Against the Zelman Cowen Fund and Sydney University’s ties with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, September 18 2014


On behalf of Sydney Staff for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, I want to thank you for lending your voice to those of us on campus who have been campaigning for the boycott of Israeli universities.

We’re here for a few very simple reasons. We’re here because we refuse to remain silent while Sydney University celebrates its ties with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, an institution deeply complicit the recent massacre in Gaza, or celebrates the Zelman Cowen fund that facilitates those ties.

We’re here because we believe that an institutional boycott is an effective means of putting pressure on Israel to treat the Palestinians with decency.

And we’re here because we believe that Sydney University has an obligation to act ethically in its connections with the rest of the world, as do all Australian universities. We reject the view, articulated by vice-chancellor Spence, that our university should not adopt a position on pressing global issues. I believe that view is incompatible with a university’s responsibility to uphold ethical standards in the work that it does.

But in this case we need not even take a position on Israel. All we need to do is ask a very simple question of our partner in the Zelman Cowen Fund, a question that we should surely ask of all of our partnerships. It’s a very simple question, to which many people in Maclaurin Hall tonight would no doubt assent. That question is this: Do you, as a university, from the top, consciously and deliberately lend support to the perpetration of human rights abuses? If the answer to that question is yes, then I believe grounds for a boycott exist.

Now some may say that this casts the net too widely, that this would lead to a boycott of a great many institutions in repressive regimes around the world. Sadly there is some truth in this. So I think there’s a second question that needs to be asked: Is there a credible campaign, on the part of those directly resisting these human rights abuses, that is calling for a boycott? That is to say, can our boycott here at Sydney realistically be seen as contributing to a growing campaign to end this conflict?

Here again the answer is yes. Palestinian civil society organisations have unanimously endorsed the BDS campaign, and we heed that call. Every single Palestinian trade union has endorsed BDS. As a member of the NTEU I’m proud to stand in solidarity with my comrades in Palestinian trade unions, particularly those working in Palestine’s besieged universities. So my final reason for us being here this evening is the simplest of all: we’re here because the Palestinians, suffering through bombardment, occupation and daily racism and discrimination, have asked us to be here.

Tonight there’s an illustrious assembly of doctors, researchers, university leaders and politicians gathering in Maclaurin Hall. But to step back and look at what is going on here there’s really only one thing you need to know about this event tonight. Upstairs in Maclaurin Hall tonight, Sydney University is clinking glasses with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, its partner in the Zelman Cowen fund.

It’s clinking glasses with an institution that cheered on the destruction of Gaza in Operation Protective Edge, a bombing campaign that deliberately targeted schools and universities, with over 200 schools destroyed, and in those still standing, hundreds of empty seats representing Gaza’s dead children. It’s clinking glasses with an institution that encouraged its students to enlist in the IDF by offering exclusive perks for those who serve, while silencing the opposition to war on campus.

And all of these actions were entirely consistent with the Hebrew University’s record. What else do you expect from a university that has built one of its campuses on Palestinian land in East Jerusalem, that has directors sitting on the boards of Israeli arms manufacturers?

But none of this will be mentioned tonight, amid the back-slapping and the toasts. It falls to us, therefore, to raise our voices in protest against this collaboration, and we will continue to do so until Sydney University ends this collaboration. Not only this collaboration, but its memoranda of understanding and exchange agreements with other Israeli institutions such as the Technion, because not one of Israel’s universities has voiced a whisper of protest against the barbarity that the Israel regularly metes out to the Palestinians.


As a historian, I know that when Palestine is finally free, the historians of the future will look back on these long years of Israeli occupation and ethnic cleansing, and they’ll tally up the reasons for why the Palestinians had to suffer for so long.

High on that list, of course, will be the West’s imperial interests that underpin Israel’s existence, and Washington’s massive and continuing military support for Israel. They’ll note Europe’s disgraceful willingness to let someone else pay the price for the holocaust, and the way in which Israel has succeeded in wielding the accusation of anti-Semitism against its opponents. On that list too will be the cowardly diplomacy of countries like Australia, which stands on the extreme pro-Israel fringe of world politics—a deplorable stance that Michael Spence treats as the benchmark for Sydney University’s own position.

But make no mistake, on that list there’ll also be an entry for the ways in which Israel was allowed to exploit its intellectual and cultural ties with the rest of the world to normalize itself, to legitimate itself, and even to promote itself. And when these historians of the future investigate how Israel achieved this in Australia, they’ll look at things like the Zelman Cowen fund, at Sydney University’s MOU with Israeli institutions, and they may well conclude that ties with Sydney University were a crucial element in Israel’s efforts to whitewash its crimes in Australia.

And regardless of what research projects it funds, that whitewashing is the effect of the Zelman Cowen fund, and there is no research breakthrough that can hide that fact, or justify this whitewashing. So we have no choice but to call on the university to end its support for this fund and its activities.

The question posed by BDS is not simply to boycott or not to boycott, it’s deeper than that. It’s a question of whether we adopt the politics of pressure, or the politics of engagement. In Bangkok this week we’ve seen an example of the alternative to BDS, of where the politics of engagement can lead, and it’s not pretty.

Supporters of BDS confront the argument that it’s better to keep open the lines of communication with Israel, to maintain dialogue, that this is the way to encourage change from within. But we saw this week our university, in the name of dialogue and engagement, capitulate to the demands of the Sri Lankan military to blacklist two human rights NGOs from an anti-torture conference, to blacklist—to exclude from the dialogue—the very people struggling for justice in Sri Lanka, with whom we should have unconditional solidarity.

Incidents such as this can only damage the standing of our university globally. As an institution we stand accused of providing cover for a brutal military regime and its torturers. So we should be proud of what we’re doing here tonight: we’re not here to tarnish the reputation of the university, to besmirch its good name. We’re here to salvage the reputation of the university, to uphold its good name. We’re here to demonstrate that while the administration may have abandoned a critical perspective on our university and its place in the world, its staff and students have not.

Sydney Staff for BDS been campaigning for BDS in our union and on campus since the start of the year. That work in itself is a small indication of the rising tide that is growing around BDS, and when we look around the world this is confirmed by the ever-growing list of scholarly associations and staff organizations either adopting, or currently considering the adoption of the BDS platform. We want to add Sydney University to that list. We want to turn this campus from an outpost of Israeli academic diplomacy into a bastion of Palestine solidarity. We still have a long way to go towards that goal, but I strongly believe that BDS points the way forward. Your presence here tonight is a great boost to that campaign.

David Brophy

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