One week after Sydney’s Marrickville BDS vote, the issue continues to resonate globally. I was interviewed late last week by the pro-settler and conservative Jerusalem Post newspaper. The journalist was friendly enough but it was clear I speaking to a man who didn’t see the West Bank as occupied but merely Judea and Samaria (the biblical names for areas controlled by the Zionist state).
Australian Jewish leaders are confident that the Marrickville Council decision last week to repeal its ban of Israeli goods as well as cultural and academic ties has ended the boycott movement in their country at the governmental level.
“The backlash has been quite strong and unanimous from the wider populace and from the Australian federal government and the New South Wales government, so we find it hard to believe that other local councils will go for this,” said Yair Miller, president of the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies.
He said the backlash came about because citizens and national leaders were angry that a local council had overstepped its bounds and become embroiled in an international dispute.
Uri Windt, a member of the Inner West Jewish Community and Friends Peace Alliance, said of the possibility of more councils choosing to boycott Israel, “I don’t think people will be discussing it for a long time.”
The anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is not as well-organized in Australia as in some countries.
“There’s no real official BDS movement here, but there are groups who advocate for BDS,” boycott supporter Anthony Loewenstein, a freelance journalist and co-founder of Independent Australian Jewish Voices, said.
Miller commented, “The BDS is fairly well-organized, but it’s very small and only [popular] in fringe radical groups, most of which are Palestinian solidarity groups.”
Nevertheless, Loewenstein said many councils were discussing ways to support BDS, though he declined to name them.
Though he was not happy with the outcome of Tuesday’s meeting, when the Marrickville Council voted to repeal its boycott, Loewenstein said the publicity generated by the council was important. “Like in other places where BDS has been put forward, it creates a bigger debate, which is what happened in Australia.” He attended the meeting.
Calls placed to the BDS office in Ramallah were not returned by press time.
Marrickville Mayor Fiona Byrne, a Greens member of the council who had supported the boycott, was unavailable to speak with The Jerusalem Post, but she said in a council press release that the findings of a staff report on the costs of implementing a boycott had influenced Tuesday’s vote.
“The report identifies some options – the cost of which would be impractical to the council and our local residents,” she said. “The plight of the Palestinian people in the occupied territories has been and remains a source of concern for Marrickville councilors.”
Severing ties with Israel would cost taxpayers an estimated $3.7 million to $4.3m., according to the report.
“We have created a little egg which is support for the plight of the Palestinian people, and a sledgehammer is being used to break that… Certainly we have put BDS on the national agenda, whatever that means,” Byrne said, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
Many in the media suggested the boycott issue caused Byrne to lose the election for Marrickville’s parliamentary seat in March. The Greens MP candidate for the neighboring district of Balmain, Jamie Parker, who does not support BDS, won.
“Aside from the far-left media, the coverage from mainstream media sources was overwhelmingly critical of Marrickville for getting involved,” Miller said. “The main criticism was that a local council was getting involved in foreign affairs, which is not in their mandate, and for getting in on one side of a very complex conflict.”
In a telephone survey of 500 Marrickville Council constituents, commissioned by the Inner West Jewish Community and Friends Peace Alliance and conducted between March 7 and 13, 48 percent of respondents said their local council should play no role in foreign affairs, though 43% said it should have a minor role. However, 76% expressed opposition to the council taking sides in foreign conflicts, and 51% of respondents were unaware of the council’s boycott motion. Sixty-three percent of those surveyed opposed the motion.
The alliance, which also began an online petition signed by 283 people (signatures of those with no connection to Marrickville were removed) was established by local Jews following the boycott resolution’s ratification. Eighty-five people came to its first meeting and formed its core support group, said Windt, who attended Tuesday’s meeting.
“BDS instantly injects a note of divisiveness and fictiousness, because it poses the issue that if you’re against BDS you’re against the Palestinians,” Windt said. “We made the point that we agree with the Palestinians’ right to self-determination and we agree with the two-state solution. It’s not about being anti-Palestinian, but if you want peace you have to create peace there and peace here.”
In an editorial published on Tuesday in the Sydney Morning Herald, alliance members Gael Kennedy and Janet Kossy urged the Marrickville Council to follow the government officials in a neighboring suburb, Leichhardt, where Parker is mayor, by bringing together members of Palestinian solidarity groups and Jewish communal organizations to focus on initiatives in the Middle East where Israelis and Palestinians work together.
On December 14, the Marrickville Council garnered headlines when it became the first such body to approve an Israeli boycott. On Tuesday, the 12-member council voted to rescind part of the resolution it passed in December that said the council would “boycott all goods made in Israel and any sporting, academic institutions, government or institutional cultural exchanges.”
Nevertheless, the council affirmed that it supported the global BDS campaign in principle. The council also condemned all violent acts, and voice support for the right of Israel and a Palestinian state to exist and for local peace initiatives and “the inherent human rights of all residents in the Middle East.”
Morris Hanna, an Independent member of the Marrickville Council and a former Marrickville mayor, voted against the boycott resolution in December and supported its repeal on Tuesday. “This is not a local issue – a local government worries about the environment, parks, kindergartens and cleaning the streets,” said Hanna, an Egyptian Coptic Christian.
Six council members – four from the Labor Party and two from the Greens Party – who voted for the boycott resolution in December withdrew their support for it last week.
Greens candidate posters in Marrickville and surrounding areas were defaced with swastikas before elections, and some council members reportedly received threats. Loewenstein felt this was the work of supporters of Israel, though Miller said that there was no proof that Jews or Israel advocates were guilty. “We took pains to emphasize that the [Jewish] community should act responsibly and with respect at all times,” Miller said.