A fascinating town hall meeting filmed in New York that covers Israel/Palestine, Cuba, Libya, foreign policy and morality:
This news is big and important (and ignore the typical and utterly tiresome accusations of anti-Semitism) and signals a growing shift to tackle Israel where it hurts; legitimacy. When you occupy Palestinians for decades, expect to pay a price.
An American organization of professors on Monday announced a boycott of Israeli academic institutions to protest Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, signaling that a movement to isolate and pressure Israel that is gaining ground in Europe has begun to make strides in the United States.
Members of the American Studies Association voted by a ratio of more than two to one to endorse the boycott in online balloting that concluded Sunday night, the group said.
With fewer than 5,000 members, the group is not one of the larger scholarly associations. But its vote is a milestone for a Palestinian movement known as B.D.S., for Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions, which for the past decade had found little traction in the United States. The American Studies Association is the second American academic group to back the boycott, movement organizers say, following the Association for Asian American Studies, which did so in April.
“It’s almost like a family betrayal,” said Manuel Trajtenberg, a leading Israeli scholar. “It’s very grave and very saddening that this happens, particularly so in the U.S.,” he said.
Dr. Trajtenberg, an economics professor at Tel Aviv University, earned his doctorate at Harvard and like many Israeli academics has had frequent sabbaticals at American universities.
Israel has strong trade ties with Western Europe, where the B.D.S. campaign has won some backing for economic measures, a particular concern for Israelis. Last week a Dutch company, Vitens, announced that it would not do business with Israel’s national water company, Mekorot, because of Israel’s policies in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Israel recently faced a potential crisis when it seemed its universities and companies would lose out on some $700 million for research from a European Union program after new guidelines prohibited investment in any institutions operating in territory Israel seized in the 1967 war. Israeli academics were reeling at the possibility that they would be punished over government policy toward the Palestinians, until Israeli and European officials struck a deal late last month to allow Israel to participate.
In April, the Teachers’ Union of Ireland endorsed an academic boycott of Israel, and several times in recent years there have been strong efforts within Britain’s largest professors’ group, the University and College Union, to do the same.
Israelis have long seen Europe as more hostile — even anti-Semitic in some pockets — but a slap from the United States has a particular sting.
“Rather than standing up for academic freedom and human rights by boycotting countries where professors are imprisoned for their views, the A.S.A. chooses as its first ever boycott to boycott Israel, the sole democracy in the Middle East, in which academics are free to say what they want, write what they want and research what they want,” Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said Monday.
America is viewed not only as Israel’s staunchest ally, but its best friend, and many analysts have fretted publicly in recent weeks that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s outspoken opposition to the interim Iran nuclear deal had damaged relations with Washington.
Next month, the Modern Language Association’s annual meeting will debate a resolution calling on the State Department to criticize Israel for barring American professors from going to Gaza and the West Bank when invited by Palestinian universities.
People on both sides of the issue acknowledged that despite the heat it generates, the requested boycott will have little practical effect, at least for now. The American Studies Association resolution bars official collaboration with Israeli institutions but not with Israeli scholars themselves; it has no binding power over members, and no American colleges have signed on.
In fact, the American Association of University Professors, the nation’s largest professors’ group, said it opposed the boycott. A number of American scholars, while angry at Israeli policies in the West Bank, say they oppose singling Israel out over other countries with far worse human rights records. Others say it makes little sense to focus on Israeli universities where government policy often comes under strong criticism.
“O.K., so a couple of Israeli researchers will not be invited by a couple of American researchers,” said Avraham Burg, a leftist former Labor Party lawmaker who was one of the founders of Molad, a research group that recentlypublished a report on Israeli isolation. “That for me is awful, because the academic community is the last one with the freedom of thought and freedom of expression.”
But Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian activist and a founder of the B.D.S. movement, said the boycott vote shed light on the close collaboration between Israel’s universities and its government and military, and it put those universities on notice that they will become unwelcome in international academic circles.
“It is perhaps the strongest indicator yet that the B.D.S. movement is reaching a tipping point, even in the U.S., the last bastion of support for Israel’s unjust system,” he said.
At a West Bank University, in a class on the writings of Michel Foucault, one student said that every time she goes through checkpoints, she presents her identity card to the soldiers upside down. She makes use of the little space she can to make the sovereign decision not to be the automaton that the soldier, and the system, expect her to be.
