After the Australian National University (ANU) and Adelaide University both rejected the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism this month, Jewish university students once again have been left feeling like they are not being invited to talk on issues chiefly concerning them and their safety on campus.
This is the continuation of what seems to be a trend occurring nationally, as was the case when the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) passed a motion in 2022 that left Jewish students feeling outraged and hurt. Political officer on the executive of MUJSS (Melbourne University Jewish Students Society) Justin Sternfeld, 23, was heavily involved in the aftermath of the UMSU motion titled “UMSU stands with Palestine – BDS and Solidarity Policy”, and spoke to The AJN about his relationship to Zionism and why it is important that Jewish students are able to define it themselves.
He explained that it felt as though Jewish students had been “completely disregarded in the creation and proposing of the motion, with no consideration or communication with any Jewish students”.
The first time MUJSS or the Australasian Union for Jewish Students (AUJS) even heard of it was when the agenda of the meeting was sent out with the notice, giving Jewish students less than 48 hours to respond.
The motion was full of what Sternfeld and many others deemed “inflammatory statements”, one notable mention being that it referred to Zionism as “a racist, colonial ideology”.
He told The AJN that the statements included in the motion had no basis in fact, and were designed to paint Israel as an oppressive and apartheid state.
Explaining why this motion incensed him and so many other students and community members, Sternfeld said it “misconstrues the innate nature of Zionism and what it means to those in the Jewish community, especially the Diaspora”.
He explained that to him “Zionism is not about the purposeful subjugation and colonisation, ethnic cleansing and settlement expansion against the Palestinians as this motion would like to suggest,” adding, “For me, Zionism is about having a land where, no matter what happens, it is a safe place to call home.
“Many Jewish people I know living in the Diaspora consider Israel a ‘second home’, even people who are not religiously inclined. It is the culmination of culture, history, family connections and prosperity that has defined Judaism for over 2500 years,” Sternfeld told The AJN.
“For me, Zionism is about having a land where, no matter what happens, it is a safe place to call home.” Justin Sternfeld
He continued, saying, “While many will associate recent antisemitism with Russian pogroms and Nazi Germany, it can’t be forgotten that during these times Jewish people weren’t always welcomed in countries like America ([such as the] MS St Louis incident), Canada, UK, or even Australia,” adding, “It is in this context that Israel can be viewed as a home for anyone who identifies as Jewish.”
Sternfeld explained that the history of Jewish persecution is complex and multifaceted; therefore, for Jewish people, even those born and raised in countries like Australia, it is important that it is recognised that the Jewish people have faced discrimination and exclusion in many countries throughout history. For many, Israel, as a homeland for the Jewish people, provides a crucial refuge for those who identify as Jewish and seek a place of acceptance and belonging, even if they never have or never will live there.
Sternfeld said when it came to the UMSU motion, he had people in their 30s and even 60s and 70s come up to him and ask what was happening.
“These people have no reason to be interested or even notice what goes on in a university student council, but when it involves Israel, I feel like everyone pays attention and gets concerned,” he shared.
“For me, Zionism is about having a place where it’s safe to feel Jewish, a place where it feels like home and a place where I have family. I believe this view is misunderstood, and frankly isn’t cared about, by the kinds of people who write and move these motions.”
Alissa Foster, the president of the AUJS, shares a similar perspective when it comes to Zionism.
To Foster, Zionism is not just a political ideology or movement but rather a part of her Jewish history and identity.
“Zionism connects me with the story of the Jewish people who for centuries faced dispossession, expulsion and assimilation, yet despite all the odds our traditions survived,” she told The AJN. “Zionism is my link with that history.”
Foster is determined to define Zionism for herself and not allow others to misrepresent it. She recognises that there are those who try to use Zionism as a tool to spread hate and division, but she refuses to let them define it. Instead, she believes that Zionism can be a force for good and a guiding light for progressive values.
“I have never let anyone else define it, nor have I ever given time to those who seek to misrepresent me because of it, as Zionism is a fundamental part of my identity. It’s Zionism and the Jewish story of survival which guide my progressive values.”
