Student Forum

These were the speeches given at the student forum in September 2012 regarding the AUSA president’s trip to israel. For the full speeches please see the video

Motion 1: That AUSA censure President Arena Williams for failing to consult with students with regards to her trip to Israel, a previously declared highly contentious issue.

Before I begin I would like to thank everyone for making an effort to come out to the quad today. We really appreciate you coming out whether you support us, want to yell at us or just want to see what happens. It is great that we are able to have this discussion in public.

Alright so today we’re here to talk about a very pressing situation currently unfolding at this campus. As some of you may already know that Arena has recently returned from a trip to Israel that has gained some attention as of late. We are asking that AUSA censure president Arena Williams for failing to consult students with regards to her trip to Israel, a previously declared highly contentious issue at this University. To understand why it is highly contentious let’s begin by talking about some of the facts and to highlight the facts we must first look back to AUSA precedent.

So last year when SJP organized a panel discussion and open forum about the Middle East uprisings and asked for support from AUSA to back our event we were met with sheer force from the executive who overturned the decision made at student  forum to back our event. They as exec had the right to overturn this decision as long as they explained why they did so. So several AUSA execs came out and told us why they did so. They exercised much caution and treaded very carefully around this issue even though it was a mere panel discussion. Their reasons were presented to us and included that AUSA cannot take a stance on the Palestinian Israeli situation as some students would feel isolated by such a stance and so they couldn’t support our event because even though it was about the Arab Spring, being SJP we would present this with a pro-Palestinian stance. Now, Arena was also part of last years exec and was present at the student forum in which AUSA presented their reasons, Arena was education vice president and I will quote what she said at this forum (the videos are online and anyone can go back and check this)

Arena stated that:

“My fight is with this university and the legislators that affect student issues. Thats the only thing we can agree on…. thats the only thing that in this quad we can all stand up as students and say we support that cause. As a responsible student union we should be taking a stance on those issues. Our fight isn’t with the govt of Israel. There are better qualified academics, there are better qualified governments, there are better qualified international organisations. Take your fight there.”

Now on the other hand Arena accepted an Israeli funded trip to Israel, a seemingly much more serious issue. She asked her exec and while some objected the majority approved this. Given that the trip was organized by an Israeli lobby group and included meetings with the Israeli foreign minister and Israeli ‘peace negotiators’, would they would they not have a pro-Israeli spin on this? My question is this: why has the exec turned around this year and gone against everything that was decided on last year? Why does the exec not choose to act as a responsible student union when it comes to siding with Israel? Why has the exec not exercised caution and treaded carefully with such a delicate issue this time around?

Last year AUSA was very cautious in supporting an event with pro-Palestinian leanings by a student club however this year they were quite flippant in supporting a sponsored trip at an official level. Now, it would be fine if AUSA wanted to take a neutral stance on the Palestinian- Israeli situation, but why have they not been consistent in this? There is no consistency. Could one not come to the conclusion that after the way both of these issues were dealt AUSA has an underlying Israeli bias? The bias being that they treat the issue as they are walking on eggshells when it comes to Palestine but are very open and supportive when it comes to Israel?

This is why we wish to censure her as she was on the exec last year and she clearly understood how much of a contentious issue this was for certain groups on campus and that if other groups felt marginalised by AUSA supported something SJP did so it should be clear that students on the other side would feel marginalized by her latest action.

At the very least it could have been recognised that this trip would have been highly offensive to those who support the Palestinian cause. And to be clear the issue has been previously declared contentious, not by us, but by AUSA themselves and so for them not to consult stakeholders or the students, to not even mention anything of the trip to anyone in SJP, to keep it under the wraps for a while, is this not hypocritical? Arena needed to open this discussion up to a few more people for her to get a feel of what the students are really thinking not only her exec.

Now we’re not trying to dictate or tell Arena where she can and cannot go, obviously SJP’s stance will differ greatly from AUSA’s but the point here is that since the issue has been previously declared as contentious then it is not too much of SJP to expect to be consulted with. Last year we were told that we should focus on student issues as a responsible student union and leave the Israeli govt out of it – how come as president Arena has done the opposite this year? AUSA at the very least has a duty to be balanced, as they said themselves, but they have only been unfair and bias in their actions regarding this situation.

