Australasian Union of Jewish Students

Dialogue, Doughnuts and Diplomacy - NUS NatCon 2017

Dialogue, Doughnuts and Diplomacy - NUS NatCon 2017

Dialogue, Doughnuts & Diplomacy: AUJS at NUS National Conference 2017

Benjamin Ezzes’ Personal Account


By Ben Ezzes / December 22, 2017


My name is Benjamin Ezzes, and I was a proud member of The Bagel Faction for the National Union of Students - National Conference (NUS NatCon) 2017, and first-time speaker!

Projected from the conference floor, that statement would have elicited cries of approval from AUJS. NUS NatCon was that kind of an environment: any mundane statement could be intoxicatingly political, carrying the implication of deeply-rooted factional sentiments with a strange, narrow common ground. For those who are unfamiliar, NUS is the peak representative body for Australian undergraduates, which holds its National Convention every December to elect officers and vote on policy through delegates from affiliated universities. Coming from an educator’s background, as well as someone new to student politics, I found the concept…nauseating.

In my account, I hope to cover the profoundly educational and disorientating experience from a personal level. In terms of the raw mechanics and history, I bow to Jo Friedman’s summative blog post from last year from which, unsurprisingly, not much has changed. Though this was my first NatCon, Jo’s experience seemed to echo mine. This is not a recap so much as the sum of my lessons from five long days of deals, decisions and dance battles.

The first thing to comprehend is the media environment. ‘Join Twitter’, said Ariel Zohar, AUJS’ National Political Director, who organised our contingent, sent to me in a message a month before the conference. I quickly understood why: #nusnatcon is, without a doubt, the most revealing gateway into the conference’s inner workings. This is crucial, as whilst NUS represents thousands of students across Australia, filming or recording of its proceedings are strictly forbidden. One user on Twitter drew a helpful diagram:

NUS Drawing

Despite leaving out the back half of the room, I’ll outline the layout. The black box represents the stage, where the Business Committee (right) decided on, and occasionally ate, business, whilst the Chair (left), usually Sophie Johnston, directed the proceedings. In front, all in navy blue t-shirts, were Student Unity, the Labour-right faction and, in the words of one AUJS delegate, the ‘benevolent dictators of NUS’. Holding the majority of delegates, they filled up an entire section and decided what was discussed through majority on the Cogging Committee, which sat to their left.

To their right, in red, were the Labour-left National Labour Students, and behind them, dressed in whatever happened to smell the least, sat the ‘Trots’ or ‘SAlt’, formally the far-left Socialist Alternative. The National Independents, regular independents and Grassroots sat behind Unity, and behind them sat us, the AUJS delegation. The two lonely Liberals (by choice, as each campus they’re elected to disaffiliates from the union immediately) sat further behind still. Student media jealously hugged powerpoints along the wall, occasionally dispersing into the factions.

Voting was conducted in a standard ‘in-favour, against and abstain’ fashion, with delegates raising their lanyards. In order to make sure all delegates voted, most factions had ‘whips’ to direct their comrades. Most respected amongst these was Jill Molloy of Student Unity, whose rallying cries of ‘UNITY UP’ were as intimidating as they were impressive.

The first day went quickly, consisting of briefings on factions and some introductions. Ground rules were set, and we were introduced to the conference security guard, a tall bloke named Tiny, whose presence was constantly assuring. We read over important motions for the following day, dubbing ourselves the Kosher Caucus. We controlled no delegates, but resolved to symbolically vote on pertinent matters. We would go on to speak on and amend numerous motions, as well as submit our own successful anti-Semitism motion. We were observers, certainly, but observers with influence.

We were briefed by the organisers that the conference floor would open 9am each day, soliciting disbelief from prior attendees. Previously, after wild nights of caucusing (which is what the AUJS delegation did every night, of course), 3pm was a reasonable start. I was feeling the need to adjust to systemic inefficiency, and it was only the first day.

From the moment we arrived on the conference floor on Day 2, there was a certain tension in the air. This was realised when Ariel was told by a member of the Grassroots/Independents that they ‘would pull quorum’ until we moved from our seats. Eventually, the situation was resolved after they clarified that the complaint rested with a group photo they thought they were errantly included in. The hostility, however, was clearly not simply photo-related.

BagelitesA happy snap of some Bagelites maybe six seconds before the ‘photo’ incident.

The first motion of contention for us was ED4.9, which advocated for divestment from Lockheed Martin in Australian universities. The content of the motion specifically attacked Israel as an actor in ‘war crimes and genocide’, allegedly criminalising any association with the company. The motion failed, on account of unfairly depriving students of employment in world-class and diversified tech companies. However, this would set a precent for the rest of the conference: Lockheed Martin and other defence contractors were used as conduits for criticism of Israel in an attempt to attribute warmongering to a State under attack. The second time this matter came up, the conference was suspended as Belle Polgar, the AUJS National Chairperson, was preparing to speak, on account of a Socialist Alternative member refusing to maintain decorum. That same member had, minutes before, claimed that supporting defence jobs was supporting ‘apartheid Israel’.

I was lucky enough to be the first AUJS speaker during the conference, having been granted an opportunity to speak against this motion. In my speech, I railed against its similarity to BDS, and its lack of consideration for Israel’s complex security situation, drawing from the Union of Jewish Students by asserting that we needed to ‘build bridges, not boycotts’. This was not met by bridge-building from our opponents. In fact, to our great disgust, when dinner came around and we offered Chanukah doughnuts to factions, a member of AUJS was told by SAlt that ‘we don’t want your doughnuts, you filthy Zionists’. Our jam-filled peace offerings rejected, we had no choice but to report it and move on. As with all matters of Jewish discrimination, we drew strength from our cultural institution of humour. Despite our efforts to support each other, we were shocked by such a base refusal, leading me to reconsider: why were we here?

