Is It Anti-Semitic To Protest Injustice?


After a recent public speech, I received an email from someone I don’t know named Bloom, who said that I should have perished in the Holocaust with the rest of my family.

Ironically, the insult was prompted by my support of an academic colleague, Professor Jake Lynch, who has been charged in Federal Court with racial discrimination against Jews, but who is, in fact, a distinguished defender of human rights, justice and international law. Acting in accordance with the growing movement for institutional Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), Lynch chose not to collaborate with an Israeli academic from a university deeply complicit in the brutal 46-year occupation of Palestine.

Non-Jewish critics of Israel are accused of anti-semitism for supporting causes such as BDS, while Jewish critics regularly receive vile denunciations and even death threats from other Jews. Most common is the label "self-hating Jew" – a pseudo psychological diagnosis of a mental disorder for which the only criterion is criticism of Israel.

Support for the BDS movement is not anti-semitic. Even its critics must acknowledge that BDS is based on the call from Palestinian civil society to protest Israel’s serious violations of human rights and international law.

Palestinians have long been condemned for violent resistance to the Israeli occupation, so the emergence of peaceful protest through BDS should be welcomed. Instead, it is denounced and slandered as racist. But BDS is a rights-based movement which is against racism in all forms, notably and explicitly against anti-semitism.

Despite their own rhetoric, most Jews understand that BDS is a political and moral challenge to Israel and its supporters and not a form of anti-semitism. While it is often characterised as "deligitimising" Israel (whatever that means), it is actually deligitimising violations of human rights and international law by Israel: the 600,000 settlers on the West Bank are all in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

The separation wall cuts off about 10 per cent of the West Bank and has been declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004. Sixty per cent of the West Bank designated Area C is under full Israeli control where Palestinians in villages such as Susiya are evicted from their tents, and their water cisterns and solar panels are destroyed. There have been 28,000 homes of innocent people demolished since 1967. None of this can be explained on the grounds of security or the defence of Israel.

The West Bank is criss-crossed by Israeli-only roads and hundreds of check points. Unarmed protesters are regularly shot in their own villages such as Bil'in, Nil'in and Nabi Saleh. Then there is the tragedy of Gaza, in which 1.5 million people suffer the collective punishment of an ongoing siege and the effects of large-scale military assault. Since their expulsion in 1948, Palestinian refugees are denied their Right of Return in international law, while Jews assert their own spurious “Law of Return” which entitles an Australian or American with no connection to the land to dispossess a Palestinian. This is what BDS is about.

It is often suggested that BDS is somehow depriving Israelis of their rights and freedoms. This attempt to reverse the moral criticism is completely ill-conceived. BDS does not prevent anyone from doing anything, but rather asks people to exercise their discretion in where they invest their money and with whom they choose to collaborate.

Plainly, the issue is not racial discrimination. The legal action against Lynch is being pursued by an Israeli group Shurat HaDin, directed by the Israeli government and Mossad. This fits the definition of foreign interference in Australian political affairs according to the ASIO Act of 1979. Such "lawfare" is being pursued around the world to harass peace activists and to inhibit the growing, non-violent protest movement modelled on sanctions against South African apartheid.

The legal case on behalf of a foreign state serves only to bring into relief the logical absurdity and cynicism of the slur of anti-semitism against critics of Israel. Criticising government policies of Italy is not anti-Catholic. It is a cynical tactic to insist that Israel is a Jewish state acting on behalf of all Jews and also to complain that criticism of the state is anti-semitic.

In the wake of the Holocaust, exploiting a widespread sensitivity to this charge in order to stifle political criticism is deplorable. It is also counter-productive. Pleading victimhood has become somewhat difficult when Israel is fourth most powerful military regime in the world, armed, funded and supported by the world’s only superpower.

Moreover, to label critics of Israel as anti-semitic is to dishonour the memory of Holocaust victims by cheapening the term to include decent people who stand for universal human rights and justice. The vile abuse of critics of Israel is less surprising when it gets tacit licence from community and political leaders.

Recently, prominent figures in the Jewish community have said publicly that BDS is a gift to them as a weapon with which to beat critics of Israel. Thus, in a twisted irony the campaign for Palestinian justice and human rights has been compared with the 1930s Nazi program "Kauft nicht bei Juden" – “Don’t buy from Jews”. Peace activists are slandered with this obscene comparison despite the fact that BDS is directed against many non-Jewish, non-Israeli companies such as Veolia, 4GS and Caterpillar who are profiting from the illegal occupation of Palestinian land.

Furthermore, the over-reaction to BDS against Israel is hypocritical on the part of its detractors. BDS is a familiar tactic of peaceful protest widely approved even by Israel in relation to other states such as Iraq or Iran. The issue facing us is not BDS but the question of what kind of society we wish to have.

The litmus test of an enlightened society that upholds the principles of free speech and peaceful protest is whether we permit dissent for the views we detest. It takes no decency to defend the views we share. Even Stalin would uphold free speech for views he agreed with. Accordingly, even critics of BDS should defend Lynch against the charges by Shurat HaDin.

In his classic work "On Liberty" of 1859, John Stuart Mill argued we must protect freedom of expression particularly for views that are contrary to the moral, religious and patriotic sentiments of our time. No matter how pernicious they are deemed and no matter how persuaded one might be of “the immorality and impiety of an opinion,” it is in just such cases that censorship is most fatal for “these are exactly the occasions on which the men of one generation commit those dreadful mistakes, which excite the astonishment and horror of posterity.”

Relevant to the lawsuit against Lynch, Mill notes it is among such cases “that we find the instances memorable in history, when the arm of the law has been employed to root out the best men and the noblest doctrines.”

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.