As reported last week by Christian Kerr in the Australian, the Australian National University has come under fire for hosting a conference purporting to focus on “Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories” (see AIJAC’s response).
As Kerr reported, ANU took the position that:
The university holds no views on the issues the conference explores. Academic freedom means researchers have the right to challenge and discuss in their areas of expertise.
This is true so far as it goes. Academics are, no doubt, free to invite whomever they choose to present on any issue and to air any views they see fit. Just because someone is free to take a course of action, however, does not mean that doing so is necessarily the right idea.
For example, academics are free to invite Holocaust deniers, white supremacists, and terrorist sympathisers to their centre. In fact, Associate Professor Jake Lynch from the University of Sydney’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies has done just that. Choosing to do so, however, must surely bring their academic credibility into question–especially when it is done using public funds.
Similar questions are raised by the ANU conference . Considering the people invited to speak, it is difficult to see how the conference could be defended as a legitimate academic exercise or an appropriate use of public funding.
A disclaimer on the bottom of the website says:
This conference is associated with a project on ‘Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories’ funded by the British Academy and the Australian National University. The British Academy has provided funding for the project with the aim of encouraging debate and understanding.
However, in correspondence with NGO Monitor’s Gerald Steinberg, the Academy made clear that:
The academy is not organising that event, was not consulted on the program and is not directly sponsoring the event itself. The text that appears on the conference website claiming that the British Academy is a ‘platinum sponsor’ for the event, is therefore misleading, and appeared without authorisation from us.
The conference appears to have been organised by ANU lecturer Victoria Mason, who has been awarded a grant from the (publicly funded) British Academy for a project on “Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories”, and has presumably used funding from her grant and from ANU in order to host the conference under the guise of her project. Whether the conference actually advances the cause of that project is questionable at best; but it undeniably makes a strong contribution to anti-Israel activism in Australia.
To illustrate the conference’s agenda, this post will now examine the three keynote speakers in particular: Richard Falk, Jeff Halper, and Sara Roy, all apparently brought to Australian specifically to take part in the conference. The fourth major international speaker, who appeared only by video hookup, was PLO activist Hanan Ashrawi, whose record of extremism was touched on by this blog HERE, HERE, and HERE. Australian and British taxpayers have clearly provided funding for the other three to travel to Australia. That is deeply problematic.
Academic freedom no doubt permits academics to host events for and by anti-Israel activists which exclude anyone not meeting that description (although these would hopefully be treated as propaganda events and not serious academic fora). They are also free, however, to find their own sponsorship. Such political activism is not an appropriate use of government money.
Falk was the headline speaker at the conference. He is the United Nations Human Rights Council’s current “Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967” and is also a retired professor of international law at Princeton University.
Falk is one of the leading promoters of the so-called “9/11 Truth” movement, which believes that there is some kind of US-government cover-up of the “true” conspiracy behind 11 September 2001 (in a particular twist of irony, the ANU conference began on the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks). Falk was questioned on this in an interview with SBS radio. He rejected the allegation and blamed a Jewish conspiracy:
Professor Falk says any notion he’s a conspiracy theorist is offensive.
“It’s an absurdly ill-informed comment. I have repeatedly said that I have no views on how the 9/11 attacks occurred.”
Professor Falk … says those speaking out against him have been influenced by ultra-Zionist NGOs. …
“It’s discouraging because it’s an effort to put the focus on the person rather than on the substance of what’s being discussed. The messenger rather than the message. That’s part of a larger Israeli propaganda strategy, which I call the politics of deflection, trying to get the discussion away from the substantive issues where the Israeli positions are rather weak, from the perspective of international law or human rights.”
It was not, however, “ultra-Zionist NGOs” who spread the word about Falk’s position on 9/11. Falk has been perfectly capable of doing that himself. In his own words:
Every so often attention is called anew to the doubts surrounding the true character of the events surrounding the 9/11 attacks. Recently, the report of the collapse of Building 7 represented such an occasion. … David Ray Griffin and others have analyzed and assessed these discrepancies in such an objective and compelling fashion that only wilful ignorance can maintain that the 9/11 narrative should be treated as a closed book, and that the public should move on to address the problems of the day.