Perhaps it’s an unusual example, but she is a reminder that the Israeli control of the Palestinian people always prompts reactions and creates a constant state of awareness and alertness. Even obedience is a response. Obedience and attempts to disrupt Israeli activity, as the entity that revokes their freedom and independence, are always on the minds of the Palestinian people.
The ethos of mass opposition remains a frame of reference for those who are not active, or are no longer active.
A culture of resistance is not just an empty slogan in Palestinian society; it’s assumed, and apologies must be made when one does not stick to it. Currently, it seems there are more people apologizing than resisting.
The most prominent apologizers are senior PLO and Palestinian authority bureaucrats as well as the urban middle class. In the villages, and the refugee camps, no one needs to apologize: their very existence is constant resistance.
But both the activists and the apologizers can take comfort in the fact that like in the past, at some point, a moment will come where “people can’t take it anymore,” and join in.
But what is that point? People who think in terms of struggle, and people who want to take advantage of the situation to make a name or a career for themselves, are in a race against time. At some point, the bubble of normality under occupation will burst – that’s a basic assumption that we hear all the time.
The question is whether the bubble will burst before enough of a foundation has been laid to deal with a new conflict, in the form of a grassroots uprising, against the Israeli occupation, Even the PA people feel the way of negotiation, which has been followed for 20 months, is bankrupt.
The American tendency today to artificially engineer an agreement reminds one of its insistence on holding the Camp David summit in 2000. The newspaper al-Ayyam hinted on Friday that the proposed American framework agreement does not designate East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state; it also ignores the refugees. The American effort to force an agreement (or punish the Palestinians for refusing it) could be the breaking point. That would be bad for advocates of unarmed resistance.
In recent years, various popular-resistance committees were formed, and they are trying to improve coordination among themselves. After years of isolated responses to the separation barrier in various villages and Hebron, the committees decided that the time has come to take the initiative. Blocking major roads, erecting tent encampments like Bab a-Shams and volunteering in villages, are only some of the initiatives that can be seen as preparation for more comprehensive efforts.
The boycott movement continues to spark imaginations. Its establishment in the West Bank roughly ten years ago forced the Palestinian Authority to declare a boycott on products manufactured in the West Bank. Enforcement of the boycott was spotty but now, informal organizations are considering boycotting goods from the other side of the Green Line as well.
“Boycotting 10% of Israeli goods is likely to increase Palestinian production by 10% and create tens of thousands of jobs,” said one activist. “When we call for boycott, we think not only of nationalist concerns, but also for the personal benefit of many unemployed people.”
Activists are in touch with other thinkers too: Palestinians elsewhere in the world and Palestinians with Israeli citizenship are also part of the unarmed resistance. One demand that arose out of the blue in the past – to dismantle the PA – is gradually ceding to thoughts about morphing the PA from a “contractor” of the Israeli occupation into a resistance authority. That would begin, says the activist, with canceling cooperation on security, as – “the police and top officials are also under occupation.”
Also, human rights organizations are pushing to take advantage of the opportunities created when Palestine was defined a non-member observer state by the UN. Popular resistance, as discussed by the activists, would include all of these things.
One activist points out that Palestinian society is very young: roughly 50% are under 18, and 75% under 35. Activists are placing their hopes on the youth, not the older generations.
Here’s my weekly Guardian column (from last week):
There’s nothing like an internal critic taking on the most powerful force in his religion.
Roy Bourgeois is an American Catholic priest. He’s the founder of School of the Americas Watch, a group dedicated to closing the US Army School of the Americas – a military training centre for Latin American officers from nations with horrible human rights records. After Pope Francis recently damned capitalism as a “new tyranny”, Bourgeois told Democracy Now! that he welcomed the strong comments, but urged the Catholic head to go much harder:
“Pope Francis must simply come out … and say, we are all created of equal worth and dignity. We do not have this inclusiveness in the Roman Catholic Church. Therein lies the problem … I highly recommend that our viewers go to the catechism of the Catholic church which talks about the church’s official doctrines and teachings. Some of them, especially dealing with women and homosexuality, I would refuse to read on the air. It is so offensive, it’s so cruel … The Pope must get serious and start talking about inclusiveness in the Catholic church.”
In the same vein, George Monbiot recently damned Pope Francis for whispering some progressive thoughts and throwing bones to liberals desperate to imagine the Catholic hierarchy as open to reform, while still celebrating the worst forms of colonialism and fanaticism. Don’t expect to be welcomed into the highest echelons of Rome if you’re female, openly gay, married or polyamorous. For these reasons alone, the church must be treated with the contempt such views deserve.
