Australian opposition party commits to repression of BDS

The federal opposition has announced that it will support sweeping attacks on academic freedom and the free speech of any individual or organisation supporting the pro-Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. According to the 25 May Weekend Australian, a “Coalition government would block all federal funds to individuals and institutions who speak out in favour of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel”.

The federal opposition has announced that it will support sweeping attacks on academic freedom and the free speech of any individual or organisation supporting the pro-Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.

According to the 25 May Weekend Australian, a “Coalition government would block all federal funds to individuals and institutions who speak out in favour of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel”. Julie Bishop, the opposition deputy leader and foreign affairs spokesperson, who has previously labelled the BDS campaign “anti-Semitic”, told the newspaper: “The Coalition will institute a policy across government that ensures no grants of taxpayers’ funds are provided to individuals or organisations which actively support the BDS campaign”. Funds would be cut not only for BDS-related activities, but also for any research, educational or other purpose.

The BDS campaign was initiated in 2005 by 171 Palestinian organisations and is inspired by the struggle of South Africans against apartheid. It is conducted in the framework of international solidarity and resistance to injustice and oppression and calls for non-violent punitive measures to be maintained until Israel meets its obligation to recognise the Palestinian people's right to self-determination and fully complies with international law. Far from being “anti-Semitic”, it opposes all racism, including Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

In 2011, when similar charges were made against Australian BDS campaigners, the Palestinian BDS National Committee issued a statement saying such claims were “a cynical attempt to smear BDS activism in Australia”. It noted that politicians in Australia and elsewhere were “going to great lengths to curtail freedom of expression and shield the state of Israel from any criticism”, but the real problem lay “with staunch supporters of Israel who refuse to admit that universally recognised standards of international law and social justice apply as much to Israel as they do to any other state”.

Not unique

The attempt to paint pro-BDS campaigners as anti-Semitic isn’t unique to Australia. In March, pro-Israel pressure groups in the UK suffered a major defeat when they attempted to repress Palestine solidarity activism, accusing the University and College Union of anti-Semitism. On 22 March, the UK Employment Tribunal dismissed a case brought by Academic Friends of Israel director Ronnie Fraser, who claimed that BDS was anti-Semitic and he had suffered anti-Semitic harassment as a result of the union’s pro-BDS policy. The tribunal dismissed Fraser’s complaint as “without substance” and “devoid of merit”, saying it was troubled by the claim’s “worrying disregard for pluralism, tolerance and freedom of expression”. Similarly, on 15 December 2011, a French court dismissed charges brought against 12 BDS activists for supposedly “inciting discrimination and racial hatred towards a group or nation”. The ruling reinforced a July French court ruling acquitting another BDS activist of similar charges.

In the wake of Israel’s Knesset (parliament) passing a law in July 2011 making it an offence to call for a boycott against Israel or its illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, Amnesty International noted that such laws have “a chilling effect on freedom of expression”. Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, called the anti-BDS law “a blatant attempt to stifle peaceful dissent and campaigning by attacking the right to freedom of speech”.

Bipartisan support for Israel

The Coalition’s attack on academic freedom comes after weeks of non-stop reports, editorials and op-eds in theAustralian that have explicitly sought to equate support for BDS with anti-Semitism. While the Australian, Labor and the Coalition have been making reckless and unfounded accusations against BDS, they’ve had little to say about Israel’s ongoing occupation and human rights abuses against the Palestinians.

Bishop, writing for the Australian Jewish News on 24 January, all but ignored Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies. Rather than calling for Israel to cease its illegal settlement building and blockade of Gaza, Bishop placed blame for the failed “peace” negotiations on the Palestinians.

Federal Coalition leader Tony Abbot has similarly failed to hold Israel accountable. Last December, Abbott attended the Australia-Israel-UK Leadership Dialogue forum in London, along with Israel’s deputy PM and other Israeli government officials. In a speech read by Senator George Brandis on behalf of Abbott at the forum dinner, Abbott praised Israel as a “bastion of Western civilisation in a part of the world where human rights, including the value of respectful dissent, are not well appreciated”. But Israel isn’t a bastion of human rights.

According to the Israeli human rights group Adalah, more than 30 Israeli laws discriminate against Israel’s non-Jewish citizens. In June 2011, Adalah noted “a further escalation in the legislation and enactment of discriminatory and anti-democratic laws by the Israeli Knesset between January and April 2011”, including laws that “threaten the rights and harm the legitimate interests of Arab citizens of Israel on the basis of their national belonging”. Adalah stated: “The laws concern a broad range of rights including land rights, citizenship rights, the right to political participation, the rights to freedom of expression and association and the rights to a fair trial and freedom from torture and ill-treatment”.

Bipartisan support for Israel, however, is a hallmark of Australian parliamentary politics. Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard have given Israel unequivocal support. Just days before the 2007 federal election, Rudd announced his undying support for Israel at an event organised by the Australian Israel Cultural Exchange, saying “Israel is in my DNA”.

In 2009, when Israel began its three-week assault on Gaza, resulting in the death of more than 1400 Palestinians, including more than 300 children, Gillard defended the bombing.

Who is attacking free speech and academic freedom?

Many of Israel’s advocates who’ve sought to paint the Palestinian BDS campaign as anti-Semitic and an attack on academic freedom are now supporting the Coalition’s sweeping attack on free speech and academic freedom.

Colin Rubenstein, the executive director of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, is quoted in the 25 May Australian welcoming the Coalition policy. Rubenstein, who had previously signed on to a 2011 pro-Zionist statement denouncing BDS as “antithetical to principles of academic freedom and discourag[ing] freedom of speech” is apparently happy to support suppression of academic and democratic rights in the service of Israel.

The accusation that BDS is an attack on free speech or academic freedom is of course false. The campaign focuses on institutions, not individuals, and doesn’t prevent any student or academic from carrying out research, authoring papers or participating in conferences simply because they are Jewish or Israeli. In Australia, pro-BDS groups have hosted a range of Israeli and Jewish academics and activists, including the renowned Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, who was the keynote speaker at the 2012 Australian BDS conference.

However, the double standard of Rubenstein and other pro-Israel advocates comes as no surprise. Rarely do pro-Israel advocates who denounce BDS acknowledge the right of Palestinians to academic freedom. Under Israel’s occupation, Palestinian education is severely restricted. During the 1987-1993 intifada, Israel closed most Palestinian universities, schools and kindergartens, making it illegal for Palestinians to get an education.

During the first intifada, Birzeit University was closed by Israeli military order 15 times, the longest closure lasting four and a half years. Today, Palestinians are regularly prevented from getting an education by Israel’s occupation – campuses often being raided by the Israeli military and teachers and students regularly arrested, tortured and killed. It is still exceedingly common for Palestinian teachers to conduct classes at checkpoints because they and their students can’t get to their educational institutions because of the apartheid wall and checkpoints.

Attempts to cut federal funding to individuals or organisations that support BDS should be rejected by anyone who supports free speech and academic freedom. Bipartisan attacks and dishonest reporting by the Australian will not deter BDS campaigners. We will continue to campaign against Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies and demand human rights, justice and freedom for the Palestinian people.


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