‘Palestine is one of the most barbaric sites of oppression in the world today, and even amidst pulverised homes and hopes, Palestinians continue to resist in the most inspiring ways. This deserves our boldest solidarity. Just as student unions have always fought in the past for other issues, UMSU, our student union, should commit its support for BDS and Palestine’ – Raphael, Jewish student member of Students for Palestine – Unimelb
On Monday, I spent my afternoon listening to pro-Israel students provide arguments against the passing of a Palestine solidarity motion at a University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) meeting. This second Palestine solidarity motion was moved by a Palestinian international student, Dana, seconded by an Arab student, Ahmed, and drafted after a lengthy consultation process with students that the union represents, led by UMSU and its People of Colour Department. The motion successfully passed with 13 votes for, 3 votes against.
The night before, I had seen a tweet by Australia Labor Israel Dialogue (ALID) mobilising against Palestinian National Tertiary Education Union National President candidate and casual academic Fahad Ali. Ali’s leadership has been instrumental in a new NTEU’s endorsement of guidelines for the international academic boycott of Israel.
A few days ago, Palestinian writer Muhib Nabulsi problematised the practice of Israeli-owned restaurants serving Palestinian and Arab food as ‘Israeli food’ in a series of social media posts. Shortly after, the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council—alongside other Zionist organisations in so-called Australia and overseas—began harassing him online. They took particular issue with his Emerging Critics Fellowship at the Sydney Review of Books; in an attempt to pre-emptively rob him of future professional opportunities, AIJAC painted him as an anti-semite and accused him of incitement—despite the fact that all of his posts were deemed within the community guidelines of the social media platform in question.
It’s only been a week since Israel’s airstrikes on Gaza that killed forty-nine Palestinians, including seventeen children. I have family in Gaza and, instead of doing what one should do when their relatives are surviving indiscriminate bombing, I am trying to keep up with the various Australia-Israel bodies that are on our backs—Zionist bodies that overtly state their purpose as pursuing Israel’s interests in Australia. There’s too many of them to count, yet over time we have become familiar with their strategies as organisers on the receiving end of their campaigns.
One such strategy is the weaponisation of antisemitism against supporters of Palestinian freedom. When local University of Melbourne Jewish historian Jordy Silverstein and Palestinian activist and student Jeanine Hourani penned an academic solidarity statement in support of UMSU’s passing of their first Palestine solidarity motion in May this year, they warned strongly of the harms of this strategy:
We stand against antisemitism in all its forms and stand against the weaponisation of accusations of antisemitism for political ends in order to silence critiques of Zionism and Israel. Many of these accusations rely on, and are fueled by, the IHRA definition of antisemitism, a definition that has been widely critiqued (including by its drafter) for its use to shut down discussion of Palestinian human rights and stifle discussion on the Israeli governments policies and actions against Palestinians. While the IHRA definition states that naming Israel and Zionism as racist endeavors is antisemitic, Israel and Zionism, just like other countries and ideologies, are not beyond critique, and we as academics and educators should resist exceptionalism that puts Israel and Zionism beyond critique.
We warn against the conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism and Judaism with Zionism and the dangerous Pavlovian labeling of critical academic work and activism on Palestine as antisemitic.
This support statement was signed by hundreds of academics across this continent, yet it received no response from the University of Melbourne management—let alone an upholding of the demands made in the statement to ensure students are safe from false accusations against their activism.
Even when UMSU representatives were slapped with a class action lawsuit initiated by a Liberal Party member, a non-Jewish student who supports Israel, the University had nothing to say in support of its own democratic student union. As reported in The Age:
Riazaty, a Liberal Party member who is not Jewish but claims to have has many friends who are, said he believed the student union acted outside of its purpose as a student union (violating the Associations Incorporation Reform Act 2012) and alleges it violated the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001. He said while it affected Jewish students and people who supported Israel, there was “a bigger injustice here”. “This sets a precedent,” he said. “I felt I couldn’t let this go and stand by and do nothing.”
This Young Liberal playing saviour was not accused of antisemitism, of risking the safety of Jewish students with the escalatory lawfare efforts that he unilaterally initiated against the student union and had publicised in mainstream media. That is despite his right-wing affiliations posing a real threat to Jewish diaspora, as his party works to further entrench white supremacy in this settler colony.
Receiving the support of Zionist students, the motion was rescinded by UMSU in response to the lawsuit, undermining the very values necessary to fight racism, including antisemitism, on campus. Students for Palestine member Emma Dynes has highlighted well what is at stake:
This class action attacked support for Palestine and attacked the right of student unions to take political positions and exercise internal democracy. Student unions historically played a key role in championing left-wing campaigns. During the Vietnam War, Melbourne University student union hid draft dodgers in Union House. At Monash, the union supported students accused of treason for raising money for the National Liberation Front resisting US imperialism.