But the argument must not end there.
A dangerous trend has developed in the last decade with the advent of the “new atheism” movement – it often states that people in business, politics and entertainment should avoid discussing religion, and how faith affects their lives. According to its proponents, belief is pathetic and tired, anti-intellectual and predictable. Anybody who follows the Quran, Bible, Torah or other holy book should “grow up” and stop following the teachings of old, bearded men from a time when women were little more than ornaments and baby makers.
How terribly wrong and bigoted such advocates are.
I write this as an atheist, anti-Zionist Jew who worries about the conservative religious views of my prime minister Tony Abbott – journalist Geoff Kitney once accurately described him as a leader who presents “brand Australia” as “neo-conservative nationalism with a populist twist”. Abbott’s intervention against abortion drug RU486 and traditional (and often sexist) politics must be repelled and challenged. Australia in the 21st century should strive for gender, sex, religious and pay equality.
All these concerns are valid: religious views must not influence governmental decisions about abortion, reproductive health or gender parity. But too often aggressive atheists, perhaps rhetorically competing with the most militant religious fanatics, argue that religion is a disease that needs a cure. Taking comfort or lessons from religion is a perfectly legitimate way to live life. Private atheism is as harmless as quietly praying in a church, synagogue or mosque. New atheists are always quick to forget that some of the finest advocates for human rights and justice are religious believers.
US atheist philosopher Sam Harris - lover of US imperialism in the Muslim world and Israel - recently praised the Pakistani girl Malala Yousafzai as “the best thing to come out of the Muslim world in a thousand years.” He went on:
“She is an extraordinarily brave and eloquent girl who is doing what millions of Muslim men and women are too terrified to do—stand up to the misogyny of traditional Islam.”
In his rush to demonise hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world, Harris clearly hadn’t read the words of Malala herself, praising traditional Islam:
“The Taliban think we are not Muslims, but we are. We believe in God more than they do, and we trust him to protect us … I’m still following my own culture, Pashtun culture … Islam says that it is not only each child’s right to get education, rather it is their duty and responsibility.’
Harris and his many followers in the new atheist movement are desperate to eradicate religion from public life – though it’s worth noting the vast bulk of their hatred is directed at Islam and not Christianity, Judaism or Hinduism. Unfortunately, it ignores the fundamental tenet of personal, religious belief: on its own faith isn’t oppressive. It’s the organised nature of law and teachings that can overwhelm and demean. The fact that Malala clearly wanted a devout Muslim life is an inconvenience conveniently ignored by Harris – it goes to the heart of the unthinking, visceral disdain shown towards religious adherents.
We too often poke fun at political leaders who espouse certain religious views only to have a change of heart – like former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, who reversed his position on gay marriage and arrived at the conclusion that it was un-Christian to discriminate against gay couples. This shows there is place for debate and U-turns in religion – and surely this is something to be welcomed.
The ideal secular nation is one where people of all faiths, or none, believe that everybody is encouraged to not feel ashamed of public displays of faith. The richness of humanity, after all, lies in the desire to avoid sterility and uniformity.
An atheist utopia sounds like a nightmare on earth.
South African President Nelson Mandela, in his address for International Solidarity Day with the Palestinian People on December 4, 1997, said: “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.” And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after Mandela’s death: “Nelson Mandela was among the greatest figures of our time … a man of vision and … a moral leader of the highest order.”
The sharp-eyed surely noticed the picture in the background when Netanyahu delivered his statement: an Israeli flag and the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. There he was, eulogizing the “moral leader” against the background of the occupied city, whose Palestinian residents are oppressed and dispossessed. It’s a city where a separation regime prevails – an example of Israeli apartheid, even if it’s not the worst example. The sharp-eared must have noticed how false his flowery words sounded.
President Shimon Peres also offered high praise for the “leader of immense stature,” and his words were no less hypocritical. The man who was involved up to his neck in the disgraceful cooperation between Israel and apartheid South Africa, who hosted its prime ministers with pomp and circumstance while Mandela languished in prison, is suddenly admiring the man who symbolized the struggle with that regime.
Neither Peres nor Netanyahu have any right to eulogize Mandela; both are responsible, more than any other statesmen in the free world, for undermining his legacy and establishing the (nonidentical) twin of the regime he battled. They’re eulogizing him? Mandela will turn in his grave and history will laugh bitterly.
