Defending The Right To Dissent


It may sound preposterous, but freedom of public debate and the voicing of dissent in Australia is being threatened by a law firm in another country.

In mid-June, an Israeli law centre Shurat HaDin told my colleague Jake Lynch and I that if we did not desist from our support of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement in support of Palestinian human rights, they would take legal action against us. 

We replied saying that we’d welcome a forum in which to air such issues. We insisted that we supported BDS “for the purpose of pressuring Israel to abide by international law and cease its illegal occupation of the Occupied Territories”.

At the end of July, Shurat HaDin, represented in Sydney by Andrew Hamilton, filed a class action racist complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission over Professor Lynch’s support for BDS. Such support, they say, is racist and anti-Semitic.

Australians for BDS have responded to the threats and to the complaint to the Human Rights Commission by inviting supporters of BDS to become co-defendants in any future legal action. This initiative is taken on the grounds that the Shurat HaDin complaint raises political issues as much as legal ones. Instead of being served derision of BDS as extremist and anti-Semitic, the public needs to be far better informed as to that world wide movement’s purpose and achievements.   

In 2005 over 170 Palestinian civil society groups conceived the BDS campaign because of decades of failure by governments to hold Israel accountable for the occupation of Palestinian lands and for related human rights abuses.   

In accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, the campaign is based on Palestinian rights to self determination and on the obligation of the international community to respect those rights. Far from being illegal, the BDS movement seeks adherence to international law and uses non-violent means for doing so. It is supported by churches, NGOs, trade unions, by students and staff on campuses across the world and by significant artists and academics, including most recently Professor Stephen Hawking. 

Jewish Voice for Peace in the United States explains, “We assert that the tactics of boycott divestment and sanctions are a viable, democratic and non violent response to the horrific policies used by the State of Israel against Palestinians”.

In July the European Union repeated its position that Israeli settlements are illegal under international law. Its published guidelines distinguish between the State of Israel and the occupied territories. In the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, journalist Gideon Levy takes a more radical position:

“The distinction between products from the occupation and Israeli products is an artificial creation. It’s not the settlers who are the primary culprits but rather those who cultivate their existence…. There is no one unaffected by the occupation, including those who fancy looking the other way and steering clear of it. We are all settlers.”

BDS policies make it clear that it is a non violent human rights based movement and opposed to racism in all forms, including anti-Semitism. But as part of a concerted campaign to deflect attention from Israeli cruelty towards Palestinians, complaints of racism and anti-Semitism are thrown against almost anyone who is critical of the Israeli policies. In a succession of court cases, however, these claims have been rejected.  

In March 2012 in a court in Edinburgh, the Sheriff dismissed allegations of racism  against BDS activists. He said that the prosecution case was “rather strained”, an understated way of saying utterly without foundation. On 9 April 2012, the London Times reported that the charges were “thrown out of court in a landmark case”. 

In Washington State USA, in February 2012, a lawsuit brought against the Olympia WA Food Coop for boycotting Israeli products was dismissed and the defendants – supporters of BDS – awarded attorneys’ fees, cost and sanctions.

In March 2013, in a London Employment Tribunal, all 10 charges of institutional anti-Semitism brought by an academic against the British Universities and Colleges Union were dismissed and judged “an impermissible attempt to achieve a political end by litigious means”.  The case was said to show “a worrying disregard for pluralism, tolerance and freedom of expression”.

The complaint lodged against Jake Lynch is also a politically motivated attempt to intimidate, to stifle  criticism and to impede his totally legal, non-violent, socially just stand.    

Shurat HaDin and Hamilton seem to think that derision heaped on derision amounts to proof that what they say – “racist”, “anti-Semite” – must be true. If BDS supporters even appeared to lump together a particular group to imply that they were odious, as in the Israeli law firm’s reference to “Lynch and his ilk”, they might be vulnerable to the very charges Hamilton has in mind. 

Totally absorbed with the belief that BDS supporters must be anti-Semitic, there’s no limit to the sleights of hand which the accusers use.  Guilt shows by association. No further proof needed. Who cares about truth?

To prove something by defining themselves as worthy and by stigmatising opponents as unworthy, Shurat HaDin declare that their work is modeled on an Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Centre which has successfully confronted racist groups such as the Klu Klux Klan. They also drop the name of Holocaust denier Fredrick Tobin. He and many noxious groups may well support BDS but that does not undermine the campaign nor does it give any substance to attacks against Jake.

Other critics of BDS use the same tactics. An editorial in The Australian claimed that the Greens’ support for BDS, showed “a preference for the company of numbats and conspiracists in the dark and dangerous fringelands”. Who writes this stuff?

If an objective is to bully people into submission, any adjective or accusation can be used. The bully in the playground, boardroom or on the streets uses the same tactics. 

What must be emphasised and understood is that the use of such tactics undermines the very basis of our democracy. Rational public debate, the presentation of different and dissenting opinions and the necessity to justify policy positions using verifiable and available facts, are important to us all. The personal denigration and defamation of supporters of BDS sets a precedent which, if allowed to succeed, can smother any dissenting opinion or individual person.

New Matilda

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