Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Viva Australian Student Activism 1

To the student activists who ruffled Tony Jones' feathers on Q&A on Monday night, I dedicate this little walk down memory lane.

All but forgotten now, but well worth recalling as a bold example of 1970s grassroots politics, was the brave attempt by progressive Australian Union of Students (AUS) activists to make Palestine core university business.

Interestingly, I could find only one reference to the AUS campaign on the net - of the kind, as you'll see, that screams out for a corrective. It's by - groan - Zionist academics, Philip Mendes and Nick Dyrenfurth of Monash University:

"These anti-Zionist fundamentalists loved the gun not the olive branch, and they quickly captured the pro-Palestinian agenda. In 1974 and again in 1975, the extremist-influenced Australian Union of Students (AUS), passed motions calling for the elimination of the State of Israel, and its replacement by a democratic secular state of Palestine. The latter was a disingenuous euphemism for an ethno-religious Islamic Arab state given that most Palestinian Muslims are highly religious and overwhelmingly reject secular and democratic ideas." (How the Far Left hijacked the Palestinian cause, Philip Mendes & Nick Dyrenfurth,, 18/11/09)

Stuff and nonsense, of course, proving that Zionism and scholarship don't mix.

The following unattributed account of the AUS Palestine campaign, The Palestine debate in AUS, was written for the Macquarie University student newspaper, Arena (27/4/77). I'll be posting it here in three parts (with typo corrections and additional material where necessary. :


"In 1974 and 1975 the Australian Union of Students took a series of motions and foreshadowed motions to its membership for debate and resolution. The motions were related to the state of Israel, the nature of Zionism and the plight of the Palestinian people. The ensuing controversy shook AUS to its foundations. The debate took the issue of Israel into the wider Australian community and for the first time students and others were able to hear the Palestinian point of view from both its Australian champions and two Palestinian students* who visited Australia in 1975 under the auspices of AUS. [*Eddie Zananari and Samir Cheikh of the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS)]

"This paper deals briefly with the background and history of the debate and the wide-ranging consequences it has had on the Union's ability to debate controversial policy or hold a controversial position. While this paper may not be the last word on the matter, it attempts to cover at least some of the material and activity of the past 3 years for the information of delegates to Council.

[MERC: The 1974 motions read: 1) That AUS informs the National Union of Israeli Students (NUIS) that AUS does not recognise the existence of the State of Israel or of the NUIS as the official student in that region. 2) That AUS recognise the GUPS as a legal student union in that area of the Middle East known as Israel (in reality occupied Palestine). 3) That AUS having met in full Council, no longer believes that NUIS should be recognised as a member of ASA, and rather, believes that the GUPS and Arab Student Unions or any non-Zionist student organisation should be recognised in their place. 4) That AUS condemn the exploitation and degradation of the Palestinian people as carried out by the Arab nations and by Israel. 5) That AUS open a dialogue with the PLO in Beirut with a view to disseminating literature on the resistance through the organs open to AUS. 6) That AUS examine the student unions of the Arab regimes, to ascertain whether they are progressive organisations or simply apologists for their various reactionary regimes. 7) That AUS calls for the release of all members of the Palestinian resistance held in jails in occupied Palestine (Israel), the Arab countries and Greece. This includes all Jewish political prisoners not officially members of the PLO held in occupied Palestine. 8) That AUS support the liberation forces of Palestine. 9) That the Palestinian people have the historical, cultural, and moral right to the land of Palestine, presently embraced by Israel. 10) That any realistic settlement of the 'Middle East Problem' must accommodate the rights of the Palestinians in order to have any chance of resulting in permanent peace.]


"The public reaction to AUS January Council policy on Israel in 1974 was immediate. On January 20, the Australasian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS) issued a press release signed by its president, Arnold Roth. In the press release, Roth threatened that Jewish students would withdraw their membership en masse and give $1.00 per head to the cause of fighting the AUS motions: 'AUS has decided to wish Israel out of existence. It chooses to take an absurdly unrealistic view of the Middle East to reject the only democratically elected and representative student body in the Middle East, namely the National Union of Israeli Students, and in its place recognise the General Union of Palestinian Students, an Egyptian 'front' organisation...' (AUJS Press Release, 20/1/74) Further on the press release stated that, having accepted the aims and activities of the PLO, including terrorism, AUS had 'placed itself beyond any reasonable resemblance to representing the views of the mass of Australian students.' (ibid) Roth had acted hastily and without the assent of his executive. Later he modified AUJS' position and announced it would attempt to debate and defeat the resolutions rather than withdraw from AUS.

