What Is Israel’s Shurat Hadin and Why Is It Suing a Sydney University Academic?

PALESTINE - ISRAEL, 7 Jul 2014

Michael Brull - Crikey

Shurat HaDin, a pro-Israel law centre, is taking legal action over an Australian academic’s support for the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement against Israel. Juris doctor student Michael Brull takes a look at the case.

Pro-Israel NGO Shurat HaDin has launched a lawsuit against University of Sydney academic Jake Lynch for his refusal to support a visiting fellowship for an Israeli professor on political grounds. The judge has thrown out much of Shurat HaDin’s case, but the organisation is about to go back to court with a narrower focus. We take a look at the background of the case.

What is Shurat HaDin’s agenda?

Shurat HaDin (in English, the Israeli Law Centre) is based in Israel and describes itself as a “world leader in combating the terrorist organizations and the regimes that support them through lawsuits litigated in courtrooms around the world”. If you visit its website, it describes its fight against “Palestinian and Islamic terrorist organisations in the courtroom”.

American diplomats, as revealed by a cable published by WikiLeaks, note that the lawyers of Shurat HaDin are “extremely aggressive” and “boast that they ‘will sue anybody”’. The cable notes further that “[w]hile the ILC’s mission dovetails with GOI objectives of putting financial pressure on Israel’s adversaries, the often uncompromising approach of ILC’s attorneys seems to overreach official GOI policy goals”.

The cable notes that Shurat HaDin “claims to work closely with Israeli intelligence in selecting cases and collecting evidence”. The founder of Shurat HaDin has admitted that “in many of her cases” she received evidence from Israeli government officials, and “in its early years” Shurat HaDin “took direction” from the government of Israel. She said in 2007 though her organisation “now decides its cases independently”, it “continues to receive evidence and witnesses from Israeli intelligence”.

What is the case against Associate Professor Jake Lynch?

Shurat HaDin is currently suing Sydney University Associate Professor Jake Lynch for his adherence to the boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Israel’s legislation in relation to boycotts came into effect on on July 13, 2011, and anyone who calls for a boycott can be subject to a civil lawsuit; that is, they can face economic, rather than criminal, sanctions.

Lynch supports the principles of the BDS campaign, which calls for an end to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories it occupied in 1967, a right of return for Palestinian refugees, and full equality for Palestinians in Israel. Because of this, Lynch refused to support an application from Israeli academic Professor Dan Avnon from the Hebrew University. Avnon was seeking a visiting fellowship at Sydney University.

Shurat HaDin filed a case against Lynch arguing that his actions breached the Racial Discrimination Act and the Human Rights Act. The original complaint argued that the entire BDS movement was anti-Semitic and should be found to be in breach of the RDA, with Shurat HaDin seeking an apology, which would have set a worrying precedent.

How is the case going so far?

Justice Alan Robertson, hearing the case in the Federal Court, has so far been unimpressed by the case against Lynch. Ean Higgins reported in The Australian of his complaint that the case “often lacked clear facts”. Much of Shurat HaDin’s case has been struck out, and the case has moved from Shurat HaDin’s attempt to have BDS banned to only the question whether or not Lynch’s actions in relation to Avnon were in breach of the RDA. Shurat HaDin have also been ordered to put up $100,000 in costs. In response to having its assertions struck out, Shurat HaDin has claimed its case has merely been “streamlined”.

After rejecting much of the complaint out of hand on April 24, Shurat HaDin was given another 28 days to file its new “streamlined” case. The case looks like it will be a disaster for the plaintiffs, and the general fight against BDS. A Ha’aretz article on the matter registers the attitude of Jewish leaders from embarrassment to outrage at Shurat HaDin’s behaviour. Colin Rubenstein of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council pointedly said he had not been consulted on the case and refused to comment. ECAJ’s Peter Wertheim said the case could be a “shot in the arm” for BDS.

He’s not entirely wrong. Since the launch of the legal action, the Sydney University Branch of the NTEU has come out in support of Professor’s Lynch’s right to support BDS. Jewish academic Peter Slezak has moved from ambivalence on BDS, to becoming one of its most vocal supporters. The NTEU is currently debating whether to debate supporting BDS. Whilst they will not debate BDS at this time, the vote was close, and this is clearly becoming an issue on the horizon for consideration. Furthermore, a group of Sydney University academics have formed in support of BDS.

Is there Israeli opposition to this law? 

‘There has been a wave of similar repressive legislation passed in recent years in Israel. However, Israeli progressives and human rights organisations have widely condemned the Israeli law against boycotts. A member of the centrist Zionist party Kadima, founded by Ariel Sharon, declared: ”You’re sending people to the gulag for their opinions.” New Israel Fund Australia board member Mandi Katz wrote in the Australian Jewish News of her opposition to using “the power of the state to silence dissenting political expression. This is indisputably undemocratic, as will be clear to anyone who values democracy, however strongly opposed they may be to boycotts as a means for political change.”

Even the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the peak communal representative body, distanced itself from Shurat HaDin’s case against Lynch, saying it had “no involvement” in Shurat HaDin’s action, and regarded attempts to suppress BDS through litigation as “inappropriate”. Instead, ECAJ wants to “fight the boycott campaign through public discourse”.

Does Shurat HaDin have other enemies?

Shurat HaDin has accused Oxfam of funding terrorists because Oxfam has given some funding to a couple of union committees in Gaza. Other highlights include Shurat HaDin suing Jimmy Carter and threatening to sue Twitter. When Stephen Hawking boycotted an Israeli conference, Shurat HaDin responded with characteristic respect for human dignity, saying: “His whole computer-based communications system runs on a chip designed by Israel’s Intel team. I suggest if he truly wants to pull out of Israel he should also pull out his Intel Core i7 from his tablet.”

Astonishingly, Shurat HaDin has also launched a sharp attack on Australian Jewish leaders, complaining that they hadn’t done anything to protest Lynch’s behaviour and even accusing them of refusing to “stand up for Jewish rights”.

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Michael Brull is studying a juris doctor at UNSW. He has written commentary for various outlets, including The Drum, Overland, Guardian, Independent Australian Jewish Voices and elsewhere.

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