Accusations of anti-Semitism against socialist students are lies

Over the past five weeks, as the Israeli military pulverised the Gaza Strip, there have been widespread allegations of an increase in anti-Semitic intimidation and violence on university campuses. The allegations – widely circulated in print, on social media and on commercial radio – include claims that Jewish students are being racially abused, physically intimidated and banned from public lectures. Socialist Alternative has been frequently named as responsible for these acts.

For anyone familiar with socialist politics, which includes at its core unyielding opposition to all forms of racial discrimination, these claims must seem alarming and incongruous. In fact, they are lies with no basis in fact. An explanation requires some examination of the politics of Zionism and socialism on university campuses.

Socialist Alternative, Jews, and Zionism

Socialist Alternative is a Marxist organisation. Many of the thinkers from which it draws influence, including Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg, were not only Jews, but Jews who lived in periods of intense state-sanctioned anti-Semitic discrimination and pogroms.

Our movement seeks to fight against, and ultimately abolish forever, all forms of racial oppression. In Australia, this requires active struggle against the racist attacks on Aboriginal people, refugees, and Muslims. It also requires solidarity with those who struggle internationally against racism and oppression, such as the Tamils of Sri Lanka and the Palestinians. Socialist Alternative student clubs often have spearheaded these campaigns on university campuses and in wider society. We seek to unite all struggles against oppression, break down all divisions of race and sex, and help build movements that can challenge the entire system that generates and perpetuates racism.

This requires a consistent and principled opposition to anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is not a major current in Australian politics, but it is nonetheless a poisonous and vile doctrine that seeks to lay blame for the world's ills on the characteristics of a single ethno-religious group. We celebrate the long history of Jewish socialism and Jewish anti-Zionism, and count many Jews among our members.

Zionists on campus

There are many organised political currents competing for influence in the political life of Australian campuses. The student wings of the Labor, Liberal and Greens parties are all represented, as are other equally political groups that are sometimes less honest about their affiliation. In the latest controversies over anti-Semitism, they key political group is the Australasian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS).

AUJS has a presence on over 20 university campuses in Australia and New Zealand. It describes itself as the peak body representing Jewish youth. AUJS spokespeople are frequently quoted in the press as authorities on anti-Semitism. But AUJS is not an apolitical organisation. As its website proudly proclaims, it exists to "promote a positive image of Israel on campus". This mission becomes particularly crucial during the Israeli military's assaults against Palestinians.

AUJS runs annual tours to Israel, which aim to give participants "a stronger connection … to the state of Israel".  AUJS's annual reports boast of campaigns in solidarity with Israel’s military during Operation Pillar of Cloud, a military assault that killed 100 Palestinian civilians; they describe the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel as "our great political challenge". They call for "settling the country as an expression of practical Zionism".

AUJS is not an organisation representing the interests of Jewish students, but an advocacy group for the right wing politics of the state of Israel. Its reports boast that pro-Palestine campaigners cannot host an event on any campus "without running into an AUJS campaign". For this reason, in 2012 the Zionist Federation of Australia sent AUJS a letter of thanks and congratulations for "efforts in combating anti-Zionism". The right wing politics of AUJS and its affiliates are embodied in the person of Matthew Lesh. Lesh serves two prominent roles: he is the political director for AUJS and an official spokesperson for the Young Liberals.

AUJS accuses its enemies on campus of conflating Zionism with Jewishness, and with turning criticism of Israel into hostility to Jews. In fact, conflating Judaism and Zionism is precisely the political goal of AUJS. Slandering supporters of Palestine as anti-Semitic is its primary method for "combating anti-Zionism" and fulfilling the project, outlined in the AUJS constitution, of "actively advancing the interests of Israel".

Operation Protective Edge

When Israel began its latest massacre in Gaza – which has so far led to the slaughter of more than 1,900 civilians and the widespread destruction of homes, schools, and hospitals – a political confrontation between the supporters of Palestinian rights and the defenders of Israeli militarism was inevitable.

At Monash University, Socialist Alternative moved a motion in the Student Council, condemning Israeli war crimes and occupation. Similar motions, including endorsements of the BDS campaign, were taken up and adopted at the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Sydney, Flinders University, and Curtin University. A similar motion moved at La Trobe University was voted down in a heated council meeting. Socialist Alternative also organised and advertised meetings at campuses around Australia, under titles along the lines of "Why You Should Support the Palestinians".

The Israeli military massacre in Gaza was catastrophic for the public image of Israel. Weekly protests against the attack drew thousands of attendees in Melbourne and Sydney, hundreds in other Australian cities, and millions around the world. We are proud that Socialist Alternative's work contributed to this anti-racist and anti-Zionist sentiment.

