In early June 2013, Associate Professor Jake Lynch and I, both from Sydney University, received a five page letter from an Israeli law centre, Shurat HaDin. The letter’s author, Sydney solicitor Andrew Hamilton, alleged that by supporting the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement to promote Palestinian rights to self determination, Lynch and I were racist, anti-semitic and acting contrary to the Federal Racial Discrimination Act of 1975.
The final paragraph of Hamilton’s letter said that if we did not agree within 14 days that we would cease our support for the BDS movement, legal action could be brought against us. At the end of June, Lynch and I rejected all the claims in the Hamilton letter and said we would welcome a forum in which to air the issues.
On 1 August the Israeli law centre sent an official complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission, albeit this time only naming Lynch. The complaint alleged that Lynch’s actions in support of the BDS movement constituted unlawful behaviour under the Racial Discrimination Act. The matter could not be resolved by conciliation, and Hamilton was informed that the complaint was terminated and that if Shurat HaDin wanted to pursue the matter in the Federal Court, they would have 60 days to do so.
What provoked Shurat HaDin was Lynch’s rejection of a request from a Professor Don Avnon from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Avnon wanted to name Lynch on an application for a Sir Zelman Cowan fellowship to visit the University of Sydney. This funded fellowship is not an open scheme — it is only available to academics from one Israeli university. By rejecting the request, Lynch was not in a position to exclude Avnon, who had approached several other Sydney academics and – by his own account – obtained enough invitations to satisfy the scheme’s criteria and make his visit.
Lynch replied to Avnon that his research sounded interesting and worthwhile, but his refusal to support the Israeli academic’s request was consistent with BDS opposition to institutions which support illegal and oppressive policies towards Palestinians. Avnon’s employer, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, had expanded its Mt. Scopus campus onto illegally occupied and confiscated land.
The same university supports students who served in the 2008/09 Gaza invasion. Through the Israeli Command and Staff College, which trains officers, it promotes military occupation of Palestinian land and has extensive connections with Israeli weapons manufacturing companies.
Shurat HaDin, which takes direction from the Israeli Government, and similar law firms in other parts of the world, uses litigation to bully supporters of the BDS movement. It encourages politicians and journalists to stifle support for the major moral, political and international law issue: the Palestinian people’s rights to self determination as identified in the UN Charter and in UN resolutions.
In Australia the supporters of BDS are frequently derided by journalists from The Australian newspaper and from Jewish News who ignore the principles on which the BDS movement is based: respect for human rights, for international law and for nonviolence. Instead the movement is demonised as racist, anti-semitic, hindering the peace process and aiming to abolish the state of Israel.
In fact, the Centre for Peace & Conflict Studies at Sydney University has no truck with anti-semitism or racism. Over the years it has invited many Israeli and other Jewish thinkers to speak at meetings it has organised.
The threats by a law firm in another country to prosecute citizens in Australia indicate the significance of the efforts to portray Israel as besieged by the Palestinians, who are always perpetrators of anti-semitism and terrorism.
Australians for BDS recognised that the threats of prosecution by Shurat HaDin raised political questions, not just legal ones. Legal action initiated in one country to charge citizens in another stifles free speech, and runs roughshod over civil liberties. It also fortuitously provides a chance to explain the real nature of the BDS movement.
To seek support for Lynch and I and to educate about the movement, Australians for BDS wrote a pledge which invited individuals from around the world to be named as co-defendants if the proposed legal action by the Israel Law Centre materialised.
Within two months over 2000 courageous citizens from 58 countries signed the pledge. Most were academics, NGO staff, actors, teachers and researchers from Australia, the UK, USA, Canada, France and Belgium.
Smaller numbers came from South American countries, from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela. There was support from Scandinavia too — Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland — and from academics in Israel, Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Well known signatories to this international pledge included Indian novelist Arundhati Roy, British screen actress Miriam Margolyes, the Australian author Randa Abdel Fattah and the Israeli scholar and activist Professor Jeff Halper. Distinguished academics from the USA, from Canada, the UK, Israel and Lebanon not only signed the pledge but also expressed their feelings that such a campaign to resist and educate was long overdue. Several scholars of Judaism argued that BDS is a viable non-violent response to the horrific policies used by the state of Israel against Palestinians and could save Israel from itself.
This pledge by 2000 co-defendants implies enough is enough: no more bullying by an Israeli law centre; no more derision and unsubstantiated claims by representatives of News Ltd; and an end to the cowardice of politicians too scared to deviate from the USA/Israel dictated opposition to Palestinians’ rights to self determination.
The 2000 co-defendants share a commitment to the principles of international law and to a movement inspired by the language and practice of non-violence. They also support academic freedom, provided, in Professor Judith Butler’s words, such freedom works "in concert with the opposition to state violence, ideological surveillance, and the systematic devastation of everyday life."
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