ABC Religion and Ethics – 4 November 2013
Does boycotting Israelis make someone racist? Randa Abdel-Fattah says no.
She disagrees with the claim being brought against Associate Professor Jake Lynch of the University of Sydney’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS) under Australia’s racial discrimination laws for engaging in the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel (BDS). According to Abdel-Fattah, the lawsuit is “clearly an external political attack on Australian democratic principles and freedoms.” Israel, she says, is “exporting its brand of oppression into Australia.”
Israel itself, however, is not doing anything. As Abdel-Fattah recognises, the case is being brought Israeli law centre Shurat HaDin. It is true that Shurat HaDin has, in the past, taken advice from the Israeli government. From this she somehow concludes that the Israeli government must be behind the action. She neglects to mention that the particular Shurat HaDin employee who is bringing the suit, Andrew Hamilton, is a recent immigrant to Israel from Australia. He grew up here, was educated here, and worked as a lawyer here for many years. To me at least, an Australian lawyer bringing a suit under Australian law is not “external.”
Let’s look at that part about a “political attack on Australian democratic principles.” The principles supposedly being attacked are “an Australian academic’s right to free speech, to dissent and to support a political and human rights cause of his choice.” Lynch himself describes it as an attack on his “academic freedom.”
So what exactly is “academic freedom”? According to Stanley Fish, an expert on academic freedom who has recently written about the BDS campaign, academic freedom has been “traditionally understood as the freedom to engage in teaching and research free from the influences or pressures of politics.” Academic freedom presumably extends to all academics, including the Israeli academics whom Lynch and Abdel-Fattah believe should be barred from teaching or researching at or in coordination with any Australian individual or institution. Yet the claim against Lynch concerns his turning an Israeli academic away from CPACS simply for being an Israeli academic. Lynch is opposed to Israeli academics on principle.
In order to justify this, Lynch and Abdel-Fattah level a number of accusations at Israel, argue (spuriously) that Israeli institutions are complicit in the alleged crimes, and therefore conclude that it is legitimate to boycott anyone associated with those institutions, regardless of their personal stance. That would be a dubious premise for a boycott at the best of times. How well would it go down, for instance, if an Australian academic decided to protest against China by refusing to work with any Chinese academics? The particular irony in Lynch’s case is that the Israeli academic in question – Dan Avnon – was one whose work involves developing programs for, as he puts it, “groups not granted sufficient voice and pedagogical attention in the democratic discourse of Israeli society – Arab/Palestinian Israelis and religious Jews.”
Leaving aside the broader considerations for one moment, this reveals that BDS is, at the very least, tactically stupid. BDS resulted in Lynch snubbing someone who is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause because he was employed by an Israeli university. If BDS is about human rights (and as I have previously documented, in Lynch’s case that seems unlikely), it is difficult to see how refusing to work with Avnon would achieve much in the way of advancing anyone’s rights. It is unlikely to have much effect on Hebrew University, let alone the Israeli government, but it could have a detrimental impact on Avnon’s work and the Palestinians that he was trying to help.
There is also the issue of whether Lynch’s academic freedom means that he is free to curtail the freedom of other academics. As Stanley Fish notes:
“while it is easy to understand how academics, among others, might find [Israel treatment of Palestinians] objectionable and reprehensible … it is not so easy to understand how moral outrage at a political action can be so quickly translated into an obligation to deny professional courtesies to people whose responsibility for that action is at best attenuated and in many instances non-existent. And it absolutely defies understanding … that the concept of academic freedom could be used to defend a policy, the policy of boycott, that so cavalierly throws academic freedom under the bus.”
Abdel-Fattah claims that an Australian man pursuing Lynch in court for breaching Australian law amounts to Israel “exporting its brand of oppression into Australia.” How oppressed is Lynch really? Under a law passed by Australia’s democratically elected government, Lynch can believe or advocate whatever he wants, but has no freedom, academic or otherwise, to discriminate against another person because of their nationality or ethnic origin. As he has been accused of doing so, he will be tried in a robust and transparent judiciary within Australia. If he has done nothing wrong, he will suffer no punishment.
That is the “Israeli” brand of “oppression” to which Lynch is being subjected. Israel too is founded on liberal democratic principles. It too has a robust court system to which anyone affected by its laws can apply. Palestinians regularly petition the Israeli High Court with human rights claims against the Israeli government, the court often rules in their favour, and its judgments are carried-out. Referring to this as “oppressive” suggests some ignorance of the tenets of democracy.
Further, in order to prove that Israel “is no stranger to dismantling democratic principles,” Abdel-Fattah cites a law passed by the democratically elected Israeli Knesset (parliament) which allows the Finance Minister to reduce state funding to institutions which engage in such activities as “rejecting the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”
But imagine an organisation which openly called for Australia to be dismantled; which rejected the very existence of Australia as a constitutional democracy and was part of an international campaign to prevent other countries from trading with Australia; which had a stated goal of dismantling Australia’s Constitution and ending Australia’s existence. Now imagine that that organisation was being funded by the Federal Government. It’s safe to say that it would spark some outrage. I cannot see the organisation keeping its Commonwealth funding for long. While it could say whatever it liked with whatever funding it was able to raise from private individuals, I find it hard to believe that many would argue the organisation had a right to receive Australian tax dollars.
Freedom of speech is a fundamental democratic right, but just as there is no freedom to curtail another person’s academic freedom, there is no democratic principle which dictates that a country must fund activities to bring itself down. In reality, while the Israeli government can fund or not fund whomever it pleases, it cannot stifle criticism of itself. This has been true at least since the landmark 1953 ruling of the Israeli High Court in Kol Ha’am v Minister of Interior, which established a doctrine not all that different from our own implied constitutional freedom of political communication. In that regard, Israel does far better than any of its neighbours.
Salim Joubran, the Arab-Israeli judge who now sits on that court (and the second Arab-Israeli to do so) represents one of many examples of Israel not practicing the “apartheid” that Abdel-Fattah and Lynch allege. Apartheid South Africa was a genuine police state – the lives of dissenting academics were made very difficult by the ruling regime. In contrast, Israeli academics are some of Israel’s fiercest critics, and often are the most dedicated to mending Israel’s flaws and improving the lot of the Palestinian people.
Abdel-Fattah and Lynch argue that cutting those people off from the international community, making them all – without exception – into pariahs, will somehow bring peace. At best, this is naive. At worst, it’s downright malicious.
Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz is Policy Analyst and Social Media Coordinator at the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council.