If right-wing politics is considered to be safe and advantageous to Zionist Jewish students, then when accusations of antisemitism emerge, there are strong grounds for interrogating how such accusations are being instrumentalised. That’s because the epistemic conflation of Zionism and Jewishness is not the doing of our pro-Palestine movement. Our movement insists on the freedom to oppose colonisation and for the political necessity to resist both Islamophobia and antisemitism given both are deeply rooted in the same systems of white supremacy and Christian hegemony. It’s worth emphasising also that the movers of the pro-BDS motion are officers of the People of Colour Department. It is their responsibility to initiate campaigns, motions and actions that fight against racism.
🧵I find it disgusting that a democratically debated motion is being subjected to lawfare again. With my own political opinions aside re Palestine (I support the BDS motion), we had engaged in consultation to ensure councillors were aware and informed of student sentiment. 1/7
— Sophie Nguyen (@soph_ngu) August 15, 2022
The night before the second Palestine solidarity motion was due to pass this week, Zionism Victoria published a joint statement on its social media accounts:
Zionism Victoria joins with AIJAC – Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, Executive Council of Australian Jewry – ECAJ, Zionist Federation of Australia, The Australasian Union of Jewish Students and Jewish Community Council of Victoria in condemning the antisemitic and anti-Israel motion being put forward today by the University of Melbourne Student on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. (Emphasis added.)
This conflation of Judaism and Zionism not only discredits Palestinian oppression—it is entrenched institutionally and epistemically so that opposing Israel’s supporters in student politics is indistinguishable from a racial attack on Australian Jews.
For Zionists, the conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism is also an inevitable ideological move. The AUJS defines itself as not merely a representative organisation for Jewish students across Australia, but also has Zionism as one of its main pillars, stating openly for years that they ‘seek to promote a positive image of Israel on campus.’ The constitution of AUJS states its responsibility of ‘actively advancing the interests of Israel.’
How then can Palestine student activists take Zionists as political opponents without also being deemed as viciously anti-Jewish? To Zionist definers of antisemitism, it is antisemitic to regard Israel a colonial, apartheid state and pro-Palestine students are being asked to work with this imposed definition and suspend their antiracist knowledge. They’re being coerced into adhering to Zionist understandings that further Israel’s impunity on the international stage and delegitimise the validity of Palestinian struggle. They’re being reprimanded for refusing to take on the coloniser’s truth at a time of supposed decolonising of academia. That is the situation we expect Palestine student activists to navigate without demanding accountability or critical scrutiny. It shouldn’t be controversial to expect that, when Zionist students engage in political work on campus, their ideological claims will face opposition.
I write this while considering how overlooking the weaponisation of accusations of antisemitism harms all our liberatory struggles. For, if opposition to standing with state powers is racism, then Indian, Saudi, Russian, Chinese, Iranian nationalist students can all also claim to be violated by internationalist solidarity and expect to be taken seriously when the majoritarian state they identify with is criticised for its oppressive structures and practices.
It was just two months ago that Muslim Student Associations organised for the cancellation of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party MP Tejasvi Surya’s events where he was due to speak at Australian universities at the invitation of the Australia India Youth Dialogue. Their political organising opposed Hindutva, ‘a modern political ideology that advocates for Hindu supremacy and seeks to transform India, constitutionally a secular state, into an ethno-religious nation known as the Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation).’ It would have been regarded a farce to consider their actions as racist towards Hindus or anti-Indian.
It’s not uncommon for nationalists to attempt to shield their state apologism from critique through claims of being discriminated against. And when antisemitism is raised upon receiving criticism for stating one ‘stands with Israel’, this charge should not circulate and land so urgently by liberals and threaten the futures of pro-Palestine students who are mostly from racialised, marginalised backgrounds themselves. Especially when when Arabs and Muslims are considered always already suspect. We ought to have an investment in pursuing truth, or we’d perpetuating one kind of racism (Islamophobia) in the name of condemning another kind of racism (antisemitism).
On defining antisemitism, Ghada Karmi argues that knowing criticism of Israel is not racism ‘does not alter the equation Zionism has been able to project’, adding that:
There is no question that antisemitism is always wrong. But when it comes to conflating antisemitism with anti-Zionism, the picture is not so straightforward. It should be addressed by proper thought and analysis, not timid acceptance leading to faulty decisions.
Criticality is necessary to ensuring education sites such as universities and schools can function as sites for radical, anti-racist possibility.
In the UMSU meeting, I listened to pro-Israel students argue that the Palestine solidarity motion threatens Jewish student safety and is antisemitic in denying Jewish connection to Israel. That ‘misrepresentation’ of Zionism is antisemitic. Students said they felt reluctant to tell others they identify as Zionist as an example of a lack of safety for Jews at the university. They expressed feeling intimidated by the posters of Students for Palestine that promote the club’s events.
This is the kind of poster they were referring to.
Furthermore, safety should not be equated with agreement. The Australasian Union of Jewish Students released a statement on the motion that states that they reject ‘the utterly false and ludicrous version of history set out in the motion’s preamble’, and instead of providing a correction to this supposedly falsified history, they continued to claim that its objective is ‘the disappearance of Israel as a Jewish state.’
