Israel: Student union leaders reveal their true face on Haifa demo

On 23 March, 2005 the student union leaders organized “a quiet demonstration” against cuts and privatization in the higher education system.

These demos showed once again exactly what the student unions, controlled by a handful of functionaries, are capable of doing and where they are leading the struggle.

There were several thousand participants on the demo, including seven Maavak Sozialisti members. Initially the demo was relatively quiet and with almost no content relating to the struggle – a passerby wouldn’t have known whether this was a demonstration or a Student Day happening (a day organized by the students’ unions made up of mainly parties, rock concerts etc.). The union also invited MP Matan Vilna’i, a member of the right-wing Sharon government, who was greeted with booing and was forced to cut his speech short. On the other hand, rank-and-file students who tried to speak were silenced and the student union leadership, assisted by university security guards, prevented them from getting on the stage.

The demo continued in this manner for more than an hour, when some of the students decided to demand a more active protest. They began calling “we want a demo, not a party” and led a march of hundreds of students who blocked the university entrance road. Down the road we were stopped by a large force of police. Judging by the number of policemen, police cars and water cannons on the spot one wouldn’t have guessed that they were merely dealing with a group of students protesting against the elimination of higher education in Israel.

The demonstrators tried to address the policemen with calls such as “policemen, refuse, because tomorrow you’ll be hungry”. A violent attempt by the police to clear the road began almost immediately, during which 19 demonstrators were arrested, among them two Maavak Sozialisti members. Some of the demonstrators were beaten during their arrest including Maavak Sozialisti members, and were carried by groups of six or seven policemen towards the police vehicle where they were detained.

At this stage appeared, as if out of nowhere, MP Ran Cohen, who reached a dirty agreement with the police: the release of the detained student union leaders in return to students ending the roadblock. This proposal was received with great scorn by most demonstrators who started calling “release them all” in addition to calls against the attack on the educational system such as “Jews and Arabs fight the cuts”.

The student union leaders started spreading rumors about certain detainees being released, such as all student union representatives, all Jewish detainees etc. Later union representatives declared that all detainees had been released and that the demo could end. Demonstrators immediately called their detained comrades, and it turned out that all of them were still held in the police vehicle. This trick was repeated several times by union representatives.

These rumors only increased the agitation by the demonstrators, which reached its peak when the head of the students union of Emek Israel college prided himself for having filed a complaint with the police against a student who allegedly used violence against policemen. All these tricks didn’t work, and the demonstrators remained on the road until the police retreated and most detainees were released. Later they went down to the police station where the rest of the demonstrators were held to demand their release.

The student union leaders opposed the proposal to march towards the police station as well, especially the head of the students union of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who apparently didn’t think that his position involved any responsibility for the students that were arrested during the demo. They only agreed to come to the police station under pressure from the students.

During the demo we found out that the Haifa University students’ union was very quick in issuing a press release claiming that the demonstration was quiet until members of the CP students’ organization and Arab students (most members of the Israeli CP are Israeli Palestinians) were behind the initiative to block the road. This announcement is a clear attempt to divide students on the basis of nationalist sentiments.

This demo was an important step toward a cooperation of militant students on a national level and towards a genuine struggle, as opposed to the anemic protest methods of the national students association: quiet demos with the participation of politicians who will betray the students as soon as they have the chance. It is necessary to continue in the direction that was set in the militant protest in Haifa. The students are not fighting alone: they must join forces with the teachers, school students and workers fighting against cutbacks, privatizations and attacks on employment conditions. Only by uniting these struggles and ensuring their joint democratic leadership can we stop these attacks!

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March 2005