Boycott Movement under Attack in Australia
TMS PEACE JOURNALISM, 18 Nov 2013
The right of academics in Australia to join the boycott of Israel is under threat from Shurat HaDin, an Israeli law centre that has filed suit against me in the Federal Court, under anti-discrimination laws. The ‘Originating application starting a representative proceeding’ accuses me of ‘acts which involve distinction, exclusion, restriction and preference based on the Israeli national and ethnic origin’ and ‘based on the Jewish race’ of ‘goods, services, persons and organisations’.
The court paper is notable, however, for its sparsity in the use of specifics, about what I actually have said and done. I chaired a public meeting at the University of Sydney in 2009, in response to ‘Operation Cast Lead’, the attack on Gaza months earlier. At that time, Julia Gillard, then Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister, was standing in for her boss, Kevin Rudd, who was on holiday in the period over Christmas. She characterised the attack as no more than ‘Israel exercising its right to defend itself’, and weeks later led a high-level political and business deputation to Tel Aviv.
Australian diplomacy was positioning itself on the extreme pro-Israeli fringe of world political opinion. In November 2010, by which time Gillard had toppled Rudd and taken his job, Australia was one of just seven countries to oppose a motion at the UN General Assembly, condemning ethnic cleansing in Jerusalem. So, the public meeting at the University was dominated by discussion about what we, the public, could do, to compensate for the dangerous posturing coming out of Canberra.
We agreed to make a start in our own backyard, by opposing the University’s own indirect complicity with Israeli militarism and lawlessness, through institutional agreements with Technion University, Haifa, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Both have extensive connections with the illegal military occupation of Palestinian territory, and both are linked with Sydney through bilateral exchange schemes, which provide funding for academics to come to Australia (and Sydney academics to visit Israel). In furtherance of an informal mandate from the meeting, therefore, I wrote to the Vice Chancellor, Dr Michael Spence, asking him to revoke these arrangements. The letter said:
‘The campaign for an academic boycott of Israel is focused on preventing formal contacts and arrangements between institutions, not individuals. For example, as Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, I recently arranged a talk in University premises by Professor Jeff Halper of the Israel Campaign Against House Demolitions, and there is no suggestion that such visits arranged between individual academics should cease.
The meeting noted the arrangement advertised in an email circular from the University’s Research Office, as below:
Reminder: Sir Zelman Cowen Universities Fund Fellowships
The University of Sydney and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have established an agreement to encourage mutual visits by academic staff. For more information about the Fellowships and application details, please contact: Sue Freedman-Levy, Administrative Officer, Sir Zelman Cowen Universities Fund, telephone (02) 9351 6558 or via the email address below. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Closing date: 10 April 2009.
This does cross the line from individual contacts to an arrangement between institutions, being part of a formal Program of Academic and Student Exchange between the University of Sydney and the Hebrew University, “re-ratified in 2001” according to the Sir Zelman Cowen Fund’s web page. We are therefore writing to ask you to cancel this agreement forthwith’.
From the outset, therefore, I have made it clear, in keeping with the original PACBI call for an academic and cultural boycott, that it is institutional links that should be boycotted. The Vice Chancellor wrote back, rejecting my request, which was backed by the governing Council of the University’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, as well as numerous colleagues who’d attended the meeting. Other sporadic actions followed over subsequent years, including our objection to an ‘Israel research day’ at the University, a clearly fraudulent exercise aimed at sanitising Israel’s image abroad.
This campaign attracted relatively little attention in the wider public sphere, however, until I myself received a request, from a Professor Dan Avnon of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, for permission to use my name on his application form for a Sir Zelman Cowen Fellowship to come to Sydney. This, I refused, writing:
‘Neither I nor the Centre have anything against you – and your research sounds interesting and worthwhile. However, we are supporters of the campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, and that includes the call for an academic boycott of Israeli universities…
Our Centre’s policy is not the policy of the University… but it does foreclose our entering into any such arrangements as you propose’.