To accept such a view is to acquiesce in what can be described at best as governmental evasiveness and irresponsibility, a resolve to leave the discrepancies unexplained. It is not paranoid under such circumstances to assume that the established elites of the American governmental structure have something to hide, and much to explain.
Falk was clearly being less than honest when he said that he had “no view” on how the attacks occurred. He has repeatedly made it clear that he is in fact of the view that there has been a US government cover-up and that the official version is a lie. He also speaks very highly of David Ray Griffin, a retired theologian who became one of the leading propagators of the “9/11 truth movement”.
The “report of the collapse of Building 7” to which Falk referred is Griffin’s thoroughly debunked theory that, contrary to official reports, WTC Building 7 did not collapse because it burnt down after the fire from the main towers spread to it. Instead, it was allegedly demolished by a WTC leaseholder named Larry Silverstein–who, by utter coincidence no doubt, happens to be Jewish. Silverstein supposedly colluded with the government in order to demolish the building and claim an insurance payout, then for some reason admitted in an interview to PBS that he had ordered the building’s collapse; an admission which nobody but a handful of cranks seems to have identified.*
If this is indeed Falk’s view, why is he so hesitant to have it aired publicly? Well, as he goes on to explain, this would invoke a backlash from the mysterious powers working to suppress the truth:
Ever since the assassinations in the 1960s of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X there has been waged a powerful campaign against “conspiracy theory” that has made anyone who dares question the official story to be branded as a kook or some kind of unhinged troublemaker. In this climate of opinion, any political candidate for high office who dared raise doubts about the official version of 9/11 would immediately be branded as unfit, and would lose all political credibility.
Falk’s troubling views do not end there. Many revealing incidents have been chronicled on this blog before, and a more-or-less comprehensive list was included in a letter last year from UN Watch Executive Director Hillel Neuer, successfully imploring Human Rights Watch to remove Falk from a committee.
For instance, Falk officially endorsed Gilad Atzmon’s The Wandering Who, which claimed that “robbery and hatred is imbued in Jewish modern political ideology on both the left and the right” and blamed “Jewish bankers”, politicians, economists, and writers for such global events as the Bolshevik revolution, both World Wars, and the recent Global Financial Crisis. According to Falk, this was an “absorbing and moving” book that “all (especially Jews) who care about real peace” should “not only read, but reflect upon and discuss widely.” He has also republished cartoons with clearly antisemitic themes and been condemned for his ugly rhetoric by the British, American and Canadian governments, as well as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Further, Falk so obsessively equates Israeli actions with the Holocaust that he has even been reprimanded by Palestinian Authority officials. In 2010, the Palestinian Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN, Imad Zuhairi, told the then-US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Mike Posner, that he “he wished Falk would drop his repeated suggestions that Israel’s actions in the [Palestinian Territories] be equated with the Holocaust.”
Most recently, Falk said that the Boston Marathon Bombings earlier this year were some kind of “retribution” that America had coming because of the “American global domination project”. Naturally, Falk laid the blame for this project on Israeli influence over the US Government, saying: “as long as Tel Aviv has the compliant ear of the American political establishment, those who wish for peace and justice in the world should not rest easy”. This bizarre conspiracising drew condemnations from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.
To say that the attacks on Falk are attacks on the “messenger and not the message” is absurd. Falk’s essential message is that Israel is a Nazi-like state committing holocaust-like crimes against the Palestinians which should be boycotted by the world and is not being held to account only because of supposed “Zionist” political power in Washington. He has quite literally made a career out of denoucing Israel in the most strident and hurtful ways possible and then tying his claims to bizarre conspiracy theories, particularly anti-Jewish ones. Pointing out that this ugliness is what his “message” consists of hardly amounts to attacking the “messenger”.
