Opinion

Nick Dyrenfurth
Boycotting Israel another impediment to peace

Journeying through Europe can seem like a long trip through a series of ghost towns. Wandering the streets of Leopoldstadt in Vienna my grandfather suddenly appears, seated at his favourite café, earnestly debating the merits of bundism and Labor Zionism with journalist friends. On Berlin’s Unter den Linden, I make out my grandmother’s angular features as she hurries to her job as a bookkeeper. Then, out of the corner of one eye, a darker image assaults the senses. “Deutsche! Kauft nicht bei Juden!” warns a stark black and white poster.

Do not buy from Jews! Eight decades on, it still requires a leap of imagination to believe that those five words once dotted the shopfronts of Europe’s economic, cultural and intellectual epicentre. My grandparents literally saw the writing on the wall, fleeing to London with thousands of other Jewish refugees in the late 1930s. Remarkably, just a few generations after the horrors of Nazism, cosmopolitan Berlin can boast one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in the world. Elsewhere, however, Europe’s future seems to beckon to its torturous past.

Whether it is Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, Ukraine’s Svoboda, France’s National Front or Hungary’s Jobbik, far-right and often explicitly anti-Semitic political parties are on the march across Europe. In 2012, Jobbik’s deputy leader argued that a “list of Jews” who pose a “national security risk” should be compiled. Polls show that about a third of Hungarians believe that Jews control the world economy. Unsurprisingly, Jobbik won 21 per cent of the vote in recent national elections. 

Yet it is not the usual suspects on the right that are arguably causing the most angst among the Jewish diaspora, or indeed Jews in Israel. That honour goes to the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement associated with elements of the global left. Styling itself as the moral successor to the boycott of apartheid South Africa, the BDS movement emerged after the second Palestinian intifada and collapse of the Oslo peace process, ostensibly with the aim of non-violently ending the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In fact, the BDS campaign possesses three specific aims. The first is to end the Israeli occupation of lands occupied in the 1967 war, including East Jerusalem, and dismantle the West Bank security barrier. The second is to achieve full equality for the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel. Finally, there is its demand of a “right of return” for all descendants of Palestinian refugees to “Green Line” Israel as stipulated in UN Resolution 194, itself actually conditional upon the acceptance by all parties of the earlier partition of Jewish and Arab states in Palestine.

The implacable demand for the “right of return” gestures towards the ambivalent attitude of BDS supporters regarding a negotiated two-state solution within roughly Green Line borders. The movement’s spiritual leader, Qatari-born Omar Barghouti, along with Australian supporters such as the journalist Antony Loewenstein, explicitly calls for the establishment of a “secular democratic state” of Palestine. This is the so-called one-state solution, which would see a single, non-Jewish state created between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, ushering in the end of the state of Israel after 66 years in existence. BDS is justly regarded by many as a war against Israel by means other than violence.

On the surface, the BDS campaign has achieved some success in isolating Israel. It has attracted support from academics, musicians, artists, churches, unions and other non-government organisations. It has garnered much media coverage. Still, no Western government has endorsed a boycott and the BDS campaign has, so far, made limited progress in segregating Israel. An irrelevant plaything of the far-left perhaps, but the BDS campaign contributes to the poisonous nature of the debate.

You can, as I do, believe the ongoing occupation to be a dangerous folly, that West Bank settlements are a major – but not the major – impediment to peace, and that the government of Binyamin Netanyahu has failed to promote a two-state solution, or deter supporters of the Greater Israel project. At the same time it is possible to see the BDS campaign as, at best, misguided: it singles out Israel for boycott and ignores far worse human rights abuses; it punishes all Israelis for the actions of their state; it educates followers that the “racist”, “colonialist” Jewish state is at the centre of all that is wrong in the world; it pushes Jewish defenders of Israel’s right to exist out of progressive movements; it recycles images of Jews as bloodthirsty oppressors exercising disproportionate influence over politics and the media; and it pushes the idea that people who raise the issue of anti-Semitism are only doing so in order to silence criticism of Israel. It has nothing to say of Palestinian rejectionism, especially of the racist, religious fundamentalist Hamas variety.

Across the West, the BDS movement has proved divisive, attracting charges of anti-Semitism and comparisons to Nazi-style boycotts. Australia has not been immune. Witness the angry protests outside the Israeli-owned chocolate shop, Max Brenner, or the furore surrounding the NSW Greens’ support for the BDS during the 2011 state election and routine accusations of campus anti-Semitism. In Australia, the BDS movement has generated much hot air but achieved little of substance, at least until the case of former BBC journalist Jake Lynch, director of the centre for peace and conflict studies at the University of Sydney.

Lynch is currently the subject of a class action lawsuit under the Racial Discrimination Act launched by the litigious non-government Israeli legal organisation Shurat HaDin. The action centres on Lynch’s refusal, in 2012, due to his support of BDS, to sponsor Hebrew University professor Dan Avnon’s application for a Zelman Cowen Scholarship. Citing Lynch’s support of BDS, Shurat HaDin claims his refusal was based on Avnon, whose scholarly work has pioneered co-operative Jewish-Palestinian curriculums, being an Israeli Jew. Furthermore, the claim alleges that by promoting BDS, Lynch is contributing to discrimination against individual Jews and Jewish-owned businesses and organisations globally. As such, he is in breach of Australian anti-discrimination laws. The real aim, of course, is rather more grandiose and deeply political, as Shurat HaDin lawyer and co-applicant Andrew Hamilton suggests: to effectively outlaw the BDS movement in Australia.

The case is due back in the Federal Court next week, and is highly likely to see Shurat HaDin’s statement of claims dismissed. As it should. Lynch is a myopic, anti-Israel extremist who has seriously asserted that Jewish communal leaders were involved in some Zionist conspiracy to remove Kevin Rudd as prime minister in mid-2010 in favour of a more compliant Julia Gillard. Boycotting academics, many of whom oppose the occupation, would seem to represent the antithesis of the academy’s mission. Practically speaking, even those with a Cook’s tour knowledge of the law can see that Lynch was under no personal obligation to assist Avnon, who has now started a fellowship with the support of another university department. It is hard to see how Avnon, who is bizarrely not listed as an applicant in the claim, has suffered any material loss or seen his professional standing diminished. And to argue that two applicants and their wives have been deprived of the chance to see BDS-supporting Elvis Costello perform in Israel is plainly ludicrous.

Most Australian academics are appalled by BDS, but the court action is winning Lynch undeserved sympathy and has the potential to make him a martyr. Either way, it won’t improve the lives of ordinary Palestinians and Israelis, nor advance the faltering peace process. Not that the egos of the unimaginative combatants will factor in such considerations. In the case of Hamilton, it is the folly of thinking that a barrage of lawfare can somehow obviate the compromises that Israel will need to make to ensure a just and lasting peace. For Lynch, it is his utter incapacity to understand that the descendants of those who lived through Nazi-era boycotts, or for that matter most well-intentioned citizens, are hardly likely to support a campaign that effectively says don’t buy from the world’s only Jewish state and, furthermore, appears to believe peace will arrive on the basis of eradicating the state that is home to half the world’s Jewish population.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 19, 2014 as "BDS campaign adding poison". Subscribe here.

Nick Dyrenfurth
is an adjunct research fellow at Monash University’s national centre for Australian studies, and has worked as a Labor adviser and speechwriter.

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