BDS Case Splits Australia's pro-Israel Lobby

Israeli civil-rights NGO, Australian Jewry have contradictory approaches to boycott threat.

Dan Goldberg
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Marchers cheer as they pass along a barricade separating them from anti-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement protestors during the Celebrate Israel Parade, June 1, 2014, in New York.
Marchers cheer as they pass along a barricade separating them from anti-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement protestors during the Celebrate Israel Parade, June 1, 2014, in New York.Credit: AP
Dan Goldberg

SYDNEY – The founder of an Israeli-based NGO has lashed out at Australian Jewish leaders, accusing them of “not lifting a finger” in the battle against a Sydney-based academic whose support of the boycott campaign is the subject of a controversial court case here.

Nitsana Darshan-Leitner of Shurat HaDin-Israel Law Center told Haaretz this week that Jewish leaders in Australia had failed to “stand up for Jewish rights” in the test case it is currently waging against Jake Lynch, the director of the University of Sydney’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.

Jewish leaders declined to respond this week to the attack by Shurat HaDin. But some leaders here are understood to be privately fuming about the litigation by the Tel Aviv-based organization, fearing it is reigniting support for BDS in Australia soon after a broad countercampaign by Jewish leaders had won widespread support.

Shurat HaDin, which brands itself a “civil rights organization,” launched legal action in the Federal Court of Australia last year after Lynch refused to support a sponsorship request by Hebrew University of Jerusalem Prof. Dan Avnon, who was seeking a fellowship in Australia.

It claimed Lynch, a former BBC journalist, breached Australia’s race-hate laws by denying Prof. Avnon based on his Israeli citizenship.

But in court last week, under a new legal team, Shurat HaDin abandoned much of its initial statement of claim to prove that global BDS is unlawful in Australia, and is now focusing solely on Lynch. Its new strategy will be “sharply streamlined to include only the uncontested allegation that Lynch refused employment to Prof. Avnon solely based on his citizenship,” Darshan-Leitner said.

Its United States-based attorney, Robert J. Tolchin, added: “There are only two questions to be answered: Did Lynch discriminate against an Israeli professor based on his national origin and secondly, is such conduct a violation of Australia’s anti-racism laws? We believe the answer is plainly ‘yes’ and will prove it in court.”
Neither the Executive Council of Australian Jewry nor the Zionist Federation of Australia would be drawn on Shurat HaDin’s accusations this week.

Dr. Colin Rubenstein of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council said simply: “We were never involved or consulted on this case, and I have no further comment.”

But one senior Jewish leader, who refused to be named, told Haaretz that Shurat HaDin’s narrowing of its claim was proof its case had backfired.

“Pathetic,” he said. “They leave us to pick up the pieces. It’s just amazing.”

Jewish leaders have stayed mum for several weeks, with the last public comment coming from ECAJ’s Peter Wertheim, who admitted last month the case could be a “shot in the arm” for BDS in Australia.

Litigation is “inappropriate and likely to be counterproductive,” the ECAJ said in a statement last year. The best way to combat BDS is “to expose its deceptive and sometimes racist rhetoric.”

But Darshan-Leitner said although her organization had narrowed its claim, it had not necessarily abandoned its original aim of proving global BDS is unlawful in Australia. If Lynch is found to be in breach, she said “it logically follows that no reasonable or law-abiding educational institution in Australia will permit its administrators to discriminate nor boycott against Israelis.”

But she targeted Jewish leaders in Australia. “They cannot point to even one thing they did to protest Lynch’s behavior or safeguard the rights of Israeli academics,” Darshan-Leitner said.

“Jews worldwide must insist on zero tolerance for BDS and anti-Semitic hatred. If the local Australian leadership wants to pretend it doesn’t need to join the fight and stand up for Jewish rights, that’s its problem; we in Israel demand that every act of Jew-hatred be forcefully responded to.”

She added: “If Lynch denied a job to an African, a homosexual, a Buddhist or an Aboriginal person based upon their race, religion or sexual orientation, there would be no argument from anyone that he wasn’t exercising a protected democratic right. Because he targeted a Jew suddenly there is a debate about whether it’s unlawful or not. All acts of racist discrimination by a public official against any individual are illegal.”

Lynch, however, said Shurat HaDin’s change of tactic was evidence it had no basis for its original claim. “There was never any shred of evidence to link me with decisions by actors or recording artists not to visit Israel,” he told Haaretz.

As far as the narrower claim is concerned, he said he was not acting as “an agent” of the University of Sydney and was opposed to Israel’s policies, not its people. “My action was symbolic, as a declaration that I will not take part in institutional links with universities that I believe are complicit in Israel’s policies of militarism and lawlessness. The freedom to take such action is a cornerstone of our democracy, and I hope the court will uphold it.”

Shurat HaDin was also ordered to post a $100,000 bond for costs in the event that Lynch wins. The case, which is being closely watched, especially in the academic community, is scheduled to resume next month.

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