Halper is a retired Israeli-American anthropologist, who now runs an organisation called the “Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions” (ICAHD); which purports to exist to combat Israeli demolitions of Palestinian houses in the Palestinian Territories, regardless of the reason for the demolitions. Housing demolitions, however, do not seem to be a major focus of his. He is better known for advocating some rather alarming positions on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
For example, Halper wrote in 2006 that the Palestinian people’s decision to elect Hamas to power was, quite literally, an example of Ghandi-esque “non-cooperation, perhaps the most powerful means of non-violent resistance”. He even threw in a genuine Ghandi quote for good measure. When presented with the options of either choosing to pursue peace through cooperation with Israel and the US or rejecting cooperation and launching rockets, Halper prefers that Palestinians choose the rockets.
When Halper visited Australia in 2009, then-AIJAC analyst Bren Carlill noted that Halper managed to give an entire lecture on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in the immediate aftermath of the 2009 Gaza war and only mention the rocket attacks against Israel once, as a joke–whilst, of course, speaking at length about Israel’s supposed “crimes” in that conflict. Halper advertised those talks using posters claiming that Palestinians were “under threat of extinction”, an especially ludicrous allegation given that Palestinian Bureau of Statistics’ own numbers show a 30% population increase between 1999 and 2009, almost three times the global average of 12%.
Meanwhile, for a former anthropologist, he creates some characterisation of Israeli society that do not seem grounded in reality. For instance, at the same 2009 lecture, Halper claimed that Israelis don’t use the word “Palestinian”, but rather just “Arab”, and “have completely eliminated … the Arabs from our lives, from our interests, our discussions, [and] our political concerns.” He added that, “[When] I use the word ‘occupation’ [in conversations with Israelis] … people don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, or they pooh pooh [the concept]. It’s not a part of the discourse.” A cursory glance over any Israeli newspaper, from the hard left to the right and everything in between, belies this claim. The words “Palestinian” and “occupation” would be seen dozens of times every week.
Whilst Halper occasionally pays lip-service to Israel’s “fundamental and legitimate security needs”, he asserts that Israel, “cannot be allowed to exploit legitimate security concerns to advance a political agenda of permanent control.” Under his analysis, the security measures implemented by Israel are actually a secret plan to form a “matrix of control” over the West Bank, designed to “foreclose the possibility of a viable Palestinian state” (note: this also applied to Gaza, before Israel inconveniently undermined that theory by withdrawing). In order to justify this conclusion, he dramatically downplays the significance of Palestinian terrorism whilst characterising virtually all Israeli security measures aimed at preventing Palestinian terrorism as “state-terror” or “apartheid” measures.
Halper may have held some academic posts many years ago, but for the last decade at least he has been a professional anti-Israel activist. Like Falk, Halper and the ICAHD are long-standing proponents of Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel. Perhaps Halper would be a valuable speaker for a discussion on the role of music from the Jewish immigrants from Arab countries in Israel, the absorption of Ethiopian immigrants, or the historical ethnography of Jerusalem, but when it comes to the peace process he cannot be described as anything more than a particularly virulent partisan.
Unlike Falk and Halper, Roy is currently employed as an academic; she is a senior research scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard, supposedly focusing on the Palestinian “political economy”. Throughout her career, she has taken a number of contradictory positions on Israeli policies, the only common thread being that whatever Israel has done was damaging to the Palestinians. For example, she condemns Israel for controlling Gaza but making no real investment in its infrastructure, while condemning Israel’s provision of water and electricity infrastructure as “forcing” Gazan dependence on Israel. As with Halper and Falk, she also emphasises the detrimental effects of Israeli security measures without giving much thought to the fact that Israel has a reason to implement security measures. Also like Falk, she has a habit of comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, writing in 2002 that the behaviour of Israeli soldiers towards Palestinians “were absolutely equivalent in principle, intent, and impact” to the behaviour of Nazis toward Jews. Further, she has contributed to books calling for a “one state solution”–which amounts to Israel’s destruction.
For a purported “political economy” scholar, Roy shows a remarkable lack of both academic rigour and an understanding of basic economics. For one example, she wrote in 2008 that “Although Gaza daily requires 680,000 tons of flour to feed its population, Israel had cut this to 90 tons per day by November 2007, a reduction of 99 percent.” However, as Martin Kramer, a far more reputable Middle East Scholar, pointed out, this would mean that each Gazan went through half a ton of flour each day.