So when people are suggesting that Arena was exercising tolerance and trying to understand the situation we ask when has it ever been necessary to sit down with oppressors to understand why they do what they do? And we argue that there is very little to no way in understanding the situation while touring around in a bubble protected by Israeli authorities.

Arena could not experience Israel as an individual because she did not go as an individual. Arena did not get stopped at the airport, taken to a room, questioned, detained for hours, strip searched and have her electronic equipment broken or confiscated like others do when they enter Israel and the occupied territories of Palestine to really see it for themselves. Arena did not wait at checkpoints, she did not talk to Palestinians who have had their homes taken away to build way for new settlements, she didn’t see Gaza the worlds biggest open air prison, she didn’t experience Israeli raids air raids in the West Bank. Arena would have come back much angrier and much less apologetic had she really seen both sides.

So I am sure there are a few people still wondering how Arena represents AUSA while in Israel? First of all, at a basic level Arena cannot choose to shed her identity as she pleases and though she was on unpaid leave she is still the president of AUSA. When she took photos with the Israeli foreign minister she was Arena Williams, president of AUSA and member of Young Labour, she was not just Arena Williams. If she went as Arena Williams why would there be a need for her to meet with Israeli officials? When she posed for photos in front of what she chose to call it a protection barrier which Palestinians refer to as the fascist wall, she did this in 2012 during her time as AUSA president on a propaganda tour of Israel. The argument that Arena went on this trip as an individual -the argument that has been made many times outside of this forum – does not add up with what she did while she was there. But let us look to the facts for this once again. Let us look at the nature of this trip. The organisation that funded the trip was AIJAC: the Australian Israel & Jewish Affairs council. This is another name for an Israeli lobbyist group. The program Arena went on was AIJAC’s Ramban Israel fellowship program that annually sponsors visits to Israel by selected senior journalists, politics, political advisors, senior public servants and student leaders. Essentially, these trips are sponsored so that anyone who is important who will go on to be involved in anything related to public policy, politics and the like will be much more sympathetic to the Israeli side of the story. So let me tell you more about everyone who was on this trip that Arena was on, let me read out the list of students present:

  • Jade Tyrrell: the current president of the Students’ Association at UTS, University of Technology, Sydney. She’s also an upcoming candidate for president of the National Union of Students (NUS) in Australia.
  • Jon Barlow: the National General Secretary of NUS, formerly Victoria University Student President.
  • Hannah Pandel: President of the Young Liberals Party in Victoria from Melbourne University
  • Arena Williams: President of the Auckland University Students’ Association.
  • Hannah McLeod: student president at Flinders University, Australia
  • Glenn Riddell: Young Labour Vice President NZ
  • Gemma Whiting: President of the Western Australian Union of Liberal Students, who also sits on the NUS National Executive.
  • Sean Topham: Young National President

So what do all these students have in common? They have all been carefully hand-picked to go on this trip and whether it was Arena or someone else as AUSA president this year – they would have been targeted purely for the reason that they are student leaders and representatives.

So to conclude we ask that AUSA students censure President Arena Williams for failing to consult with students with regards to her trip to Israel, a previously declared highly contentious issue. We ask for this on the grounds that Arena was chosen and accepted this trip as AUSA president, our representative figure and on the grounds that she knew this was a highly contentious issue in which there has been precedent set at this very same student forum last year to declare it as such, yet she and her executive failed to consult concerned groups and stakeholders.

-Hela Rahman

Motion 2: That AUSA instruct President Arena Williams to apologize in writing for the offense she has caused to students due to her trip to Israel.

