What happens when ideological zealots infiltrate trade unions to attack academic freedom? A case study of the Australian National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and the extremist Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement by Professor Philip Mendes
In the 1980s and 90s when I was active in various left-wing peace and social justice groups, we often joked about potentially being infiltrated by secret cabals of Trotskyist (i.e. followers of the famous Jewish Russian revolutionary leader) extremists. In fact, there is a technical term ‘entryism’ that has been used historically to refer to this practice whereby small groups of fanatical Trotskyists enter larger more broad-based left-wing groups in an attempt to seize control of their political agenda irrespective of the adverse impact on the subverted organisation: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-37025649
Not that ‘entryism’ is just a joke. In the mid-1980s, there was considerable evidence that the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (later renamed the Democratic Socialist Party) had entered and seized control of the more mainstream Nuclear Disarmament Party then headed by Midnight Oil rock music legend and later Labor Party Minister Peter Garrett: https://www.reasoninrevolt.net.au/biogs/E000483b.htm.
Regardless, there is a long history of small extremist factions attempting to capture the agenda of larger progressive parties, movements and unions. The latest example is the infiltration of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) by supporters of the bigoted Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement. I have been monitoring and researching the activities of the Australian BDS movement since it first emerged in 2002, and have authored most of the recent academic outputs on this movement: a book jointly authored with social democratic academic and Labor Party activist Dr Nick Dyrenfurth in 2014: https://unsw.press/books/boycotting-israel-is-wrong/,
and a chapter in a recent book co-edited by Robert Kenedy and colleagues:
The aims and objectives of BDS down under are exactly the same as their malevolent agenda globally. They propose the abolition of the existing Jewish state of Israel (even within its internationally recognized Green Line borders), and its replacement by an exclusivist Arab state of Greater Palestine. In short, a BDS victory would almost certainly result in over six million Israel Jews being ethnically cleansed from their national homeland. But the BDS movement might generously permit some Jews to remain as a tolerated religious, but not national, minority.
It is absolutely clear that the BDS movement do not support the two state solution endorsed by most of the international community that recognizes the national self-determination rights of both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs; totally reject any dialogue that would advance the common ground and mutual compromise necessary to achieve that outcome; and more generally do not support any measures enabling Israeli-Palestinian peace and reconciliation. The BDS movement espouse an ultra-nationalist agenda that should be unacceptable to any person holding decent progressive, internationalist values.
In comparison to other western countries, the Australian BDS movement has enjoyed very limited achievements in shaping the views of mainstream institutions, but not for want of trying. In particular, BDS activists mostly associated with the tiny Trotskyist Socialist Alternative group have attempted for nearly two decades to impose fundamentalist pro-Palestinian motions on the NTEU, but these incursions until recently have always been rejected on principled grounds by the NTEU.
About two months ago, the NTEU held its national election which was contested by the existing leadership and a radical opposition group called ‘A new NTEU’ that included a number of BDS apologists: https://anewnteu.com/.
Notably, the new NTEU group failed to reveal their BDS affiliations in their Candidate Statements, although one of that group, Fahad Ali, (who ran for National President), has a track record of strident BDS advocacy.
In March 2015, Ali in his role as President of Students for Justice in Palestine, was one of the leaders of a student protest that attempted to shut down a pro-Israel talk by British Army officer Colonel Richard Kemp at Sydney University. Ali later described the protest as merely ‘disruptive and peaceful’, but Jewish student leaders alleged organized intimidation, abuse and silencing of Jewish voices: https://honisoit.com/2015/03/kemp-protest-in-detail/; https://www.jwire.com.au/aujs-responds-to-jake-lynch/
More recently, Ali seems to have been one of the organizers of the aggressive BDS campaign that (according to media reports) bullied and harassed performers to withdraw from the Sydney Festival in protest at the Festival’s acceptance of a small amount of funding from the Israeli Government to enable the presence of an Israeli dance act:
Regardless, the NTEU incumbents comfortably won the members election vote: https://www.nteu.org.au/nteu_elections_2022, but then the losing opposition faction responded by proposing an extreme pro-BDS motion to the NTEU National Council: https://dobetteronpalestine.com/national-tertiary-education-union-position-on-palestine/
That long motion, with the exception of two paragraphs formally committing the NTEU to supporting the BDS movement that were withdrawn prior to the vote, was endorsed by the NTEU Council in early October: https://plus61j.net.au/featured/australian-union-supports-israel-boycotts-spain-rules-they-are-illegal/
It contains multiple falsehoods and blatant misrepresentations. Some of the more egregious include the following:
One: It offensively equates the anti-racist struggle by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians for recognition of their First Nation rights within the existing Australian national state with the BDS’s racial stereotyping of all Israeli Jews and in many cases, most other Jews globally, as an evil oppressor people.
