Israel/Palestine - UJS, NUS and the student left

Submitted by AWL on 22 September, 2011 - 11:03

By AWL Students

There seem to be welcome shifts on the issue of Israel-Palestine taking place on the right (ie broadly New Labourite) wing of the British student movement. Workers’ Liberty will use these shifts to push for a reassessment of the policy of the student left, towards support for the Palestinians on the only basis compatible with fighting for Arab-Jewish workers’ unity: two states, an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

The Union of Jewish Students

The Union of Jewish Students has launched what it calls a “bold, forward thinking campaign” under the slogan “Two states for two peoples” (for a UJS statement, see here).

This is not a formal change of position, but it is a marked change in emphasis, as UJS openly acknowledges. Previously UJS’s support for two states was almost entirely platonic, with liberal platitudes about “peace” serving as a substitute for actually supporting the Palestinians, and a cover for refusing to criticise Israeli foreign policy (the Occupation, the war in Lebanon, Operation Cast Lead).

The new UJS campaign is still very far from the same as the AWL’s. The “peace” platitudes are still there. The emphasis is perhaps more on securing a future for Israel than on the rights of the Palestinians. There is no retrospective opposition to past Israeli wars or pledge to oppose future ones. We think that strong, effective support for a Palestinian state means sharp opposition to the Occupation, the settlements and so on. Nonetheless, the measure of UJS’s shift is demonstrated by the fact that its members will be flying both Israeli and Palestinian flags at student freshers’ fairs! Putting emphasis on support for a Palestinian state at a time when the Palestinians are demanding recognition at the UN is clearly an important gesture.

This is particularly noteworthy because UJS has faced much discussion and some criticism in the Jewish community for its new stance (see here).


Item 2: The National Union of Students National Executive Council has passed a policy on Israel-Palestine which is similar to ours (see here).

The wording is, as you would expect, liberal, not socialist. There is no reference to uniting workers of different nationalities across ethnic and religious divides and across borders; nothing relating the Palestinian struggle to the revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East, or mentioning the huge social protests in Israel. And we would quibble with this or that phrase (what does “self-determination” for Jews and Muslims, as against national groups such as Israelis and Palestinians, mean?)

Nonetheless, the motion is to a large extent to the point, attacking the Occupation, the settlements and the brutality of the assault on Gaza, as well as discrimination against Arab Israelis. We would have written it differently, harder and sharper, posing clear demands for an immediate end to the Occupation, the evacuation of the settlements and a Palestinian state with the same rights as Israel. But the motion does back the Palestinians and advocate positive solidarity, implicitly rejecting the reactionary and self-defeating proposal for boycotts of Israel by calling for “the continued building of links and partnerships between students and students’ unions in the UK, Palestine and Israel.”

In addition, it calls for discussion and debate in the student movement about these issues – shifting from the previous policy that Israel-Palestine could only be touched in terms of those vague calls for “peace”, which left the field dominated by right-wing defenders of the Israeli government and reactionary “left” campaigns essentially for the abolition of Israel, though often couched in deliberately ambiguous language.

Also positive is the fact that UJS has welcomed the new NUS policy (though they describe it as “far from perfect” – presumably because they think it is too hard). Naturally we have no faith whatsoever in either the NUS leadership or UJS, but these seem like real shifts. Even if their motivation is to head off the left, that does not mean we should simply be dismissive.

The student left

We don’t yet know how all the left-wingers on NUS NEC voted on the motion, but we will soon find out.

One significant peculiarity is that the four proposers of the motion included Aaron Kiely of Student Broad Left/Socialist Action – a group that is normally on the extreme wing of the “smash Israel” camp. (The other three are right-wingers, including Labour Students’ Dannielle Grufferty, NUS VP Society & Citizenship.) We are not entirely sure what is going on there. However, an obvious question is raised.

The AWL has been told repeatedly by the likes of the SWP and Socialist Action that our position on Israel-Palestine is “Zionist” (which they use as a swear word), that we are “anti-Palestinian”, that we support the Israeli government and so on. These accusations were always ludicrous: read, for instance, about the solidarity tour to Israel and the West Bank we organised last year. But now Aaron Kiely has proposed a policy to NUS NEC which could have been lifted straight from our literature. Is he admitting that his friends’ attacks on our position were sectarian factional artefacts, not genuine political arguments about our real disagreements?

The key point is that student activists who really want to help the Palestinians, rather than engaging in anti-Israeli grandstanding, should seize the new NUS policy with both hands. We should use it to launch a major student campaign of support for the Palestinians and the Israeli left, as part of our broader solidarity with the upheavals in the region, mobilising for effective solidarity in a way the bureaucrats won't. But to do that will necessitate a political fight with those sections of the left which are not so much pro-Palestinian as anti-Israeli.

Let’s have the argument.


Submitted by AWL on Sat, 24/09/2011 - 18:16

We have been told that Aaron Kiely's name was on the motion because some of the text he proposed in another, separate motion was composited in while the rest of it was rejected. In the event Kiely abstained, while most of the left-wingers on NUS NEC voted against. This doesn't entirely make sense to us - why did Kiely allow his text to become part of the motion, and why didn't he ask for his name to be removed?

In terms of the position of the student left, the important thing to note is that the left on the NEC opposed the motion because they oppose Israel's existence. The motion they supported is not noticeably more radical than the one passed - but typically, it evades the question of what a democratic settlement should look like, rather than honestly opposing two states and advocating the dismantling of Israel and the creation of a single state in the whole of historic Palestine. We want to persuade the student left to support Palestinian liberation on the basis of two states, an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel - but we also oppose such political dishonesty and evasion.

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