Philip Mendes
Australian Jewish academic and policy commentator

The NSW Teachers Federation and their response to the October 7 Hamas Massacre

The October 7 Hamas death squad massacre has had a traumatic impact on Jews globally. For many Australian Jews, their first response was a frantic checking on the safety of family and friends living in Israel. Beyond that, there was a reflection on the traumatic memories that the Hamas massacre triggered regarding past pogroms including the Holocaust for many Jewish families originally from Europe. Others, whose background was in the Middle East, recalled anti-Jewish riots by Arab/Islamic nationalist and religious extremists in the years prior to the creation of Israel.

Additionally, there has been a shocking rise in the number of domestic anti-Semitic incidents since October 7, mostly incited by ultra-nationalist Palestinian groups and far Left allies of their xenophobic agenda.

In these difficult times, many Australian Jews have been comforted by vocal expressions of compassion from Australian civil society. Personally, I have received many messages of sympathy and support from friends, colleagues and acquaintances. A number of conservative media commentators and political leaders from the Liberal and National Parties have been outspokenly supportive of Jewish concerns, particularly within the News Corp media. These are often people whom I have personally disagreed with on social issues. For example, I reject their opposition to generous social security payments to enhance the life opportunities of the most vulnerable groups of Australians, their repudiation of harm reduction measures such as Medically Supervised Injecting Rooms to save the lives of injecting drug users, and their strident campaign against the Indigenous Voice proposal to enable greater participation of First Nation Australians in policy development and decision making. But conversely, their statements of solidarity with Australian Jews have been based on solid humanitarian and liberal democratic principles.

It has to be acknowledged that some of their progressive counterparts have been less dependable in displaying an anti-racist solidarity with Australian Jewry. A number of statements from the Labor Party and Labor goverments at State and Federal Level have been welcome, others less so. Labor seems divided between polarized Jewish and Muslim constituencies on this issue, although it is important to remember that not all Palestinian and Arab Australians are religious Muslims (some are secular or Christian) and many Australian Muslims are not Arabs or necessarily pro-Palestinian. Additionally, the Australian Greens have completely failed to activate their stated anti-racist and pro-multicultural values which I will analyse further in a separate article.

Indeed, the failure of many progressives to condemn without qualification the Hamas death massacre is eerily reminiscent of how Communists globally responded to the August 1929 massacre of 133 Jews (mostly from religious, pre-Zionist communities) in cities such as Safed, Hebron and Motza by Palestinian nationalists who were similarly infected by a combination of religious and racial bigotry.

On that occasion, the initial response of the Soviet Union was to rightly call the attacks a pogrom whilst also blaming the Zionists for allegedly provoking tensions between the Jewish and Arab communities. But the Kremlin later reversed their position, and described the Arab riots as a revolutionary attack on British and Zionist imperialism.

These semi-equivalent examples of ideological obtuseness (albeit nearly 100 years apart) bring us to the question of the New South Wales Teachers Federation (NSWTF) which is the trade union that claims to represent the interests of teachers in the NSW public education system.

It can be assumed that they have many Jewish members who teach in that system, and equally that their members are responsible for teaching numerous Jewish students who are enrolled in that system.

Yet, the NSWTF made no response at all to the tragedy of October 7. They did not consult with their Jewish members about their well-being, nor did they inquire about the well-being of Jewish students. They did not even see fit to issue a general apolitical statement (as did for example, some universities:) recognizing the trauma that many Australian Jews had experienced, and advising of the availability of health and other support services to assist members that were struggling. Rather, they were completely silent.

And then ten days later on October 17, the union issued a highly one-sided political statement which equated the Hamas massacre and the Israeli military response. The statement made no reference to or criticism of the specific details of the Hamas massacre: the deliberate slaughter of civilian populations and communities many of whom were affiliated with progressive movements in Israel, the mass rape of women, and the taking of hostages. Nor did it make any reference to the trauma experienced by Australian Jews including those who were members of the union.

Instead, the statement argued that conflict resolution would only occur via an end to ‘the unjust and illegal occupation of Palestine’ (without clarifying whether this demand referred to territories occupied in 1967 or alternatively to reversing the actual creation of Israel in 1948 as proposed by many Palestinian nationalists), and insisted that union members be allowed to express solidarity with Australian Palestinians who were ‘profoundly saddened’ by events in the Middle East.

In an update on November 8, the NSWTF urged members to ‘Protest for Gaza: Stop the genocide’, and again made no specific reference to actions by Hamas or the trauma of its Jewish members.

Additionally, the NSWTF has distributed union banners to teachers planning to participate in pro-Palestinian demonstrations, and encouraged teachers to engage in pro-Palestinian advocacy via carrying signs attacking Israeli military activities in Gaza and wearing Keffiyehs (Palestinian scarfs) to the workplace.

The NSWTF’s bias in favour of the Palestinian nationalist agenda has been mirrored by the widely reported pro-Palestinian activities of some branches of the Australian Education Union (AEU) in Victoria who organized the inflammatory ‘Teachers and School Staff for Palestine Week of Action Solidarity of Palestine’. They urged teachers to wear a Keffiya, Palestinian badge or t-shirt; take a photo of teachers holding pro-Palestinian signs; and invite an advocate for Palestinian nationalism to speak at their school.

Their statement argued bizarrely ‘that the struggle for Palestinian justice and liberation is not only a regionally and globally determined struggle. It is a lever for the liberation of all dispossessed and exploited people of the world.’

This statement clearly mimics Nazis and other far Right anti-Semites historically in ‘othering’ Jews as an outsider group whose human and national rights do not deserve to be protected by progressive advocates for social justice.

A further statement by a self-described group of ‘Victorian teachers, school staff and education affiliates’ on the far Left Overland site reflected a similar ethnocentric agenda that privileged the human rights of Palestinian children and young people over those of Jewish children and young people. According to these educators, legitimate concerns about anti-Semitism should be dismissed because Jews are not deserving of protection from discrimination.

Yet, the signatories oddly denied that their views breached the Victorian Public Sector Code of Conduct which specifically demands that ‘Public sector employees make decisions and provide advice that is free of prejudice.’

It is shameful that the NSWTF and other educator groups have displayed nil anti-racist solidarity with Australian Jews traumatized by the October 7 massacre, and no concern for the specific well-being of their Jewish members and students. It is equally concerning that they seek to promote inflammatory nationalist discourse amongst teachers and students that may result in discrimination against Jewish staff and students. They have failed to meet their basic duty of care to fairly and equitably educate and mentor children and youth over whom they maintain an acute imbalance of power. They can reasonably be labelled Progressive except for Jews, or PEJs.

About the Author
Professor Philip Mendes is the author or co-author of 13 books including Jews and the Left: The rise and fall of a political alliance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), and Boycotting Israel is Wrong (New South Press, 2015). His most recent critique of the Australian BDS movement has just appeared in Robert A. Kenedy et al (Eds.) Israel and the Diaspora: Jewish connectivity in a changing world. Springer Nature Switzerland, pp.221-238.