On 5 June 2014, SydneyStaff4BDS hosted a forum on the topic ‘Academic freedom in Palestine: Why it matters to Sydney Staff’. Key speakers were Mohammed Abualrob and Shamikh Badra, two students who have studied in both Palestine and Australia, and Stuart Rees, a University of Sydney academic.
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.
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.
NTEU MEMBERS – our union’s strength is in open, inclusive, rational debate.
Don’t be rushed into deciding – complex questions need full discussion.
ON JUNE 4, OPPOSE THE CALL BY THE NATIONAL GENERAL SECRETARY TO SHUT DOWN DISCUSSION!
- Our success in protecting our working conditions last year was the result of collective deliberation and democratic decision-making.
- Now, our branch has rightly decided to back NTEU member Jake Lynch against the attacks on his intellectual freedom. It is a logical step for us to consider whether, like many other unions, we should also support the BDS campaign for Palestine justice, in particular the institutional academic boycott of Israeli universities.
- Open and inclusive discussion of both sides of the question, over a relaxed timeframe, is by far the best way to decide. Discussing the question slowly and carefully will let members reflect, and not distract from the other important work we have to do.
- No motion taking a position either for or against BDS should be put until members have had the opportunity to consider the issue at greater length.
- Ordinary members, not anyone else, should collectively decide how much time, if any, they are willing for the branch to devote to the discussion of BDS.
So let’s have a debate on June 4 about how much time, if any, members want to devote to discussion of BDS. This lets members decide if they don’t want any.
This solution is far preferable to any attempt to shut debate down, for four reasons:
- it doesn’t force members to commit themselves hastily on a complex and important ethical and political question;
- it doesn’t set a bad precedent by overturning the decision of the May 15 members’ meeting;
- it allows us to properly consider advice from all parties, including the General Secretary;
- it puts the decision about how much time we devote to this issue directly in the hands of members.
Why are we meeting on Wednesday?
At a meeting on May 15, the Sydney University branch of the NTEU passed a resolution calling for a “broad discussion among members about whether to endorse the BDS call and, if so, in what form.” In recognition of the seriousness and complexity of this issue, the motion envisaged a series of meetings and open discussions leading up to a vote on the issue “by the end of the year.” The aim was to enable members to make an informed decision on where they stand. The Branch Committee’s role was explicitly to facilitate an open discussion, not to endorse BDS. Now, the General Secretary of the NTEU, Grahame McCulloch, is flying up from Melbourne to try and shut debate down.
Why does BDS matter to USyd?
Sydney University is a conspicuous supporter of Israel, maintaining formal connections to a number of Israeli academic institutions through well funded exchange programs, such as the exchange with the Hebrew University, and a new partnership with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. Through its active support of Israeli institutions the University of Sydney leaves Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians completely unchallenged, and helps Israel to whitewash its acute human rights violations. As staff at the University of Sydney we have a responsibility not to work with institutions that either remain silent while the Israeli state destroys the educational infrastructure of Palestine, or are actively complicit with this destruction. Jake Lynch, an NTEU member from the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, is currently being attacked through the Federal Court for his decision to exercise his intellectual freedom by upholding the institutional academic boycott.
BDS and union priorities
Unions have always engaged in questions of international justice and human rights. Union boycotts were a major part of the campaign to end apartheid in South Africa. No one advocating a discussion of BDS thinks it should be our main priority. Obviously, the branch should be concentrating on local issues like the job cuts at the library, and on playing a role in opposing federal funding cuts. Some Branch committee members have worried that if we begin considering BDS, all their time will be spent responding to media enquiries, placating the Israel lobby, and talking to irate members. The solution is straightforward. Form emails and letters could be prepared, stating that “Branch members are considering this issue, as they are considering many others. Until members have voted, the Branch has no position, beyond respect for its democratic processes.’
The NTEU needs maximum unity to fight university management and federal cuts. The motion to discuss BDS does not have to be divisive. BDS is a controversial question with strongly held views on both sides. Discussion is not bad for the branch; it is the best way to maintain unity and resolve any question on which we have a difference of views.We can maintain maximum unity by voting against the General Secretary’s motion and maintaining the branch’s commitment to open, democratic discussion of all issues.
Why weren’t members notified that a discussion on BDS was happening on May 15?
Sydney Staff for BDS notified the NTEU of the motion to begin a discussion on BDS before 9am on May 14, the day before the members’ meeting. There was ample time to circulate the motion to members. It’s important to note that the BDS motion wasn’t treated differently from any of the other motions: none of the motions passed on the 15th – on the budget, on supporting Jake Lynch’s right to intellectual freedom, on starting a discussion about BDS – was prenotified to members. No objections were raised at the meeting over a debate on the BDS discussion motion taking place, no procedural problems were raised by anyone, and a full discussion was had.
