A message to university Vice-Chancellors from a child of holocaust survivors

May 25, 2024
An Arabic woman at the students pro-Palestinian encampment in the grounds of Melbourne University. Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Image Alamy/ Michael Thomas / Alamy Stock Photo

Let me introduce myself. I am a child of Holocaust survivors. My mother survived Auschwitz and my father fought the Nazi war machine as a partisan during the Second World War. Ninety-eight percent of my extended family perished during the Holocaust.

From a very early age, beginning perhaps when I was four, I became acutely aware of the Holocaust. My mother informed me throughout her life about her experiences of barely surviving by telling me what she endured in concentration camps through successive stories adjusted appropriately for my differing ages until my adulthood.

My early awareness of genocide accelerated my sensitivity not just to the Jewish genocide, the Holocaust, but to all genocides and injustice in our world.

My universalisation of the Jewish genocide during the Second World War, naturally, extended to supporting reconciliation through negotiations and compromise by Israel with the Palestinian people.

In my adult life I became a psychotherapist and existentialist psychoanalyst, partly because I thought that such a profession, particularly its theoretical insights, would help through my various activities to bring about a compromise between the Palestinians and Israel.

This was not to be, and we are now witnessing a situation where there has been a continuing war of annihilation of Palestinians since October 2023, with the high probability of mass starvation of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Palestinians of all ages.

In the present context, with this war against the Palestinians in its seventh month we are staring at the possible destruction of the Palestinian nation. Mass starvation, apart from the massive bombing and loss of life of thousands of innocent people, stalks the Palestinian people.

This genocidal war against Palestinians conducted by Israel has involved the intentional killing of about 123 journalists, the destruction of all universities in Gaza, the deliberate killing of Palestinian academics and other cultural figures and workers resulting, in short, in the destruction of the continuity of Palestinian culture.

This unimaginable crime of destroying a people’s culture is reminiscent of the crime of the destruction of Jewish intelligentsia and other carriers of Jewish culture by the Nazis. It is unquestionably an intentional destruction of the continuity of Palestinian people as a nation, and their identity through the destruction of their culture.

The present moment in history representing this unimaginable cultural crime behoves upon all of us to prevent it with all of our capacities and with all the will we can muster.

Here in Australia, as in a number of other countries, a misleading campaign has been led by unelected and unrepresentative organisations claiming to represent the Jewish community. Most of these organisations are uncritical defenders of successive Israeli governments with close connections to Israeli intelligence agencies.

The key claim of these unrepresentative organisations has been that the opposition and protests against the Israeli army’s war in Gaza is led by ‘antisemites’, and that many of the students and other participants in the protests are ‘antisemitic’.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I have talked to many students and have participated in demonstrations, and not once have I heard or witnessed any antisemitic comments or behaviour.

On the contrary: what I have witnessed by talking to many participants opposed to this war of annihilation has been unconditional openness to discussion and dialogue with strong intent for mutual understanding, and a very strong desire to contribute to a just and equitable compromise in what has been an interminable conflict.

I was therefore deeply surprised and deeply disturbed when I heard that Australian vice-chancellors were going to follow in the footsteps of heads of American universities in calling the police to dismantle student encampments at Australian universities.

The justification for this dismantling is the false cry about ‘antisemitism’.

There are a number of avenues to resolve this impasse between yourselves, as Australian vice-chancellors, and the students at encampments who I also observed have a huge support throughout all universities by the student and academic community for their courageous occupations.

The first step to resolving this is for universities to divest from all projects which support this ongoing genocide.

The second, and of course closely related to the first, is for all Australian vice-chancellors, to gain a greater understanding of the historical and current background to this conflict and not to be deceived by the very skilful propaganda of the Israeli government.

The third is to actually meet and talk to the students. Leave your offices and talk and converse with these highly idealistic young students!

It is, undoubtedly, a great misfortune that many, if not most administrators, in universities are too easily persuaded by the false and often fairly crude narratives of the Israeli propaganda departments. This is somewhat surprising and paradoxical, given that many of these administrators other than vice-chancellors, like yourselves, are people with high academic qualifications and, one presumes, well developed critical skills capable of analysing what is true and what is false.

I therefore appeal to you and urge you to support these peaceful and harmless protests and occupations against the Gazan genocide, and to divest from any investments or activities that harm the Palestinian people.

I want to end by briefly relating the main meaning of Tolstoy’s short novel, The Death of Ivan Illich. In this novella, a senior bureaucrat on his deathbed, attempts to understand the meaning of his life. As his life-force begins to leave him, he realises that his conformism to the ruling powers throughout his working life had made him an unthinking cog to a system whose values he questioned and found wanting. Ivan Illich dies realising that he led an unfulfilled life, a life he regretted leading and a life that lacked meaning.

Do not fall into this trap of meaninglessness and an unfulfilled life. You, the vice-chancellors of Australian Universities, have a chance right now to prove your life meaningful not only to yourselves, but also to the people of Australia by making sure that this war of annihilation against the Palestinian people ends and that the means for the continuation of this war end immediately.

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