Account delivered to the Shadow Minister for Education, Senator Sarah Henderson on 3 May 2024. In attendance were students, AUJS leaders and community leaders. The author is seated front left in the image above.

Thank you Senator Henderson for the opportunity to share my experiences with you as a First Year Arts student at Melbourne University.

I completed my VCE in 2022 and spent a gap year in Israel. After Hamas conducted its terror attack on October 7, I spent 3 days in a bomb shelter which was an incredibly frightening experience, having grown up in peaceful Melbourne. I was worried for the safety of my people and ultimately myself.

By way of background, I should also say that I am the granddaughter of a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. I was 12 when he passed away. As I grew older, I promised myself that the best way I could honour his life was to never back down if confronted with anti-Semitism.

Walking into the University on my first day, I walked past signs of missing hostages that had been graffitied. Lawful protest is one thing, but what I saw was utter contempt for the lives of innocent hostages. I was handed posters that were insulting the place that I call my second home and is a dominant part of my identity. I was prepared for people standing up for the death of Gazans. I understand that and I grieve the loss of all innocents, but this was hate, not debate.

When other students asked me where I went on my gap year, I would respond, “Europe,” as I feared how they would react if I shared where I had actually been. This wasn’t just the first day, it was every day at the University.

All of which leads me to the specific event which took place in my Criminology on 25th March. Shortly, after the start of the class, the lecturer announced:

“I know that there’s a ‘Die-In’ today and it starts at 9:30, so I understand, and I welcome and commend you all for standing up and walking out at 9:30. I’m absolutely fine with that. I won’t take it personally. I would join you except I have a lecture to give, but I will be there in spirit, lying down to protest our silence and complicity with the genocide that is going on in Gaza. So, just, uh, go for it.”

 I was startled, dumbfounded and distressed. I knew at that point that I would not feel safe attending the lectures or tutorials.

Deeply upset and hurt by these comments, I wrote to the subject coordinator, expressing my disappointment about what was said. I pointed out that at “a time when anti-Semitism levels are the highest since the Second World War, some people are using criticism of Israel’s actions in response to the terrorist attack on October 7 to mask their hostility towards Jews. While I’m not accusing my lecturer of doing that, it is happening in Melbourne and on our campus. In this context, the lecturer has contributed to an environment in which I feel unsafe as a Jewish student. Specifically, as someone who has been directly impacted by the situation in the Middle East, I was put in a learning environment in which I felt extremely uncomfortable and marginalised.

I waited over 48 hours for a response from the subject coordinator. He apologised for the lateness, but didn’t acknowledge how I felt. He simply set up a time for me to meet with him and his colleague.

I thought to myself – would any other minority be forced to wait 48 hours for a response after having been made to feel “unsafe, uncomfortable and marginalised”.   And would they not have those feelings acknowledged in that response?

At the meeting I shared with them the fact that I was in a bomb shelter for 3 days after the October 7 attack and how the word “genocide” deeply affects me as a Jewish student who is also the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor. They didn’t acknowledge this in any way and proceeded to share the following messages:

  1. The nature of the Crimonology course means uncomfortable issues will be raised. The subject is particularly confronting for Indigenous students. This is why there are content warnings before classes.
  2. The subject is all about promoting and fostering debate and open discussion on difficult issues.
  3. The lecturer is the Chair of the subject, has great relationships with her students and is aware of my email to Liam.
  4. The comment which I raised concerns about was a short statement in the context of a 2-hour class.
  5. As I joined the class 2 weeks into the semester, I should have caught up with what was covered in Week 1 where they briefly touched on the uncomfortable nature of some of the content.

If I were to paraphrase their response in a single sentence, it would be: “We’re sorry you feel the way you feel, but this is Criminology, so suck it up.”

Unfortunately, the meeting ended with me in tears, which I regret as I really didn’t want to show my emotion.

