Voice of academic reason; why I boycott Israeli universities

Following the avalanche of media coverage in the last 10 days of Sydney University’s Dr Jake Lynch about his brave stand to oppose any institutional links with Israeli universities, he’s written two pieces in New Matilda that outline some of the issues.

One:

Journalist Christian Kerr recently filed a series of critical articles in The Australian about me over my support for an academic boycott of Israel, and then boasted to friends about using the paper to further his own views on the subject.

Kerr posted on his personal Facebook page that he was “proud of breaking the story” about my refusal to host a visiting academic from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem because, in his opinion, the boycott amounted to “institutionalised racism masquerading as a statement of liberty” and was ”contemptible”.

The next day, the Canberra-based correspondent reported that the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS), which I head, “may be breaching the Race Discrimination Act”.

Equating support for the boycott with racism is a contested question at the heart of Kerr’s story. Peter Slezak, of Independent Australian Jewish Voices, described it as a “slur” calculated “to demonise those who speak out publicly in support of Palestinian human rights and international law”.

Professor Wendy Bacon of the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism told NM:

“When reporters have a personal stake or interest in a story, they should be very careful to give someone against whom they are making allegations the right to respond. Otherwise you can end up doing hatchet jobs, getting things wrong or creating stories to meet your own agenda”.

I was not quoted in Kerr’s article about the Race Discrimination Act.

In emailed replies to questions from NM, Kerr attributed his Facebook page entry to his excitement at “the feeling of breaking a story that generates an enormous amount of comment and interest”.

The Australian is known for its strong editorial lines, but its mission statement, issued on the publication of its first edition in 1964, promises “impartial information”. A profile of editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell, published last year in The Monthly, said “Mitchell and his staff take this credo seriously. They refer to it often and cite it in their defence when criticised”.

In a telephone interview with NM, Mitchell said he was not concerned about Kerr’s own political views tilting his reporting: “Any reporter is influenced by their own personal views … you try to obtain some sort of internal balance” by using a range of sources.

Asked how this could be reconciled with the Australian’s commitment to impartial news, Mitchell added: “After 40 years as a journalist and 21 years as a national newspaper editor, I wouldn’t get into the idea that any reporter has ever been completely unbiased”.

Peter Fray, former Managing Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, told NM, “journos obviously do have personal views and they should keep them out of news reporting”, although Kerr, he believes, had “every right to get excited… I am not sure [he] was biased”.

Another of Kerr’s articles quoted Opposition Deputy Leader Julie Bishop, calling on Foreign Minister Bob Carr to “reveal” whether AusAID knew of CPACS’ support for the boycott before granting it $47,000 under the International Seminar Support Scheme in 2010. The ISSS pays conference expenses for delegates from a list of developing countries — not Israel, which is a high-income country so it is assumed Israelis can pay their own way. As an open, competitive scheme, ministers have no role in determining the outcome of individual applications.

Professor Stuart Rees, Chair of the Sydney Peace Foundation, told New Matilda: “Julie Bishop’s comments appear to make no sense. Either she was speaking with her foot in her mouth, or the reporter failed to spell out the nature of the grant [to get the quote]“.

Two:

The University of Oslo announced this week it is ending its contract with the security company G4S, which runs prisons in Israel. As a victory for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, it is richly symbolic. Oslo was the city where the “peace process” bore fruit, with theaccords of 1993 and 1995. However, nothing in them stopped the continued landgrabs or illegal settlement building that have marked the long years of Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territory. G4S services the occupation, providing equipment and services to checkpoints, as well as Israel’s so-called separation barrier, declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004.

It should cause us in Australia to raise our eyes from a debate that is often little more than half-baked parochialisms. A couple of years ago, I took on some of them directly, along with Stuart Rees of the Sydney Peace Foundation. We contributed letters to a website called Galus Australis, on which Philip Mendes of Monash University had issued a number of ill-informed criticisms of the foundation and the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.

One of those who posted a response, “Akiva,” observed:

“It’s pretty apparent that Mendes is punching considerably above his own weight here. Inaccuracies such as Stuart Rees points out are unacceptable and evidence of the sort of ‘sheltered-workshop’, closed-community approach to this sort of discussion. What may reassure one’s own (already convinced and paranoid) mainstream community just may not be good enough on a wider scale.”

According to a large scale opinion survey, carried out in the UK and six other western European countries in 2010 by the polling company ICM, public understanding of the realities of the conflict has become much stronger over recent years. Fully 49 per cent of respondents could successfully identify Israel as an occupying power, compared with earlier surveys suggesting the proportion was much lower. Daud Abdullah of the Middle East Monitor, which commissioned the poll, linked this increased level of understanding, in turn, with “a growing rejection of Israeli policies,” after a long period in which Israel enjoyed a “high level of support … because it was perceived as a progressive democracy in a sea of Arab backwardness”.

This transition has probably travelled still further since the poll was conducted, as the world has witnessed another attack on Gaza, involving what Human Rights Watch called “serious violations of the laws of war,” along with the fatal shooting of activists on board an aid vessel bound for the territory. The materials on board were needed because Israel keeps Gaza under a state of siege, designed — according to US diplomatic cables disclosed by Wikileaks — to “keep its economy on the brink of collapse”.

That, by the way, makes it a collective punishment and therefore, according to the distinguished international jurist, Richard Falk, another war crime. The effects include the poisoning of Gaza’s water supply, declared undrinkable earlier this year because authorities there cannot import the parts they need to repair sewage systems damaged in the 2008-9 attack Operation Cast Lead.

These are among the reasons why, elsewhere in the world, there has been a steady growth in the BDS movement. Activists in civil society take matters into their own hands when their governments appear to condone such excesses on Israel’s part. The double standards are frequently outrageous. The European Union has accorded Israel full trading rights, the obsession over Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions is seldom matched by calls for Tel Aviv to declare its own arsenal and join the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and so on.

 

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