Jewish students fight antisemitism on campus
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Illusration: Adriana Alvarez from a photo by Thiago Matos/Pexels.com
Illusration: Adriana Alvarez from a photo by Thiago Matos/Pexels.com
Diary of a Jewish student

Jewish students fight antisemitism on campus

With university student unions all over Australia passing motions critical of Israel, Jewish students have been left feeling isolated. The AJN spoke to those involved about their experiences.

The motion that started the fire that has been burning all year was the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) motion in support of Palestine and BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions).

The controversial motion in April called for the university to boycott and divest from Israel, but was rescinded in May after it was threatened with legal action by a fellow student.

A similar motion was passed in August by UMSU, in which their previous statement that “Zionism is a racist colonial regime” has been changed to “Zionism is used to fuel a racist colonial regime”.

Melbourne University student Noa Abrahams told The AJN that since the passing of these motions and the meetings and discussions that ensued, she “got behind in uni and couldn’t sleep at night worrying about antisemitism”.

Abrahams explained that both times that she walked out of the student council meetings she felt “alienated”, and that she didn’t know “if the people walking in front of me are rejecting my right to self determination, or not”.

Abrahams was part of the student union when these motions were being proposed and passed however she no longer feels like she has the capacity to attend the meetings.

“I feel like what [UMSU] wants is for [the Jewish students] to just go away, but when I do have the capacity I want to lean in, because I think leaning out is like what lets [antisemitism] go unchecked and lets it become normalised,” she said.

UMSU included in its motions that it is not antisemitic and that Jewish students should feel safe, Abrahams saying that the inclusion of such statements “feels completely tokenistic”.

Fellow Melbourne University student and current Melbourne University Jewish Student Society (MUJSS) president Holly Feldman also shared that the passing of the BDS motion and the discourse around it was “upsetting, draining and distressing”.

She did however note that it was “a very small, extremely vocal and at times aggressive minority of students who allowed this motion to pass”.

“Many of these students refuse to listen to anyone who challenges their worldview; they do not acknowledge any complexity to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, and have explicitly denied any Jewish connection to Israel,” she said.

Abrahams who was heavily involved in both the union and other clubs felt that the discourse surrounding the motion at the time it was passed was inescapable, with BDS and anti-apartheid posters on the uni walls haunting her walks to class.

Feldman however explained, “Outside of UMSU, the majority of students on campus are far removed from student union politics.

“Students from many different religions, nationalities and backgrounds have been incredibly empathetic when we explained the issue and told them about the distress UMSU has caused, and some have even started attending MUJSS events to show their support and better understand our community.”

A University of Melbourne spokesperson noted that the motion passed in August “is similar in sentiment and substance” to the motion that was passed in April and then rescinded.

They told The AJN, “UMSU is a self-governing body and operates as a separate entity to the university. This antisemitic motion, passed by UMSU Students’ Council, is not the position of the University of Melbourne; nor is it one that is endorsed or supported by the university.”

Since the motion was passed Abrahams feels that the response from Melbourne University has been “insufficient”.

“They should be putting forward preventative measures, it’s only reactive, and reactive is insufficient,” she said.

“I’ve been doing all my seminars online, because I still don’t feel comfortable, and as far as I’m aware, the majority of other Jewish students are doing that as well…”

The original UMSU motion acted as a catalyst for other motions around Australia, such as the “From the River to the Sea” motion, passed by the University of Sydney SRC (USYD SRC) in June that vehemently defended the UMSU motion and denounced the threatened legal action against it.

Vice-president of the Australasian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS) Alissa Foster said, “What we’re seeing across the country is that all the university student groups are connected, and they all kind of speak to each other, and they all work together on student unions around the country.

“So it’s not just isolated incidents that occur in specific regions or specific universities, often when we see a motion or activity at a certain university, it follows across to other universities.”

USYD SRC said in the motion that it “rejects the idea that opposition to Israel is antisemitic”, saying, “not all Jewish people support Israeli apartheid.”

Foster, who is a student at the University of New South Wales told The AJN that Jewish students “aren’t consulted about issues when they’re speaking about what antisemitism is and how they’re going to combat antisemitism at the university”, adding, “We’re not given the same platform and the right to speak about what discrimination and hatred is towards us as any other group is.”

She explained that the motion passed has caused many Jewish students to shy away from openly showing or discussing their Jewishness.

“Students don’t want to say I’m Jewish, and I have family [in Israel], and this is what I think, because they’re scared of the repercussions of not being included in conversations after that. They don’t want to mention that they’re Jewish in a social setting, and they don’t necessarily feel comfortable wearing the Star of David,” she said.

Abrahams explained that many Jewish students in Melbourne are also feeling this way, “without a support structure, to have a safe space to talk about Zionism and Judaism and how they relate … It’s just easier to give it up, give up that culture. I think that’s just really tragic.”

Abrahams also told The AJN that Jewish students in Melbourne are beginning to feel “politically homeless”, and that she has had to “move out of progressive spaces because I don’t feel like my identity is respected there”.

Foster echoed these sentiments explaining that this is also happening en masse in Sydney.

“Jewish students want to participate and be active in other political campaigns, whether that’s about climate change, or the cost of education, or the cost of housing, or anything else that’s going on in university.

“Lots of Jews as well, live at the intersection of a whole bunch of different identities, and they want to be a part of the women’s collective and environmental collective, and whatever those are, but often it’s people from those collectives, who will be saying things about our identity and our experiences.”

