Israeli Law Centre Sues To Outlaw Boycotts


After months of speculation, emails, and a visit to the Australian Human Rights Commission, the self-described “Israeli legal centre” Shurat HaDin has made good on its threat to pursue legal action against the controversial Boycotts, Sanctions, and Divestments (BDS) movement in the Federal Court.

The organisation this week filed a case against University of Sydney academic Jake Lynch, accusing the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies director of breaching Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act by supporting the global BDS movement, which aims to pressure Israel into ending its occupation of the Palestinian territories, returning to 1967 borders, and allowing the return of the Palestinian diaspora.

In their application to the Federal Court, Shurat HaDin claim that Lynch’s participation in the BDS project puts him in breach of Australian law by impinging upon the rights of Israeli and Jewish Australians to education, freedom of association, freedom of expression, and work. In documents filed to the Federal Court, Shurat HaDin draw particular attention to four parts of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, which define and outlaw racial discrimination, the refusal to supply goods and services on that basis, and the promotion of advertising material or acts that incite others to violate the act and its sections.

Although Shurat HaDin is targeting Lynch, the organisation appears to be gunning for a much bigger victory. Among the “other relief” the applicants are claiming is the following: “[A declaration] that participation in and promotion of the BDS movement is unlawful.”

Shurat HaDin’s legal representative Andrew Hamilton confirmed that, should his client’s case prove successful, BDS advocates would face potentially insurmountable legal barriers.

“If the Court were to grant the full extent of our requested orders BDS would effectively become outlawed in Australia,” Hamilton wrote in an email to New Matilda.

The announcement of court proceedings has drawn outrage from pro-BDS groups. In a press conference held yesterday in Sydney’s Queen’s Square, University of Sydney academic Stuart Rees said Shurat HaDin was endangering free speech in Australia and conflating critiques of Israeli policy with anti-semitism. Rees, who chairs the Sydney Peace Foundation, rejected accusations that supporters of BDS take an unfairly tough line on Israel and said he and Lynch also worked hard to draw attention to human rights abuses in places like Sri Lanka, West Papua, Cambodia, and Saudi Arabia.

“This notion that because we are also focused on the human rights of people in Israel and in Palestine — that we therefore don’t pay any attention to anything else — is a typical deflection technique,” he said.

Along with Lynch, Rees has collected 2000 signatures from people willing to act as co-defendants, not least of whom is Booker prize winning author Arundhati Roy. 

Though Lynch remains on research leave, the small crowd was also addressed by University of New South Wales Associate Professor Peter Slezak. The son of Romanian holocaust survivors, Slezak said he was keenly aware of the dangers of anti-Semitism, but that the BDS movement should not be understood through the lens of racial discrimination.

“It is clearly not about anti-Semitism to criticise violations of international law. Israel is a state like any other state,” Slezak said.

Rees described Shurat HaDin as an aggressive foreign organisation during his press conference, and said they were using the Australian legal system to silence anti-Israeli dissent.

Shurat HaDin has historically prosecuted banks and even nations — including Iran and Syria — for funding terrorist organisations. A 2007 Wikileaks cable indicated that the organisation has worked in the past with the Israeli government and its intelligence agency Mossad to help prosecute these cases. The group later pursued a civil case against Mossad, which it accused of failing to adequately protect Israelis charged with spying by Iran.

The case comes after Lynch declined a request by Hebrew University Professor Dan Avnon to provide assistance in securing a University of Sydney Fellowship in late 2012, citing his support of BDS. Lynch has since played down the significance of his decision, and argued that his actions equated simply to refusing a favour which could be fulfilled by any other of the thousands of University of Sydney academics.

He and Rees have also defended the decision by accusing Hebrew University of maintaining links with the Israeli military. Its Jerusalem campus also sits on the eastern side of the ancient city, in occupied territory.

On the ABC’s 7.30 program last night Hamilton went head to head with Rees, sparring over whether Lynch’s actions could be considered racist.

Australia’s peak representative Jewish organisation, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ), has distanced itself from the legal centre’s court action, issuing a press release by Executive Director Peter Wertheim: 

“The ECAJ believes that the most appropriate and effective way to combat the boycott campaign is to expose its deceptive and sometimes racist rhetoric, methods and aims to public scrutiny. In our view, attempts to suppress the campaign through litigation are inappropriate and likely to be counter-productive,” 

At the Queen’s Square press conference, which was attended by a dozen middle aged activists and monitored by a reporter from The Australian and two discreet members of the ECAJ, Professor Slezak recited a statement prepared by Jake Lynch. “I am confident we will successfully fight off this despicable attack on freedom of expression, which is backed ultimately by the Israeli security state,” the statement read. Lynch’s first chance to do so will be 27 November, when the case has its first day in the Australian Federal Court.

Max Chalmers is a former New Matilda journalist and editorial staff member. His main areas of interest are asylum seekers, higher education and politics.