Strengthening Our Seat at the Table

Strengthening Our Seat at the Table

The four pillars of the Australasian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS) are Judaism, Zionism, Pluralism and Activism, and these don‘t exist to the exclusion of another. We represent a range of voices across the political and religious spectrum, and we work with students who share similar backgrounds but come from varying upbringings, yet all of us must have a seat at the table.

The story of the Jewish people is one of survival. Across centuries, our community has been the subject of discrimination, forced dispossession and exile. Our culture is rooted in the need to preserve and hold onto our traditions, despite the attempts of others around us. From the expulsion in England in the 13th century to the Farhud in Iraq in 1941, our existence today is due to our survival.

As the joke goes, we can sum up the narrative of our festivals with the saying “They tried to kill us, we survived, so let‘s eat!”.

Despite all we have faced as a people, throughout the years we have developed our own structures and institutions that allowed us to remain connected to our culture. Over time we introduced our own courts, welfare systems, sporting clubs, community centers, and youth groups. We know the challenges our community faces, and these structures are important in our own liberation and self-empowerment and are integral to our survival journey.

For 75 years the Australasian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS) has provided a space for Jewish students to be proud of this story on campus.

Preparation for university for most students looks like having to consider what courses they need to take, figuring out where their lecture halls are and meeting new people. However, for Jewish students there is an additional component.

My own experience is similar to so many of my peers. I graduated from a Jewish day school, went on a gap year program and returned to begin my degree. Prior to university, I never felt any reason to question or be ashamed of my identity. It wasn’t until a few weeks into my classes when I realized this was one of the first times in my life where the people around me didn’t just know why I couldn’t come out on a Friday night, and for most of them I was the first Jew they ever met.

It is at university where our Jewish identity gets placed into our own hands. Outside of our homes, schools, and youth movements, we have to make a conscious effort and decide to be Jewish, and what that will look like on a day-to-day basis.

Growing up, I was taught by my family, teachers, and youth movement leaders that I am a part of a persecuted people and that my very existence today is the result of my ancestors moving around the world escaping pogroms and discrimination. But it wasn’t until I got involved in student activism and AUJS that I saw how my obligation to advocacy and social justice is grounded in every aspect of my religious and cultural identity.

However, on one hand, we are often ostracized from seemingly progressive spaces on campus for being Jewish. On the other, there is a common misconception in our community and beyond that young people are apathetic towards politics.

Since beginning my term as AUJS President in January this year, after spending two years on the national executive, I have seen firsthand how the latter is so far from the truth for Jewish youth.

From starting the conversation about the injustice and oppression facing the Uyghur community to advocating for greater representation and diversity in our spaces, AUJS and young people are spearheading much needed change in our community.

In the Australian federal election in May last year, the top of the agenda seemed to be climate change and the rising cost of living. Amongst the political gaffes and gotcha questions, one thing that stood out to me was how little the conversation focused on the impact these issues had on young people.

While throughout the election campaign the lack of emphasis placed on young people deeply concerned me, it made me so proud to be a part of the Jewish community, where AUJS plays a fundamental role ensuring our youth have the chance to lead conversations.

For 25 years, we have held an annual political training seminar (PTS) where we take 50 Jewish students to the Federal Parliament to bring the concerns of our community directly to the room where it happens. Every year we meet with senior members of the Australian Parliament, media representatives, diplomats, and lobbyists where Jewish students can express themselves and be a part of the change we want to see in society.

This year we started the AUJS Queer Community, re-emphasizing our commitment as a queer positive organization. We recognized the unique challenges queer Jews face within our communal spaces, and going forward we will be running events and campaigns to build queer community and empowerment within the Jewish community.

I have seen how passionate Jewish students are when we step up to ensure we are represented in all political spheres from student unions to party politics. I have seen the campaigns against antisemitism in all its forms, both on- and off-campus. But our activism is not just limited to the issues in our own bubbles or that we face as a community, it is our Jewish values and our proud story of survival which shape our need to tackle injustice in society.

It is why in 2018 we worked with the Armenian Youth Federation, the Union of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Students, and the Darfur (Sudanase) community to unanimously pass a motion at the National Union of Students to educate and raise awareness for the wider student body of our shared experiences facing persecution, discrimination, and genocide.

It is why in a year like 2023, where we will vote on a referendum to see an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice enshrined in the Australian constitution, AUJS will be proudly standing alongside our First Nations friends as we launch our campaign to vote „yes“. As the youth of the Australian Jewish community, this is our time to act on our Jewish values, to draw from our story of survival and self-determination and walk together towards reconciliation with young First Nations people around the country.

Being proud to be Jewish on campus is not only about championing our own causes, but it‘s about ensuring we live our values, by making sure a strong and loud Jewish voice is at the forefront of social change. This is a job we at AUJS take seriously.

Alissa Foster

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