The initial response from AUJS took the form of a series of press statements expressing concern that the motions passed in student councils would "alienate Jewish students" and contribute to anti-Semitism. This was a clear attempt to conflate political opposition to Israeli policy with racial discrimination against Jews. AUJS also created an absurd series of images, headlined "What Would You Do?" of rockets being launched from one Australian university campus to another. These images were spread on social media and printed on posters, but rang rather hollow, especially after the Israeli military bombed the main university in Gaza.

AUJS also encouraged its members to file a flood of complaints describing the pro-Palestine events as "anti-Semitic", while lobbying university vice chancellors to ban pro-Palestine activism on campus. It managed to get the vice chancellors of Monash and La Trobe universities to send emails to all students implicitly attacking pro-Palestine activists, after what AUJS called "strong AUJS advocacy". AUJS then commenced a campaign of outrageous slander targeting activists at these two universities in particular.

The slanders

The two most startling allegations were aired by Matthew Lesh on 3AW radio, and repeated by Deakin University's Danny Ben-Moshe in an online article published by The Conversation.

Lesh claims that Jewish students were physically ejected from a public lecture at Monash University, and subjected to a campaign of harassment and intimidation at La Trobe. Both these claims are absolutely false.

The "lecture" at Monash University was a Socialist Alternative political meeting. Not only were Jews welcome and encouraged to attend, but the talk itself was given by a Jewish member of Socialist Alternative. Attendees were asked to sign a petition calling for an end to Israel's illegal economic blockade of Gaza.

A small group of organised Zionists attempted to gain entry after refusing to sign the petition, and attempted to disrupt the meeting. They gave up after being told the meeting was for supporters of Palestine. There is nothing unusual in this. Socialist Alternative has in many previous instances barred disruptive right wingers who have attempted to disrupt and air racist opinions at our meetings. Even if you don’t agree with this policy, it has nothing whatsoever to do with anti-Semitism. In this case, the meeting went ahead peacefully, with Jewish students both delivering the initial talk and contributing to the discussion afterwards.

Immediately afterwards, the Zionists who had attempted to disrupt the meeting began a social media campaign claiming that Jews had been banned from campus events. Socialist Alternative members immediately contacted them to clarify that Jews were welcome, but that the meeting was not for political defenders of Israeli occupation. No retraction was issued and their campaign continued, proving the utterly cynical use of allegations of anti-Semitism to smear and undermine progressive politics on campus.

The events at La Trobe University followed the decision by the student council to unanimously vote against a motion condemning the Israeli assault on Gaza. As the student council is a democratically elected body accountable to students, Socialist Alternative members produced posters quoting several of the arguments used by the council members to justify their vote – including "It's not our place to point at somebody and say, 'You're committing mass murder'."

The posters did not single out any council members on the basis of religion or ethnicity; they simply quoted the arguments made in the meeting. The student council, obviously fearful for its reputation, instructed security to tear down the posters, and complaints of harassment and intimidation were filed against Socialist Alternative members with the university administration.

The right to host political meetings on campus, and inform students of events that are taking place on their elected leadership bodies, would seem like basic political rights that nobody would contest. But because these rights, when exercised, could contribute to the continued disintegration of Israel's public image, AUJS kicked into overdrive. It launched an aggressive media campaign, claiming that these events represented a wave of anti-Semitic abuse and intimidation at Australian universities.

Anti-Semitism and the responsibilities of the left

The ongoing genocide of the Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli state naturally horrifies all those who oppose racism. The slanders drawn up by organised Zionists are calculated to undermine this sympathy, and to suggest that campaigning in solidarity with the Palestinians is itself a form of racism. It is an attempt to isolate Palestinians from their natural supporters among anti-racists and supporters of human rights. It lays the groundwork for the intimidation of activists who support Palestine, the banning of their meetings and organisations, and the eradication of any criticism of Israel from university life. Already, because of the AUJS campaign around La Trobe University, activists have been forbidden from forming a "Students for Palestine" club – because campaigning for Palestine is now considered, scandalously, to be a form of "intimidation and harassment".

The death toll from the most recent Israeli attacks on Gaza is now approaching 2,000. The Israeli war machine receives extensive political, military, and diplomatic support from key institutions all around the world. A principled opposition to racism requires participation in a global movement in solidarity with the Palestinians. Socialist Alternative is proud to have played a role in this movement in Australia, and will continue to do so.

The attempt by the political supporters of Israel to define all opposition to its policies as forms of anti-Semitic intimidation and harassment is an outrageous and shameful lie. To slander anti-racist activists, and to promote the racist terror of the Israeli state, while claiming to be taking a stand against racism is an act of utter cynicism.

The Left cannot bow to this intimidation. It has a responsibility to continue raising a voice in solidarity with the Palestinians, to make it clear that Jews can oppose Zionism, and that institutions like AUJS that exist to defend and promote Israeli militarism are not the authentic voice of all Jews.

[Daniel is a member of Jews Against Israeli Apartheid and Socialist Alternative.]