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NUS Israel trips are no spiritual pilgrimage

Rafi Alam and Xiaoran Shi report on trips taken by NUS officer bearers to the state of Israel.

Israeli Flag

There are few issues more contentious than Israel and Palestine, and this contention is only exacerbated within student politics. The left-right divide on the issue of Israel has been a persistent element of political discord in the student movement since the formation of the state of Israel. The issue was enlivened once more this year when Socialist Alternative, a vehemently anti-Zionist Trotskyist group, passed a non-binding motion at the National Union of Students’ (NUS) Education Conference (EdCon) condemning Todd Pinkerton, NUS General Secretary, and Mikaela Wangmann, NUS Women’s Officer, for travelling to Israel despite the Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) movement promoted against Israel.

Their trips were not merely holidays. The matter of student office bearers visiting Israel has been a frequent phenomenon in the student movement since the rebirth of the NUS in 1987. Other visitors have included Jade Tyrell in 2012, who was UTS SRC President at the time and is the current NUS President, as well as Jon Barlow in 2012, the NUS General Secretary that year, and Xavier Williams in 2010, the year he was the NUS General Secretary.

These trips, however, are no spiritual pilgrimage. They began as an attempt to inform student office bearers from mainstream political parties on the situation in Israel and Palestine, and are funded by the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) through the Rambam Israel Fellowship program.

When asked for comment, Todd Pinkerton confirmed that his recent trip to Israeli was indeed sponsored by AIJAC, although the organisation only funded the trip in part, not in full.

This is replicated in similar programs with parliamentarians, associated with the Parliamentary Friends of Israel cross-political group.

AIJAC provides these scholarships, from their perspective, to reduce anti-Israel bias among the major political parties, at a parliamentary and student level. From another perspective, these trips are intended to dampen the pro-Palestinian sentiment within student organisations, and to prevent a reformation of NUS’s predecessor, the Australian Union of Students (AUS), which, in the 1970s, rejected the existence of the State of Israel, and supported the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). Alongside advancing a series of pro-PLO motions, it was alleged that the AUS sent money to the PLO in solidarity with its cause.

While the NUS is far less radical than its predecessor, various minor factions in the NUS, primarily Socialist Alternative, are attempting to revive the pro-Palestine movement. The shift in the ALP since the 1980s towards a strong alliance with Israel and the persistent predisposition towards Israel in the Liberal Party – the two political parties which hold the majority of delegates at NUS – have effectively reduced the anti-Zionist segment within student politics.

Student recipients of the Rambam Fellowship come from the Liberal, Labor Right, and Labor Left factions. For members of Labor Left who choose to accept the Fellowship, the matter is particularly complicated as their actions contradict the faction’s stance against Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Former USYD SRC President and recipient of the Rambam Fellowship Elly Howse was said to have taken part in a sponsored trip with strong anti-Zionist views, but returned home more sympathetic to Israel. Honi was unable to reach Howse for comment.

Another student member of Labor Left who received the Fellowship in 2010, Jesse Marshall, was NUS President in 2011 and rejects the idea that AIJAC is trying to silence pro-Palestine activists. “I still believe the Palestinians need an independent state,” Marshall said. “It’s selling people short to think that just because a trip was funded by the Jewish community that it’s blindly pro-Israel.” Marshall says he went on the trip in order to better understand the barriers to peace, something he believes can only be learned through being in the Middle East. When asked about the Socialist Alternative motion, Marshall accuses Socialist Alternative of attempting to coerce the student movement into “supporting a one state solution” that dismantles Israel. Marshall also argues that BDS is a distraction and will not lead to peace.

The BDS movement also recently caused a dispute at Sydney University, when Associate Professor Jake Lynch, Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPCS), refused to assist an Israeli academic at Hebrew University — parts of which purportedly occupy Palestinian territory — from undertaking work at USYD in solidarity with BDS. Lynch’s actions are in line with the CPCS’s official commitment to the BDS campaign.

Antony Loewenstein, in an article in New Matilda, argues that these trips are used to create a favourable impression of Israel as a pursuer of a peaceful two-state solution, even though – in his opinion – the two-state solution would not achieve justice for Palestinians or Arab Israelis, not least due to the settlement programs in the West Bank. Loewenstein also states that another reason is to portray the debate as “complex” and frame hardliner pro-Palestinian positions as anti-Semitic.

Cat Rose, an NUS Queer Officer who helped pass a motion at EdCon condemning two NUS office bearers for participating in the AIJAC-funded trips, largely agrees with Loewenstein’s suspicions. When asked for comment on the EdCon motion, she compared the “Israeli occupation of Palestine” to apartheid in South Africa and stated that the trips were a “PR exercise for a racist regime” which “exists on stolen land” and “disregard[s] basic human rights.” Rose, as a member of Socialist Alternative, strongly supports BDS and is quick to stress that Israel is, in fact, a state under “international boycott”, which student politicians are contravening by participating in sponsored visits.

She believes the visits are severely biased and questions whether students are given the opportunity to visit Palestinian land, or hear from a Palestinian point of view, so as to fully gain a balanced understanding of the two-state solution AIJAC supposedly aims to foster.

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