On Saturday 5 October, the National Council of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) debated the prospect of supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.

A motion proposed by Socialist Alternative delegates to inform members of the campaign and encourage discussion of the issue among NTEU branches was narrowly defeated.

The fight to support the BDS campaign among academic, university and college unions has been intensifying in the last few years. The NTEU, and indeed most other Australian unions, are woefully backward in supporting BDS. It is a betrayal of our proud history of standing up for the rights of oppressed people across the world, including against the Vietnam War, against apartheid in South Africa, for Indonesian independence from the Dutch and more.

The BDS call has been endorsed, or at least favourably considered, by the University and College Union in the UK, the Teachers Union of Ireland, the American Studies Association in the US, the British Trade Union Congress, the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions and the Congress of South African Trade Unions.

In order to stifle our motion, the national general secretary Grahame McCulloch, seconded by University of Sydney president Michael Thomson, put a foreshadowed motion that reiterated the Education International position and condemned Israel’s Operation Protective Edge earlier this year.

The problem with that motion was that it explicitly stated that the NTEU does not support or endorse BDS and referenced Israel’s right to defend its “recognised borders” – despite the fact that this spurious excuse is used to justify every incursion into Palestinian land. In fact, Israel refuses to define its borders. Hence the ever- expanding settlements in the West Bank.

Following a spectacular speech from Socialist Alternative member Alma Torlakovic, and a short debate on floor in which SA members were supported by non-aligned delegates, the vote was close. McCulloch’s motion won 62-54.

Following the vote, many delegates expressed support for our motion and said that the debate had inspired them to begin the discussion on their own campuses.

At a time when the higher education industry is facing ever increasing cutbacks and staff are been shed everywhere, it is important for our union to remember our progressive tradition and to offer solidarity to those who fare even worse.

Unfortunately we didn’t win the union to such a position this time, but the momentum is with the BDS movement. We will not ignore the cries for solidarity from our Palestinian fellow unionists.