To be frank, I didn’t expect to be standing here in front of you all and I know many of you won’t believe me when I say that this wasn’t what we set out to achieve. Students for Justice in Palestine have always stood for truth and justice, no matter who they are, what race they are or what religious faith they belong to. We speak for them. In good faith, we took the initiative to approach President Arena and we spoke to her about our concerns and our disappointment following her trip to Israel. We met with good intentions, we wanted her to understand and wanted her to acknowledge that yes, we as a AUSA affiliated student organization have the right to be concerned when our President accepts trips which are heavily shrouded in Propaganda to a state that partakes in daily acts of terrorism and demonstrates contempt for International legal norms such as the Geneva Conventions and Human rights. \. SJP has always emphasized the importance of informing and raising awareness of the conflict and we wanted to help her understand the severity of her actions and to give a voice to the Palestinians who she ignored on her trip and silenced in her article. We wanted to make her understand that we are not a minority, we have proven that today when we have shown up in our numbers, we have legitimate concerns, concerns which she dismissed so casually.

We talked about it first with Arena, and this is something she failed to mention in her statement. The fact she did indeed meet with us, she did indeed agree to release a joint statement with us, and she also failed to mention how we as an organization, which represents the side of the Palestinians, have legitimate concerns. If we are to take her reasoning for the trip at face value – that is, to understand the issue: we would like to ask Arena why she did not consult a group on campus dealing with the Palestinian issue for years in order to learn more about it and did not speak to Palestinians to get the total picture of the politics that drives this issue. What was clear from her article was she went on a trip, paid for by an Israeli backed Organization, to get an Israeli account of events. The Palestinian voice and presence was subsequently erased and made irrelevant by a conversation between Israel and student representatives from the West. Her article is nothing more than a statement of this and driving home the racist assumption that the conclusion to understanding the issue and arriving at solutions can only be done through involving members of ‘civilized’ nations, led by the “civilized” Israel.

She summed up the conflict as a war between two sides, labeling this conflict as a war gives this illusion that there are two sides fighting on an equal footing. The technological and military disparity between the two and the political power that Israel has held historically problematises the use of the term ‘war’ here. She claims’ Isolating Israel achieves very little’, how has her trip alleviated the suffering of Palestinians? How has failing to describe the settlements in the West Bank as illegal helped Palestinians in their fundamental struggle to be recognized as a people who are facing an occupation? Having support from powerful nations in the EU and the U.S. certainly does not suggest Israel is isolated.

Arena said, and I quote “I’m interested and I want to understand”. So let’s review, her entire trip from the moment she accepted, she basically planted herself in an environment that hindered any sort of equal understanding. I would have respected her had she made the attempt to see it from the other side by visiting the occupied territories, had she made the effort to visited Gaza, which is considered the world’s largest open air prison. Had she visited the refugee camps in Rafah, had she met with the victims of Israeli terror, had she seen the daily occurrence of humiliation every day Palestinians face when they are denied their basic rights?

While Arena comfortably sat overlooking the 20 foot concrete wall which she referred to as the ‘protection barrier’ on the 10th of July 2012, this is what was occurring on the other side:

  • Qarara resident wounded by Israeli fire from Green Line
  • Israeli troops abduct 15-year-old boy
  • Israeli Army midnight raid on West Bank village: crops bulldozed crops and olive trees uprooted
  • home invasions in 12 towns and villages
  • 4 air strikes – 5 attacks – 28 raids including home invasions – 2 injured
  • 6 acts of agricultural/economic sabotage
  • 4 taken prisoner – 8 detained – 110 restrictions of movement

(These statistics were compiled by Leslie Bravery of the Palestine Human rights campaign who sends out a newsletter reporting the effects of Israeli democracy’ and the source of the statistics is the Palestinian monitoring group.)

These are the events that get reported on a daily basis, these are the events that Arena did not see.

We need to look beyond the nicely packaged, sugar-coated words that we were presented with in her statement. “The situation is complex” means “I don’t want to have to tell the truth and describe how awful it is, and I don’t want to lie and describe how great it is.

