A Response to Shurat HaDin’s Threats against Sydney University Staff

On May 19 The Australian reported on a meeting of the the Sydney University branch of the NTEU, at which members expressed support for Jake Lynch’s intellectual freedom, and voted to commence a discussion as to the desirability of endorsing the BDS campaign. The Australian’s article quotes Shurat HaDin lawyer Andrew Hamilton’s threat that if they were to do so, the staff union would be “next in the firing line”, and that his firm would “supply the ammunition.” In response to these threats, the following letter was published in The Australian on May 20.

Bullying over BDS

THE threat by Shurat HaDin lawyer Andrew Hamilton that Sydney University staff will be next in the firing line shows that he prefers bullying and intimidation over rational discussion (“Jewish group warns uni on BDS”, 19/5).

Like Shurat HaDin’s Federal Court case against Jake Lynch, these tactics are intended to drain critics of resources, and silence other advocates of the peaceful boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign.

In coming to Lynch’s defence, Sydney University’s National Tertiary Education Union is upholding members’ rights to a working environment free of such harassment, as any union should. Its resolution, moreover, is in line with the university’s administration which recognises Lynch’s support for BDS as a legitimate exercise of his intellectual freedom.

NTEU members have voted to begin a broad discussion on the issues surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict, and in particular the university’s links to Israeli institutions. These ties do not exist in an ethical vacuum. Our institution’s global conduct is a matter that staff have every right to discuss and take positions on — up to and including support for BDS.

David Brophy, history lecturer, Sydney University, NSW

Common questions on BDS & the academic boycott of Israel

What is Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS)?
The call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions is a Palestinian-initiated response to Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territory, its siege of Gaza, and its systematic oppression of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Launched in 2005 by an unprecedented coalition of over 170 Palestinian civil society organisations on the model of the successful campaign against South African apartheid, BDS promotes basic equality, practical peacebuilding and democracy in Israel-Palestine. It categorically rejects all kinds of discrimination, including anti-Semitism, and aspires to achieving basic equality for all people in Israel-Palestine, regardless of race or religion.

What exactly does the academic boycott involve?
The international academic boycott is part of the wider BDS movement. It applies to Israeli institutions, not individual academics, and calls on academics to refuse to participate in or facilitate official, institution-level activities with Israeli universities, such as, in particular, conferences convened or sponsored by Israeli institutions, and institutional exchange agreements. These and similar arrangements contribute to the legitimisation of Israel in the eyes of the international community by normalizing academic relations with it. The boycott call is predicated on the empirical fact that all official Israeli academic institutions currently actively support Israel’s policies towards Palestine.

A large body of evidence shows that Israeli academic institutions deliberately and intensively support the illegal occupation of Palestinian territory through, among other things, a variety of lucrative military research and training efforts. Other areas in which this support is manifested include obstruction of Palestinian access to education and academic freedom; in some cases, the maintenance of premises on stolen Palestinian land; or, simply, the failure to officially condemn Israel’s policies, thereby contributing to their legitimisation. As staff at the University of Sydney we have a responsibility not to work with institutions that either remain silent while the Israeli state destroys the educational infrastructure of Palestine, or are actively complicit with this destruction. If an Israeli university did not support Israel’s current policies towards Palestine in any way, it would not be subject to the boycott.

The academic boycott does not apply to individual Israeli academics or students: mere institutional affiliation to the Israeli academy is not a sufficient condition for applying the boycott. BDS is, furthermore, a tactic, not a dogma: the decision to boycott or not to boycott in any particular instance should be the result of an assessment of the ways in which a particular university can be pressured to withdraw its support for or complicity in Israel’s human rights violations and illegality. Finally, BDS is a pluralistic movement and does not mandate any one way of responding to the boycott call.

Shouldn’t we be encouraging dialogue between Israel and Palestine instead?
As Nelson Mandela famously remarked on negotiation with the government during apartheid in South Africa, “only free men can negotiate”. Genuine dialogue and negotiation require parity among the participants. Over 160 countries acknowledge the illegality of Israel’s Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank and recognise that these settlements and the widespread abuses of Palestinian human rights are a significant impediment to peace. Parity certainly does not exist between the parties to the negotiations over Palestine. It’s impossible for a hostage to have a genuine dialogue with their kidnapper. Decades of officially sponsored negotiations have only strengthened Israel’s hand. While talks continue, more illegal settlements are built. Only a logic of pressure holds any chance of creating the conditions necessary for a breakthrough. Israel’s marked hostility to the BDS movement as opposed to other forms of Palestine advocacy is evidence of the political traction BDS is gaining.

