This week in Australia’s Federal Court I am defending my right not to participate in institutional arrangements with Israeli higher education, in response to the call by Palestinian civil society for an academic and cultural boycott.
The application for a judgement against me under Australian anti-discrimination laws was made by an Israeli law centre, Shurat HaDin, which has links with Israel’s National Security Council and the Mossad.
I have support from thousands of activists worldwide, along with the governing council of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney, which I direct.
The strategic aim of the boycott is to end impunity for Israeli militarism and lawlessness. There are other countries that kill civilians in military action; occupy territory recognised as not their own; stockpile nuclear weapons without joining the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and systematically discriminate in breach of the UN Convention on the crime of apartheid. Only one country does all four.
The Palestinians pay the immediate price, but the damage goes much wider. When such an egregious offender suffers no consequences for these breaches, any attempt to uphold international rules is beset with claims of double standards.
Governments are reluctant to criticise Israel, let alone propose any action against it. The Abbott government has even sided with the extreme pro-Israeli fringe of world political opinion, in denying the illegality of the occupation – the equivalent of its denial of human-induced climate change.
Israel’s reflex recourse to violence becomes a cost-free option without diplomatic pressure. Alternative responses, such as bringing forward plans to dismantle illegal settlements on Palestinian land, seem risky and uncertain by comparison. Peace advocates stand no chance in political debate. To even things up, we have to take action in civil society, through the growing global movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).
Israeli universities are deeply complicit with the occupation. The governing board of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is chaired by Michael Federmann, who is also chairman of Elbit Systems, Israel’s biggest arms manufacturer. It accredits military training courses, and part of its Mount Scopus campus is built on land confiscated from its rightful Palestinian owners.
The Technion University, Haifa, also has extensive links with the military and the arms industry, and it houses the Samuel Neaman Institute, which produced a report on “public diplomacy” for Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This identifies “educational institutions” as “beneficial clients” for efforts to sanitise Israel’s image abroad.
Academic research is promoted as a way of distracting from the treatment of the Palestinians. Just as there was no non-political way to play sport with South Africa under white minority rule, so there is no non-political way to engage in institutional cooperation with Israeli universities. We can either decide to cooperate in exploitation, or take a stand.
The University of Sydney operates funded fellowship schemes that pay for academics from the Hebrew and Technion universities to spend time in Australia, and Sydney colleagues to go to them. When my centre adopted the boycott policy, I wrote to Vice Chancellor Michael Spence, asking for these schemes to be revoked.
A year ago, I was approached by Professor Dan Avnon of the Hebrew University, to ask my permission to use my name on his application form for one of these fellowships. I refused, referring to the boycott policy.
It is on this basis that I am now being taken to court. All five applicants for a judgement against me are from Israel – none are from Australia. It is a class action but Avnon himself has not joined it, and neither has any local pro-Israel group. The Executive Council for Australian Jewry, for example, issued a statement urging the issues to be debated in public instead.
The solicitor who drafted the application told the ABC’s Leigh Sales that “Professor Dan Avnon was boycotted because he was Israeli and Jewish”. But it would have made no difference if he was a Buddhist from Bendigo. The boycott is aimed at the scheme, not the individual. Claims that our policy is anti-semitic are refuted by the stream of successful events we have held in recent years with prominent Jewish and Israeli speakers, including Professor Ilan Pappe and Rabbi Michael Lerner.
Public opinion surveys, in Europe and elsewhere, show the more informed people are about the Israel-Palestine conflict, the more likely they will sympathise with the Palestinians. This shift is reflected in political process, as shown in voting patterns at the UN General Assembly. European Union countries that traditionally abstain on motions about the occupation are now voting more decisively – in favour of according Palestine the status of “non-member observer state”, for example.
That explains the present wave of attempts to stifle debate, of which the court case is one. They are designed to instil fear and hold back potential support. A successful outcome will dispel that fear and strengthen the boycott movement. And that will promote the prospects for peace with justice, for Palestinians and Israelis alike.
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