BDS and the Kemp affair: clearing up misunderstandings

I am prompted to write because of my growing and heartfelt concern over misunderstandings about aspects of my role and activities as Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney. These misunderstandings have given rise, I know, to serious misgivings among some members of the Jewish community in particular, and I wish to address those misgivings and – so far as possible – set them at rest.

Main points:

• I have been cleared, twice, of allegations of anti-Semitism – once in Australia’s Federal Court and then again through a University of Sydney investigation of events at a public lecture held at the University in March;

• I was not part of the protest that interrupted this public lecture. After it happened, I left my seat solely out of concern for the health and safety of protesters who were being forcefully ejected;

• While I am a critic of present policies of the Government of Israel, that should not be taken as any statement of enmity with Australia’s Jewish community – some of whom, indeed, agree with my views and work alongside me;

• It is important for such issues to be aired on University campuses, and we are all responsible for ensuring that they may continue to be openly and respectfully discussed, with contributions from people with a range of views. That is a responsibility I take very seriously.

My political stance

I am an advocate and exponent of the academic boycott of Israel. That does not make me anti-Israel, still less anti-Semitic. My concern is motivated by the values of peace with justice, and an analysis that Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territory, since 1967, is wrong in principle, and a major obstacle to fulfilling the needs, and realising the rights and freedoms, of all the people of Israel and Palestine. In my former profession of television reporter, I once interviewed the Israeli father of a military ‘refusenik’, Adam Maor, in Haifa. “The occupation is the cancer that is killing both societies”, he told me. “Whatever you do to end the occupation, bless you”.

I believe that the occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza is made to seem more legitimate, and international political pressure for its ending is lowered, by the day-to-day continuation of normal institutional links between Israel and other countries such as Australia. Academic exchanges, at an institutional level, come into this category. As Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu wrote last year, in a column in Ha’aretz that was billed as an ‘open letter’ to the people of Israel:

“Those who continue to do business with Israel, who contribute to a sense of ‘normalcy’ in Israeli society, are doing the people of Israel and Palestine a disservice. They are contributing to the perpetuation of a profoundly unjust status quo. Those who contribute to Israel’s temporary isolation are saying that Israelis and Palestinians are equally entitled to dignity and peace”.

The nonviolent campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, which is based on this logic, is a loose affiliation of those of us who respond to the call for it, which was issued by a group of Palestinian civil society organisations. This followed the advisory ruling by the World Court, in 2004, that Israel’s security barrier, erected on Palestinian land in the West Bank, is illegal. Because governments generally took no action in response to this ruling, an appeal went out to respond at other levels.

The BDS campaign has three aims: an end to the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip (where Israel is recognised as still the occupying power by its control of borders, seaboard and airspace); equal rights for all the citizens of historic Palestine, including present-day Israel, and support for the right of return of Palestinian refugees. On the last point: BDS is, by definition, a campaign of international solidarity. We are not the Palestinians, so we cannot say how the Palestinians will or should enact that right, which is vested only in them, as the rights-holders. We are in favour of the right of return, in the context of the great historic and ongoing wrong done to the Palestinian people. But support for BDS stops well short of any ‘fork in the road’ in any future political or legal process, involving the Palestinians through their own legitimate representatives, on how their rights should be realised. In a similar way, support for BDS does not mandate support for either a so-called ‘one-state’ or ‘two-state solution’ to the conflict.

I realise these are sensitive issues, on which there are deeply felt and opposing views in our community – including among the Jewish community. I regularly take opportunities to raise and discuss them with fellow academics and the general public, because I consider it my duty to do so. I work alongside, and with the support of, prominent members of Australia’s Jewish community, such as Associate Professor Peter Slezak of the University of New South Wales; Vivienne Porzsolt of Jews Against the Occupation; Antony Loewenstein of Independent Australian Jewish Voices; Dr Marcelo Svirsky of Wollongong University; former Greens councillor Cathy Peters, and many others.

The Kemp lecture and aftermath

You will probably have heard of me most recently in connection with a public lecture at the University in March of this year, by Richard Kemp, a retired Colonel from the British Army. Kemp is known for his justification of Israeli military tactics in Gaza of recent years. As you know, there are sharply differing views on this subject, including within Israel, where the military veterans’ group, Breaking the Silence, has issued several reports based on disturbing testimony from soldiers involved in the operations, about the orders they were given and the effect on civilians and civilian infrastructure.

I was in my seat, and listening to the lecture, when a group of protesters entered, one of whom carried a megaphone. This took me completely by surprise. Contrary to what you may have heard, I was not a participant in this protest, let alone its leader.

Emergency protest for Gaza
Emergency protest for Gaza Brisbane, 2014

Around two minutes had passed when University security guards began to use force to eject the protesters. I left my seat to remonstrate with them, solely because – the protesters themselves having posed no threat to anyone – the security guards’ actions created a significant risk of serious harm where none had previously existed. That was a judgment I made at the time, which has since been supported by a medical expert who viewed video recordings of the event. One protester was grabbed in a headlock, which – with rotation – can lead to spinal injuries. Carrying struggling protesters bodily off the floor, which also happened, risks fracture, including cranial and spinal fracture.

Following this sequence of events, I and my wife were subjected to a series of physical attacks by a member of the audience, whom I ultimately felt it justified to threaten to sue for assault. At one point, I produced a banknote from my shirt pocket, to lend emphasis to my point. I was horrified when it was put to me that, in doing so, I had inadvertently featured in an image that others then used to invoke a vile stereotype, connected with the persecution of Jews in Europe. I can appreciate the hurtfulness, to members of the Jewish community, of having that stereotype re-activated in our modern society.

However, I emphasise the word, “inadvertently”. An investigation into this incident by the University of Sydney cleared me of anti-Semitism, and indeed I have been at pains all along to repudiate any such imputation. For instance, I told the ABC’s PM programme, on Radio National, on April 2nd:

“The suggestion that I behaved in a way that was in any way anti-Semitic is entirely mischievous”.

(Full transcript here:

I also established, last year in Australia’s Federal Court, that my policy of supporting the academic boycott does not infringe Australia’s laws on racial discrimination, after I was the subject of an application led by Shurat Ha’Din, an Israeli legal centre. That was very important to me because it reaffirmed the distinctions I always strive to uphold. My stance is not anti-Israel, let alone anti-Jewish – it is, rather, aimed solely at contributing to political pressure from the international community for the ending of policies that I consider inimical to the rights and freedoms of both Palestinians and, ultimately, Israelis.

Many in the Jewish community – and the community at large – disagree with my views and my analysis of the issues of conflict affecting Israelis and Palestinians. But the important point here is that I am sincere in wishing for positive, sustainable peace for both peoples, and that all my contributions to public debate over those issues are motivated solely by that wish.

I am willing to attend any forum to explain and elaborate further on any of these thoughts, should you wish to hear further from me on this, or any subject connected with my established research interests in peace and peace journalism.

Jake Lynch Director, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies The University of Sydney


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