Coalition plans to punish those who boycott Israel


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25 June 2013

Protest held against Israel

Coalition plans to punish those who boycott Israel

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Jake Lynch

Jake Lynch

The charge that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel is anti-semitic fails its only salient test. The target of BDS is not Jews or Judaism, but militarism and lawlessness, argues Jake Lynch.

The number two in the incoming government has vowed to use the coercive power of the state to stifle dissent on a contested policy issue.

In Uzbekistan? Equatorial Guinea? No – Australia.

According to Julie Bishop, shadow foreign minister and deputy Liberal leader, I and other supporters of an academic boycott of Israel will be penalised under the Coalition, by having our access to public research funds summarily cut off.

It appears to be a gesture to pro-Israel groups, who are backing what they – like everyone else – assume will be the winner in September’s federal election. Prominent members of both main parties, including Prime Minister Julia Gillard, have signed the ‘London declaration on combating anti-semitism‘, but Labor has resisted calls to use the machinery of government to enforce its claims.

Chief among them are that calls for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions on Israel are themselves a form of anti-semitism.

That can easily be disproved. Imagine a Venn diagram with four circles. In one: states occupying territory recognised as not their own. Armenia would be there, for its seizure of Nagorno-Karabakh, and Morocco in Western Sahara.

The second contains countries whose military actions give rise to well-founded allegations of war crimes, in particular the indiscriminate targeting of civilians. Of recent concern have been the bloody end to Sri Lanka’s civil war, and US drone strikes in Pakistan.

In a third, we would find nuclear-armed states that refuse to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty, with its transparency requirements and onus to negotiate eventual disarmament. Obvious residents: South Asian neighbours India and Pakistan.

The fourth circle is partly shadowed, since it concerns violations of the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of Apartheid. Iran, for one, might qualify, with its persecution of the Bahá’í as Exhibit A, but the question has never been systematically studied.

The one country that sits unambiguously in the overlap of all four circles, is Israel. There is no non-Jewish state in that central domain, so Israel is not being discriminated against. The charge of anti-semitism fails its only salient test. The target of BDS is not Jews or Judaism, but militarism and lawlessness.

A systematic study by an international expert panel found that discriminatory laws and practices, confining non-Jews to second-class status, do indeed put Israel in breach of the Apartheid Convention. That obliges governments to “co-operate to end the violation; not to recognise the illegal situation arising from it; and not to render aid or assistance to the State committing it”, as the report – commissioned by the social science research council of South Africa – points out.

As with Israel’s other transgressions, however, it incurs no meaningful cost. Governments point to the ‘peace process’, periodically revived from Washington and officially the responsibility of the ‘Quartet’ of the UN, US, EU and Russia, as a fig leaf to cover quiescence and inaction. But whatever tattered credibility it retained is now being ripped away by increasingly candid statements from Israeli politicians, ruling out a Palestinian state.

Its besetting weakness has been to treat Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory not, essentially, as inadmissible but instead on the terms favoured by successive Israeli governments: a ‘fact on the ground’, to be used as a bargaining chip.

Meanwhile, ever more Palestinians are driven from their homes.

This must change, according to the European Eminent Persons Group on the Middle East Peace Process, which includes four former Prime Ministers. Europe should instead demand that Israeli settlements be dismantled forthwith.

Last November’s motion at the UN General Assembly, in which many EU members voted to give Palestine the status of ‘non-member observer state’, proves the need for a new approach.

Gillard wanted Australia to join just eight other countries in rejecting this resolution, but a furious Labor Party caucus ‘rolled’ her into backing abstention, instead. This gave the Liberals their opening, to appear even more pro-Israel than Labor – with their move against boycott advocates, a way of proving it.

Universities come into BDS because Israel uses academic exchange as a distraction from its lawless and militaristic behaviour. The Neaman Report on public diplomacy, published by Technion University Haifa and commissioned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, recommends targeting “educational organisations” as “beneficial clients” in efforts to sanitise its image abroad.

It was when Professor Stephen Hawking rumbled this plan that he withdrew from a conference in Israel last month. The British Committee for the Universities of Palestine, which recently fended off an anti-semitism case in court, now believes “it will likely be only a matter of time” before the UK’s University and College Union backs a boycott.

Peace advocates in Israel will never make headway as long as the alternative – tightening the screw on the Palestinians – appears cost-free. Why bother to negotiate seriously if you can simply hang on to your ill-gotten gains, while everyone else turns a blind eye?

It is to challenge such impunity that the BDS call was issued.

When the case wins a chance to be heard and considered, it gains widespread support. That is why its opponents want to suppress it.

Jake Lynch is director of the University of Sydney’s Centre for Peace and conflict Studies. View his full profile here.

The Centre recently refused to assist Israeli academic Dan Avnon on a visit to Australia in line

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