Israeli public opinion tolerates everything, even intolerable, two-faced eulogies. But Israeli cooperation with the apartheid regime, and the continuation of its legacy in the occupied territories, cry out beyond the gloomy skies of a grieving South Africa.
The world’s mourning should inspire some pointed questions here as well. Why was Israel virtually the only country that collaborated with that evil regime? Why are so many good people convinced that Israel is an apartheid state? While it may not pay to dwell on past shame – even Mandela forgave Israel – questions about the present should disturb us greatly.
In April I visited the new South Africa that Mandela had forged as a guest of its Foreign Ministry. The visit was etched deeply in my heart, as comparisons to the Israeli occupation regime cried out from every stone, and with them also hope for change.
For example, there was the Supreme Court in Johannesburg, built on the ruins of the prison where blacks were thrown when they dared enter forbidden areas to find work. And in Soweto I visited Mandela’s home, where you can still see the bullet holes of a failed attempt at a “targeted killing.”
The comparisons echoed, as did the lessons. Roelf Meyer – a defense minister, constitution minister and deputy minister of law and order during apartheid, and later chief negotiator with the African National Congress – told me: “If we had started a few years earlier, we could have prevented a lot of bloodshed and gotten a better deal.” After beating his breast over many sins, Meyer is now part of the new regime, like many whites.
An unjust state becomes a just state; discrimination and dispossession are replaced by equality and democracy. The scowling faces tell of South Africa’s backwardness and rising crime, which are serious problems. But they don’t reduce the enormity of the historic achievement and its lesson for Israel: When a country turns from unjust to just, everything else is dwarfed in comparison.
Mandela proved that the dream is realistic, that what seemed like a fantasy only 20 years ago is achievable, and without much bloodshed. He showed that enemies of the past can live together in one country and even have equality; that a new chapter can be opened against all odds.
Mandela said he was not liberated as long as the Palestinians were not free. Those in Israel who seek to eulogize him can’t continue to ignore this.
Robert Fisk on the winners and those who are pissed that a war against Tehran may not now happen:
It marks a victory for the Shia in their growing conflict with the Sunni Muslim Middle East. It gives substantial hope to Bashar al-Assad that he will be left in power in Syria. It isolates Israel. And it infuriates Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Kuwait and other Sunni Gulf States which secretly hoped that a breakdown of the Geneva nuclear talks would humiliate Shia Iran and support their efforts to depose Assad, Iran’s only ally in the Arab world.
In the cruel politics of the Middle East, the partial nuclear agreement between Iran and the world’s six most important powers proves that the West will not go to war with Iran and has no intention – far into the future – of undertaking military action in the region. We already guessed that when – after branding Assad as yet another Middle Eastern Hitler – the US, Britain and France declined to assault Syria and bring down the regime. American and British people – those who had to pay the price for these monumental adventures, because political leaders no longer lead their men into battle – had no stomach for another Iraq or another Afghanistan.
Iran’s sudden offer to negotiate a high-speed end to this cancerous threat of further war was thus greeted with almost manic excitement by the US and the EU, along with theatrical enthusiasm by the man who realises that his own country has been further empowered in the Middle East: Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Assad’s continued tenure in Damascus is assured. Peace in our time. Be sure we’ll be hearing that Chamberlonian boast uttered in irony by the Israelis in the weeks to come.
Amira Hass is a leading journalist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Two recent columns show the direct and daily assault on Palestinian lives that too rarely appears in the Western press.
And this month’s George Orwell Prize for excellence in misleading language, for rose-colored ink and for doing a hell of a job on sugarcoating lies, goes to…
Yes, clap your hands for the happy winner, the planning and licensing subcommittee of the Civil Administration’s Supreme Planning Council. Its excellence was revealed in full in its decision dated October 24, 2013, which relates to the request for approval of a master plan for construction filed by the Arab village, er, assemblage of Susya.
The West Bank village, which has a population of 300 (dispersed over 40 households), filed five different versions of the master plan, and the prize-winning committee rejected each of them. It wrote that for the sake of the rights of Palestinian children and the expansion of their horizons, and for the sake of the rights of Palestinian women and their salvation from lives of poverty, in order to prevent a rift in society and out of consideration for the limited abilities of the Palestinian Authority, these Arab residents of Susya should move to the nearby city of Yatta, which will provide them with the infrastructure necessary for their development.