In the wake of non-Jewish students defining Zionism for them, Foster and other young Australian Jews are taking a stand to define Zionism for themselves. They are determined to ensure that their voices are heard and that their values of inclusivity and justice are upheld. Through their activism and advocacy, they are building a Zionism that is not just a political movement but a reflection of their Jewish identity and commitment to creating a better world for all.
The tensions felt by Jewish students on campus are not isolated to just Sydney and Melbourne, but have been felt at universities all over Australia, including Adelaide.
In 2022, the University of Adelaide’s student newspaper, On Dit, wrote an article calling for “Death to Israel”. The following discussions about the article caused the Jewish population on campus to feel excluded from the narrative.
“When other people try to define Zionism for me, I feel like I’m being denied my history and identity. Zionism is an integral part of Jewish identity and by denying that, you’re denying what makes me a Jew,” said president of AUJS South Australia and the Adelaide University Jewish Students Society, Jonathan Iadarola.
Iadarola was part of the discussions following the On Dit article, and during one student council meeting, which was livestreamed, Jewish students were laughed out of the room, mocked, interrupted and ignored.
He explained that if he was given the chance to define Zionism during that meeting, during which it was defined as a colonialist and racist ideology, he would have said, “I define Zionism as the right for the Jewish people to have self-determination in our ancestral homeland. To me, this means that the Jewish people can live in peace and dignity in the land that our ancestors lived in and their exiled descendants have yearned for.”
However, Zionism, like the Jewish faith, is experienced and understood uniquely by each individual, especially at a time when Israel’s political climate no longer reflects the values of some Zionists in the Diaspora.
The federal mazkir of Netzer, Avishai Conyer, asked the question: “What is the point of Zionism now that we have a Jewish State?”
After posing this question, Conyer answered it by saying, “We have a place to call home. We have a place to be free from persecution. We have a place for our culture to flourish.”
However, he said that “Israel is far from perfect.”
Noting, “Non-Orthodox streams of Judaism face immense discrimination, queer couples do not have access to marriage, Ethiopians have a disproportionately high incarceration rate, democracy is being threatened in its core institutions and the occupation of the West Bank is responsible for the daily oppression of the Palestinians living there.
“When other people try to define Zionism for me, I feel like I’m being denied my history and identity. Zionism is an integral part of Jewish identity and by denying that, you’re denying what makes me a Jew,” Jonathan Iadarola
“The difference between ‘Zionism before’ and ‘Zionism today’ is that instead of fighting the governments of the world for permission to establish a home for the Jews, we are now fighting our own government for a state that is worthy of being this Jewish home.”
So, for many young Jews, not only in Australia but across the Diaspora, the goal of Zionism has evolved over time, and for many the current Israel is not one that they can support without criticism.
For Conyer, Zionism is “inspired by the vision of our prophets, is about continuing to work to build a state imbued with cultural pluralism, economic equity, environmental consciousness and social justice”.
Gummy New, a Melbourne local who volunteered for the Israeli Defence Forces when he was in his 20s, said that like most things nowadays, the definition of various ideologies will hold different meanings for different people, explaining, “Zionism is no different.
“Most people tie it to Israel, but even Theodor Herzel – who is considered the founder of modern political Zionism and is indeed mentioned in the country’s Declaration of Independence – purported that it was chiefly about Jewish unity,” New said.
For him personally Zionism “combines the right for Jewish self-determination in the land of Israel. Based on Jewish principles, this doesn’t belittle democracy, it augments it; it does not preclude tolerance and equality, it promotes [them]”.
“Similarly, it must above all offer shelter to Jews who need it,” he told The AJN.
This was what drove him to volunteer as a combat solider in the IDF.
“Without being judgmental to my contemporaries, I felt why should I be exempt from service just because my grandparents had a few extra zlotys to get from Poland to Australia, while others made the shorter journey to Israel to build my country,” he said.
The misrepresentation of Zionism is indeed a common practice in today’s discourse, and it is a complex topic that is often oversimplified or misunderstood. While it is true that there is no single, monolithic definition of Zionism that all Jewish people agree on, it is also important to note that Zionism has a rich and diverse history, and different interpretations of the movement have emerged over time.
The young Jewish people of Australia know this better than most.