As students across the nation thought the turmoil was dying down, an article was published in the On Dit student magazine from the University of Adelaide in August. The article, written by On Dit editor Habibah Jaghoori, called for the death of Israel and referred to Zionism as “A military occupation, a colonial project, a Western capitalist endeavour and ethnic cleansing in practice.”

The article also said, “As long as Israel exists then the genocide and occupation of Palestine will exist,” and “The solution to achieving peace and bringing forth justice for Palestine is to demand the abolition of Israel.”

The response from the Jewish community nationwide was that of horror and disgust, and Jewish students at the University of Adelaide wanted to share their opinions on the article.

“Students don’t want to say I’m Jewish, and I have family [in Israel]… They don’t want to mention that they’re Jewish in a social setting, and they don’t necessarily feel comfortable wearing the Star of David…”

At a student council meeting during which a motion was being proposed to have the article titled “For Palestine, There is No Ceasefire,” removed and have Jaghoori removed from her position as editor, Jewish students were laughed at and ignored by Jaghoori herself, as well as other council members.

A Jewish student at the University of Adelaide, Jonathan Iadarola, who was present at the meeting said, “It was very traumatising, [Jaghoori] literally looked us directly in our eyes when she said kept saying ‘Death to Israel’, it was clearly targeted.”

Iadarola explained that after the meeting he had the first panic attack of his life.

“I’ve been doing all my seminars online, because I still don’t feel comfortable, and as far as I’m aware, the majority of other Jewish students are doing that as well,” he said.

He shared that a friend of his who is doing a PhD on antisemitism and Jewish history asked for a conference to be moved from Adelaide University to Flinders University instead “because she did not feel comfortable going on campus”.

Iadarola told The AJN that he has since been made aware that some of those present at the student council meeting were calling him a “dirty Zionist” behind his back.

“These people were voted in by students,” he said. “They are supposed to represent all students on campus’ interests.”

When the article first came out, Iadarola contacted AUJS. He explained, “[AUJS] said that they would do something about it, and they did, I’m really grateful for that.”

In the aftermath of the article and the “traumatic” meetings, Iadarola has found some light in the darkness with the creation of the first Jewish club on campus.

The individual who proposed the motion to have both the article and the editor removed was non-Jewish student Henry Southcott.

He told The AJN that he thought the article was “completely unacceptable, and I worked with the proper people in order to stand up for what’s right”.

Even as a non-Jewish student he thought the calling for death to Israel as well as the editor’s Facebook posts stating glory to the Intifada, went too far and couldn’t go unchecked.

Southcott said, “I was quite disappointed, because neither Labor left nor Labor right condemned it. They actually voted on a motion in support of helping [Jaghoori] fight a lawsuit against it.”

The motion to have the article and Jaghoori removed was not passed and was voted against by the majority of the student council.

Iadarola said, “There were clearly a lot of students that actually genuinely backed her up and were supporting her, and still to this day think that she didn’t do anything wrong.”

Despite the support and the failed motion, Jaghoori has since been removed as editor of On Dit, however only for her conduct during the student council meeting, not for the article she wrote.

However Southcott shared that Jaghoori is still writing articles for On Dit.

“She has still been calling herself editor, she has pretty much refused to give up any control.”

Her name is still listed as an editor on Google and the On Dit website.

The decision to remove Jaghoori was made by YouX, a student union at the University of Adelaide, following a referral from the Student Media Independent Committee.

“This committee convened at my request and was supported unanimously by the YouX board following complaints within the student body,” said YouX president Oscar Ong.

Ong said, “As a current enrolled University of Adelaide student, [Jaghoori] may still submit content to the On Dit editorial team to publish at their discretion. On Dit’s content is controlled by the democratically elected student editors who maintain independent editorial responsibility.

“Differences of opinion will always exist amongst individuals and groups at a university of our size, but my hope is our newly elected student media team will support our goal in making the university a safe and respectful space for all members of our community.”

When asked for comment on the matter the University of Adelaide merely stated that On Dit is independent of the university and published by the student union, YouX. It also refused to answer the question of how the university is supporting Jewish students in the fallout of these events.

Southcott said that the response from the university “has not been adequate” and they have just “swept it under the rug”.

Iadarola said, “Their silence is deafening.”

President of AUJS Natalie Gunn, who has been active and vocal in the attempted resolutions of all motions, explained, “There hasn’t been enough response taken or action taken by [the universities] to ensure that motions like this are deemed unacceptable or not allowed on campus or are not allowed as part of campus discourse.”

Gunn also emphasised that we need to see more student unions and universities adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism, as was seen at La Trobe University earlier this year.

“I think we definitely need to see more student unions adopting it, and actually recognising and validating their Jewish experience and hearing what we say as truth,” she said.

She told The AJN that the “universities and student unions and all those relevant people and stakeholders, they’re the ones who really have the power to ensure that Jewish students feel safe.”

Despite this she ensured that AUJS will continue fighting. “I don’t think AUJS will ever stop trying to ensure Jewish students are safe on campus, but we need the support of the wider student bodies,” she said.

In October, the National Tertiary Education Union passed a motion that voted to support Palestine and oppose the adoption of the IHRA working definition at Australian universities. Gunn said the motion will negatively affect Jewish students.

“This resolution will only worsen the climate of hostility towards Jewish students and faculty on Australian campuses,” she said.

 

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