"The pro-Palestine motions asserted the justice of the Palestinian claims to Israel; recognised the GUPS as the representative body of the area of Israel instead of NUIS; proposed AUS establish dialogue with the PLO; gave support to the liberation forces of Palestine and called for the release of members of the Palestinian resistance imprisoned in Israel for their activities. The foreshadowed motions recognised the rights of Palestinians and Israelis, calling for the rights of national liberation for both Jews and Arabs, proposing a separate mini-state.

"While the arguments for the pro-Palestine motions were fairly consistent, the opposition was split. Arguing for the motions, activists debated the issues of Zionism, its philosophy and practice. They called attention to the plight of the Palestinian people and formulated the democratic secular state in which Jews and Arabs could live equally as the ideal solution to the problems of the Palestinian refugees and persecuted Jews. The opposition split its attack. Much of it centred on the right of AUS to take the controversial position it had. It accused AUS leaders of anti-semitism while a third argument (the most used) justified Zionism as a national liberation movement for the Jewish people. That argument agreed that everything in Israel was not perfect and that the Palestinians had a grievance. However, it disagreed with AUS' 'extreme' line, posing the solution of a mini-state for the Palestinian people.


"The debate, conducted through National U [the AUS paper], campus papers and leaflets, raged in the weeks before the vote was taken [March 1974?] and afterwards. The national press joined in, sometimes reporting, sometimes castigating AUS for daring to question the status quo in Israel. Left Zionists made flattering comparisons between Israeli parliamentary democracy and life and the reactionary Arab regimes surrounding Israel. They admitted Israel had made mistakes but that given time it would rectify them without any help from AUS: 'The Jewish leadership failed to recognise the emergence of Arab nationalism until after the event and this created a vacuum in the official Israeli policy which Israel is still trying to rectify today.' (AUS Position Paper 1974: The Middle East: An Alternative View, prepared by Peta Jones of UNSW Delegation)

"Right Zionists were less subtle. In a supplement to the Australian Jewish Times dated February 21, 1974 a few lines represented AUS policy as supporting terrorism perpetrated by Palestinian guerilla forces; pledging to disseminate propaganda supplied from Beirut; and claiming AUS was therefore unrepresentative of students. It announced that a demonstration was to be held at UNSW. As reported in National U, the Palestinian refugee problem was dismissed by one of the speakers as of little consequence. In a piece of street theatre, the AUS leadership was portrayed as a group of bloodthirsty dilettantes looking for a 'cause'. The 'cause' was represented by an actor dressed as a Palestinian complete with headdress, dark glasses and gun. (Torch Rally at UNSW, Geoff Tanks, NU, 11/3/74)

"One of the major emphases given by both 'left' and 'right' was to the question of anti-semitism. Since it was difficult, if not impossible to detect anti-semitism in any of the arguments presented verbally or on paper by the pro-Palestinian faction, a new definition was applied. Zionists claimed the interests of all Jewish people were inextricably bound up in Zionism, which had its roots in the Jewish religion and culture. Hence any criticism of the Zionist political movement was per se anti-semitic: 'I find the very idea of 'anti-Zionism' just incredible. Why aren't there any 'anti-Vietnamese national liberationist' groups around the world. Of course not! How can you legitimately oppose the self-emancipation of a people? Obviously you can't... except when it comes to the Jewish people.' (Anti-Zionism is anti-semitism, Augustine Zycher, Arena, 13/3/74)

"A reply to this argument in the same publication pointed out: 'It has often been claimed... it is inconsistent... (to support)... Arab nationalism and not... Israeli nationalism... Any socialist worth his (sic) salt must distinguish between two types of nationalism. There is what can be called oppressive nationalism and... on the other hand oppressed nationalism... It cannot be expected, as the Zionists would like to claim, that the new Left would adopt a consistent view towards all nationalism because... (they)... do not wish the new Left to support Nazi nationalism.' (Why AUS is right on the Middle East, John Bechara)."

NB: The 1974 motions did not win majority support among students. That campaign, however, was but a prelude to the more substantial and eventful campaign of 1975. My next post will continue with the account of that campaign.

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