Who’s afraid of BDS? Israel’s assault on academic freedom
Randa Abdel-Fattah ABC Religion and Ethics 31 Oct 2013
Australians who care about academic freedom and freedom of speech should be very concerned by Israeli efforts to undermine values that remain fundamental to our democracy, and to demonise supporters of Palestinians and human rights.
I am one of 2000 Australian and international human rights advocates from some 60 countries who signed a pledge supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and offering to be a co-defendant in any legal action taken against Professor Jake Lynch from the University of Sydney’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies. On Tuesday, Shurat HaDin, an Israeli based law centre, filed a case in the Federal Court of Australia against Professor Lynch, claiming he has supported policies which are racist and discriminatory by his specific endorsement of an academic boycott of Israeli institutions and individuals representing them. Jake Lynch has refused collaboration with Hebrew University because of its support of the illegal occupation of Palestine and close connections with the Israeli armament industry.
There is nothing racist or anti-Semitic about BDS. Efforts to intimidate and defame its supporters are based on a concerted campaign of lies, bullying and deliberate distortions – a campaign directed from outside Australia. United States government cables leaked by Wikileaks show that Shurat HaDin takes direction from the Israeli government over which cases to pursue and relies on Israeli intelligence contacts for witnesses and evidence. While the case against Professor Lynch is to be adjudicated in an Australian court, this is clearly an external political attack on Australian democratic principles and freedoms. By attacking an Australian academic’s right to free speech, to dissent and to support a political and human rights cause of his choice, Israel is exporting its brand of oppression into Australia. For Israel is no stranger to dismantling democratic principles and fundamental human rights in its effort to stifle criticism of its racist policies.
In March 2011, the Israeli Knesset passed a law authorising the Finance Minister to reduce state funding or support to an institution if it engages in an “activity that is contrary to the principles of the state.” Relevantly, the activities include “rejecting the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” and “commemorating Independence Day or the day of the establishment of the state as a day of mourning.” Whether it is invoking the slur of anti-Semitism against anybody who dares to call Israel to account for its illegal occupation and apartheid practices, or accusing Jewish activists who support justice for Palestinians as “self-hating Jews,” or punishing Palestinians and Israelis alike for commemorating the day they lost their land (the Nakba), Israel is a state that does not suffer criticism of its policies. It is a state that considers itself to be above scrutiny and which enjoys the right to act with impunity, given the tacit, sometimes explicit, approval of Western nations who are all too ready to condone its lawlessness and militarism.
So why is Israel so scared of BDS? After all, it is a military juggernaut and covertly nuclear state. Economically and militarily, the Palestinians do not stand a chance.
The occupation and apartheid machinery have, no doubt, accelerated. But the moral force that used to drive that process is eroding – and this is what Israel is scared about: delegitimation. Israel is rightly worried about the largely symbolic victories to be gained from BDS and the potential for this, over the long term, to erode Western support for Israel’s intransigence and thereby to further isolate it from the family of democratic nations. From Lebanon in 2006, to Operation Cast Lead, to the Gaza Flotilla, to the siege on Gaza, to the bombing of Gaza in 2012, Israel has lost much of its credibility in the eyes of the international community. There is an undeniable shift in the balance of moral power.
Palestinians, by contrast, now occupy the moral high ground and, with the launch of BDS in 2005, they and their supporters have signalled that they will no longer trust in tired political games and a farcical “peace process,” investing instead in a strategy that highlights their moral power, and trusting that justice will be delivered through the collective effort of global civil society.
It is precisely because of the power and effectiveness of BDS that Israel is worried and is willing to go to such lengths as to wage a kind of lawfare on an Australian academic who dared to refuse to host a visiting academic from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The predictable “anti-Semite” and “racist” slurs have been invoked in an attempt to make this an issue about so-called Israeli victimhood, ignoring what BDS is all about and pretending that it has somehow emerged out of thin air – and not because of over 60 years of oppression, brutality and apartheid.
The sheer ludicrousness of accusing supporters of BDS of racism is thrown into sharp relief when one considers that, in 1980, the United Nations passed a resolution urging “all academic and cultural institutions to terminate all links with South Africa.” BDS takes inspiration from the boycotts and divestment initiatives applied to pressure South Africa to end apartheid. It was not racism for international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to support non-violent punitive measures and impose boycotts, including academic boycotts, on South Africa to end apartheid. And it is not racism for a similar model to be applied against Israel for its apartheid practices and continued violations of international law.
Indeed, there is something altogether ironic about an Israeli law centre playing the racism card. How can a state engaged in a racist, outmoded, ethno-religious colonial project founded on ethnic cleansing seriously claim that those who oppose its racism are racist? It is likely that, as the case against Professor Lynch progresses, the smears and distortions will escalate, but many Australians will see through the blatant tactics of intimidation and attacks on freedom of speech, recognising this lawsuit for what it is: a blatant attempt to stifle dissent and criticism of Israel under the pretence of racial discrimination.
Randa Abdel-Fattah is an award-winning author of eight novels. She practiced as a lawyer for ten years, and is now completing a PhD in the Department of Sociology at Macquarie University.