SYDNEY — An Israeli-based group has launched a landmark legal action against a controversial Australian academic whom it claims breached racial discrimination laws by boycotting an Israeli academic.
Shurat HaDin - Israel Law Center, an Israeli based civil rights organization, filed the lawsuit in the Federal Court of Australia last week against Jake Lynch, the director of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney.
The lawsuit focuses on Lynch’s refusal to sponsor an application by Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, for a Sir Zelman Cowen fellowship in Australia.
Lynch refused to support Avnon’s request because out of support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.
But Shurat HaDin’s Australian-born solicitor, Akiva (Andrew) Hamilton, claims this is in breach of Australia’s 1975 Racial Discrimination Act, which makes it unlawful for anyone “to do any act involving a distinction, exclusion ... or preference based on race ... or national or ethnic origin.”
“It the first time that Australia’s anti-racism laws have been utilized against those seeking to harm Israeli academics or businesses because of their national origin,” he said.
But in a letter earlier this year, which was contained in the court documents, Lynch told Hamilton: “This center does not discriminate on the basis of ‘national origin.’ It acts by pointing to the policies of the Israeli government in the occupied territories … which offend Article 5 of the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.”
The lawsuit is “a despicable attack on freedom of expression, which is backed ultimately by the Israeli security state,” Lynch was quoted in a report in the newspaper The Australian. But Hamilton told Haaretz he is defending academic freedom.
“It is Jake Lynch and the BDS movement who are infringing academic freedom by boycotting other academics and calling for the boycott of other academic institutions.
“Preventing academic exchanges and sharing of information also infringes freedom of expression.”
Hamilton took the matter to the Federal Court after mediation between the parties failed at the Australian Human Rights Commission and was terminated on August 29.
Shurat HaDin does not have the full support of Australia’s Jewish community. The Executive Council of Australian Jewry this week blasted the BDS campaign as “repugnant” but distanced itself from Shurat HaDin’s “inappropriate” legal action “if it is pursued merely as a political tactic.”
“The ECAJ believes that the most appropriate and effective way to combat the boycott campaign is to expose its deceptive and sometimes racist rhetoric, methods and aims to public scrutiny,” said executive director Peter Wertheim.
“Attempts to suppress the campaign through litigation are inappropriate and likely to be counter-productive. It is for this reason that the ECAJ has had no involvement in the action brought by Shurat HaDin and will continue to fight the boycott campaign through public discourse.”
But Hamilton told Haaretz the litigation is not a political tactic. “I would not have brought it if I didn’t think there was a good chance of winning,” he said.
“It is perfectly acceptable for different organizations with different constituencies to confront the scourge of BDS in different ways.”
Hamilton is seeking a court order requiring Lynch to apologize and cease supporting and promoting the BDS campaign. The first hearing is the case scheduled for November 27.
In a Facebook post on the University of Sydney BDS activists’ page, Shurat HaDin says that it is lawful to criticize Israel’s policies. But it adds: “It is not lawful to boycott Israeli people and businesses because of disagreement with those policies. If you keep on the right side of this line you will not be prosecuted.”
Michael Spence, the vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney, defended Lynch’s right to free speech. Although the university “does not consider BDS appropriate,” he said it would not take any action against Lynch, according to a report in the Australian newspaper. “Academic freedom is a core principle of the university,” Spence added.
Lynch and his supporters – including several Jewish anti-Zionists – claim the litigation is part of a campaign to muzzle critics of the Jewish state’s policies towards the Palestinians. But Hamilton said: “It does nothing to help Palestinians and indeed harms them. It is merely an excuse for the vilest public anti-Semitic campaign the western world has seen since the Holocaust.”
BDS protests in Australia became headline news in 2010 when activists began boycotting Max Brenner chocolate shops because they are owned by Strauss, an Israeli company they claim supports the IDF.
Nineteen activists were arrested in 2011 during a violent showdown with police outside a Max Brenner store in Melbourne.
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