A new McCarthyism: War and the crackdown on support for Palestine

Repression of Palestine activism echoes the crackdown during previous wars, argue James Supple and Tom Orsag

The war on Gaza has seen Australian governments, schools, universities and the media all attempt to silence and crack down on support for Palestine.

Displays of support that would be commonplace around issues from climate action to anti-racism, or government-supported wars like Ukraine, have seen workers face disciplinary action and threats.

This is not a result of the Zionist lobby—although pro-Israel activists do press for sackings and other action against Palestine supporters. It is the kind of media and state mobilisation that often takes place during war.

The hysterical climate following 9/11 is one example—with the US President George W Bush declaring the population was, “Either with us, or with the terrorists”, and waves of Islamophobia and anti-terror laws.

Another is “McCarthyism”, the fevered climate in the US during the onset of the Cold War in the 1950s, when Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunt against Communist sympathisers saw many people lose jobs and careers.

Australia may not be formally at war in Gaza. But the ruling class here recognises that they have a stake in the outcome. Both major parties see US global power as essential to their own interests, and recognise Israel as the US’s key partner in the Middle East.

The result has been a closing of ranks across major social institutions against pro-Palestine activism—with a firm echo of wartime repression.

Ruling classes recognise war as a situation of life and death. Defeat is a threat to their power and privileges.

They will spend billions of dollars and require enormous sacrifices from the population. This requires mobilising all the means at their disposal to whip up support for the war, and isolate anyone standing against it.

The freedom of speech and freedom to organise that are accepted in ordinary times have frequently been suspended during wartime—with the First World World and Vietnam War clear examples.

The Great War

The federal Labor government that came to office in August 1914 was fully committed to the war effort.

Labor Prime Minister Billy Hughes passed a new War Precautions Act in an effort to target and silence opponents of the war. There were 3442 prosecutions under the Act. Even minor offences could attract six months’ jail.

While there was initial enthusiasm for the war, left-wing groups, most importantly the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), opposed it from the outset.

The government set out to break them. In 1915 IWW leader Tom Barker was charged for publishing an anti-war poster deemed “prejudicial to recruitment”.

He was charged again over a cartoon in their newspaper Direct Action and jailed in March 1916, but released three months later after a protest campaign. A succession of other IWW members were prosecuted under the Act for anti-war speeches at rallies in Sydney’s Domain.

Miners in NSW who took strike action in late 1915 for a shorter working week were denounced as “German sympathisers” and traitors by the media.

The crackdown accelerated as the government moved to introduce conscription. The union movement led an enormous campaign that defeated two referendums (technically plebiscites) in October 1916 and December 1917.

The IWW was also central to the anti-conscription movement.

In late 1916 police raided the IWW’s office, with membership lists passed on to employers to encourage sackings. Individual members had their homes raided.

Twelve IWW members were arrested on trumped up arson charges in Sydney just weeks before the first conscription referendum in 1916.

In July 1917, Hughes made continued membership of the IWW a crime punishable by six months’ jail.


Australia joined the US war against the National Liberation Front (NLF) of Vietnam in the early 1960s. Conscription was introduced in 1965.

In the climate of the Cold War, opposition was initially limited to a small minority. ASIO carried out intimidating surveillance of anti-war activists, feeding information to employers, conservative MPs and the media.

In July 1967 it was revealed that the mainstream press had agreed to a voluntary censorship system, where the Federal Government would issue a “D notice” on Defence-related matters not to be reported.

Protests were regularly attacked by the police. Even the massive Moratorium street marches in May and September 1970 attracted hysteria and vitriol. The media warned darkly that the protests would be be violent and leave blood in the streets. Billy Sneeden, then Minister for National Service, attacked marchers as “political bikies pack-raping democracy”.

School students were suspended for wearing badges supporting the Moratorium and several teachers supporting the protests were also sacked.

In July 1967, members of the Monash University Labour Club in Melbourne voted to collect money for “unspecified aid” to the NLF, including military aid. This signalled their intention to aid the enemy.

“All hell broke loose,” as one account of the movement explains. “The press, the government, the RSL and the ALP condemned the action as treason, and the Monash Vice-Chancellor banned the collection.”

