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Labor club motion sparks BDS row

An attempt to send students to a reception of an Israeli MP has prompted debate over what it means to breach BDS, writes Matilda Surtees.

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A failed motion put forward at the Sydney University Labor Club’s AGM last Monday has attracted attention and condemnation from members of the USyd Students for Justice (USJP) in Palestine, who consider the intended outcome of the motion to be in breach of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel (BDS).

The motion proposed to send a contingent of students from the Labor Club to a reception and speaking date for Israeli Labor Party (ILP) MK Hilik Bar, which is being hosted on September 8 by the Australia Israel Labor Dialogue (AILD), an advocacy group with the objective of fostering links between the ALP and the ILP.

Though defeated 7-5, with one abstention from USJP Treasurer Chris Warren, the motion – and Warren’s abstention – was quickly condemned by members of the USJP. Both Warren and David Pink, the member who moved the motion, have responded to criticism by contesting that sending a contingent to the reception wouldn’t constitute a breach of BDS.

Pink told Honi Soit that “supporting the centre-left coalition” in Israeli politics is “the only hope” for achieving serious Israeli engagement with the peace process. Warren, who originally stated his reason for abstaining as a lack of familiarity with ILP policies, declined to respond to questions but provided a statement declaring his passionate support for BDS. He also stated that if he were able to vote again he would propose a ‘pro-Palestine’ amendment to the motion but would still not vote against it. Warren reiterated his intention to remain in his office as USJP Treasurer.

USJP President Fahad Ali confirmed to Honi Soit that he believes Warren should step down from his USJP office, echoing calls made by individual members of the group. Ali was firm in disagreeing with Pink and Warren’s line of reasoning, pointing out that the “entire point” of BDS is “to put the onus onto the entire Israeli population [to encourage them to] stand up and speak against what the government does in [their] name.”

Labor Club President Chloe Smith said that sending a contingent to the reception would have only been “to show interest in what was being said, but not to endorse the ILP”. Smith also said that she would be reluctant for the Labor Club to be seen as supporting the ILP, and confirmed she voted against the motion. She rejected suggestions there is any factional tension around BDS within the club, and said she believes most members support BDS.

Though the recent flare of attention has been fuelled by the minor controversies of student politics, the wider on-campus profile of the BDS campaign has grown in recent months.

On August 6 earlier this month, the SRC passed a ‘Palestine solidarity’ motion, in which they reaffirmed the SRC commitment to BDS. While the campus branch of the NTEU passed a resolution in June earlier this year that stymied further debate about whether to officially endorse the BDS campaign – following the intervention of the general secretary of the federal NTEU – the resolution of the case against Sydney University academic Jake Lynch has brought increased publicity to academic engagement with BDS. The attempt by Israeli legal centre Shurat Ha’Din to sue Lynch for racial discrimination after Lynch refused to sponsor an Israeli fellowship candidate proved unsuccessful, easing potential anxieties about adherence to BDS being discriminatory.

Ali also linked growing support for BDS to increased media attention to the situation in Gaza, and expressed hope that this growth will continue across partisan divides. When asked about the Labor Club specifically, Ali said that he believes the Labor Club “should be one of the first societies to endorse BDS entirely,” invoking the Labor “tradition of progressive politics”.