Speeches in favour of the NTEU Sydney Branch starting a discussion on BDS, 4/6/14

It would have been better to be using today to talk about our urgent priorities – the library, federal funding cuts, the budget. No one supporting BDS has ever said otherwise: I’ll be moving a motion about our budget response later.

Like it or not, however, this meeting’s been called to answer a different question. Should we agree to continue a broad, open discussion on whether we should support the institutional academic boycott of Israeli universities – or should we effectively shut discussion down?

Many unions and other organisations have had this discussion already. University staff in Canadian, Irish and British unions, as well as in a dozen scholarly organisations since 2013 alone have talked, and decided to support BDS.

But supporting BDS through the institutional academic boycott certainly wasn’t what members on May 15 voted to do. Nor did they vote not to support it. They just voted to consider whether we should support it, and, if so, in what form.

Our two motions today reconcile respect for the democratically made decision on the 15th with the principle that members should control how much time, if any, we put into talking about this issue.

Our first motion asks us not to adopt any position for or against BDS, and to wait until we’ve had time to discuss it more fully.

It is reckless and irresponsible to ask us to oppose BDS today. Refusing to support or even discuss the institutional academic boycott is a serious step. Members shouldn’t be forced to pronounce on such a complex question in these pressured circumstances.

Our second motion makes some minimal proposals about what the branch could do to facilitate a discussion: devote two short slots at members’ meetings to contributions from both sides; distribute relevant emails; set up a working party to relieve the Branch Committee if necessary. As with any motion, anyone here is free to propose an amendment if they think what we’ve suggested is too much or too little. Let members today decide how much time we give to this issue, including none.

Why should the Middle East matter to us? While our Israeli colleagues and their students enjoy conditions like ours, our Palestinian colleagues and their students are subjected to continual deprivation, checkpoints, raids, tear-gas, and bullets. Intellectual freedom doesn’t exist under siege and occupation.

Our own university isn’t a bystander. Sydney has privileged academic agreements with Israeli universities that provide the ideological and technical infrastructure for the occupation. It is absolutely appropriate for us to at least talk about whether our union should support this partnership.

We’ve recently heard lots of arguments against BDS. I think those arguments are wrong – but no one should be asked to decide today, or to decide soon. To those of us who’ve come here to oppose BDS, I ask you to recognise that a discussion where we can all fairly put our views is the best outcome today. What a union is is its members talking through their different opinions.

We’ve also heard lots of counterproductive talk about division. A controversy is not division. We can’t be afraid of words or of differences of opinion. We’re a union, and a union in a university. What kind of unity do we have if we refuse to even engage on a question where people disagree?

The whole world is discussing BDS. I think it’s our responsibility, as unionists and as Sydney University staff, to discuss it too.

Nick Riemer

I started working at the University of Sydney just over a year ago, as our strike campaign was getting underway.

I have to admit it was a bit disconcerting to start my job in the middle of a serious attack on our wages and conditions, but it was exciting too, because for the first time in my life I found myself in a union branch that had a culture of grassroots activity, and democratic decision-making.

I value that culture in our branch highly, as I think we all do. And that’s why I think we should insist on our right to decide what issues are appropriate for our branch to discuss, and to reach a position on those issues collectively, without being rushed.

This to me is what a strong union is about.

A strong union doesn’t shy away from pressing global issues, or stick its head in the sand when an entire nation calls out for solidarity.

These are the actions of a weak union, of a union that distrusts its membership.

To emphasize again, all we’re asking for here is a discussion. If we can exchange views in a collegial fashion, and collectively determine a position on BDS, I’ll be thrilled, regardless of the outcome.

Our opponents have views on BDS and are entitled to them. Had this all been handled properly, I’d be treating those views today not in the form of an opposing motion, but as valued contributions to an ongoing discussion.

Frankly, though, I think that the existing NTEU national policy is too narrow.

This isn’t just about a political conflict on the other side of the world. This is about our university, and the way it conducts itself internationally.

NTEU national policy doesn’t have anything to say about our university’s ties to Israeli institutions, such as the Hebrew University, and the Technion Institute of Technology.

Two days ago in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Israeli political scientist Neve Gordon stated what I see as the key contention behind the institutional boycott:

Wittingly or unwittingly, Israeli universities play a central role in sustaining the occupation. They are the face of Israel’s democracy that serves to hide its dark colonial side. One could call it “university washing.”

I’m not asking you to accept Neve Gordon’s proposition today. I’m simply suggesting that if there is any skerrick of truth to it, it’s something worth discussing.

Some say that this is divisive. I don’t think it’s divisive to discuss our ethical responsibilities as members of this university community.

Shutting down this discussion prematurely will be far more divisive than what we’re proposing.

Airing the views that exist in the branch, and coming to a position collectively, can only strengthen us as a union, and that’s why I recommend we all support Motion 1 today.

David Brophy