SYDNEY – In what is being hailed as a victory for the global boycott of Israel campaign, the Federal Court of Australia has dismissed a case waged by an Israeli-based NGO to find a Sydney academic in breach of the country’s anti-racism laws.
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In Sydney on Wednesday, Judge Alan Robertson dismissed the case by the Shurat HaDin Israel Law Center against Jake Lynch, who heads the University of Sydney’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies. But Shurat says the case was thrown out on a technicality, not on the merits of the arguments.
The judge also ordered the group to pay Lynch’s costs, though the sum is to be agreed.
The Israeli NGO launched litigation last year against Lynch, a former BBC journalist, accusing him of racially discriminating against Prof. Dan Avnon, a political theorist at the Hebrew University. Avnon had asked Lynch in 2012 to endorse his application for a fellowship at the university, but Lynch refused, citing his peace center’s support for the BDS campaign.
Shurat HaDin then took legal action – even though Jewish-community leaders counseled against it lest the suit boost the BDS movement. Avnon did not support the group's case.
“This court case has been an attempt to stifle BDS activism, both here in Australia and around the world,” Lynch told Haaretz on Thursday. “I have won a comprehensive legal victory, which is also a win for political freedom.”
He added: “Never has it been clearer that BDS can make a vital contribution to the prospects for peace with justice.”
But Shurat HaDin’s U.S.-based attorney, Robert J. Tolchin, said Lynch’s claims of victory were inflated. “The court has in no way approved Lynch’s actions or given his views any imprimatur. Lynch has not won anything and has not been vindicated in any way,” Tolchin told Haaretz.
“His lawyers came up with a trick to avoid the issue being heard on its merits, and he is misrepresenting the outcome, trying to parlay it into something that it is absolutely not.”
According to Tolchin, “The University of Sydney and other academic institutions have been put on formal notice by Shurat HaDin that any further acts of racism or discrimination by their officials or faculty will make them vicariously liable for the violations of Australian anti-racism law.”
Shurat HaDin’s case began to crumble earlier this year when the judge told the group’s lawyers to focus on Lynch rather than argue a virtual class action on behalf of all Israelis. The case collapsed this month when it became clear there were no plaintiffs left, and because Shurat HaDin, as an organization, could not claim it had been “directly impacted” by Lynch’s actions.
The litigation – a test case for BDS that was being watched closely in academic circles – was strongly opposed by Jewish leaders, with the Executive Council of Australian Jewry saying it was “opposed to litigation if it is pursued merely as a political tactic.”
Dr. Danny Lamm, president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, saw little good in the result.
“It was very disappointing that having written directly to [Shurat HaDin’s head] Nitsana [Darshan-Leitner] discouraging her action, she chose to ignore our reasoned arguments and proceed,” he said. “As for Jake Lynch, I think he is largely discredited in any event.”
Robert Goot, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, added that the ruling “gives us no joy at all to have had our views vindicated.”
“The boycott campaign is a calculated attempt to demonize, isolate and ultimately dismantle Israel through the distortion of international law and human rights,” he said. “The attempts at BDS in Australia have rightly been condemned and derided by most Australians. All major political parties including the Greens, except for a handful of their MPs, disavow the anti-Israel boycott campaign.”
BDS in Australia made headlines in 2010 when a local council in Sydney voted to support its efforts, but within six months the decision was overturned and a campaign against it won widespread support in politics, business and the media.
One veteran Jewish leader who requested anonymity said Shurat HaDin supporters in Australia had scored “an own goal.” But he said that while Lynch appeared to think the court ruling would bolster BDS, “it remains to be seen whether his optimism is justified.”