The NTEU and the 2014 Federal Budget
Budget cuts and further deregulation will bring drastic changes to our working environment, and severely restrict access to higher education. Sydney staff will suffer from the uncertainties of the new funding model, which will be used to demand increased workloads and greater flexibility (i.e. job cuts). This dismantling of public higher education must be met with a strong response from the NTEU, in solidarity with Sydney University students who have taken a lead in the campaign.
Download this post as a leaflet: Member mtg fact sheet 1-6-14
On May 19 The Australian reported on a meeting of the the Sydney University branch of the NTEU, at which members expressed support for Jake Lynch’s intellectual freedom, and voted to commence a discussion as to the desirability of endorsing the BDS campaign. The Australian’s article quotes Shurat HaDin lawyer Andrew Hamilton’s threat that if they were to do so, the staff union would be “next in the firing line”, and that his firm would “supply the ammunition.” In response to these threats, the following letter was published in The Australian on May 20.
Bullying over BDS
THE threat by Shurat HaDin lawyer Andrew Hamilton that Sydney University staff will be next in the firing line shows that he prefers bullying and intimidation over rational discussion (“Jewish group warns uni on BDS”, 19/5).
Like Shurat HaDin’s Federal Court case against Jake Lynch, these tactics are intended to drain critics of resources, and silence other advocates of the peaceful boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign.
In coming to Lynch’s defence, Sydney University’s National Tertiary Education Union is upholding members’ rights to a working environment free of such harassment, as any union should. Its resolution, moreover, is in line with the university’s administration which recognises Lynch’s support for BDS as a legitimate exercise of his intellectual freedom.
NTEU members have voted to begin a broad discussion on the issues surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict, and in particular the university’s links to Israeli institutions. These ties do not exist in an ethical vacuum. Our institution’s global conduct is a matter that staff have every right to discuss and take positions on — up to and including support for BDS.
David Brophy, history lecturer, Sydney University, NSW
What is Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS)?
The call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions is a Palestinian-initiated response to Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territory, its siege of Gaza, and its systematic oppression of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Launched in 2005 by an unprecedented coalition of over 170 Palestinian civil society organisations on the model of the successful campaign against South African apartheid, BDS promotes basic equality, practical peacebuilding and democracy in Israel-Palestine. It categorically rejects all kinds of discrimination, including anti-Semitism, and aspires to achieving basic equality for all people in Israel-Palestine, regardless of race or religion.
What exactly does the academic boycott involve?
The international academic boycott is part of the wider BDS movement. It applies to Israeli institutions, not individual academics, and calls on academics to refuse to participate in or facilitate official, institution-level activities with Israeli universities, such as, in particular, conferences convened or sponsored by Israeli institutions, and institutional exchange agreements. These and similar arrangements contribute to the legitimisation of Israel in the eyes of the international community by normalizing academic relations with it. The boycott call is predicated on the empirical fact that all official Israeli academic institutions currently actively support Israel’s policies towards Palestine.
A large body of evidence shows that Israeli academic institutions deliberately and intensively support the illegal occupation of Palestinian territory through, among other things, a variety of lucrative military research and training efforts. Other areas in which this support is manifested include obstruction of Palestinian access to education and academic freedom; in some cases, the maintenance of premises on stolen Palestinian land; or, simply, the failure to officially condemn Israel’s policies, thereby contributing to their legitimisation. As staff at the University of Sydney we have a responsibility not to work with institutions that either remain silent while the Israeli state destroys the educational infrastructure of Palestine, or are actively complicit with this destruction. If an Israeli university did not support Israel’s current policies towards Palestine in any way, it would not be subject to the boycott.
The academic boycott does not apply to individual Israeli academics or students: mere institutional affiliation to the Israeli academy is not a sufficient condition for applying the boycott. BDS is, furthermore, a tactic, not a dogma: the decision to boycott or not to boycott in any particular instance should be the result of an assessment of the ways in which a particular university can be pressured to withdraw its support for or complicity in Israel’s human rights violations and illegality. Finally, BDS is a pluralistic movement and does not mandate any one way of responding to the boycott call.
Shouldn’t we be encouraging dialogue between Israel and Palestine instead?
As Nelson Mandela famously remarked on negotiation with the government during apartheid in South Africa, “only free men can negotiate”. Genuine dialogue and negotiation require parity among the participants. Over 160 countries acknowledge the illegality of Israel’s Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank and recognise that these settlements and the widespread abuses of Palestinian human rights are a significant impediment to peace. Parity certainly does not exist between the parties to the negotiations over Palestine. It’s impossible for a hostage to have a genuine dialogue with their kidnapper. Decades of officially sponsored negotiations have only strengthened Israel’s hand. While talks continue, more illegal settlements are built. Only a logic of pressure holds any chance of creating the conditions necessary for a breakthrough. Israel’s marked hostility to the BDS movement as opposed to other forms of Palestine advocacy is evidence of the political traction BDS is gaining.