After taking a day to reflect on the unsatisfactory nature of the meeting, I wrote to both the outgoing and incoming Deans making the following points:

  1. I was deeply hurt that a highly credentialed academic would choose to use a lecture on an unrelated topic to put forward her political opinion and choose to use the term “genocide”. All people of good intent would agree its use in the current conflict is, at the very least, arguable. What is not arguable is that it is a highly emotive and politically charged term. Its use invites an emotional response, particularly at a time when anti-Semitism levels are the highest they’ve been since the Holocaust. The lecturer would know this. She also knows that her use of that term caused me to experience distress and to feel unsafe. If she cares so much about her students as the subject coordinator suggested, why wouldn’t she reach out to me? What conclusion would any reasonable person draw from that inaction combined with the original political statement?
  2. I accept that Criminology deals with uncomfortable and confronting topics. I appreciate and value the fact that lectures and tutorials are appropriate places to conduct open discussions and debate. I defy anyone to form an opinion that the lecturer’s intention in making the genocide comment in the way that she did in a lecture unrelated to the war in Gaza was evidence of an intention to open debate and discussion on an extraordinarily complex political issue. The subject coordinator admitted as much when she said it was only a small comment in a 2-hour lecture.
  3. In any case, in the context of the message – when it was said and how it was said – what would have happened if I chose to challenge and object to the use of the term “genocide”? It’s hard to discern how the lecturer was creating a safe space to discuss opposing perspectives.
  4. In my meeting with the subject coordinators I asked; what if the lecturer had said something like “She commends protests against Indigenous rights and that this land is NOT stolen land”?  I suggested we would be having a very different conversation. They didn’t respond. At first, I thought my point resonated with them. On further reflection, I suspect their lack of response was more to do with the fact that they were appalled that a privileged private school girl would dare draw on the lived experience of an Indigenous person. If that’s what they were thinking, then I agree. While I empathise with the plight of Indigenous Australians, particularly in the context of the criminal justice system, I would not and cannot speak to their lived experience.

What I can do is speak to the lived experience of a Jewish person in Melbourne, particularly in the wake of October 7.

I can speak to what it’s like to be yelled at and threatened as I walked down the street with my more observant friends who wear kippot.

I can speak to how I reacted when I learned that two of my brother’s friends were attacked and beaten in Caulfield by anti-Semites after October 7 and before Israel entered Gaza.

I can speak to how it feels to be told that I had to leave the Synagogue because our safety couldn’t be guaranteed on the Friday night when there was an anti-Israel protest in South Caulfield.

And I can absolutely tell you how I felt when, after my meeting with the subject coordinator, I discovered a retweet from him on October 8 which read

“Israeli colonialism is brutal and relentless. Love & Solidarity with the Palestinian people ”.

Please take a moment to allow that to sink in. A day after over 1,200 innocent Jewish men, women, children and babies were killed, raped, mutilated and burnt alive and before Israel entered Gaza, this educator saw fit to express himself in that way.

I can speak passionately about all of these things which reflect the lived experience of a Jewish “private school girl” and why the use of the word “genocide” by a respected academic triggered me in the way it did.

It is now a week since the Deans received this letter. I am yet to receive a response.

Senator Henderson, my story is just one example of many. It highlights the fact as Jewish students we know longer feel safe attending university and it really seems to us that the administration doesn’t care. They fail to recognise that we want nothing more than the same consideration and sensitivity that is regularly afforded to other groups.

Growing up we heard stories about how Jews were physically barred from entering university campuses in Europe in the 1930’s. We could only imagine how they felt. Well, this is 2024 and we no longer have to imagine.

Senator, I ask that you and your Opposition colleagues hold the Government to account for allowing this to occur and to pressure them to do what it takes to make university campuses a safe place for all.

Thank you for your time.

Article by Author/s
Sophie Schwartz
Sophie is a 1st year Psychology major at the University of Melbourne.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Sophie,
    Thank you for your courage. I am shocked and saddened to hear of your experience on campus. All academic staff should have more training and awareness about how to compassionately respond to genuine and legitimate concerns. I am so sorry that you are not feeling safe. My heart is breaking at the situation and the rising aggression. I have colleagues and friends deeply affected and I feel so helpless. You have my support and the support of so many others. You are not alone. I was once a first year Psychology major at the University of Melbourne trying to work out if we would ever get to talk about people in psychology instead of the biology of the brain, eyes, ears and how to teach pigeons to play pingpong. Imagine if first year psychology content contained the latest research in compassion and connection and conflict management and perspective taking.
    Keep going Sophie, you are changing the world and we are lucky to have you in it.
    Warm regards, Christine

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