“This is not war — it’s a massacre”. The slogan has appeared on placards at demonstrations around the world, calling for an Israeli ceasefire in Gaza. Both Israel’s destruction of civilian lives and infrastructure, and the indiscriminate peashooter rockets of Hamas, are war crimes.
There has to be a better way, and it can be glimpsed in the twin tracks of diplomacy and nonviolent resistance. These principles are the heart of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement — and it is for defending BDS that I ended up in Federal Court, facing allegations of racism and anti-Semitism.
For the past year I have been defending my right not to take part in fellowship schemes that link the University of Sydney, where I direct the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, and two institutions from Israel. Last week, Judge Alan Robertson was asked by lawyers from both sides to dismiss the case against me.
It will mark the termination of a complaint by Israeli legal centre Shurat HaDin that boycotting such links amounts to a form of anti-Semitism, and should therefore be ruled in breach of Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act.
Shurat HaDin is the last of five original claimants still standing and wanted the court to order me to apologise and recant. It was joined in bringing the original statement of claim by others including Israeli tour operators catering for international visitors. They sought to blame me for decisions by performing artists, such as Snoop Dogg and Elvis Costello, not to play in Israel.
Once these allegations were struck out for lack of evidence, the case boiled down to my refusal to endorse a fellowship application by a professor from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. With the claim thus narrowed, however, Shurat HaDin lost its legal standing, since — not being linked to a university — it could not possibly be affected by my policy towards collaboration with fellow academics.
This narrow, technical basis for dismissal should not disguise its strategic importance. The program of Israeli “lawfare” against international solidarity actions has stepped up, in multiple jurisdictions, since the vote by the United Nations General Assembly in late 2012 to grant Palestine the status of a non-member state, the biggest diplomatic gain so far.
Pro-Israel groups here responded to the UN vote by persuading Australian politicians, led by then-prime minister Julia Gillard, to sign the so-called “London Declaration on Combating Anti-Semitism”, which seeks to criminalise not only “anti-Semitic discourse” but also “calls for boycotts”.
Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, hinted at a concerted campaign underway to stifle BDS activism, telling the Jerusalem Post: “We realised that many countries have laws against boycotts, and these lawyers came up with very interesting solutions, and this is a way to defeat them,” A US State Department memo published by WikiLeaks revealed Shurat HaDin’s director, Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, admitting to taking directions from Mossad, Israel’s secret service, over whom to target.
We are here today because Israel still faces too little pressure to turn away from its routine recourse to militarism. But that pressure is building from below, through the BDS movement, and in diplomatic arenas as public outrage feeds through into political process.
That is why there has been a co-ordinated campaign to outlaw and exclude boycott activism from the repertoire of legitimate political expression. With my court victory, that campaign in Australia has sustained a significant setback. It represents an opportunity for BDS to be more widely taken up. Anyone who does will be making their own contribution to peace with justice.