I read the motion preamble and the version of history it presents. I’ll quote it here for readers:
The state of Israel was established in 1948 and brought about the ethnic cleansing of more than 350 Palestinian villages and towns, forcefully displacing over 750,000 Palestinians from their homes. Those Palestinians and their descendants are still illegally prevented from returning to their homes.
As a Palestinian, what I can say is that Nakba denial is the evident racism here. No survivors of ethnic cleansing should have to pander to the perceptions and sensitivities of denialists in the name of shoddy appeals to anti-racism. And no colonised people should have to sit through the denial of present-day colonisation and apartheid that took place in the UMSU’s meeting.
Here I turn to Jordy Silverstein who has previously problematised a similar evident fragility in relation to Zionist feminist complaints against pro-Palestinian statements:
They are working not to challenge the violence which the Israeli State does, but are focused on their own emotions and sense of belonging, wanting to extract from this Women’s movement a sense of safety and their own political worth. In doing so, they replicate Israeli hegemonic claims to suffering and persecution as well as a dominant desire to have full access to all spaces, and the erasing work which such claims and desires do.
While it’s important to ensure complaints of racism are taken seriously, it’s wrong to accept such protests at face value.
In fact, the seriousness of racism claims is diminished when complaints are weaponised for ideological ends. We see this with debates in Turtle Island over critical race theory, where progress in race education is exploited to shut down classroom discussion of slavery and police brutality for being ‘anti-white’.
My first year as an undergraduate student began the summer that Israel first launched an attack on Gaza and killed 1417 Palestinians, in 2008. The Free Gaza campaign in Naarm that I became involved in expanded to university campuses and we formed campus-based Students for Palestine groups that are now finding a resurgence after last year’s Unity Intifada. Our efforts to defend Palestinian freedom at Monash were constantly disrupted by those who rallied behind Israel as it suffocated the people of Gaza in mass. Despite the anti-Palestinian hate we were subjected to by patriotic Israel supporters—during the peak years of Islamophobia—we continued our activism, ready to face serious political opponents that we believed we could defeat on moral and just grounds. We naively regarded student politics as a legitimate site of contest.
Yet in 2014, right after Israel again launched an air campaign on Gaza that killed 2,310 Palestinians, our club (then functioning under Socialist Alternative) was deregistered after relentless antisemitism smears in response to our Palestine solidarity efforts. Entirely deregistered and banned from operating on campus—demonstrating once again how our existence is punished by Israeli necropolitical violence and our activism is met with Australian carcerality.
Our club was deregistered after Zionists disrupting a forum we heldcomplained that we imposed a policy that Jews were unwelcome. We reported this untruth but our account made no difference to the imposed ban:
Not only were Jews welcome and encouraged to attend, but the talk itself was given by a Jewish member of Socialist Alternative. A small group of organised Zionists attempted to disrupt the meeting. They gave up after being told the meeting was for supporters of Palestine and they were not welcome.
This suppression is to be expected at settler-colonial, neoliberal academic institutions that were never ours.
While Zionism Victoria can appeal to the historical and ongoing role of white universities in manufacturing support for the Israeli project, Palestinians and other Indigenous peoples know that the university produces the very knowledge that dehumanises, dominates and maintains state violence.
It is in enacting this knowledge that non-Palestinians need to take on the imperative of resisting the weaponisation of antisemitism. The labour and burden of this resistance should not fall on Palestine activists in Australia, who have little power or authority to challenge opportunistic definitions of antisemitism or dismantle structural forms of racism.
The university also produces the technology that is used to kill and subjugate us. When students mobilise against contracts with weapons manufacturers Elbit Systems—as they are at RMIT—or Lockheed Martin—which runs a research and development centre at the University of Melbourne—they are standing against the military industrial complex and the university they are enrolled at. The material costs should not need to be stated.
Student activists I collaborate and speak with tell me they desire their efforts be focussed on strategising towards anti-militarisation rather than dealing with antisemitism smears.
Last Thursday, I spoke at a forum organised by Students for Palestine on ‘Why you should oppose Israeli apartheid’ and I emphasised the importance of sustaining the meaning of words such as apartheid that emerge from anticolonial, radical struggle.
Student activists ought to be encouraged to continue their pursuit of a critical political education and find support for the importance of anti-racist, anti-imperialist knowledge sharing they are committed to. Students should also be protected when they are unfairly accused of engaging in the oppression of others if we want to preserve antiracism.
If we fail to effectively limit the weaponisation of accusations of antisemitism, as Professor Ian Almond warns us, ‘it might not be exaggerated to say that the result of all this, ultimately, will be the death of the term ‘anti-Semitism’ itself as a meaningful word.’ And if, as anti-racists our role is to study how racism functions, we would understand that none of our liberatory struggles can risk this death of meaning that seems to already be in motion.