Freedom to organise at the ANU

It is not every day you get labelled a violent anti-Semite. But that is effectively what Woroni called me and other socialists when it published a piece called Anti-Semitism at the ANU on 11 March this year.

On 5 March The Canberra Times published a report by Fleta Page and Emma Macdonald about allegations of anti-Semitism at the ANU and the fact the University through pro-Vice-Chancellor Richard Baker was investigating the allegations. (‘ANU Probes Jewish students’ harassment claims’, The Canberra Times 5 March).

The accusations included the alleged use of the words ‘Israeli bitch’ and ‘filthy Jew’ by members of Socialist Alternative against 2 Jewish students. A paper plane with the words death to the Zionist entity, love from Hamas’ on one side and on the other side a petition from Socialist Alternative was also allegedly thrown at the Jewish Students Association stall.

As Sol Salbe has pointed out, Socialist Alternative doesn’t use this type of sexist and racist language or indeed any such language. (‘Antisemitism: A Good Idea to Find the Real CulpritGalus Australis 23 April 2014). Salbe is the former editor of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society Newsletter, the only full time monitor of the Israeli media and a journalist at the Middle East News Service.

Nor does Socialist Alternative, as Salbe has also pointed out, describe Israel as the Zionist entity. Some idiot (Salbe’s word, not mine) who knows nothing about Socialist Alternative might imagine that that is the way the organisation and its members talk and write. 

Socialist Alternative had until 17 March to respond to the ludicrous accusations. Yet on 11 March Woroni published the article mentioned above which effectively convicted Socialist Alternative of anti-Semitism and used ‘an unnamed source’ to also suggest it went around campuses beating up opponents. Natural justice anyone? Appropriate journalistic standards anyone?

I have to confess an interest here. Radicalised by the Vietnam War I have been a socialist for 44 years and a member of Socialist Alternative or its precursor organisations for 34 years. I resigned in December last year over differences in direction.

In my lifetime in these organisations I have never heard a member or supporter utter words like filthy Jew or Israeli bitch, or Zionist entity. If a member had they would have been expelled.

That’s because Socialist Alternative is an anti-racist organisation. It has for example been very active in campaigns defending Aborigines, refugees and Muslims.

Socialist Alternative strongly supports the cause of the Palestinians in their struggle for justice against the apartheid Israeli regime. The growing success around the globe of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel has seen the defenders of the apartheid regime become shriller and shriller and more and more hysterical in their condemnation of those fighting for justice for Palestinians. They sometimes resort to making unsubstantiated accusations.

For some in the pro-Israeli camp being pro-Palestinian automatically renders one anti-Semitic.  This is a convenient smokescreen which they think allows them to avoid the basic question of the apartheid nature of Israel and the genocide it commits against Palestinians. Anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism.

It is this ‘lie to protect Israel’ mentality that sees all sorts of ridiculous allegations and actions against the pro-Palestinian left in general and Socialist Alternative in particular.

Why single out Socialist Alternative? Because while it is the most vibrant group on the revolutionary left and its ideas are winning a growing audience it is still relatively small and doesn’t have the support of major working class forces, yet. Without much social clout, the defenders of apartheid Israel might mistakenly believe Socialist Alternative is an easy target for their untruths and smashing them is a defeat of all the pro-Palestinian left.

So it is that we should see the accusations of violence and anti-Semitism against Socialist Alternative in Canberra in the Woroni article of 11 March as part of the wider campaign of lies to defend Israel.

There is another aspect to this. The ongoing commodification of higher education is producing a less critical atmosphere on campuses and more sausage like ‘products’ at universities. Those who challenge the neoliberal status quo are often ostracised and marginalised.

You can see that clearly in the purge of critical thinkers and critical thinking from the School of Politics and International Relations at the ANU, the School where I am doing my doctorate.

The end result of 30 years of class collaboration by unions and a lack of real mass social struggle has created an atmosphere of passivity societally, a passivity reflected and amplified on many campuses.

There is a sense of hopelessness among many at universities in the face of the attacks from capital and its governments on working people, University staff, students and the poor.

Even where there is political engagement it is what Chomsky talks about in the Common Good as being ‘to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum….’

Socialists who are members of a growing organisation and who are very active in their support for Palestine are obviously not part of that limited spectrum; they challenge it.

Socialist Alternative and the other student activists who protested on ABC’s Q&A about the Abbott government’s attacks on higher education are clearly not part of the debate of the one percent. They reflect the anger and bitterness that many feel.

The support for Palestine, the activism of the group, and the growing realisation by many that Labor doesn’t represent their interests and the Greens are too focussed on Parliament and playing by the bourgeoisie’s rules, is why for some Socialist Alternative has to be silenced and even driven off campuses. What better way to do that than to smear them with the brush of anti-Semitism and so, the smearers may think, also undermine the Palestinian cause?

The task for all of us on the Left concerned with the right to organise freely on campus and with justice for Palestine must be to defend Socialist Alternative against ridiculous and ludicrous allegations which hide a much more sinister and authoritarian intent.

John Passant is a PhD student in the School of Politics and International Relations at ANU. Although he is no longer a member of Socialist Alternative, a member of his family is. John blogs at En Passant (http://enpassant.com.au)