A special kind of justice for pro-Palestine student activists

1 August 2017
Sarah Garnham

The Australasian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS) has a reputation for smearing supporters of the Palestinians. AUJS is an avowedly Zionist organisation. Though it claims to welcome all Jewish students, its members must agree to “actively promot[e] the interests of Israel”. This is something iterated many times in different ways in the AUJS constitution.

A large part of this active promotion involves attacking the pro-Palestine left, which it claims espouses “modern anti-Semitism”.

Support for Palestine and criticism of the apartheid state of Israel have nothing to do with anti-Semitism. To claim they do is a right wing slur that is losing credibility in wider society.

But AUJS has gained a sympathetic ear from university administrations across Australia, which have repeatedly gone to ridiculous lengths to prosecute baseless accusations against pro-Palestine activists.

Two years ago, a fairly unremarkable bogus accusation was made against a member of Socialist Alternative at Sydney University. What has been remarkable is the dogged way in which the university has pursued this case.

The accusation

Three days after the supposed incident, two members of the executive of the AUJS club at Sydney University brought “an act of anti-Semitism” to the attention of campus security. Kim Murphy, the alleged perpetrator, was said to have removed a small plastic Israeli flag from the AUJS orientation day stall and thrown it into a nearby bin.

Neither Kim, nor any other member of Socialist Alternative, removed the flag. We had no interaction with AUJS throughout the day. In fact, we have a general policy of non-engagement with AUJS because we don’t believe that there is much chance of changing its members' views on the Israel/Palestine question. The run-ins that we have had with AUJS are of a public nature, when we are contesting their arguments or defending ours to a wider audience – whether that is at student council meetings, in student papers or when AUJS members attend our public events.

After reporting the alleged incident to campus security, AUJS contacted the vice-chancellor directly. AUJS did not seek to view or retrieve the CCTV footage from the day or any other evidence or testimony from independent witnesses.

The investigation

You would think that, for a multi-million-dollar institution that has more than 50,000 students and employs more than 8,000 staff, the allegation of a plastic flag worth $3 (or 50 cents if you buy in bulk) being swiped from a stall in O-week wouldn’t make its way to the top of the priority list – especially given that there was no evidence that the event took place. You’d be wrong.

Sydney University management determined that the event was serious enough to call for “an independent investigation”. The investigation was conducted by Workdynamic Australia, a company founded by corporate lawyers that investigates workplace disputes at the request of bosses.

Kim was asked to attend an interview with the investigator. She requested that she be informed why she was being investigated and who had made the accusation. This was a damning move.

The investigator found that Kim was “on balance” guilty of the offence and as such had broken the university’s code of conduct in relation to harassment and discrimination. The evidence on which this judgment hinged was the investigator’s view of Kim’s “manner”, which she found to be “immature”, “smirking” and “uncooperative”. In addition, Kim reportedly “showed no remorse”. In the brave new world of university justice systems, those pleading not guilty must, apparently, display remorse.

The university informed Kim that she was receiving a severe reprimand (on her university record) and a fine and told her that she had a narrow opening of time to appeal this decision.

The second hearing

Thus, the first available opportunity for Kim to respond to the allegation against her with forewarning was considered an appeal hearing, in which the university represented AUJS’s case.

In the lead-up to this hearing and throughout it, university representatives were at pains to explain the low standards of evidence, representation and due process required. The PR rationale for this is that the in-house justice system is for light offences, so the atmosphere is more collegial than adversarial – all of us in the university community just hashing things out rationally. In reality, the relaxed standards are self-serving and swing only one way.

This “relaxed” hearing was held on the 14th floor of the NSW Supreme Court building, and though the panoramic harbour view was spectacular, its novelty had worn off by the time we hit the six-hour mark.

Several notable things happened throughout the hearing. One in particular was that some of our evidence was ruled as inadmissible: a character reference for Kim (despite the investigator’s character assessment ostensibly proving her guilt) and documents about an incident at Monash University, at which AUJS members were forced to admit that they lied about Socialist Alternative members distributing anti-Semitic leaflets.

