giving donations to Gaza.
Palestinian films had been shown on many of the campuses over the week with enthusiastic attendances. When Jewish journalist, writer and blogger Antony Loewenstein came to town to deliver talks at three of the universities in one day, the crowds were overwhelming.
That young people want to know more about the issues is a very positive sign things are changing. It gives Palestine a voice where it matters most in the years to come. These are, after all, formative years that should have a profound effect on the way our future politicians, religious and business leaders and media folk think.
The Palestinian feast last night was a highlight. The Palestinian students, some of from Gaza, were bursting with pride to see Australians join in the dabbkeh dancing and laughter as they shared traditional Arabic food and listened respectfully to the rich, warm sounds of the ‘oud (Arabic lute).
One could not help but believe that their earnestness, energy and optimism would create an enduring Palestinian identity in Australian society. A source from which many Palestinians will be able to draw comfort even in the darkest days of the political maelstrom that threatens to engulf their people. It is that very sumoud (steadfastness) which has kept Palestine a potent force in the hearts and minds of people everywhere.