In the much discussed memoirs from his time as Foreign Minister, Bob Carr revealed the "extraordinary influence" that the Israeli lobby has on Australian foreign policy. His work details how former Prime Minister Julia Gillard would not criticise Israeli West Bank settlements for fear of the anger such criticism would provoke. "So we can’t even ‘express concern’ without complaint," wrote Carr.
For decades, the narrative about Palestinians being savage and uncivilised has been controlled by Israel — but under the influence of the world wide, non-violent, Boycott, Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement to assert Palestinians’ rights to self-determination, that control is being challenged.
A week ago, a public forum in Sydney’s Footbridge Theatre was subtitled "All you wanted to know (about BDS) and were afraid to ask". Palestinian playwright Samah Sabawi identified Israeli academics’ deafening silence when Palestinian universities were bombed or closed, or when such academics learned of other human rights abuses against Palestinians: murders, the theft of lands and destruction of homes. She asked, "Would an invitation to Australian academics to protest these abuses and to join the BDS movement also be met by silence?"
French activist Olivia Zamor described the violence of Zionist vigilantes from the Ligue de Defense Juive (LDJ) who had assaulted her and other BDS supporters. Dr Jake Lynch, currently being prosecuted by an Israeli law firm for his support of the BDS movement, argued that the University of Sydney's links to Israeli universities which contribute to the occupation of Palestinian lands amounts to collusion with a brutal oppression.
The influence of the Israel lobby, to which Carr's diaries refer, goes beyond direct political power. The pressure not to criticise the Israeli state and its policies has been imprinted in the cultural DNA of politicians, journalists, bureaucrats and academics. However bold such privileged individuals might be on other human rights issues, when it comes to Israel they don't voice critical opinion, let alone demand an end to a brutal occupation. Are they ignorant, indifferent or too cowardly?
A few days before the Footbridge Theatre forum, staff at the University of Sydney formed a group called "Sydney Staff for BDS". The forum and the formation of this group were well publicised but ignored by the mainstream media. In similar vein, the Sydney Morning Herald has failed to give any coverage to the ongoing Federal Court case against Lynch.
This despite the fact free speech and academic freedom are at stake, and not just the freedoms of privileged scholars on scholarships or comfortably placed, tenured Australian academics. The Sydney Morning Herald has joined the chorus of deafening silence to which Samah Sabawi referred.
Many supporters of the "Israel right or wrong" brigade will say that critics of Israeli policies are becoming paranoid, that the Israeli lobby does not exist. The response of the Israeli government and of powerful individuals in France and North America to the BDS movement shows otherwise.
In a meeting with his senior Ministers in early February 2014, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed the idea of encouraging the capitals of allied countries to implement anti-boycott legislation. His Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz recommended a "media war" plan that would utilise Israeli intelligence to expose BDS groups connections to terror organisations and enemy states.
In Australia, the reaction to criticism is often extreme. In response to my support of Palestinians’ human rights and for the BDS movement, I receive hate mail each week, much of it violent, accusatory and Islamophobic. The regularity of such letters and the consistency of the abuse suggest that this is part of an organised campaign.
Australians who support the BDS movement should learn from US experiences about the political and financial power of a lobby that will go to any lengths to defend Israel's human rights abuses. Engendering fear is a centrepiece of their strategy.
When, at the end of last year, the American Studies Association (ASA) voted in support of the BDS movement, the Professor of English at Temple University, Carolyn Karcher, warned in an article in the LA Times that students and faculty who challenge the dominant view of Israel, "risk baseless accusations of anti-Semitism, arrest, blacklisting or denial of tenure, promotion or academic positions."
Students at Northeastern University in the US know the truth in Professor Karcher’s warnings. They faced expulsion and denial of funds for sticking mock eviction notices on their campus in imitation of the warning which the Israeli military regularly gives to Palestinians who are about to be evicted from their homes or whose homes are about to be demolished.
An extreme Israeli support group — Americans for Peace and Tolerance — pushed the Northeastern administration into taking action against Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). Two students, both women of colour, were placed before disciplinary hearings and SJP members were told to undergo a strict regime of training led by university administrators.
Similar authoritarianism has been exhibited on Canadian campuses. A month ago, students at Windsor University voted by a large majority to support the BDS movement, only to face the threat of legal action against the student union from the university's president. Employers in the region threatened that the university should cease to hire student supporters of BDS or risk cut offs in funding. Students at neighbouring McMaster University had expressed similar support for the BDS movement but then had second thoughts.
In the Canadian Jewish News of April 2014, under the title, Young Jews want open discussion of Israel, a McGill graduate said that those who speak out risk scorn and ostracised by the community, forcing them to stay silent on Israel's treatment of Palestinians.
In his best selling book, Time For Outrage, the late Stephane Hessel, French freedom fighter, Holocaust survivor, subsequent diplomat and one of the architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, wrote that being outraged by injustice was the way to maintain a connection to one's humanity. The alternative, he said, is indifference.
Despite the power of the lobby against them, staff and students should be outraged, should break the silence, should find the courage to support the BDS movement and encourage others to do the same.
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