The representative for the university was Jane Wright, one of the founders and major shareholders of the organisation that conducted the “independent investigation”. Her case was that Kim had opportunity (she was on campus on the day in question along with thousands of other students) and motive (she supports Palestine), and that two upstanding students, whose motives are truth and justice, said that it happened and identified Kim based on their interactions with her in student politics.

Kim explained many times throughout the hearing that she did not commit the act, that supporting the Palestinians does not constitute evidence and that AUJS has a record of fabricating allegations.

The university’s case was spectacularly flimsy and began to fall apart throughout the hearing. The largest inconsistency was with its only evidence: the testimony of the two AUJS members. Under questioning, they were forced to admit that they had lied about seeing the flag being put in the bin.

Despite this, the board found Kim guilty. They prefaced their findings with more platitudes about the low standards of evidence that are required in a case like this. Their written decision impressively lived up to the spirit of those platitudes. After describing the inconsistencies and inadequacies of the evidence put forward by the university, they wrote:

“The evidence of (the complainants) exhibited matters that cast doubt on their reliability. However, there can be no suggestion that their evidence was fabricated.”

That the only two apparent witnesses to the alleged event were each found to have fabricated an identical claim to have seen the flag placed in the bin was not viewed as evidence of their collusion. Instead, it was described merely as “curious” quirk of their story. Curious, indeed.

Again, the board cited Kim’s lack of remorse. And then, without pointing to any evidence that had led them to it, they offered this conclusion:

“[D]emonstrating contempt for a national flag was intended to offend and, quite clearly, involved a degree of moral delinquency. Taking that into account, the better view is that it is more likely than not that [Kim] was the perpetrator who took the flag and placed it in the bin.”

Accordingly, the severe reprimand and fine were upheld.

The grounds for our appeal of this decision were numerous. But the key university by-law that we cited was that the decision was “unreasonable and cannot be supported, having regard to the evidence”.

The third hearing

They say the second time is a farce. I’m not sure what that makes the third time, but it was certainly warped. From the moment we entered the hearing, it was made clear that the proverbial “old boys club” system was at work. Wright’s submission was in the main an invocation of the good standing and repute of the original board. To rule against them would be folly and probably disloyal.

Once again, we attempted to submit evidence supporting a different reading of events, outlining the conduct of AUJS in similar circumstances at Monash.

Once again, we were told that the information was not relevant and could not be discussed or used as evidence. Wright then proceeded to discuss it anyway. She explained that, far from establishing AUJS’s dishonesty, the apology that the Monash chapter of AUJS was forced to make after its members’ lies were exposed displayed admirable integrity. According to Wright, the same is true for AUJS at Sydney University: the important thing is not that its members lied when making the original complaint but that two years later, when put under pressure, they admitted they had been lying.

The decision reached by the board was to find the evidence of AUJS and the university preferable to Kim’s. There was an unmistakable implicit rationale: that the university stands on the side of those who support Israel.

It is unsurprising that the ardent Zionists who make up AUJS have found ready assistance from university administrations in their project of “actively promoting the interests of Israel”.

University administrations have always been defenders of right wing causes, especially those that are dear to the Australian state. AUJS is aware of this and has deliberately pursued a strategy of appealing to them. In 2014, AUJS wrote a national report boasting of its successes disciplining Socialist Alternative members for supporting Palestine at Monash and La Trobe:

“Those responsible are finally seeing the tables turned on them, facing disciplinary action, and AUJS has been working hard to see that done. Recently we met with Vice-Chancellors and State Government Ministers at State Parliament to discuss these issues, and the press coverage we’ve engineered has been useful as well.”

The stolen plastic flag gag is just the latest in a series of lies designed to construct a narrative that critics of Israel embody “modern anti-Semitism”. The university administrations are willing partners in this. And as this case shows, for them there is no complaint too trivial, no story too incredible and no standard of natural justice too inflexible.

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