Speech given by SSBDS at the Israeli Film Festival Protest, 21 August 2014

We should have been assembling a few blocks down the road outside the Verona cinema, so we could protest outside the cinema.

But now the police and the courts have banned us from doing that.

The court apparently doesn’t think the right to protest is important enough to justify the same traffic arrangements which would easily be made for a burst water-main or a broken-down bus.

This should be of real concern to everyone committed to political freedom in this country.

The right to free political expression is a cornerstone of a democratic society.

The decision to outlaw it is a step down a dangerous road, at the bottom of which looms a darkly blinking police-state.

Our demonstration was called to defend Palestinians’ right to justice and political freedom. In a far less acute way, we now find ourselves having to defend our own.

Some people might ask what the fuss is about, given that we’re demonstrating here now.

But let’s be clear about what the effect of the court decision has been: the state has sheltered the principal audience of our protest from our demands.

For the Israeli dignitaries who’ll be gracing the event with their presence, they’ve tried to make it like we’re not even there.

They’ve also succeeded in suppressing our numbers and in affirming that the police have the power to shut down public demos that it doesn’t like.

It’s now up to us to make sure that this attempt to silence us doesn’t succeed.

Attacks on fundamental freedoms don’t come with a sign saying “Danger: attack on civil liberties inside”.

Freedoms like the right to protest aren’t swept away in obvious full-frontal attacks – they’re eroded step by step, with each further one carefully cocooned in the reassuring idioms of legal rationality, administrative sobriety and respect for basic rights.

That’s exactly what we saw in the Supreme court this week. We condemn it, and condemn it unreservedly.

The court’s decision follows the banning of three Gaza protests in and around Paris last month.

It also comes in the context of tightening restrictions on the right to protest in Australia. Victoria and Tasmania have both recently introduced laws which substantially restrict protesters’ rights.

These are unacceptable – and again, it’s up to us to stop them. We should call on everyone who’s committed to political freedom in our society to join us in decrying the court’s decision.

But we can’t let this outrageous affront to democratic rights make us forget why we called this demonstration in the first place.

It’s easy to criticise calls to boycott a film festival. But let’s be clear why we’re here.

We are here to protest against official state-sponsored cultural festivals like this one, which use films to cloak the reality of Israel’s policy towards Palestine.

The Australia-Israel cultural exchange, which is backing the festival along with the Israeli embassy, was opened by Netanyahu in 2002 – the same Netanyahu who now has the blood of more than 2000 Palestinians on his murderous hands.

To our critics who ask us why we can’t leave cinema alone, we’ve got a question.

How many would-be Palestinian directors, actors and audiences have been slain by Israeli missiles? What prospect is there for a real film industry in a culture strangled by war and occupation?

So don’t lecture us about how film has the power to foster dialogue. You can’t have a dialogue when there’s a gun pointed at your head, or when there are IDF missiles trained on your houses and your family.

At the moment, the films that best advance the cause of justice for Palestine are the ones that Israel wants to ban, not the ones it wants to promote.

The film that’s being screened tonight is called “Self Made”. In the trailer, there’s a shot of the brutal separation wall that encloses Palestinians, like animals in a zoo.

On the wall’s clear surface, there’s been painted a large bunch of sunflowers, which the camera lingers over lovingly.

We know that that wall means deprivation, enclosure, and death. But for the film, it’s a canvas to paint with flowers.

For me that’s like an image for what Israel’s doing with film festivals like this one – it’s trying to hide the killing, by promoting works that it hopes will make us to forget about the bombs, the rubble, the oppression of an entire people.

The best thing we can do for peace in Israel-Palestine isn’t passively consume films like this, but actively boycott any festivals they’re in when these are funded by the Israeli state.

I’m speaking here on behalf of SSBDS, a group of staff at Sydney University who have been pressing the university to end its association with Israel.

Because what goes for cinema and culture also goes for academic research: there’s no freedom to study when your people is under siege and occupation.

Just as we call for the boycott of Israeli film festivals, we’re calling for Sydney University to boycott Israel’s academic institutions, which provide so much support for the occupation.

We need the BDS call to get stronger and stronger.

Because it isn’t sensitive and compassionate films, or high-level academic research that will bring justice to Palestinians, but a robust politics of public pressure. And that’s why we’re taking part in this demonstration today, just as we’ve taken part in every rally since the war in Gaza started.

It’s more and more clear to us, as it is to so many, that the international call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel represents the most powerful mechanism Palestine has to bring about a just peace.

So let’s spread the boycott call, let’s demonstrate against official Israeli events like the film festival, with even greater energy than ever.

The police and the courts can try and ban us all they want, but they will never silence us. This is the right side of history. The calls for justice and peace for Palestine will not be stifled. Palestine will be free, and it’s ultimately our choice, in this international movement we belong to, how quickly that will happen.

Nick Riemer

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