The University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) student council on 26 May voted to rescind a historic pro-Palestine motion after receiving a threat of a class-action lawsuit. The motion, which passed a month earlier, included support for Palestinians to engage in armed struggle in their fight for self-determination and endorsed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.
Since passing the motion, the union has faced a torrent of cynical accusations of anti-Semitism from the university administration, various Zionist organisations and the Murdoch press. This blowback culminated in a student member of the Liberal Party, Justin Riazaty, who is a former head of the now-defunct Monarchist Society, initiating a class-action lawsuit.
Gladwin Legal sent a letter to UMSU instructing the council to rescind the Palestine motion and issue a formal apology to Riazaty, who is not Jewish, to avoid legal action. Greg Barns, Australian Lawyers Alliance spokesman and SC, accurately described the class action as “aggressive threatening” and a “vicious attack on freedom of speech”.
The letter claimed UMSU was in breach of the Associations Incorporation Reform Act 2012 and the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001. On the webpage set up to register interest in the class action, Gladwin Legal declared that UMSU had acted outside the scope of its purposes by passing a political motion and that the union had engaged in “oppressive conduct” by not consulting Jewish students.
Riazaty’s class action sought a declaration by the court that the BDS motion was outside of the UMSU’s purpose and, among other things, “an order regulating the conduct of the UMSU’s affairs in the future”.
This was a full-frontal assault on the student union. It is an outrage that a right-winger with money and connections, unable to win a vote in the student council, can engage lawyers to threaten to gag a student union for expressing solidarity with Palestine.
“The arguments made in the lawsuit are cynical and dishonest, conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism”, a Students for Palestine open letter with more than 300 signatories said in response. “This is an attempt to undermine solidarity with the Palestinians. The Israeli occupation of Palestine denies Palestinians basic civil and human rights. It is a militarised apartheid regime.”
This class action attacked support for Palestine and attacked the right of student unions to take political positions and exercise internal democracy. Student unions historically played a key role in championing left-wing campaigns. During the Vietnam War, Melbourne University student union hid draft dodgers in Union House. At Monash, the union supported students accused of treason for raising money for the National Liberation Front resisting US imperialism. Student unions have battled in courts to defend their right to take political positions.
Under the threat of legal action ahead, the interim CEO of UMSU and other Labor students united with Zionists arguing to rescind the motion. Two Labor left students, President Sophie Nguyen and Education Academic Officer Moira Negline, moved a new motion to rescind the Palestine “BDS and Solidarity Policy” motion. This motion was debated for two hours.
The Labor students scare-mongered about the potential for UMSU councillors to be personally responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees if UMSU was taken to court. It was suggested that the key priority should be student service provision, not defending the union’s rights to free speech, which would be a “waste of money”.
These student politicians, who posture as progressives, advocated for rescinding opposition to apartheid, ethnic cleansing and genocide. They hid behind the argument that they were concerned about ensuring UMSU didn’t become insolvent, but it was clear that self-interest, political aspiration and cowardice motivated them. The Labor left students have a track record of backing down on support for Palestine to protect their future careers in the Australian Labor Party.
The few Zionists in attendance, who were clearly delighted by the lawsuit, spoke at length about what a mistake it was to move an “anti-Semitic motion” in the first place. The motion was rescinded by a ten to six vote. This is a resounding defeat for student unionism.
Fighting for Palestine in a high-profile free speech court case and campaigning around it on campus would have raised the pro-Palestine sentiment among the student population. It would have strengthened the cause rather than undermined it. UMSU could have engaged political civil liberties lawyers for pro bono work (in fact, one such lawyer has since contacted the union).
UMSU could have crowdfunded from Palestinian organisations and supporters in the case of any legal or other fees. UMSU would have been on the right side of history, as it was during the gay liberation movement or in the campaign against South African apartheid. The Israeli military murdered journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh in cold blood, and has killed thousands of Palestinians in recent years. The very least we could do in solidarity with Palestinians is fight a stupid lawsuit.
Instead, this vote sets a precedent that any right-wing snowflake can veto the democratic decisions of the student union if they disagree with them. The vote accepts the right-wing lie that pro-Palestine sentiment is anti-Semitic and suggests that student unions should not take up progressive politics.
Student unions, Riazaty said in an Age interview after the vote, “shouldn’t be taking sides, especially on complex political issues when that is not what their mandate is”. “I do trust”, he continued, “that the union now recognises that their actions have consequences and their anti-Semitic propaganda will not go unchecked”.
Those pro-Palestine supporters who mobilised to defend the motion, including Palestinians, activists, students and academics on campus and allies interstate, should be commended.
Despite the defeat, these efforts were not in vain. It was important that six councillors did not back down or concede the absurd proposition that opposing apartheid is anti-Semitic. Carving out a space against the Zionist arguments and tactics, in the student council and with the open letter, lays the groundwork for future campaigns on our campuses in solidarity with the Palestinians, who face far greater risks every day in their struggle for justice.