BDS: Driving Global Justice for Palestine


All Australians have a responsibility to learn about the Boycott, Divestments Sanctions movement, writes Professor Stuart Rees.

A national conference, ‘BDS: Driving Global Justice for Palestine’, will be held at Sydney University on the 28th and 29th of July. BDS refers to the international, non-violent Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement to end the Israeli occupation and to promote Palestinians’ rights to self-determination.

To their considerable credit, the University of Sydney authorities have not tried to close the conference. That stand is welcome, given that the letters BDS usually send the Zionist lobby into a frenzy. On cue, they claim that the BDS movement is anti-Semitic and aims to destroy Israel.


Fomenting Fear

To foment fear, BDS supporters can be defined as potential or actual terrorists. Any polemic will do.

Following signs from the Zionist lobby, most Federal and State politicians dare not mention BDS, let alone express their support. In Federal parliament there have been brave exceptions, such as Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon, Labor MP Maria Vamvakinou and former Labor MP, Melissa Parke.

Senator Lee Rhiannon, pictured in federal parliament shortly before her maiden speech in 2011. (IMAGE: Greens MPs, Glenn Lockitch, Flickr)
Senator Lee Rhiannon, pictured in federal parliament shortly before her maiden speech in 2011. (IMAGE: Greens MPs, Glenn Lockitch, Flickr)

It is difficult to know why cowardice persists, in parliaments, in mainstream media and elsewhere. On Australian university campuses, the only staff group for BDS is at Sydney. Under business models for running universities, authoritarianism does make academics fear for their jobs. But even if Chief Cop Peter Dutton rules in Canberra, Australia is not a police state.

Why do academics fear to take a stand on a major human rights issue? A couple of years ago, the supposedly radical union the NTEU, opposed support for BDS, albeit by a small majority of voting members. Opponents of BDS argued that it was not the right time, that if the union’s image was tarnished, it would be more difficult to represent members’ interests.


Eroding Free Speech

The organizers of the Sydney conference have thrown down a gauntlet. Are you interested in justice? Do you support human rights and the rules of international law? Will you refuse to be intimidated by the Zionist lobby? Will you find the time and energy to inform others about this global movement for justice?

Threats to stigmatize BDS supporters, to stifle their voices and to forbid their activities are real. Free speech is at risk. It’s not just BDS.

Palestinians feared to contribute to the Sydney conference because they felt certain the Israeli government would in consequence forbid them to return to their homes in occupied Palestine.

Repeated attempts to stage a conference on BDS and the future of Palestine at the UK’s University of Southampton have been cancelled on the usual bogus security grounds.

A protest in support of Palestine in France, in 2010. (IMAGE: ☪yrl, Flickr)
A protest in support of Palestine in France, in 2010. (IMAGE: ☪yrl, Flickr)

In France people get arrested for wearing pro-boycott T-shirts. In the USA, pro-Palestine professors have been fired, anti-occupation students suspended and threatened with expulsion, pro-Palestinian groups defunded.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop neither understands BDS nor cares much for the rules of international law. She condemns BDS as anti-Semitic. To deflect attention from Israel’s cruelties and illegalities, she trots out the time worn argument that it’s hypocritical to criticize Israel when other countries encourage even worse human rights abuses.

Legislators across the US and Europe say they protect freedom of speech if it concerns racist, anti-gay and hate speech, but when they want to protect Israel from any criticism, they don’t care one iota for free speech.


Israeli Exceptionalism

Israel is allowed to be exceptional. The Jewish American scholar, Judith Butler says that protecting Israeli Jews from criticism is in itself an outrageous form of censorship. She insists that censoring any criticism of the policies of Israel would suppose that criticism is not a Jewish value, a contention “which clearly flies in the face not only of the long tradition of Talmudic disputation but of all religious and cultural sources which have been part of Jewish life for centuries”.

Israel’s exceptionalism and politicians’ indifference to the plight of Palestinians is challenged by the BDS movement. For that reason, cowed legislators make support for BDS a criminal offence.

The distinguished Israeli journalist Gideon Levy writes that it has become a crime to protest a crime, a crime to boycott the criminal, a crime to fight violation of international law.

Respected Israeli journalist, Gideon Levy, during a lecture at Ariel University in 2015. (IMAGE: Flavio, Flickr)
Respected Israeli journalist, Gideon Levy, during a lecture at Ariel University in 2015. (IMAGE: Flavio, Flickr)

Why don’t politicians, academics and any leaders in public life discover the international law based objectives of the BDS movement, and find sufficient courage to express their support? Those questions could be regarded as a means of shaming but such a technique seldom works. Instead, let’s ask why people don’t open their hearts, if only because they’ve learned about the conditions which the BDS movement seeks to end, such as the dire situation in Gaza.

A previous UN report said that by 2020 this densely populated strip of land would have no safe drinking water, no reliable sewage system, standards of health care and education would have declined alarmingly, and visions of reliable electricity supply would be a distant memory. Gaza would become uninhabitable. With the collusion of Israel, Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority, today’s almost complete ending of electricity supplies to beleaguered Gazans is a catastrophe already happening. No-one is waiting for 2020.

Organizing the BDS conference could be regarded as brave. I see it as important but unexceptional.

BDS follows a significant history of non-violent dissent. In the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King argued, ‘A boycott only means withdrawing from an evil system. That’s not heroic. That’s a moral obligation.’

Jeremy Corbyn recently observed, ‘When people’s minds are opened up, there’s no end to the possibilities.’

Learning about BDS provides a possibility to participate in ending the abuse of a whole people. Such protests for justice are even good for mental health and could make participants feel better physically. That’s a prescription worth trying.

Emeritus Professor Stuart Rees AM is a regular New Matilda contributor, an Australian academic and author who is the founder of the Sydney Peace Foundation and Emeritus Professor at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney in Australia.