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Why the academic boycott of Israel is not anti-Semitic

By Ciara O'Loughlin - posted Thursday, 15 August 2013

Reactions to the announcement earlier this month that an Israeli civil rights group has launched legal action in the Australian Human Rights Commission against Professor Jake Lynch of the University of Sydney's Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies have revealed a gross misunderstanding as to the meaning of anti-Semitism, the nature of the boycott movement, or both.

Shurat HaDin, an Israeli civil rights organisation, has commenced legal action alleging that Professor Lynch and his Centre's support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement violates the Racial Discrimination Act (Cth). The claim flows from Lynch's refusal last year to assist Dan Avnon, the author of the only joint civics curriculum for Jewish and Arab students, in his application for a Sir Zelman Cowen fellowship, an award which supports exchanges between the University of Sydney and the Hebrew University.

The accusations

The announcement of legal action served to reignite many of the accusations and abuse Lynch faced following his initial refusal and again following the threats of legal action issued in late June. Shurat HaDin and a number of Australian organisations were – understandably and justifiably – quick to voice their opinions. Shurat HaDin's Director Nitsana Darshan-Leitner stated that Lynch and others' support for BDS "exposes the anti-Semitism that motivates them", while the Sydney-born lawyer representing the organisation described the movement as "anti-Semitic to its core". B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation Commission chair Dvir Abramovich said of Lynch's stance, "the politics of prejudice have no place in academia". None of the comments reached the level of hysteria that emerged when the threat of legal action was first issued in June, following which the Director of the Executive Council of Australian Jews Peter Wertheim described the movement's unstated purpose to be the destruction of Israel.


As the tally mounts, a recap is in order. Lynch is accused of being anti-Semitic, prejudiced and of associating with a movement that supposedly aims at the destruction of Israel. Is there any truth in these claims?

The reality

Anti-Semitism refers to the hatred of, hostility towards or discrimination against Jews. It is clear that Lynch's boycott does not target Jews as an ethnic or religious group. The Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies welcomes and supports Jewish academics from any other country in the world. As Lynch himself provides, "the target of BDS is not Jews or Judaism, but militarism and lawlessness". The empty accusations are further refuted by the fact the Centre has hosted talks from a number of Jewish speakers, including Professor Ilan Pappé and Rabbi Michael Lerner. While Shurat HaDin's claims of discrimination based on ethnic and racial origin fail on the same grounds, and any claims regarding intent to destroy the state of Israel are laughable, one key question remains. That is, does the academic boycott amount to nothing more than prejudice based on nationality?

Although a definition of a term as common as "prejudice" should not be necessary, the severe accusations bandied about since the announcement of legal action suggest otherwise. Prejudice is preconceived opinion that is based on neither reason nor actual experience. The academic boycott of Israeli institutions by the Centre is part of a wider international academic boycott that began in 2005. Lynch argues that the boycott seeks to send a signal that Israel's lawless behaviour and ongoing military occupation of Palestinian territory is unacceptable. The whole point of the BDS movement is indeed to compensate for shortcomings in many countries' official foreign policy towards Israel – policies that remain silent on many of the key issues. As Lynch says, "by withholding our cooperation on an institutional level, we are doing our bit to make up for that". The boycott targets institutional affiliation – a matter under individual control – and not the arbitrary characteristic of nationality. In fact, in recent years, the Centre has hosted events with Israeli presenters speaking in a personal capacity, such as Emeritus Professor Jeff Halper.

Desmond Tutu, speaking shortly before the University of Johannesburg cut its ties with Ben Gurion University in Israel, encapsulated the inherently political nature of the academic boycott:

It can never be business as usual. Israeli Universities are an intimate part of the Israeli regime… Israeli universities produce the research, technology, arguments and leaders for maintaining the occupation. [Ben Gurion University] is no exception. By maintaining links to both the Israeli defence forces and the arms industry, BGU structurally supports and facilitates the Israeli occupation.

Put simply, the academic boycott is not prejudice: it is a reasoned, calculated and principled action that targets Israeli academic institutions with the aim of sending a message of unacceptability to Israel and encouraging reforms in accordance with international law.


A call for rationality

Whether the BDS movement is a just and effective form of protest has been a topic of debate since its inception. It is certainly a debate worth continuing. The pros and cons of the academic boycott are an element of this discussion and are worthy of serious consideration.

The decision of the Australian Human Rights Commission is bound to take some time. In the meantime, the fervour that has surrounded the announcement of legal action is the absolute antithesis of what we need. The barrage of abuse and false accusations leveled at Professor Lynch reveal a gross misunderstanding as to the meaning of anti-Semitism, the nature of the boycott movement, or both. Whether such misunderstandings are intentional and malicious, or just grossly ignorant, is unclear. What is clear is that the parties levelling such unfounded charges need to take a step back from their emotive hyperbole-drenched statements and gain some perspective. I am not aware of any boycott on reason.

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Ciara O'Loughlin has just returned from a month's study at the Hebrew University on scholarship from the Australian Friends of the Hebrew University.

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About the Author

Ciara O’Loughlin holds an Honours degree in Political Science and International Relations from the University of Western Australia. She is Project Manager of the Young Professionals Network of the Australian Institute of International Affairs (WA).

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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