Posted on Friday, 22 December
Even with the repressive, anti-free-speech atmosphere created by government dictates in schools and other public sector workplaces, it’s still possible – and often very worthwhile – to create discussions around Palestine. These two stories show how from VS members and teacher union activists show how.
School teacher, northern suburbs of Melbourne
Over the past 10 weeks, I’ve been having regular conversations with my colleagues about Palestine. While I consider myself a socialist, my school is not some bastion of the left. Most of my colleagues have never been to a protest or been involved in politics beyond voting every three years.
Initially I started by talking about my attendance at the rallies, this conversation that came up organically when discussing our weekends. Then in the early days of the rallies, a fellow VS member made an excellent suggestion to bring Red Flag into the office. I also brought in some badges and Free Palestine stickers. I put them in on staffroom lunch table and a little post note encouraging people to take one.
This generated a lot of conversation amongst the staff. I had lots of basic questions such as ‘Who is the good guy and the bad guy?’ I also had people say, ‘I thought Israel was hundreds of years old and had existed forever’.
Within my office there was a genuine desire to know more, so I focused on a basic understanding of the conflict and started linking it to prior knowledge. I gave a brief overview of the Nakba and explained that Israel was the coloniser. I used prior historical examples such as the dispossession of Indigenous Australians land and apartheid in South Africa. I talked about the numbers of deaths and pointed out important facts such as Amnesty International calling it ‘apartheid’ and how the settlements in the West Bank were illegal.
I also linked it to unionism and how we as union members should push for stronger condemnation of Israeli war crimes. This resulted in further discussions in our sub branch and passing a pro Palestine motion at a Regional level.
My main piece of advice is to start small and meet people where they are at. I’d also say it’s really important to listen to their thoughts and be open to questions, lots of people just need a sounding board to make sense of the atrocities being committed by Israel.
School teacher, Sydney
I started a full time temporary contract at this school about a term and a half ago. The Department of Education in NSW has sent at least 2 emails reminding staff that they have to remain politically neutral as public servants and to report incidents of racism as school. In addition my principal has reminded staff in our fortnightly all staff meeting of our obligations to remain neutral.
In light of this I have found it hard to have conversations with most staff, even the ones I know are vaguely against Israel's bombardment of Gaza because people are nervous about repression. For example, I wear my badge on my backpack. A colleague asked me "aren't you worried about the rule about not being political at work?" to which I replied "the government isn't neutral - they've sided with Israel. Besides, what are they going to do? Fire me in the middle of a massive teacher shortage?" The colleague laughed.
There are some staff who are staunchly pro Palestine and go to the weekend rallies. I've given them badges and stickers and we regularly discuss the latest news on the conflict in the staff room. Science shares a large staff room with history and English so a lot of people are aware that I am pro Palestine and political. This has meant that a few people have approached me to talk about the issue.
A few weeks ago I saw a student from one of my year 7 classes at the rally with his Mum and siblings. He was delighted to see me and said "Mum that's my teacher!" Every week since he asks me if I am going to the next rally. He did this one day in front of several other students and a student support worker. I said yes and pointed out the watermelon sticker on my drink bottle and he looked at the student support worker smiling and said "it's for Palestine".
I am sticking to political conversations with colleagues for now, rather than in class, as I don't have permanency and my principal seems more likely than others to crack down on pro Palestine work. However I have found it useful already in establishing a political profile at work, normalising political discussions, and building support for Palestine.
The two stories above are great illustrations of what’s possible while navigating the outrageous restrictions on free speech placed on teachers and other public sector workers.
As well as the public rallies and other campaigning, we need more of these sorts of discussions in our workplaces. One on one or small group discussions can be the basis for workplace-based solidarity activity with Palestine during the current crisis and far beyond.
Send us your stories!! Victorian Socialists will continue compiling stories and tips for workplace discussions and solidarity activity on Palestine over coming weeks. Send your thoughts to: [email protected]