With this decision, the subcommittee has devised an innovative, refreshing take on one of the Ten Commandments: Jews to Area C, Arabs to Area A.
Israel the persecuted has for years been fending off anti-Semitic attacks against it. One particularly wicked accusation is the claim that we are a colonialist entity that has stolen and continues to steal land from the Arabs, for the good of the Jews. This decision provides brilliant linguistic tools in the heroic struggle of our country to expel the Arabs and settle Jews in their place, by framing it publicly as an act of enlightenment, love of the people, and the adoration of order and modern planning. Our warm recommendation is to make use of this text in discussions on building the Jewish town of Hiran on the ruins of Umm al-Hiran and on building a national park on the lands of Isawiyah.
Anyone who has worn a uniform past or in present, whether speaking on the record or off, immediately “knows” that the latest terror attack and what looks to soldiers as the latest attempted terror attack does not signify the beginning of a third Intifada. Or, they “know” it does signify such a beginning, and it’s all because of the peace negotiations or because of Palestinian incitement, or both. Relying on the knowledgeable military brass is a fixed Israeli reflex; it is part of the balance of power and part of how the Israelis exert control over their subjects.
Whoever said 100,000 Palestinians have unfinished business with the Israel Defense Forces took it a step further creating the impression that he really knows and thinks, and does more than calculate tallies. But the starting point for calculation is somewhere else completely: There is no Palestinian whose score with the State of Israel is settled – whether he lives in forced exile or whether he lives within the borders of Israel, or in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. There is no Palestinian without a personal and familial history of injustice that was caused by, and is still caused by Israel. Just because the Israeli media does not report on all the injustices Israel causes day in and day out – even if only because they so numerous – does not mean they go away and neither does the anger they cause. Therefore, according to the correct calculation, the number of attacks by Palestinian individuals is relatively microscopic. This small number shows that for the vast majority of Palestinians – passing, murderous and hopeless revenge is not an option.
Brant Rosen is that rare breed, an American Jewish Rabbi who remains outspoken about Israeli crimes against the Palestinians.
He’s been profiled in the New York Jewish Forward newspaper:
It was on December 28, 2008, soon after Israel launched its punishing military campaign in Gaza, known as Operation Cast Lead, that Rabbi Brant Rosen hit the “send” key for a blog post that he believed could well pitch him out of his pulpit.
“We good liberal Jews are ready to protest oppression and human-rights abuse anywhere in the world, but are all too willing to give Israel a pass,” Rosen had typed out as Israel’s bombs were falling on Gaza — part of a massive response, with numerous civilian casualties, to rockets fired into Southern Israel by the Palestinian faction Hamas, which controls the territory.
“What Israel has been doing to the people of Gaza,” Rosen, 50, wrote on his blog, Shalom Rav, “is an outrage.”
The young rabbi, then a decade into his tenure as spiritual leader of Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, a 520-household synagogue in Evanston, Ill., concluded his 221-word post with these sentences: “There, I’ve said it. Now what do I do?”
That rhetorical question came from a writer whom Newsweek had named earlier that year to its list of the top 25 pulpit rabbis in the United States.
Today, Rosen, 50, heads the rabbinical council of a group called Jewish Voice for Peace, which makes him a high-profile official with an organization on a much different kind of list: the Anti-Defamation League’s “Top Ten Anti-Israel Groups in the U.S.” for 2013.
JVP, which is No. 6 on the list, does not just criticize Israel’s fundamental policies toward the Palestinians and Iran, while claiming its position as a matter of Jewish values. The group contains a range of Israel critics, from self-described left-wing Zionists who favor some form of binational state to outright anti-Zionists. And it supports boycott, divestment and sanction campaigns against targets it views as involved in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. As an organization, it is determinedly agnostic on whether Israel should be governed as an explicitly Jewish state.
An October 2013 report from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs underlines how unusual Rosen’s profile is. Of 552 rabbis from varied points on the political spectrum that the council polled, nearly 40% said they sometimes or often avoided expressing their true feelings about Israel.
“[Rabbis] frequently find themselves fearful of, or caught in the maelstrom of, tension regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and their personal views about it,” the JCPA report said.
Rosen said the report’s findings were consistent with his own observations regarding his colleagues. “Most rabbis just don’t engage in Israel at all. They don’t fit in the AIPAC route,” he said, referring to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful mainstream pro-Israel lobby. “But they’re also afraid to speak their truth on this issue…. I confess I was like that for a long time.”