What’s the connection with USyd?
Sydney University is a conspicuous supporter of Israel, maintaining formal connections to a number of Israeli academic institutions through well funded exchange programs, such as the exchange with the Hebrew University, and a new partnership with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. Sydney has refused to distance itself from the Australian government’s position on the extreme fringe of international public opinion on Israel, Tony Abbot having declared “I’d like to think that nowhere in the world [does Israel] have a stauncher friend than us”. Through its active support of Israeli institutions the University of Sydney effectively endorses – and is therefore complicit with – Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, and helps Israel to whitewash its acute human rights violations.
Why does BDS target Israel specifically?
Unlike many other instances of alleged or proven human rights abuse in the world, Israel’s breaches of international law are massively supported by the US and its allies, including Australia. This imposes an obligation on people in these countries to speak out. Attempts to discredit BDS on the grounds that its supporters show selective concern for Israel/Palestine over other situations of oppression are mistaken both factually and in principle. These criticisms are factually mistaken since BDS targets Israel’s crimes against Palestine precisely as flagrant instances of oppression and discrimination, thereby contributing to the broader struggle for a just world. Many BDS supporters, such as the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, are at the forefront of other campaigns for human rights. Members of the Sydney Staff for BDS group are also active in the refugee rights movement, antiracism campaigns, the environment movement, the NTEU and progressive politics more broadly.
Such criticism is also wrong in principle: it is no argument against a political position that it concentrates on one particular point within a broader spectrum of issues. Campaign focuses are chosen as a function of particular political circumstances and with a view to what is achievable. The campaign against coal-seam gas in NSW cannot be reasonably criticized for not also directly addressing other international environmental issues. This is exactly analogous to the relation between the movement for justice in Palestine and the wider struggle for peace and justice in the world.
BDS and academic freedom
Far from infringing academic freedom, BDS promotes it by drawing attention to Israel’s denial of basic academic opportunities to Palestinians. Clearly, activities or actions in support of oppression and the denial of basic rights cannot be justified by appeals to “academic freedom”. This applies straightforwardly to Israeli universities’ support for the oppression of Palestinians. In any case, Israeli academics are only affected by BDS if they choose to participate in official institutional activities over and beyond their affiliation with an Israeli university.
BDS and racism
BDS is opposed to all forms of discrimination including racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and sexual discrimination. Targets of BDS are identified as a function of their support for Israel’s human rights violations, not their race or nationality. International companies and organisations that support Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territory are a key focus of the BDS campaign. They include Veolia, Adidas, G4S, Hewlett-Packard and Caterpillar. Organisations which support BDS regularly work with a range of Jewish and Israeli activists, academics, authors etc. The Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney is no exception: it frequently hosts and supports a range of Israeli and Jewish academics and speakers.
Why should the NTEU get involved?
Israeli policies severely restrict the lives and futures of our Palestinian colleagues and their students, including their right to education and their freedom of movement, to say nothing of their access to basic resources, including electricity and water. On January 22, 2014, the Israeli military launched an attack on the Palestinian Al Quds University. Rubber-coated steel bullet rounds were fired at students by the Israeli military and more than 100 students suffered from excessive tear-gas inhalation. The students and academics of Birzeit University, located in the West Bank near Ramallah, are required to pass through checkpoints manned by Israeli soldiers where they are interrogated and searched and subjected to violence and humiliation. The Israeli military has frequently entered the university itself, made arrests, and even used blockades and curfews to close down the entire campus. We cannot remain silent when our own institution refuses to act against these abuses.
Furthermore, one of the NTEU’s members, Associate Prof. Jake Lynch, is currently being targeted after refusing to support an application for a fellowship under a joint scheme linking Sydney University with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in response to the BDS call. The NTEU has already supported Lynch’s right to exercise his academic freedom to implement the boycott. There is no reason to offer our solidarity to him but to withhold it from Palestinian colleagues, who face far more serious attacks on a daily basis.
The union movement has always had an internationalist focus. The struggle for working people’s rights depends on global solidarity. The BDS campaign is supported by a growing range of unions, professional associations and other organizations internationally, including the University of Johannesburg, the Teachers’ Union of Ireland, the American Studies Association, national trade union federations in South Africa, UK, Scotland, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, the Basque Country, Brazil and other countries across Latin America, in addition to scores of national and local unions, including the Maritime Union of Australia and the Queensland Teachers’ Union.
Download this document as a pdf: Sydney staff for BDS fact sheet