Anti-Israeli BDS campaign facing court test
- EAN HIGGINS
- THE AUSTRALIAN
- OCTOBER 31, 2013
Professor Stuart Rees of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, and professor of philosophy at the University of NSW Peter Slezak. Picture: Sam Mooy Source: TheAustralian
THE emotive controversy over whether the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel is racist and discriminatory will be tested in the Federal Court after an Israeli organisation launched a landmark legal suit.
Shurat HaDin, an Israeli law centre, has filed papers with the court against Jake Lynch, the director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at Sydney University, over his support for BDS.
The move follows the failure of the Australian Human Rights Commission, where Shurat HaDin initially filed a complaint against Professor Lynch, to conciliate on the matter.
Shurat HaDin alleges Professor Lynch’s support for the international BDS movement, which promotes the rights of Palestinians and claims Israel is engaged in illegal and immoral actions against them, violates the Racial Discrimination Act.
The court action will focus in part on his controversial refusal to sponsor an Israeli academic from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Dan Avnon, who developed a curriculum for Arab and Jewish students.
Professor Avnon was seeking Professor Lynch’s nomination for a Sir Zelman Cowan fellowship to study curriculums in Australia.
Professor Lynch turned him down, citing his centre’s pro-BDS policy and claims the Hebrew University had links to the Israeli military and the ongoing occupation of the West Bank.
The case will involve not just a critical test of Australia’s anti-discrimination laws, but also a major public debate about freedom of speech and academic freedom, with the Israeli organisation and Professor Lynch’s camp accusing each other of violating such principles.
The issue has split the Australian Jewish community, with some prominent academics supporting the BDS campaign, and others opposing BDS but insisting that Professor Lynch and others have every right to express their views in a democracy.
In a statement last night Peter Wertheim, executive director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, again attacked the BDS campaign, but disowned Shurat HaDin’s legal action.
“In our view, attempts to suppress the campaign through litigation are inappropriate and likely to be counter-productive,” Mr Wertheim said. “It is for this reason that the ECAJ has had no involvement in the action brought by Shurat HaDin and will continue to fight the boycott campaign through public discourse.”
Shurat HaDin’s case will argue that Professor Lynch’s support for BDS amounts to racial discrimination against Israelis and Jews, in breach of the Racial Discrimination Act and international conventions including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In the application filed with the court, Shurat HaDin claims that Professor Lynch’s “inherent purpose in participating and publicly supporting the BDS movement is to do acts involving adverse distinction, exclusion, restriction and adverse preference based on the Jewish race, descent, national and ethnic origin of goods, services, persons and organisations”.
The application claims Professor Lynch engaged in these alleged actions for “the purpose of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of the human rights and/or fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural fields of those persons and organisations against whom the BDSM campaigns are directed”.
Shurat HaDin is not seeking financial restitution from Professor Lynch, but court orders requiring him to apologise for his BDS campaign and desist from it.
Professor Lynch rejected Shurat Hadin’s claims, and said he would vigorously fight the court action. “The campaign for an academic boycott, of institutional links with Israeli universities, is a non-violent campaign for peace with justice in respect of militarism and lawlessness,” Professor Lynch, who is in Britain, told The Australian.
“I am confident we will prove, in court if necessary, that it does not amount to any form of discrimination or racism.”
In a statement read out at a press conference and protest in Sydney in his support, Professor Lynch described the Shurat HaDin action as “a despicable attack on freedom of expression, which is backed ultimately by the Israeli security state”.
The Australian lawyer handling the case for Shurat HaDin, Andrew Hamilton, denied claims from Professor Lynch and his supporters that the group, which he said was privately funded and fought international terrorism through the law, was acting for the Israeli government.
He conceded that, as revealed by leaked US cables, Shurat HaDin had received tip-offs from Mossad, but said this was part of the normal practice of lawyers seeking information and evidence to bolster their cases.
“It is Jake Lynch and the BDS movement who are infringing academic freedom by boycotting other academics and calling for the boycott of other academic institutions,” Mr Hamilton said.
Hebrew University confirmed it ran two programs that were attended by serving and future Israeli soldiers. But spokeswoman Ofra Ash told The Australian these were also attended by students who were not connected to the military.
Another spokesman, Amir Barkol, denied the campus had expanded on to occupied land. “I can tell you 100 per cent the campus is all on Israeli territory,” he said.
Asked about the claim the university had extensive connections with Israeli weapons manufacturing companies, Mr Barkol said: “I don’t know anything about that. Which companies?”
On a visit to Australia, Israeli Science Minister Yaakov Peri, former head of Israel’s internal security agency Shin Bet, said yesterday there was a risk that political boycotts of Israel could encourage anti-Semitism more broadly. “Such boycotts . . . are dangerous, because there are some, I hope not too many, but some groups or individuals that can encourage them to play on that ground.”
Mr Peri said academics were entitled to oppose Israel politically but warned boycotts could attract those who might have other motives. “To declare a boycott on a country or a boycott on a country’s education, it’s a precedent that can encourage . . . those who are waiting for such an occasion to build.”
Additional reporting: David King, John Lyons