Roy’s core message is that Israel has for decades deliberately crushed the Palestinian economy. When writing in 1999 for the Journal of Palestine Studies–the openly pro-PLO journal published by the University of California in which appears the vast majority of Roy’s academic work–Roy condemned Israel for the crime of employing Palestinians. This, she wrote:
“reoriented the West Bank and Gaza labor force to semiskilled and unskilled employment in Israel and Arab states and away from indigenous agriculture and industry … Redirecting trade primarily to Israel (and to a lesser extent the Arab states) deepened Palestinian dependence on Israel for commercial access to international markets, while Palestinian agriculture and industry came to rely disproportionately on the export trade (largely with Israel) for sectoral income and growth. …
In sum, policies of integration and externalisation not only mediated the economic transfer of Palestinian resources to the Israeli economy but delinked local economic activity (employment, trade, personal income) from market forces, making them increasingly dependent on demand conditions in Israel. The result was the steady weakening and disablement of Palestine’s economic base, an eroding productive capacity, and the growth of the services sector as the largest domestic employer.
It is easy to see why Roy tends to publish in politically aligned “Middle East Studies” journals and not economic or political science journals. She appears to have adopted a number of assumptions that people with no training in economics tend to make about economics (see this paper).
For instance, a workforce being externally employed is not a “redirection of trade”. If the Palestinian workforce has skills and abilities that are in demand by Israel and Israel employs them, it benefits both parties–Palestinian workers have higher salaries than they would in domestic employ, and Israel gains the labour it needs. Far from disadvantaging Palestinians, this increases Palestinian wealth. Roy’s argument is as absurd as saying that the Palestinian workers were “stealing” Israeli money and taking it into Gaza and the West Bank.
In fact, Roy’s characterisation of this as an “economic transfer of Palestinian resources to the Israeli economy” indicates a poor understanding of the basic difference between a “trade” and a “transfer”, as any first-year economics student would point out. Similarly, saying that “economic activity” was “delinked from … market forces” is absurd; especially as she goes on to argue that the subsequent growth in the services sector (spurred by none other than market forces) somehow reflects a “weakening and disablement of Palestine’s economic base” or “an eroding productive capacity”. If that were true, Australia would be in a great deal of trouble, as our services sector produces about 70% of GDP.
Naturally, when the security situation made Israel begin severing trade with Gaza, Roy did not celebrate the Gazans’ newfound opportunity to have an “independent” economy. Rather, she characterised it as a continuation of the Israel’s supposed policy of preventing development in the enclave. This has been manifested in particular through her criticism of Israel’s blockade of Gaza, which attempts both to weaken the Hamas government there and to stifle the smuggling of weaponry into the enclave designated for use in attacking Israeli civilians. When writing on the subject, Roy does not even acknowledge that there may be a legitimate purpose for the blockade or that it is desirable to prevent Hamas’ attacks. She also very seldom mentions that the blockade is imposed not only by Israel but also by Egypt–even though when she does do so, she is clearly aware that Egypt blockades Gaza because of its own interests and is in fact very wary of being seen to be cooperating with Israel in that regard.
In sum, the people invited to address the ANU conference all seemed to be cut from a particular mould: anti-Israel activists who compare Israel to Nazi Germany or Apartheid South Africa; support the BDS movement; and mostly support a one-state solution–ie Israel’s dissolution. A record of propagating anti-Jewish conspiracy theories was sometimes thrown in for good measure.
Whatever arguments can be made about “academic freedom”, sponsoring a “conference” clearly aimed at activism not debate and hosting bona fide extremists and conspiracy theorists is clearly not an appropriate use of the money taken from the taxpayers of Australia and the UK. It is also unbecoming of a university of ANU’s standing.
*According to Silverstein, after being informed that the fire department was struggling to contain the fire, he had told the fire department commander that “we’ve had such a terrible loss of life, maybe the smartest thing to do is pull it.” Griffin’s theory is that “pull it” was the order to the fire department to trigger the explosives and bring the building down, rather than a suggestion that they pull the fire-fighters out from the building to avoid further loss of life.