Two: It repeats the falsehood that Israeli is an apartheid state similar to the former South African regime that privileged one race over another. In fact, this furphy was first created by anti-Semitic Soviet propagandists more than 40 years ago: https://www.workersliberty.org/story/2004/02/24/stalinist-roots-left-anti-zionism-2, and misrepresents what is widely understood as a complex national conflict between two peoples into a fantasized racial war between oppressor white Jews and oppressed black Palestinians: https://fathomjournal.org/2022-introduction-enough-is-enough-on-amnestys-antisemitic-apartheid-report/
Putting aside the fact that about half the Jewish population of Israel are mostly dark-skinned Jews who came to Israel as refugees from racism in Arab and North African Muslim-majority countries, the purpose of this labelling is clearly to demonize Israeli Jews as a bad people who do not deserve national rights.
Three: It clearly rejects Israel’s existence as a nation state by highlighting alleged persecution of Palestinians for ‘more than seven decades’ (i.e. since 1948). Hence the motion does not demand the end of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, but rather the elimination of the State of Israel per se.
Four: It wrongly attributes the beginnings of the BDS movement to a 2005 statement by Palestinian organisations urging an academic boycott of Israel. In fact, the proposal for a BDS emanated from the much earlier UN Commission on Human Rights Conference against racism held in Durban in September 2001. The conference NGO forum, which was characterized by blatant anti-Semitism as well as anti-Zionism, urged the cessation of all relations with Israel. Forum organizers distributed copies of the famous Tsarist anti-Semitic forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and actively praised Nazi Germany.
Five: The motion presents unfounded allegations that adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism will ‘chill free speech, restrict academic freedom, and restrict peaceful political expression’. It also claims absurdly that 40 Jewish organisations in Australia believe the IHRA definition ‘conflates legitimate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism’. In fact, they would be struggling to name one such organisation. These evidence-free allegations are intended to undermine any serious attempts to combat anti-Semitic hate speech in Australia, and to pre-emptively rule out any documented convergence of anti-Zionism with traditional racial stereotypes of anti-Semitism as was found by an anti-Zionist academic to have occurred regularly in Corbyn’s British Labour Party: https://www.routledge.com/Labours-Antisemitism-Crisis-What-the-Left-Got-Wrong-and-How-to-Learn-From/Renton/p/book/9780367720568.
And despite the fact (as detailed in my two publications above) that a number of leading Australian BDS advocates have openly accused all-powerful Jews of controlling politics, finance, the media etc.
For the record, the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism, which is not legally binding, states ‘Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities’: https://www.holocaustremembrance.com/resources/working-definitions-charters/working-definition-antisemitism
The IHRA adds that ‘criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic’. Most of the other explanatory examples recommended by the IHRA have no connection to Israel or Zionism. Rather, they refer to manifestations of racial and violent anti-Semitism such as ideological and theological calls for the death of Jews, accusing Jews of holding world power, targeting Jews as collectively responsible for the actions of any Jewish individuals, and Holocaust denial: https://www.holocaustremembrance.com/resources/working-definitions-charters/working-definition-antisemitism
The NTEU could do far worse than follow the lead of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) who adopted a robust statement against anti-Semitism based with some qualifications on the IHRA definition. They also emphasized the influence of broader anti-discrimination frameworks such as their own professional code of ethics, and the UK Equality Act: https://www.basw.co.uk/basw-uk-statement-against-antisemitism-and-anti-jewish-discrimination-and-hatred.
However, one notable omission in the BASW statement was any mention of anti-Semitism emanating from Arab and Islamist sources as well as the far Right. Any NTEU action against anti-Semitism would need to be based firmly on the lived experiences of Jewish academics and students including their concern regarding threats from BDS groups who disingenuously claim to be merely ‘critics of Israel’.
The National Council motion committed the NTEU to six action clauses which are equally problematic:
- Seek to strengthen ties with Palestinian unions, including the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees (PFUUPE).
This is a further example of the discriminatory values informing this motion. No reason is provided why the NTEU should actively engage with Palestinian unions, but not offer the same partnership to Israeli unions. Notably, the motion does not admit that the PFUUPE is openly aligned with the BDS movement, and has even written to an Australian university urging them (on ethnic and national grounds) to boycott Israeli-made products: https://bdsaustralia.net.au/palestinian-academics-call-on-rmit-to-end-ties-with-elbit/. How embarrassing.
