On 29 August, Christopher Pyne weighed into the exciting world of student politics, decrying, in an op ed for the Australian, an upsurge of campus anti-Semitism supposedly spearheaded by the activist group Socialist Alternative.
‘Students,’ Pyne warned, ‘have been targeted physically and verbally just because they are Jewish.’
It’s no small thing for the Education Minister to publicly identify the universities within his portfolio as seedbeds of racialised violence. You’d think that, to justify such an extraordinary allegation, there’d be some – oh, I don’t know – evidence.
After all, Socialist Alternative produces a weekly newspaper and holds meetings across the country. As any protest attendee knows, its supporters are not shy explaining their ideas. If SA members were really the pogromists that Pyne claims, surely he could point to instances of bigotry within their own publications.
Yet, amid boilerplate rightist rhetoric about the menace of BDS, Pyne offered only one specific allegation.
‘Recently,’ he said, ‘five Jewish students were refused entry to a Socialist Alternative discussion on Israel because they were Jewish and were told “only progressive-thinking people are allowed”.’
The Minister was presumably referring to a complaint by the Australian Union of Jewish Students about what they called ‘an antisemitic rejection of Jewish students from a Socialist Alternative event’ at Monash University.
Last Friday, when the Age reported Monash University Student Association’s deregistration of the local Socialist Alternative club, one would be excused for thinking Pyne and the AUJS entirely vindicated.
Why, if MSA had declared SA ‘prejudicial to the interests of clubs and societies’, it could only be because of its racist door policy, right?
Except that MSA has now published a statement from its Clubs and Societies executive – and it says something entirely different.
SA was directed to a Misconduct Hearing over allegations that their representatives had denied the entry of Monash University students to a club event held on July 30 2014, after the students in question refused to sign a petition relating to the current conflict in Gaza. […]
Affiliated clubs receive a range of resources from the Monash Student Association … In consideration of this, it was the opinion of the C&S Executive that the actions constituted conduct that was prejudicial to the interests of C&S – a category of Club Misconduct – given that Monash University students had been denied attendance at a club event on the basis of their unwillingness to sign a document relating to a matter of political opinion.
The students weren’t, in other words, barred because they were Jewish. They were barred because of their politics.
MSA apparently considers political exclusions an offence worthy of deregistration – which seems to imply, rather bizarrely, that the Liberal Club couldn’t sit without inviting Labor students to join its deliberations.
Leaving that aside, the C&S statement explicitly contradicts Pyne’s version of events. You might disagree with banning political opponents from a meeting – but you can scarcely call it anti-Semitic.
Why should anyone outside Monash University care about campus hijinks?
Certainly, university politics is – and always has been – ill-mannered, bad-tempered and, sometimes, overheated. Pyne could talk to his prime minister about that: the young Tony Abbott was, of course, notorious as a hard man on campus. A few years back, the Age gave a glimpse of the Abbott style:
‘He was a very offensive, a particularly obnoxious sort of guy,’ said Barbie Schaffer, a Sydney teacher who was at Sydney University with Mr Abbott.
‘He was very aggressive, particularly towards women and homosexuals’.
Published university reports show that after a narrow defeat in the university senate elections in 1976 – Mr Abbott’s first year of an economics-law degree – he kicked in a glass panel door.
In the ensuing two years, he was repeatedly accused in the university paper of being a right-wing thug and bully who used sexist and racist tactics to intimidate his opponents.
Lawyer David Patch, who is a Labor candidate in the federal seat of Wentworth, recalls an AUS conference in the mid-1970s, which had initiated a special ‘women’s room’ for females to discuss political issues.
‘Tony used to stand outside the women’s room with his right-wing mates and loudly tell sexist and homophobic jokes,’ he said.
‘University administrations,’ said Christopher Pyne in his Oz op ed, ‘should be very careful not to invoke freedom of speech to allow speech that vilifies students.’
Yes, vilification is a bad thing. We should have no tolerance for those who, say, lurk outside the women’s room telling poofter jokes.
But that’s not what Pyne means. His warnings about the dangers of free speech reflect a larger trend, a concerted effort – in the wake of a Gaza campaign that appalled millions – to delegitimise critics of Israel, particularly on campus.
So, for instance, in the US, the University of Illinois has withdrawn a job promised to Professor Steven Salaita because of his anti-Israel tweets. The board of trustees later explained it sought a ‘university community that values civility as much as scholarship’ – an extraordinary claim that implied a concern for scholarly inquiry only so long as the results don’t offend anyone.
The Middle East remains one of the major issues in international politics today. It’s a question that needs more discussion, not less, if we’re ever to arrive at peace.
Naturally, supporters of Israel don’t like to hear their views challenged. But that’s too bad. Politics, whether on campus or anywhere else, entails debate – and it’s shameful to use bogus allegations of anti-Semitism to shut your opponents down.