Zohar's Tweet

I wish I had the time and the word-count to discuss all of the most fascinating things about NUS. How AUJS accidentally created a noxious ‘Jew Brew’ punch that won us wide acclaim, despite being fluoro-blue for no good reason. How I heard a half-hour debate over whether or not there should be more busses, and the best way to achieve that. The tensions between protest and lobbying, the dominance of the Labour party and the failed attempts to sit with other factions. How I watched the entire LGBTQIA+ section become consumed with a rabid debate over who the victory over marriage equality belonged to, after having a nominee call for the re-institution of the guillotine, all the while watching the Trots flirt with anti-Semitism with the brashness of a Law student three drinks in after exams. The monotony of screaming, punctuated by social nights, was such that, by lunch of the third day, I had resorted to limerick and bingo:

            There once was a scorching hot day

            of Trots with too much to say.

            All AUJS hungover

            from Jew Brew crossover and

            our failed doughnut giveaway.


NUS Bingo

As the question of why we were here tugged at me, a query we’d had to answer since day dot, I noticed a turnaround after lunch. The first sign was a solemn and respectful Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander section, where near every motion was unanimous (save the Liberals against cashless welfare cards). Of all the times I wish I could have recorded, that profound expression of unity was one of them. That night, we lit our chanukiyah with a renewed sense of optimism. Perhaps we’d been too critical, too closed-minded. This was, after all, only the second year of our return after years of conscientious abstention.

Thursday was incredibly fulfilling. We spent much of the day discussing ethno-cultural motions on the conference floor, and there the entire delegation felt in their element. We proposed and passed amendments to make the definition of racism more inclusive of Jews and other minorities across many motions. Even this we were criticised on, as the incoming 2018 Socialist Alternative-aligned Ethnocultural Officer decried the omission of explicit reference to Islamophobia, asking why we should ‘embrace a broad definition of ethno-cultural groups’, the redundancy seemingly lost on her.

This didn’t slow our momentum, and our historic motion condemning anti-Semitism was proposed and passed with great support from everyone except the Socialist Alternative, who disputed an internationally-recognised definition over their hatred for Israel, Zionism and the doughnuts they represented. AUJS was proud to put up four speakers for the motion: Ariel, who gave an overview of the rise of anti-Semitism in Australia and on campus, Belle, who spoke about the size and diversity of AUJS’ constituency, Lexi, the National Vice-Chairperson, who spoke about the need to combat all forms of anti-Semitism and her family of Holocaust survivors, and myself, speaking about the personal trauma of anti-Semitism.

This was my highlight of the conference, and where I felt most at home. I understood the consolidating feeling of speaking with passion to a throng of supporters whilst those who interrupted and shouted abuse were denounced with cries of shame. I noticed the feeling of comradery in a cause and the pull to speak louder, to get angry. I felt reassured by the accolades and pats-on-the-back from my delegation. I like to think that, in that brief moment, I understood what it meant to be a Trot.

That was not the only uniting moment. Later on, when the meeting was found to be inquorate, this exemplary act of collective dance followed to the tune of Daryl Braithwaite’s ‘The Horses’:


After Thursday, I finally fully understood our purpose. Earlier, I had questioned our presence by the simple networking principle: what did we have to offer? Was it our first-hand knowledge of the Jewish student experience? Was it our friendship as a means of connection? Was it our Jew Brew, or our sharp, observational humour? More than those were deeper questions about AUJS: are we really a union? What about AUJS’ operation mirrors the experience of NUS?

The answer came in our status. As I mentioned previously, we were registered as observers, and liked to think ourselves a little more influential. The truth is that we were closer to ambassadors. Ignoring the obvious pretention, we were serving the one undeniable purpose of AUJS: to thoughtfully, and occasionally tipsily, represent our constituents and their desires. To advocate for safer, more inclusive and more friendly campuses for Jewish students.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in one of his weekly sermons, analogises the obligation of being an or lagoyim, a ‘light unto the nations’, as not linked to supremacy, but rather to ambassadorship. If, he says, one wanted to find a place to observe Norwegian custom in New York, one would go to its Norwegian embassy. Similarly, a Jewish home is a beacon of Jewish values, and its inhabitants are conveyors of that culture. In our short time in Waurn Ponds, we created an embassy to Jewish life through our observance, our education and our humour. This is where the real strength of young leadership lies: in endowing the next generation with the responsibility and privilege to represent the interests of the many. That sentiment, I believe, is a core tenet of unionism, and of AUJS, too.


My name is Benjamin Ezzes, and I am a member of the Australasian Union of Jewish Students, and a proud Jew on campus.


The Bagel Faction: (left to right) Jasmin Sekel, Joey Wilkinson, Benjamin Ezzes, Ariel Zohar, Belle Polgar, Saul Burston, Lexi Kowal, and Eli Madar.

AUJS’ statement on the passage of our motion, ‘We Must Act Against Anti-Semitism’:

Executive Council of Australian Jewry Statement:


The Algermeiner’s coverage of our attendance:

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@AUJS tweeted this page. 2017-12-22 09:39:14 +1100
Dialogue, Doughnuts and Diplomacy - NUS NatCon 2017