My weekly Guardian column is published today:
The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, a thriving Palestinian-led initiative that attacks institutional links to Israel’s illegal settlements, has been gaining in popularity. In Australia, the movement has been slowly growing as Israel continues to defy international law – and it now faces one of its greatest opportunities in the court of public opinion.
Shurat HaDin – Israel Law Center is an Israel-based organisation that claims to be a civil group “fighting for rights of hundreds of terror victims”. It is currently taking Jake Lynch, head of Sydney University’sCentre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS), to the Australian federal court. They assert that Lynch has allegedly breached the 1975 racial discrimination act by refusing to sponsor a fellowship application by Israeli academic Dan Avnon. Lynch and CPACS support BDS, and since Avnon works at Hebrew University – a key intellectual hub which is targeted by boycotters for allegedly being complicit in the establishment of illegal settlements – Lynch declined to be named as a reference.
The story has been largely ignored. Fairfax Media has not touched it, and ABC TV’s 7.30 only briefly addressed it last week. Instead, it is Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian which has been driving the debate on the issue, publishing countless stories that deliberately conflates antisemitism and support for the BDS movement.
Just last week, after the horrific bashing of Jewish men in Sydney, the paper featured a Holocaust survivor on its front page condemning the attack. Within the article was the rhetorical device of inserting comment about BDS – as if physically assaulting Jewish people was on the same spectrum as a peaceful, non-violent attempt to force Israel to abide by international law. Bizarrely, an op-ed published by Newscorp’s The Telegraph also said that the best response to the assaults was to support Max Brenner – the chocolate shop whose parent company, the Strauss Group, has been a target of BDS protestors for supporting the Israeli Defence Force.
Countless letters have since been published in The Australian reinforcing a correlation between antisemitism and the boycott – following this logic, Lynch and his backers are a threat to public order. This also ignores the nearly 2,000 signatories of a public petition backing Lynch (which a number of academics, including the co-founder of Independent Australian Jewish Voices, Peter Slezak, signed).
Last week, The Australian ran an editorial which implied that Lynch blocked Avnon’s academic credentials simply because he was an Israeli. Another front page story in the paper last week claimed that Hebrew University is a bastion of Jewish and Arab co-operation, yet ignored an example of the institution repressing Palestinian rights through its connections to the arms industry.
Lynch tells me that Shurat HaDin have deliberately skewed his BDS stance. He denies, despite what the group’s Australian lawyer Andrew Hamilton said on ABC TV last week, having “admitted” that he boycotted Avnon because he was Israeli. He told me:
“I have made it abundantly clear from the start that the policy is aimed at institutional links. If the Hebrew University is anything like the University of Sydney, then it probably employs academics from various backgrounds in terms of religious affiliation and country of origin. It would not make any difference to my or the CPACS’ policy if the applicant was originally from Belgium, Botswana or Bolivia – I believe the University of Sydney should revoke its part in the Sir Zelman Cowen and Technion fellowship schemes, and I reserve my right not to collaborate with them. Andrew Hamilton has clearly not paid serious attention to our policy, or to what I have actually done in pursuit of it.”
It’s worth noting that Avnon, endlessly praised in the Australian media as a humanist who believes in co-operation between Israelis and Palestinians, sits on Israeli group Metzilah’s General Assembly. This is a group that put out a report explicitly rejecting the Palestinian right of return to lands stolen by Israel, and claims that a Jewish state discriminating against equal rights for Palestinians is not problematic. It is worth noting that the Palestinian right of return is a requirement in international law.
Largely missing from the ferocious media coverage has been any information about the real agenda of Shurat HaDin. The organisation, according to Wikileaks documents, has strong links to Israeli intelligence and Mossad, just one of the many groups that now prosecutes Israel’s argument for the Jewish state. The law firm tried to sue Twitter for daring to host Hizbollah tweets, former US President Jimmy Carter for criticising Israel and Stephen Hawking for damning the Israeli occupation. Even the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, a leading Zionist lobby, refuses to endorse Shurat HaDin’s case against Lynch, pointing out that attempts to suppress the campaign through litigation are inappropriate.
Also absent from the debate is the reason BDS exists. It is growing due to a complete lack of faith in US-led peace talks. American journalist Max Blumenthal recently published a book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, which shows in forensic detail the reality of the Israeli mainstream’s embrace of blatant racism against Arabs and Africans. This isn’t what the Israel Shurat HaDin and its fellow travellers want the world to see. Indeed, Australian Israel lobby AIJAC responded to the latest BDS case against Lynch by completely ignoring illegal settlements altogether. This week Dean Sherr, a young lobbyist, wrote an entire column in The Australian about BDS without mentioning their existence.
The fear of BDS is reflected in the massive amount of money and resources Israel is spending to stop it. Instead of moving towards a democratic state for all its citizens, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to demolish Palestinian homes and build illegal colonies on Palestinian land.
Shurat HaDin’s Australian lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, told Haaretz last week that BDS “does nothing to help Palestinians and indeed harms them. It is merely an excuse for the vilest public antisemitic campaign the western world has seen since the Holocaust.” With such a statement, which essentially compares Jake Lynch to a Nazi, it’s no wonder Zionist advocates are losing the public relations battle globally.
For some of us on the left, using the racial discrimination act as a tool to silence views we find distasteful is deeply worrying – I write this as somebody who opposed the legal case against News Limited columnist Andrew Bolt in 2011. A real democracy is a place where any individual has the right to vehemently oppose colluding with an overseas university institution that disputes equal rights for Jews and Arabs.
I look forward to Australia’s leading public backers of free speech, such as Bolt, Miranda Devine and the Institute of Public Affairs, loudly backing Lynch. Somehow I think I’ll be waiting a while for these brave advocates to find their voice.