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Why boycotting Israel matters

Antony Loewenstein

December 21, 2012


An academic boycott of Israeli universities isn't an attack on freedom of speech. The evidence tells us these institutions are key battlegrounds for breaches of international law towards the Palestinians, argues Antony Loewenstein.

New Zealand's $20 billion national pension fund announced this month that it was divesting from three Israeli companies that were complicit in the building of colonies in the West Bank and the annexation wall that runs deep into Palestinian territory.

"Findings by the United Nations that the separation barrier and settlement activities were illegal under international law were central to the fund's decision to exclude the companies," the responsible fund manager for investment, Anne-Maree O'Connor, said in a statement.

The companies targeted were Africa Israel, Danya Cebus and Elbit Systems. The last firm has a deep relationship with the Australian Government and recently scored a large contract with the Australian Defence Force. Canberra has no hesitation in assisting the corporation despite its troubling legal and ethical record of working on occupied, Palestinian land.

New Zealand's pension fund pursued a key element of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement that is increasingly utilised as a non-violent method of resisting illegal Israeli actions. Similar tactics were widely embraced during the decades-long struggle against apartheid South Africa.

The latest and public stand of BDS has occurred in Australia. Dr Jake Lynch, the head of Sydney University's Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS), recently refused to assist an Israeli academic from Hebrew University, Dan Avnon. Lynch's centre abides by an academic boycott against Israeli universities.

The key point was stressed by Desmond Tutu when he argued for academic BDS by saying, "while Palestinians are not able to access universities and schools, Israeli universities produce the research, technology, arguments and leaders for maintaining the occupation."

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) has the backing of Palestinian civil society and calls for actions in solidarity. It states:

It is important to stress that all Israeli academic institutions, unless proven otherwise, are complicit in maintaining the Israeli occupation and denial of basic Palestinian rights, whether through their silence, actual involvement in justifying, whitewashing or otherwise deliberately diverting attention from Israel's violations of international law and human rights, or indeed through their direct collaboration with state agencies in the design and commission of these violations.

The CPACS story has run in Rupert Murdoch's The Australian for 10 days, no other media organisation has touched it, and the agenda has been to smear Lynch and his supporters as anti-Semitic, irrational, anti-Israel and dangerous. Lynch's ability to respond to these libellous allegations has been limited. The Liberal Party has called for restrictions on academic freedom (paywalled) in a warning that a Tony Abbott-led government may withhold funding from university centres that don't fit a conservative political worldview.

The media coverage in Australia has seen a litany of politicians - the Liberal Party lined up to pat Israel on the head) - Zionist lobby heads and journalists - Australian reporter Christian Kerr accused Federal Minister for Tertiary Education Chris Evans on his Facebook page of "anti-Semitism" for not immediately saying Lynch should be ostracised from public view - condemning Lynch for bringing division to a conflict that supposedly needs "balance".

Monash University's Associate Professor in the Department of Social Work, Philip Mendes, a self-described Left Zionist Jew who uses McCarthyist smears to monitor public criticisms of Israel, called Lynch a "nut job" on his Facebook page and accused the BDS movement as standing "not for human rights, but rather for the ethnic stereotyping and demonisation of all Israel Jews". In other words, anti-Semitism.

The casualness with which the anti-Semitic slur is used indicates a paucity of intellectual heft and political desperation. The word has become so cheapened by its overuse and the Zionist community is largely to blame. It's not for establishment Jews to dictate acceptable forms of debate over Israeli actions. When real anti-Semitism exists in the world, the Jewish community should not be shocked that its crying wolf syndrome makes action far more difficult. Thankfully, the anti-Semitism allegation is increasingly treated with the contempt it deserves by the non-Jewish community.

The paucity of the Australian debate is unsurprising when any deviation from a hardline, pro-occupation stance is condemned by the Zionist community and most mainstream politicians. Independent thought isn't welcomed, assisted by constant Zionist lobbying of journalists and politicians and constant free Zionist lobby trips for reporters and politicians to ensure commitment to the appropriate talking points. Israel is a democracy. Israel craves peace. Israel loves Arabs. Palestinians are predisposed to terrorism (the clear implication of a recent opinion piece by the Labor backbencher Michael Danby.

Away from the parochial discussion in Australia, Israeli behaviour has never been more understood and condemned. BDS is thriving globally because Israeli actions are so blatantly extreme. Palestinian human rights offices are ransacked, plans for expanding illegal colonies in the West Bank continues apace, Israel recently murdered countless Palestinian civilians in Gaza and former Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman says Europe is acting towards the Jewish state like it's the 1930s. There's been no condemnation of this Holocaust analogy by the Zionist lobby in Australia or elsewhere. There's clearly selective outrage when it comes to using the Holocaust in making a political point.

Business as usual, a hope that much discussed "peace talks" will change the facts on the ground in Palestine, is a delusion that is only spoken by global officials and a Zionist leadership who don't believe Israel should be pressured to do anything. BDS is a logical response to this impasse. Within Israel itself, activists pushing BDS may soon face legal sanction for doing so in the "Middle East's only democracy".

Ignored in the current faux controversy over Jake Lynch is the evidence that proves the complicity of Hebrew University in the maintenance of the occupation - not least the stealing of Palestinian land for its Mount Scopus campus - and the justified reason why CPACS takes the stand that it does. Moreoever, Sydney University itself has a relationship with Israel's Technion Institute of Technology, an institution with deep connections to the Israeli military and occupation. Sydney University should feel public pressure to cut these ties.

Note that there has been virtually complete academic, journalistic and public silence in support of the position taken by Lynch. This is not, as Zionists would like the public to believe because there's no support for the movement - the cause of Palestine is now far more popular in Australia and globally than Israel - but a culture of intimidation and bullying by the Israel lobby and its media and political friends makes it clear that a price will be paid for speaking out. Their silence is shameful.

Academic BDS is a more than justified position because the evidence for Israeli universities being key battlegrounds for the Zionist state's breaches of international law towards the Palestinians is overwhelming.

It doesn't matter, as claimed by the Hebrew University academic Dan Avnon and his supporters, that he's doing fine work building bridges between Israel and the Palestinians. His institution stands proudly in support of the Jewish state and its complicity must come with a price.

Israeli academic Neve Gordon has expressed one of the most eloquent reasons the international community must back BDS to avoid his children continuing to live in an "apartheid regime".

It's ironic that the Israelis and their propagandists globally are such fans of pushing for boycotts themselves against any person or country that dares challenges its policies. Just recently Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu banned a professor with critical views from attend his meeting with German leader Angela Merkel.

Academic BDS isn't an attack on freedom of speech. Should the freedom Israeli academics are keen to preserve, asks BDS founder members Omar Barghouti and Lisa Taraki, "which sound more like privileges to us, [continue] without any regard to what is going on outside the walls of the academy, to the role of their institutions in the perpetuation of colonial rule?".

Israel is not a normal country and proudly practices apartheid against Palestinians. Jake Lynch has taken one small step in publicly stating his opposition to our complicity in these crimes. His decision is an example to how principled academia should behave.

Antony Loewenstein is a freelance journalist, author, photographer and blogger. View his full profile here.

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