Communal leaders have welcomed the University of Melbourne distancing itself from a “blatantly antisemitic” motion passed by the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) against Israel.
The motion, titled “UMSU stands with Palestine – BDS and Solidarity Policy”, called Israel a “settler colonial apartheid state”, accused it of “massacres, forced expulsion and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians”, called Zionism “a racist, colonial ideology” and tacitly endorsed terrorism in supporting the right of Palestinians “to engage in self defence against their occupiers”.
It passed 10-7 at the UMSU student council meeting last Friday.
In a letter also on behalf of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the Jewish Community Council of Victoria, the Zionist Federation of Australia, the Australasian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS) and the Australian Zionist Youth Council to the university’s chancellor and vice-chancellor, Zionism Victoria urged the University of Melbourne “to condemn the resolution as a matter of urgency”.
“While we have no issue with the union expressing solidarity with the Palestinian people, much of the content of the resolution is not only factually inaccurate and inflammatory, it is also, unquestionably, antisemitic,” the letter said.
“As for terminology such as “ethnic cleansing” and “apartheid”, no one is denying that there are inequalities in Israeli society – as there are in any society – but the use of these terms is not only blatantly wrong, it is antisemitic and likely to incite racial hatred.
“The threat the resolution poses to Jewish students, the likelihood that it will incite racial hatred, the antisemitic nature of its claims, and the falsehoods on which they are based – a statement from the university’s senior leadership would send a critical signal that the University of Melbourne does not tolerate the marginalisation of minorities on campus and will not condone any manifestation of antisemitism.”
A spokesperson for the University of Melbourne told The AJN on Wednesday that “this antisemitic motion is not the position of the University of Melbourne, nor is it one that is endorsed or supported by the University”.
“The University of Melbourne is deeply committed to the values of inclusion and respect, and all members of our community must feel welcome and safe from discrimination or racism. Any form of antisemitism is antithetical to who we are and what we stand for. Tackling it and its damaging effects is a responsibility of all members of our community.
“Jewish students and staff are valued members of our university, along with our Jewish alumni and friends. We are proud of our relationships with the Jewish community in Australia and across the world, and our academic partnerships with Israeli universities and scholars.”
Zionist Federation of Australia president Jeremy Leibler thanked the University of Melbourne for distancing itself from the motion.
“Given the antisemitic nature of the student union motion – which effectively denied the Jewish right to self-determination and redefined Judaism to suit its political purposes – this was the only responsible action the university could take,” he said.
“The statement sends an important message to Jewish students at Melbourne University that they are welcome and are free to express their Jewish identity without fear of intimidation.”
Executive Council of Australian Jewry co-CEO Peter Wertheim also welcomed the university’s acknowledgment and urged it to formally endorse the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism.
“The UMSU resolution is not merely a one-off case of campus antisemitism,” Wertheim said.
“It is symptomatic of a concerted campaign by BDS supporters to insinuate its hate-filled discourse about Israel into campus culture. We have seen far too many instances like this one where such discourse segues into antisemitism and is accompanied by abuse and harassment of Jewish students.”
Wertheim also paid tribute to the Australasian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS) who “worked tirelessly” to try to defeat the motion.
“AUJS’ efforts succeeded in confining the supporters of the motion to the extreme fringes of the far left,” he said.
“By convincing all of the ALP left representatives to join with the ALP right in voting against the motion, AUJS achieved a moral victory within the tightest of time-frames.”
AUJS president Natalie Gunn said the motion “egregiously misrepresents Jewish students’ beliefs, falsifies history, misconstrues Zionism and incites hate”.
“The motion controversially states ‘Judaism or Zionism are not to be conflated’,” she said.
“For these people to purport to speak for the Jewish people or Jewish students or what constitutes Judaism is outrageous in its ignorance, condescension and dishonesty.”
University of Melbourne Jewish Students Society (MUJSS) president Drew Feiglin said MUJSS was not consulted on behalf of the university’s Jewish student population.
Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council executive director Colin Rubenstein said the “deplorable motion uses language we would have expected to have come from Hamas or Hezbollah”.
Jewish Community Council of Victoria president Daniel Aghion said, “The motion should be rescinded immediately, before the Student Union causes any further embarrassment to itself.”
Meanwhile, Jewish Macnamara MP Josh Burns met AUJS leaders and the Victorian Young Labor president on Monday to show “we stand together with AUJS and the Jewish community when it comes to combating antisemitism”.
Wentworth MP Dave Sharma said, “Not only is this anti-Israel resolution factually false and offensive, it’s also completely out of step with how most Australians view the conflict. Student unions should be advancing peace and bringing people of different cultural backgrounds together, not singling out the world’s only Jewish state for demonisation, thereby making life on campus uncomfortable for Jewish students.”
The AJN emailed a number of questions to UMSU president Sophie Nguyen. A response was not received by press time.