SYDNEY– The Israel boycott movement reignited controversy in Australia this week after several anti-Zionist speakers were denied a platform at a major Jewish festival.
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Organizers of Limmud Oz, a local offshoot of the international festival of Jewish learning, canceled a panel of left-wing Jewish speakers that its website had said would appear at its two-day conference in Melbourne next weekend.
The decision triggered a deluge of online debate. One blogger described it as the latest example of a “culture of censorship within the Australian Jewish community,” while another defended Limmud Oz, saying it “includes sessions on the Holocaust, but need not include sessions that promote Holocaust denial.”
The brouhaha erupted just days before 16 Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions activists were discharged from the Melbourne Magistrates' Court after a month-long trial. They were arrested last year during a violent rally in which three police officers were injured outside the Melbourne Max Brenner, an Israeli chocolate shop chain.
The defendants, including one Jew, were charged with assault and trespassing and could face fines and prison. The ruling is due next month.
According to the defendants, Max Brenner’s parent company, the Israel-based Strauss Group, provides supplies to the Israel Defense Forces and so is complicit in the occupation.
At the opening of the trial, BDS activists protested outside the court by binding their hands with Israeli flags and taping their mouths shut.
BDS has become a “red line” that much of the Jewish community refuses to cross. Organizers of this weekend's Limmud Oz festival, which will feature nearly 200 presentations by 150 people, appear to have decided that a panel about “Beyond Tribal Loyalties” – a book of essays by Jewish peace activists from America, Israel, Australia and elsewhere – was on the other side of that line.
Limmud officials have refused to comment on the controversy, but the festival still features left-wing leaders, such as the president of the Australian Palestinian Advocacy Network, a representative of the Islamic Council of Victoria and a Palestinian academic.
Among the proposed Jewish panelists no longer speaking are Vivienne Porzsolt, a spokeswoman for Jews Against the Occupation, who was detained in Israel last year en route to the flotilla to Gaza; Avigail Abarbanel, the editor of Beyond Tribal Loyalties, who renounced her Israeli citizenship in 2001; and Peter Slezak, a co-founder of the far-left advocacy group Independent Australian Jewish Voices.
Larry Stillman, of the left-wing Australian Jewish Democratic Society, notes that two speakers were dropped from Limmud Oz in Sydney last year for being “vocal advocates” of BDS.
“It’s another example of censoriousness in the Jewish community going right against the spirit of a conference devoted to diverse views,” he told Haaretz.
The furor comes as Jewish and Zionist officials this week claimed victory in their long-running battle against BDS.
Ron Weiser, a former president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, said, “The battle against global BDS in Australia has been won for the moment – inside and outside the Jewish community.”
Michael Danby, a Jewish MP from the governing Labor Party, spearheaded a counter-campaign against the Max Brenner boycotters, taking prominent Australians – including then foreign minister Kevin Rudd and Deputy Prime Minister Wayne Swan – to patronize the chocolate shops.
Last year, Danby accused the boycotters of employing the tactics of Nazis in the 1930s.
“Boycotts of Jewish commerce like this belong in the darkest chapters of our history books, not in the shopping centers of Melbourne,” he said at the time.
James Crafti, the Jewish defendant being tried for his role in last year's Max Brenner rally, rejected Danby's view. He said BDS does not target Jewish businesses, but boycotts Israeli and international businesses “complicit in Israel’s apartheid policies.”
“This attempt to fool people into conflating Judaism and Zionism shows how weak their argument is,” he said.
Danby has railed against the pro-BDS faction of the Greens party, which is a junior partner in the ruling coalition his party leads. When Marrickville, a local Greens-led council in Sydney, reversed its initial vote in favor of BDS last year under mass pressure from politicians, media and Jewish groups, Danby called the victory "decisive."
He said he doubted the BDS activists realized their position meant banning “the Batsheva Dance Company from returning to Australia and the Israeli Philharmonic from playing at the Sydney Opera House.”
His view was echoed by Israel’s envoy in Australia, Yuval Rotem, who accused BDS proponents of “always employing the language of peace and the terminology of human rights”.
Speaking to 500 high-profile people gathered belatedly to celebrate Israel’s 64th birthday in Sydney last week, Rotem scolded the hypocrisy of BDS advocates, saying they “conveniently overlook” places like Syria “because they cannot claim an Israel connection.”
BDS is as “an extremist strategy” that is “McCarthyist in intent,” said Jewish academic Philip Mendes. “BDS in Australia is marginal because almost all its key advocates are on the far left,” he said, referring to some Greens and a few trade unions. “This is unlikely to change unless mainstream western social democratic governments change their view.”