Student unions abandon Palestine

3 April 2024
Luka Kiernan

Student unions around Australia, with few exceptions, are controlled by the student factions of the Labor Party. And they have failed to stand up for Palestine.

This comes as no great shock, considering the federal Labor government’s unwavering support for Israel even in the face of 33,000 Palestinian deaths in six months. But it is a huge disappointment. Hundreds of thousands of people, many of them university students, have rallied around the country in solidarity with the Palestinians. Yet student unions have been conspicuously absent from the movement.

Take the Monash Student Association (MSA), which is controlled by the Labor left student faction. The faction portrays itself as pro-Palestine and passed a lukewarm motion supporting the Palestinians. But when it comes to using the institutional weight of the MSA to support the solidarity campaign, these “left-wingers” duck, weave, obfuscate and hide behind bureaucratic procedure to avoid doing anything of substance.

By contrast, Socialist Alternative members Madi Curkovic and Kelly Cvetkova—the MSA Queer officers—have thrown themselves into the campaign against Australia’s support for Israel. They have organised banner paintings to prepare for the weekly protests, hosted an on-campus rally and spoken at community protests against companies producing components for Israel’s military.

Yet they have faced many obstacles. The Monash Queer Affairs Committee (QuAC) is controlled by people who lost the last MSA election after campaigning “to keep the Queer department apolitical”. They have applied their “apolitical” stance (which just means accepting politics as it is) to the Palestinian genocide, moving motions to restrict Madi and Kelly from promoting Palestine solidarity rallies. Being “apolitical” at the best of times means siding with the oppressive status quo. Being “apolitical” during a genocide is a political and moral crime.

Last month, Madi and Kelly, on their department’s Instagram page, posted about the blowback they were receiving for their activism and argued that student unionists should participate in the solidarity campaign. They have both since been threatened with disciplinary action for this “potentially unsafe” and “politically motivated” post. The Labor left MSA president allowed MSA staff to log in to the Instagram account and take down the post, arguing that it made her, and QuAC members, feel “intimidated” and “unsafe”.

Her argument is simply this: elected student representatives shouldn’t be allowed to talk about the genocide in Palestine, or organise against the government’s complicity in it, because that might distress some people. Imagine being distressed because your student representative opposes genocide.

Advocating for any political position could evoke unpleasant feelings in someone, somewhere on campus. So student unions should just organise parties and academic advice sessions—that’s basically what the Labor left is all about these days.

The supposedly “pro-Palestine” Labor students at Monash have in practice only stifled Palestine solidarity activism on campus, accepting and backing up the arguments made by the rest of the conservatives in the union.

Around the country, the pattern is similar. In Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide, student unions have at best passed motions rhetorically supporting Palestine, but then failed to organise anything. At worst, they have opposed Palestine solidarity activism and bureaucratically stifled organising efforts.

At the University of Sydney, the Labor left has essentially boycotted Palestine solidarity activism all year, instead handing out lighters as part of a legalise marijuana campaign. The University of Melbourne Student Union has repealed a motion supporting Palestine. Every other student union in Melbourne has been silent.

The political inactivity of the student unions is striking, especially when they’re controlled by Labor students. Whenever their left-sounding rhetoric comes into conflict with their career aspirations, they go quiet. We need an alternative.

Student unions have a rich history of fighting against oppression and injustice. They led protests against South African apartheid, protected students dodging conscription during the Vietnam War and organised Freedom Rides for Indigenous equality. In recent years, they have initiated activist campaigns against attacks on higher education and played a role in the campaign for marriage equality.

Student unions should be playing this role with Palestine today. They could organise student contingents to rallies, call demonstrations against universities’ ties to arms companies, and much more. Socialist Alternative is proud to be doing just this.

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