SRC Councillors clash over antisemitism motion

Over two council meetings, factions and societies disputed over the relationship between campus antisemitism and the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Logo of SRC and factions/societies

On April 4, the SRC passed a motion condemning antisemitism. What many would assume would be a simple debate—antisemitism is wrong—instead became an hour of councillors splitting hairs over whether it is antisemitic to criticise the country Israel.

The motion was moved Unity (Labor Right) and had been drafted with the Australasian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS). It used the definition of antisemitism put forward by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)—an intergovernmental body to which Australia is an observer country.

The motion responded to statistics published by the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, which states that there has been a 9.5 per cent rise in recorded antisemitic incidents, and increases in antisemitic activity on Australian university campuses.

The motion cited an incident at USyd in April 2017, where an individual linked to Chemtrails Geelong had been distributing material claiming that the Holocaust was “demonstrably false” along with a link to a website with antisemitic content. For those unfamiliar with Chemtrails Geelong, their website is a kind of digital manifestation of a tinfoil hat—complete with articles discussing “so-called scientists, who were and still are heavily invested (psychologically and otherwise) in orthodox Darwinian dogma”, “Psychiatry: science or fraud?”, “Hollywood Jewry in Damage Control” and, as their chosen name suggests, an almost 15, 000 word rant of Fox Mulder-ian proportions describing how commercial aircraft are releasing chemical and biological agents for conspiratorial reasons.

When the motion came to a vote, however, councillors from Grassroots (read: ‘vaguely Greens-affiliated’) and the Socialist Alternative (SAlt) argued that the motion should clarify that criticism of Israel (‘the’ country’) should not be considered antisemitic.

IHRA documents state that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic” and acknowledges a difference between criticism of Jewish people, and criticism of policies enacted by Israel’s government.

These supporting documents were not attached to the motion, but Honi understands that during the meeting, efforts were made to look up the IHRA definition for clarification. However, when it was eventually found, Grassroots and SAlt councillors complained that the definition labelled it antisemitic to call “a state of Israel a racist endeavour”.

The use of the indefinite article “a” in the IHRA’s definition suggests a certain flexibility—supporting Jewish self-determination, but not inherent support for the current government of “the” (definite article) State of Israel.

An attempt by Grassroots and SAlt to amend the motion was voted down by Unity and Liberal councillors. Panda councillors abstained from both the debate and the vote, while NLS (Labor Left) councillors abstained on the amendment as they were satisfied with the IHRA document. 

“NLS voted for the motion condemning antisemitism because we detest all forms of bigotry. We abstained on Socialist Alternative’s amendment because while we agree criticising Israel isn’t antisemistic (we often criticise the Israeli government ourselves) qualifying a condemnation of antisemitism written by Jewish students to include other people’s political messages and exceptions was wholly unnecessary; we wouldn’t amend an anti-homophobia motion to include a list of things which aren’t homophobic, for example,” said Will Edwards, NLS councillor.

“We would gladly vote for a separate motion asserting the right to criticise oppressive governments like Israel’s.”

The motion was revisited at an SRC meeting held on April 11, where representatives of AUJS accused Grassroots and SAlt of hypocrisy. In a statement to Honi, the Political Officer for USyd’s AUJS Dana Segall, noted that the Jewish community is an “historically oppressed minority group and like all minority groups, has the right to define the ways they experience their own discrimination/oppression.”

According to Segall, there is a “real trend of not listening to the Jewish community when defining antisemitism”.

Grassroots councillor Liam Thorne clarified his faction’s position: “Fighting antisemites on campus is undoubtedly a good thing, but the State of Israel is a racist settler-colony which continues to displace and kill thousands of Palestinians”.

His comments about fighting antisemitism on campus are in line with Segall’s, who also told Honi that “this motion is about Jewish students”. Thorne however disagreed with Segall’s position that a focus on “the State of Israel would make this less about Jewish students”, alleging that AUJS was asking the SRC to “support the State of Israel as a condition for condemning antisemitism more broadly”.

When asked if he could explain how the motion attempted to pass this support as a pre-condition, Thorne pointed Honi towards the IHRA definition that “claiming the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour”.

He also told Honi that although Groots and SAlt dissenters “vehemently denounce antisemitism… [they] were not willing to extend their support to the nation of Israel”.

The factional SRC dispute comes at a time when the wider University is grappling with the Israel–Palestine conflict. On April 12, the day after the follow-up council meeting, nearly 40 USyd arts and social science academics pledged to boycott Israeli universities over the killing of more than 30 Palestinian protesters at the Gaza border.

Amendment: Previous versions of this article stated that Grassroots and SAlt councillors had left the meeting, and incorrectly stated the positions of Panda and NLS councillors. It has been updated accordingly. The minutes for this meeting will be made available after the next council on May 2.