Rosen’s credo for his own congregational leadership is a famous journalistic motto: to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” If he had not become a rabbi, Rosen said, his longtime dream had been to become a newspaper columnist.
A fascinating, new documentary by Clayton Swisher for Al Jazeera English, Killing Arafat, that examines the murky circumstances around his death. It focuses principally on the Palestinian Authority (rather than the obvious other suspect, Israel) and portrays the US-backed institution as corrupt and utterly untrustworthy. Swisher explains more about this in a recent piece in the Guardian:
Today the Guardian hosts a discussion about the proposed changes to Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act. Writer and academic Alana Lentin argues the laws should remain while I state they need reform:
The right to offend is often held up by liberals everywhere as more important than the right to be offended. But posing the problem of protection from racial discrimination in this way suggests that “taking offence” is a choice of the same order as being deliberately offensive.
When Aboriginal people, asylum seekers and other racialised groups are told that those who vilify them in the press – often touting stereotypes and outright lies – are merely voicing their opinions in a free society, their experience tells them that a truly free society would not look like today’s Australia. Democracy exists in name, but systemic inequality makes a mockery of it.
When Andrew Bolt and his political supporters speak of rights, they know as well as any critical legal theorist that rights are far from universal, despite the rhetoric. The message sent to those victimised is “why can’t you just be free like me? Why can’t you get beyond the identity, the difference, that calls for it to be pointed out and ridiculed?” For example, those in favour of publishing the infamous 2004 “Muhammad cartoons” claimed that for Muslims to take offence was ridiculous, as to follow Islam is a choice that could just as easily be renounced. Tell that to any man or woman next time they are suspected of being a Muslim terrorist just because they’re not white.
By repealing the so-called “Bolt laws”, Brandis is not only telling racialised minorities in Australia that the right to vilify them is more important than their right to be protected from racist insults, he is going a step further. At the very least, this ends the duplicitousness of the “antiracist racist state.” However, political point scoring is not a good reason for lauding the repeal.
Some on the (white) left who support Brandis argue that curbing media freedom opens the door to Zionist groups using racial discrimination law to sanction those calling for a boycott of Israel. As a Jew, an Israeli citizen and a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) supporter, I reject this. We must be able to protect those who face the worst racism in our society from the spread of hatred, while at the same time exposing the nonsensical equation of antisemitism and anti-Zionism.
In matters of race, freedom of speech only protects the right of some to offend; and the right of those in power to be offended has, and always will continue to be protected anyway.
The proposed changes by Australian Attorney General George Brandis to the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) – removing a section that makes it illegal to insult and offend people because of their race – have nothing to do with freedom of speech. Ignore the true believers who say they are.
It displays a selective concern about dissenting views. Sydney University’s Jake Lynch is being taken to the federal court after allegedly breaching the RDA over his support for BDS against Israel, and yet Brandis has said nothing. I would hazard that these ideologues support “free speech” that empowers their worldview, not oppressed minorities. It’s an unsurprising first legislative move by a new government which will do nothing to widen the range of views in the public square.
In spite of this, I believe Brandis’ proposed changes should be welcomed – albeit with clear caveats. I agree with Sarah Joseph, director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, who points out that “there is no human right not to be offended or insulted“. The Centre welcomes the amendments, pointing out they’re consistent with international law, but calls to retain a restriction of intimidation and humiliation over race. The Human Rights Law Centre has also called for reform and not repeal of the RDA.
Section 18c of the RDA, which is set to be amended, was used in the successful prosecution of Herald Sun commentator Andrew Bolt in 2011after he attacked the credibility of Aboriginal Australians. His popular and far from silenced newspaper responded with the front page headline This is a Sad Day for Freedom of Speech. Bolt and his colleagues have suffered no loss or lack of voice ever since.
But the principle is nonetheless important – and section 18c isn’t keeping the racist hordes at the door. Fighting intolerance and discrimination isn’t the job of an ever more powerful state. It must be fought in the public domain while never forgetting the profound power disparity between different individuals or groups. Bolt has the right to express his odious views, but I have an equal responsibility to challenge them vigorously.
In the meantime, if Tony Abbott’s government was serious about strengthen Australia’s democracy, it would improve FOI laws, release basic information about asylum seekers, and reform onerous defamation laws that protect the rich and powerful.
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.
I was interviewed this week by ABC Radio Perth’s Afternoon presenter Russell Woolf about my book Profits of Doom, Israel/Palestine and ethics: