SYDNEY - A landmark Australian court case that has effectively pitted the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel has divided sections of the Jewish community, with some fearing BDS will become a “cause celebre” while others believe Jews should “stand up and not be cowed.”
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The case, which was launched last November (http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/.premium-1.555797), was back in the Federal Court of Australia last week. It was sparked unwittingly last year when Dan Avnon, a Hebrew University professor, asked Jake Lynch, a Sydney-based academic, to endorse his application for a fellowship at the University of Sydney.
Lynch, a former BBC journalist, refused on the basis the organization he now runs, the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, supports BDS.
But Andrew (Akiva) Hamilton, an Australian-born attorney for Shurat HaDin - Israel Law Center, a right-wing Israeli-based NGO, claimed Lynch was in breach of Australia’s racial discrimination laws, and launched legal action.
Lynch, however, has maintained he refused to endorse Avnon not because of his race, but because he claims the Hebrew University’s main campus in Jerusalem is in occupied territory and it has links to the Israel Defense Forces.
In his rulings last week, Judge Alan Robertson struck out part of Shurat HaDin’s claim against Lynch, and ordered the losing side to pay costs of up to $A300,000. Hamilton, if successful, is seeking a court order requiring Lynch to apologize and cease promoting BDS.
“Today’s judgments are a blow to Shurat HaDin’s stated aim of outlawing BDS in Australia,” Lynch told local media last week. “This case is crucial to our ability to offer that [pro-Palestinian] solidarity from Australia.”
Hamilton, however, also claimed victory. “Only 10 paragraphs out of 171 were struck,” he told Haaretz. “It was a completely counterproductive exercise for Lynch and ultimately makes our case stronger.
“Lynch has spent over $70,000 on these applications and has achieved nothing of real legal value.”
Describing Lynch as a “myopic, anti-Israel extremist,” academic Nick Dyrenfurth wrote in The Saturday Paper last week that the test case is winning him “undeserved sympathy” and could make him a “martyr.”
Indeed, mainstream Jewish organizations have not lined up behind Shurat HaDin’s “lawfare” tactics. Litigation is “inappropriate and likely to be counter-productive,” the Executive Council of Australian Jewry said when the case first arose. The best way to combat BDS is “to expose its deceptive and sometimes racist rhetoric,” executive director Peter Wertheim said at the time.
Last week Wertheim was quoted as saying the case would give the BDS campaign “a shot in the arm” but he declined to comment further when asked by Haaretz. The Zionist Federation of Australia also declined to comment while the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) said it had neither been “involved nor consulted” by Shurat HaDin.
But Yosi Tal, a community activist, defended Hamilton’s campaign. “Absolutely, I am a supporter of his,” said Tal, speaking in a personal capacity although he is a member of the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies.
The litigation has given the BDS campaign oxygen, he acknowledged. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t confront your case," Tal told Haaretz. "We’d be doing ourselves an injustice if we didn’t stand up. As Jews we stand up, we don’t cower. We call it for what it is.”
He also accused Lynch of being “cynical” for hiring a Jewish lawyer, Yves Hazan, after he had declined to sponsor Avnon, a Jewish Israeli.
“BDS was never really dead in Australia, as some had claimed, and that the marketplace of ideas strategy was only a local temporary fix," Hamilton said. "Our fix is permanent and of more global impact.”
Hamilton also said he had received support from individual Australian Jews. “We have a large amount of private support in the Jewish community, including some very big names that I can’t disclose at the moment.”
For his part, Lynch maintains he’s done nothing wrong. “I should be free to exercise my conscience over whether to participate in this fellowship scheme, without fear of being taken to court,” he was quoted as saying this week in J-Wire, a local Jewish blog. “I hope and believe I will successfully fend off this deplorable bullying attack on political freedom in Australia.”
Avnon, meanwhile, began his fellowship in March at the University of Sydney’s Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, saying he thought Lynch deserved to be sanctioned for boycotting him.
The BDS campaign in Australia became headline news in late 2010 when a local Sydney council passed a controversial resolution supporting the Israel boycott. But councilors were forced to abandon it less than six months later after a firestorm of criticism. Months later 19 anti-Israel protestors were arrested in Melbourne during a fracas with police at a boycott of a Max Brenner chocolate store. A broad coalition of lawmakers, powerbrokers, media and others repudiated the BDS campaign, which seemed to lose momentum.
Now, however, some fear Shurat HaDin’s self-declared tactic of “bankrupting terrorism one lawsuit at a time” could backfire, and ultimately resuscitate the BDS campaign in Australia.
“I think it’s a big mistake and it will give oxygen to Lynch and company,” a Jewish leader who declined to be identified told Haaretz.
“Shurat could well lose the whole case, too and give oxygen to BDS globally.”