What’s the connection with USyd?
Sydney University is a conspicuous supporter of Israel, maintaining formal connections to a number of Israeli academic institutions through well funded exchange programs, such as the exchange with the Hebrew University, and a new partnership with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. Sydney has refused to distance itself from the Australian government’s position on the extreme fringe of international public opinion on Israel, Tony Abbot having declared “I’d like to think that nowhere in the world [does Israel] have a stauncher friend than us”. Through its active support of Israeli institutions the University of Sydney effectively endorses – and is therefore complicit with – Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, and helps Israel to whitewash its acute human rights violations.

Why does BDS target Israel specifically?
Unlike many other instances of alleged or proven human rights abuse in the world, Israel’s breaches of international law are massively supported by the US and its allies, including Australia. This imposes an obligation on people in these countries to speak out. Attempts to discredit BDS on the grounds that its supporters show selective concern for Israel/Palestine over other situations of oppression are mistaken both factually and in principle. These criticisms are factually mistaken since BDS targets Israel’s crimes against Palestine precisely as flagrant instances of oppression and discrimination, thereby contributing to the broader struggle for a just world. Many BDS supporters, such as the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, are at the forefront of other campaigns for human rights. Members of the Sydney Staff for BDS group are also active in the refugee rights movement, antiracism campaigns, the environment movement, the NTEU and progressive politics more broadly.

Such criticism is also wrong in principle: it is no argument against a political position that it concentrates on one particular point within a broader spectrum of issues. Campaign focuses are chosen as a function of particular political circumstances and with a view to what is achievable. The campaign against coal-seam gas in NSW cannot be reasonably criticized for not also directly addressing other international environmental issues. This is exactly analogous to the relation between the movement for justice in Palestine and the wider struggle for peace and justice in the world.

BDS and academic freedom
Far from infringing academic freedom, BDS promotes it by drawing attention to Israel’s denial of basic academic opportunities to Palestinians. Clearly, activities or actions in support of oppression and the denial of basic rights cannot be justified by appeals to “academic freedom”. This applies straightforwardly to Israeli universities’ support for the oppression of Palestinians. In any case, Israeli academics are only affected by BDS if they choose to participate in official institutional activities over and beyond their affiliation with an Israeli university.

BDS and racism
BDS is opposed to all forms of discrimination including racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and sexual discrimination. Targets of BDS are identified as a function of their support for Israel’s human rights violations, not their race or nationality. International companies and organisations that support Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territory are a key focus of the BDS campaign. They include Veolia, Adidas, G4S, Hewlett-Packard and Caterpillar. Organisations which support BDS regularly work with a range of Jewish and Israeli activists, academics, authors etc. The Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney is no exception: it frequently hosts and supports a range of Israeli and Jewish academics and speakers.

Why should the NTEU get involved?
Israeli policies severely restrict the lives and futures of our Palestinian colleagues and their students, including their right to education and their freedom of movement, to say nothing of their access to basic resources, including electricity and water. On January 22, 2014, the Israeli military launched an attack on the Palestinian Al Quds University. Rubber-coated steel bullet rounds were fired at students by the Israeli military and more than 100 students suffered from excessive tear-gas inhalation. The students and academics of Birzeit University, located in the West Bank near Ramallah, are required to pass through checkpoints manned by Israeli soldiers where they are interrogated and searched and subjected to violence and humiliation. The Israeli military has frequently entered the university itself, made arrests, and even used blockades and curfews to close down the entire campus. We cannot remain silent when our own institution refuses to act against these abuses.

Furthermore, one of the NTEU’s members, Associate Prof. Jake Lynch, is currently being targeted after refusing to support an application for a fellowship under a joint scheme linking Sydney University with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in response to the BDS call. The NTEU has already supported Lynch’s right to exercise his academic freedom to implement the boycott. There is no reason to offer our solidarity to him but to withhold it from Palestinian colleagues, who face far more serious attacks on a daily basis.

The union movement has always had an internationalist focus. The struggle for working people’s rights depends on global solidarity. The BDS campaign is supported by a growing range of unions, professional associations and other organizations internationally, including the University of Johannesburg, the Teachers’ Union of Ireland, the American Studies Association, national trade union federations in South Africa, UK, Scotland, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, the Basque Country, Brazil and other countries across Latin America, in addition to scores of national and local unions, including the Maritime Union of Australia and the Queensland Teachers’ Union.

Download this document as a pdf: Sydney staff for BDS fact sheet