What we are asking for is an apology, not only for her disregard for our organization as a whole but also for the fact in visiting Israel she has created ties with a nation who we view as an Apartheid state – that is, legitimated by a racist ideology of Zionism. Arena has associated AUSA with Israel; however we had no say in the fact that she has chosen to make these ties with Israel, and it is for that association that we want an apology.  It’s important she not only apologize for her actions but she understands why she’s apologizing. She needs to understand that by accepting this trip she has normalized relations with Israel, and for this she needs to be held accountable.

-Rana Ghumkhor

Motion 3: That future AUSA Presidents consult the student body with regards to future foreign policy stances and trips to other countries which are deemed by AUSA as a ‘contentious issue’.

I read Arena’s article in Craccum a couple of weeks ago…and I believed her, and I still do. I think she really did want to go to Israel because she “wanted to see and feel it”, and intended to use it as a learning experience. Though, I must say I did not appreciate in the slightest the assertion that, apparently, the international community is too busy “skipping through the understanding” to actually see the facts, ostensibly as she does. Try saying that to a Palestinian in diaspora, like Suheir Hammad, who has never set foot on her family’s lands. Try saying that to the family of Rachel Corrie, who have in agony witnessed their daughter’s sacrifice brushed under the already bursting rug. How about to a public intellectual, like Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler, or Naomi Klein, who have spent decades working and writing to further understanding of the Palestinian cause; the cause of justice. Sorry folks, according to our magnanimous leadership, you’ve all been “skipping through the understanding”, because unlike her, you did not accept a junket to Israel, at the behest of its government.

Regardless, it matters little what Arena intended by her assertions or her trip. Indeed, this whole issue is not about intentions or personal belief, nor is it about Arena Williams’ personality, so let’s not reduce it to that. The issue here is that Israeli authorities don’t care about Arena Williams’ intentions or beliefs, and they care for her as a person about as much as they care for the Palestinians. The only reason she was welcome there, along with a whole coterie of student leaders and representatives from Aotearoa and Australia, is because she is the president of the Auckland University Student’s Association. So, SJP has no problem with Arena herself; SJP has a problem with the leadership and decision-making of AUSA, an organisational structure, and a student union that is becoming ever more unrepresentative, inaccessible, and quite frankly apathetic towards the voices of the students they supposedly represent.

And on that note, while I want to thank AUSA for holding the forum, I also want to say – you’re welcome. We were more than happy to do your job for you, and to call for a public meeting that you should’ve called for months ago. This should have been held before you decided to allow our student representative to go on a fully-funded trip to the only remaining openly colonial state in the world, despite there being an international call for boycott of that country, where settlers of European descent have an all year-round open season with the indigenous population. Of course she didn’t see any of that. She didn’t see the refugee camps and the ghettoes. She didn’t see Gaza; an open-air prison that the UN forecasted would be unlivable in a few years. It’s no wonder she can easily write things like “the complexities of the conflict. It’s a war” as if it was between two protagonists on equal footing. Oh, and we shouldn’t isolate Israel? The world is up in arms against a country with a nuclear reactor, and yet has not a word of criticism to fling at the only country in the Middle-East in the possession of nuclear warheads, over 200 of them! why shouldn’t we isolate it? Well, the situation is complex, of course. The situation is complex when Israeli bulldozers carve their way through Palestinian fields; when Israeli tanks demolish Palestinian homes; when Israeli snipers and helicopters fire at Palestinian men, women, and children. The situation is complex…No, the situation is simple. Israel is an apartheid state that commits ethnic cleansing against the Palestinians; Israeli presidents have been admitting to this intention since 1948. Now, no one is suggesting that AUSA should fight on behalf of the Palestinians, and no one is suggesting that Arena is some evil hag with ulterior motives, she most certainly is not. But as far as Israeli authorities are concerned, when the president of our association goes to meet them, we’re giving them a tacit approval and a thumbs up: “Good on ya Israel, keep it up!” AUSA has a responsibility to the Palestinian students on this campus, as well as to the student body at large. And we have a responsibility to stand up for human rights, regardless of whose rights they may be; to stand up for truth, whoever happens to say it; and to stand up to power and authority, whoever happens to have it.

-Faisal Al-Asaad


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