Ten days later, this exchange was the subject of a front-page story in Rupert Murdoch’s Australian newspaper, by a reporter named Christian Kerr. The paper was by now (December 2012) openly agitating for a change of government, to bring the right-of-centre Liberal/National Coalition to power in the election scheduled for the following year.
The parties contesting office in Australia are divided by very small differences on substantive questions, so they tend to concentrate on ‘wedge issues’ – to split off segments of their opponents’ support. The Coalition had, apparently, identified the very small, tentative steps the Labor administration had taken, to inch back towards the mainstream of world opinion on the Israel-Palestine conflict, as one such issue, and set out to complete a wedge manoeuvre by means of another technique familiar from Australian election campaigns, namely ‘dog-whistling’. This took the form of a set of signals, sent out in this instance by shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, which ring loud in the ears of one set of voters – Australia’s pro-Israel groups – but are of negligible salience, and therefore politically inaudible, to anyone else.
As the Australian continued to pursue the boycott story, Bishop gave Kerr a quote threatening a ‘whole-of-government policy’ to withhold access to public funds for my research (even on unrelated topics), to punish me for my stance. And as the screw was turning in the political arena, it was being given a further twist in the legal domain. In September, Bishop and colleagues were sworn in to their new ministerial roles, having ousted Gillard Labor at the ballot box. And in October, came the Federal Court action by Shurat HaDin.
The Israeli law centre has admitted links with the Israeli National Security Council and the Mossad. In this case, it is acting through a local solicitor, Andrew Hamilton, who told an interviewer from ABC Television that Professor Avnon ‘was boycotted purely because he was Israeli and Jewish’. In fact, under our policy as I have explained it here, it would have made no difference if Professor Avnon had been a Hindu from Halifax. I reserve my right not to participate, on principle, in the funded fellowship schemes that link the University of Sydney with the two Israeli universities, whatever the national origin or religious identity of individual applicants.
The first date in the court case is set for November 27th, and legal representation is being arranged. We have a campaign team in place, who got over 2,000 people to sign an online petition, signalling their willingness to be ‘co-defendants’ with me in the case (see here: http://www.change.org/petitions/defend-free-speech-and-human-rights-and-support-the-bds).
Meanwhile, Bishop’s threat to use the coercive power of the state, by withholding research funding, may have already taken effect. Earlier this year, colleagues at my Centre secured funding under AusAID’s Australian Development Research Awards Scheme, to investigate violence against women in sub-Saharan Africa. A Freedom of Information application brought to light emails including one from the agency’s Rebecca Bryant saying:
‘The question now is whether we proceed to approve a grant of $580,000 to the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies… possibly compounding the existing media focus on this issue [BDS]. A broader question is whether we have any grounds to deny them a grant given they are not a proscribed organisation’.
Ultimately the grant was given, but not before the prestigious lead role had to be ceded to another department.
As the Centre’s Director, I wrote shortly afterwards to AusAID’s Director General, Peter Baxter, seeking assurances ‘that you and AusAID acknowledge support for an academic boycott of Israel to be a matter of conscience for individual academics and of intellectual freedom, and that AusAID does not and will not take this into account when deciding whether to approve research project proposals or disburse funds under competitive grant schemes such as ADRAS’. There has been no reply.
We are gearing up for a vigorous contest in court, and keeping up the pressure to push back political interference with decisions on research funding. A legal victory will present a great opportunity to spread the boycott campaign among Australian academics. My hunch is that there is a large potential constituency, silenced up to now by fear. Our job is to dispel that fear.
Jake Lynch is Associate Professor of Peace Journalism and Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney, Australia. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment, and the chief advisor for TRANSCEND Media Service-TMS. He is the co-author, with Annabel McGoldrick, of Peace Journalism (Hawthorn Press, 2005), and his new book, Debates in Peace Journalism, has just been published by Sydney University Press and TUP – TRANSCEND University Press. He also co-authored with Johan Galtung and Annabel McGoldrick ‘Reporting Conflict-An Introduction to Peace Journalism.’
A version of this article first appeared in the newsletter of BRICUP, the British Campaign for the Universities of Palestine http://www.bricup.org.uk/index.html#nletter.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 18 Nov 2013.
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