- Prohibit elected officials or staff of the NTEU from accepting expenses-paid tours to Israel that are sponsored by the Israeli state or pro-Israel lobby organisations.
This is an overt attempt to undermine the academic freedom of NTEU officials. Why should they be denied the right to access information and education about Israel and the Palestinian Territories from diverse sources? Again, there is a discriminatory implication that pro-Israel lobby groups are inherently bad, and conversely pro-Palestinian lobby groups are inherently pure. If this is not the intention, and there is a genuine concern that the NTEU leadership not be exposed to any biased or subjective views, then this clause would need to also add a ban on tours organized by the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network.
- Oppose the adoption of policies that prohibit criticism of Israel by any Australian academic institution, including the IHRA definition of antisemitism.
I have already noted above that the general attack on the IHRA definition lacks any merit, and is arguably intended to blur the difference between reasonable criticism of Israel and active incitement to racial hatred. This clause item is completely absurd as no Australian academic institution is likely to seek to prevent criticism of Israel or any other country.
- Support the right of NTEU members to engage in boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) actions that seek to end the occupation of Palestine.
Again this clause disregards common sense. NTEU members live in a democratic society, and as individuals can freely express whatever views they choose. However, it is important to clarify here that the BDS movement does not seek to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, but rather aims to eliminate Israel per se. Let’s have some honesty here about their true agenda.
- Contribute $2,000 to the organisation of the next Black-Palestinian Solidarity Conference, to be held in late 2023.
Judging from the content of the previous Black-Palestinian Solidarity Conference: http://demosjournal.com/article/celebration-of-the-black-palestinian-solidarity-conference/, the 2023 conference is likely to again essentialise Israeli Jews (and their Jewish supporters globally) as bad oppressors, and the Palestinians as innocent victims. Why should NTEU membership funds be donated to enable an event which will only exacerbate the existing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rather than helping to reconcile the interests of the two nations?
- Call upon members to participate in active solidarity with Palestinians.
Most left-wing organisations globally – particularly those that identify as class-based and internationalist – do not favour one nationalist movement over another. Rather, they acknowledge that all nationalisms have progressive and reactionary factions, and usually they side with the progressives and the moderates and opposes the conservatives and the extremists. However, some on the Left now adhere to what has been called ‘campism’ whereby the key difference is not between left and right or socialism and capitalism, but rather between the anti-imperialist camp and the pro-imperialist camp: https://www.nopasaran.media/confronting-antisemitism-on-the-left-arguments-for-socialists/. That leads them to display unconditional solidarity with certain nations or regimes, even when they are involved in widespread persecution of women, or gay and lesbian communities, or various ethnic or religious minorities.
In the case of the Palestinians, surely NTEU members would not wish to be aligned with ultra-nationalists ranging from the Islamo-fascist Hamas whose Constitution still alleges Jewish world domination: https://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/hamas.asp., or the BDS movement who wish to destroy the existing Jewish nation state of Israel. But all power to those members who wish to ally with genuinely moderate Palestinians active in groups such as the Geneva Initiative who campaign for a peacefully negotiated two state solution: https://geneva-accord.org/.
Since this pro-BDS motion was passed, the NTEU leadership have insisted that the union does not support the BDS movement, and infact still endorses a two states for two peoples position: https://www.australianjewishnews.com/motion-labelled-disgrace/
So what should the NTEU now do to regain their integrity? If they genuinely support a two state solution, they should reverse the motion passed by the ‘entryists’, and instead invite members to ratify a new evidence-based motion (as one would expect from a union representing academics) that has five straightforward slogans:
One: the NTEU endorses a two states for two peoples solution that ensures national self-determination for both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs
Two: The NTEU encourages constructive dialogue between Jews and Arabs within the NTEU membership and the wider Australian community that will advance Israeli-Palestinian peace and reconciliation.
Three: The NTEU rejects any privileging of one form of nationalism over another, and hence has zero tolerance for ethnocentric solutions, i.e. either a Greater Israel that excludes Palestinians or a Greater Palestine that excludes Jews.
Four: The NTEU supports the national and human rights of all peoples, and opposes any incitement of racial hatred both in Australia and globally.
Five: the NTEU supports universal academic freedom, and rejects discriminatory exceptions on national or ethnic grounds.
(Professor Philip Mendes has been an NTEU member since 1998. He is the author or co-author of 13 books including Jews and the Left: The rise and fall of a political alliance, Palgrave 2014, and jointly with Nick Dyrenfurth, Boycotting Israel is Wrong: The progressive path to peace between Palestinians and Israelis, New South Press, 2015)