In a monumental betrayal, Melbourne University’s Students’ Council last month voted to rescind a motion supporting the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and the global Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement.

At Palestine’s moment of need, student politicians—mostly from factions associated with the Australian Labor Party—have put self-interest ahead of basic solidarity.

The solidarity motion was adopted in 2022 and provoked a legal challenge from student Liberal Party member Justin Riazaty, a former leader of the campus Monarchist Association.

The legal firm representing Riazaty threatened action against the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) if its governing council failed to rescind the motion and issue a formal apology. The firm stated on its website 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.

Attempts by Labor-aligned forces in the union to withdraw and revise the motion did nothing to mollify Riazaty, who relaunched legal action later in the year, claiming that the motion breached the Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act. Speaking to the press, Riazaty, who is not Jewish, claimed the motion was “anti-Semitism pure and simple and cannot stand”.

An open letter organised by Students for Palestine, signed by hundreds of students and elected representatives, argued at the time: “The arguments made in the lawsuit are cynical and dishonest, conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. This is an attempt to undermine solidarity with the Palestinians”.

This year, the climate is far more favourable for standing up to the pro-Israel right than it was in 2022. A global mass movement in solidarity with the Palestinians has emerged and there are historically high levels of support for the cause among young people. In many places, thousands of vocal anti-Zionist Jewish activists have led the demonstrations.

So supporters of Palestine have enormous political and moral authority to refute the slanderous arguments that equate anti-racist solidarity with anti-Semitism. Fighting for Palestine in a high-profile free speech court case and campaigning to push back the right could have further raised pro-Palestine sentiment among students.

Yet this opportunity has been squandered by elected representatives in the union. Under the leadership of both the “left” and right factions of the Labor Party, UMSU has opted for conciliation. Since the legal action began two years ago, UMSU has prohibited elected representatives from speaking publicly about the situation in Palestine while the union’s legal team focused on reaching a compromise with Riazaty.

The fruits of this bankrupt approach are now clear. On 16 February, the vast majority of UMSU councillors accepted the advice of conservative lawyers and voted to capitulate completely, settling with Riazaty to avoid fighting the case in the High Court. The settlement stipulated that the motion be withdrawn and that UMSU pay most of Riazaty’s legal fees.

This is a disgraceful refusal to show basic solidarity. It is especially shameful in the context of Israel’s genocidal war, which has claimed more than 31,000 lives—one of the worst imperialist crimes of our lifetime.

Pro-Israel students are savouring victory. In a recent statement, the president of the Australasian Union of Jewish Students, the largest and most influential pro-Israel student organisation in the country, said that they enjoy “positive relations with the incoming students’ executive at Melbourne University” and that they “hope to continue that relationship for this year”.

By capitulating to the arguments of the Zionists, UMSU councillors are making easier the job of the Israeli government and the right-wing institutions that defend it. They have also inflicted a huge defeat on independent student unionism, setting a precedent that when cashed-up right-wing students want to overturn the democratic decisions of the union, the latter will fold under the pressure.

Only four councillors, all members of Socialist Alternative, opposed the motion’s retraction. So too did the Environment and Education (Public Affairs) officers. Every other council member voted to rescind the motion.

Solidarity with the Palestinian people is needed more than ever. But UMSU Students’ Council has abandoned them. It’s a reminder that student unions across the country are dominated by cynical wannabe politicians—Anthony Albaneses in waiting—who care more about protecting their career prospects than standing for what’s right.

The job of socialists on university campuses is to build a principled and resolute challenge to them.