The Federal Government passed laws to make collecting money for the NLF punishable by up to two years’ jail. But 1000 students voted to support collecting aid at a Student General Meeting, and the government backed off.

Both the First World War and Vietnam show that war leads to repression—but also that it can produce movements that bring the war to an end.

Teacher activist: ‘Antoinette Lattouf was fired. Teachers are facing intimidation by the Department’

NSW teacher Maryam Chekchok spoke at a Unionists for Palestine forum on supporting Palestine at work. Below is part of her speech

I ama high school teacher and I became one, not just to educate but to empower our youth to stand up for what is just and what is right. I also sought to work alongside like-minded individuals with whom I could share my ideas.

Like people in other industries, I was told to remain “neutral” and asked to never speak of the “international conflict” in the school space. Note the word, “international” as if it doesn’t have implications on us here in Australia. I guess we need to rewrite the syllabus for three-quarters of the subjects we teach if we are to steer clear of international affairs.

The refusal to expose students to different ideas, branded as provocative or too radical, for fear of corruption is absurd. The attempt at denouncing talk amongst teachers regarding the genocide occurring in Palestine goes against every moral bone in our body.

We are here to stand in the face of hypocrisy and call out our leaders for their uninformed stance that teachers are to remain neutral in the genocide happening in real time in Palestine.

What we do in our school setting is a direct reflection on the values we uphold outside of it. Our role as teachers emphasises that we have, not just a responsibility, but a right to inform students about global issues, including but not limited to the historical context, political dynamics and humanitarian consequences of the situation in Palestine. We have a right to discuss world issues with our fellow teachers openly and be trusted to do so respectfully.

In the same way we drive events and programs to show solidarity with our Indigenous community, we promote fairness in love and sexual freedom, so too should we stand up against the injustices being inflicted on our Palestinian brothers and sisters.

Campaigning for Palestine also raises important issues about our rights at work.

Our integrity, our professional judgement is being questioned every time we are told to keep schools as politically neutral spaces. Despite the Teachers Fed backing the wearing of the keffiyeh in schools, we are somehow still fearful of the repercussions.

Our leaders are very well aware of the power of education. The respect that teachers have in the community scares them.

This is why the Minns government is attempting to weaponise the education system for the purpose of supporting its pro-Israeli stance in schools through the call to neutrality. I’m sorry to say, but Chris Minns, when you lit up our Opera House with the Israeli flag, you made it very clear that you yourself would not remain neutral.


When Zionists targeted Victorian teacher Jason Wong for speaking at a pro-Palestine rally in his own time and not in his school, his employer took heed of the Zionists’ complaints and almost cost him his job.

Antoinette Lattouf was fired from the ABC as a reporter for sharing a Human Rights Watch post—a post from a reputable organisation, skewed to no side except the side of humanity. The media union has labelled her sacking as “disturbing” and claimed staff from “diverse backgrounds” are “disproportionately” attacked.

This kind of censorship and discrimination negates the foundation of our democratic right to free speech and claims to be a multicultural society.

Teachers in NSW are facing the same intimidation by the Department. Our ever-growing group, Teachers for Palestine, is testament to our dedication and refusal to kneel to the demands of the Minns govt.

Starting with only 14 teachers at our first forum, we saw 40 at our second and 60 at our third. Our WhatsApp group has 217 members—that number continues to grow. Twenty schools took part in our first group photo action, including Watermelon Wednesday.

On Tuesday 13 February, we saw teachers and school staff don keffiyehs, pins, jewellery and watermelon symbols. We have had reports from 13 schools so far from this second action. The decline in the number of participating schools is because of the repression of any support for Palestine and the fear of disciplinary action.

We call on unions to speak up for humanity and to have our backs when we face disciplinary action in our workplaces.

With my olive skin, hijab and Lebanese background, I am told that I need to keep my “personal connection” to the conflict out of my classroom.

But, I still have hope. We must continue the fight, post about it on our social media, be allowed and be trusted to have these conversations with our students and our colleagues.

Remaining neutral only serves to perpetuate ignorance, gives life to the false notion that supporting Palestine is antisemitic and hinders meaningful and trusting relationships from being created through our common humanity.

Silence in the face of injustice is complicity with the oppressor.


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