Union Council votes to postpone Israeli boycott referendum until autumn term
On Friday, the University of Sussex’s Student Union (USSU) Council voted to postpone the re-running of the Israeli boycott referendum until autumn 2010.
An emergency Union Council meeting convened to determine whether the contentious referendum should go ahead as planned in week nine of this term or if the circumstances surrounding the referendum were exceptional enough to postpone it until the next academic year. Of 23 council members present, 12 voted against the referendum taking place in week nine, four voted in favour of it, and seven abstained.
The debate concerned statement 4.D of the Constitution: “Timing of Referendums: Polling should normally be between 3 and 5 weeks (excluding vacations) of the request being considered.”
Alongside the members of council were nearly 50 students, including members of the “Ban EVERYTHING From Sussex Campus” Facebook group (BanSoc) lobbying for the referendum to take place in week nine, and ‘Friends of Palestine’ (PalSoc) lobbying against it. Following the University of Sussex’s ban on Israeli goods in October 2009, a group of BanSoc members petitioned and collected enough signatures for the controversial referendum to be re-run, claiming that it was tainted by “poor publicity […] and allegations of intimidating behaviour by campaigners, to name but two [reasons].” Members of BanSoc stressed the fact that the Constitution states that a referendum must run within three to five weeks of submitting at least 150 signatures, and that the allowance of nine weeks’ polling time so as not to detract attention from the upcoming Full-Time Officer elections was more than sufficient. They argued that postponing the referendum would violate the Constitution and that students should not “have to fight to claim what is our right.” Shaun Gunner, speaking in favour of the referendum taking place in week nine, said, “The boycott is tainted by questions of legitimacy; there is a vast majority of students who think the Union doesn’t represent them.”
Representatives of PalSoc argued that this was “the very definition of extraordinary conditions.”. They also argued that there should be more focus on the proposed cuts to staff and services in the Union. Jonathan Collier, speaking in favour of the referendum postponement, said, “We need to focus on the cuts – let’s use common sense and re-run this the next academic year. People are objecting to the results, not the process. We should put this into context. It’s terrible to say that trying to help an oppressed people is illegitimate.”
In response to claims of aggressive and intimidating behaviour during the campaign, USSU Welfare Officer, Ciaran Whitehead, stated that whilst the Students’ Union is dealing with one incident of harassment and racism, reports of general intimidation were “not specific enough to lead to action.”
Ellie Margolis, creator of the “Ban EVERYTHING…” Facebook group, said: “We’ve tried our best. Bye-bye democracy.” Another BanSoc member questioned whether Union Council itself was entirely democratically elected. A PalSoc member said that it was “the right outcome” and an example of “democracy in action.”
USSU President Tom Wills said: “It was the right decision. The investigation showed that the referendum was democratic. We have to defend Student Union democracy.”
Although debate is bound to continue, a post on the “Ban EVERYTHING…” group stated that the boycott “really brought out the worst in people on both sides” and that campaigning energy should focus on other issues for the time being.