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BDS campaign questions academics' courage

By Stuart Rees - posted Monday, 21 January 2013


At the end of last year, The Australian newspaper spent days deriding Dr. Jake Lynch, Director of Sydney University's Centre for Peace & Conflict Studies whose governing Council supports the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign against the government of Israel. Consistent with his colleagues' stance, Lynch refused to host an Israeli Professor, Don Avnon from Hebrew University, in his efforts to spend time at Sydney University examining civics teaching. Lynch's principled refusal was positive about Avnon's search but explained why he could not support the Israeli academic's request.

This controversy raises two issues concerning professionals' standards and responsibilities. The first concerns what passes for journalism. The second highlights the responsibilities of all academics in regard to human rights.

In attacking Dr. Lynch, journalists for The Australian demonised supporters of BDS and described the opponents of the campaign as full of sweetness and light. Such polarisation encouraged attacks from the blogosphere and from conservative politicians, such as Christopher Pyne and Julie Bishop, whom the newspaper knew they could rely on to endorse any view that defended Israeli policies.

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Instead of the attack technique, the journalists could have analysed the BDS campaign and the extent of its support across Europe, North America and Africa. They could have explained that the rationale behind the boycott of academic institutions involves the complicity of a nation in the occupation of Palestine, in the continued siege of Gaza, the stealing by settlers of Palestinian lands and the decades of containment in camps of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees.

Complicity also involves privileged institutions, such as universities. However meritorious certain individual academics might be, the non-cooperation policy makes for no exceptions and some Israeli academics fully understand and accept that principle. To do otherwise is to pretend that Israel remains a normal country despite policies towards Palestinians . The BDS challenges claims about such normality.

That allegedly progressive Israeli academics are penalised by this boycott is part of the controversy. But the literature suggests that most Israeli academics are concerned with their own careers and turn a blind eye to the cruel policies of their State.

A more important point is that scholars such as Professor Avnon, work in privileged organisations, are free to travel and can enhance their prestige by attending other universities around the globe. By contrast, Palestinian academics and students have few resources, experience only containment and few chances to study overseas. The Israel High Court has even forbidden Gaza students from studying in West Bank universities.

In addition to the ' we always know', ' we like to vilify' techniques of some journalists from The Australian, questions also need to be raised about the responsibilities of Australian academics. It is misleading to perceive the controversy concerning Sydney University's Centre for Peace & Conflict Studies as only about the supposed Lynch/ Avnon affair.

Many academics are interested in human rights, teach such a subject and even obtain human rights oriented research funds. But unless they make the link between theory and practice, they are, in the prophetic words of the American social scientist Robert Lynd, 'Lecturing on navigation while the ship is going down.'

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In the face of continuous human rights abuses affecting Palestinians, the time comes for citizens to find other ways to address these issues. The BDS movement provides one of the hopeful 'other ways'.

In early December 2012, the distinguished cartoonist Leunig challenged his fellow citizens, 'I am not interested in defending the dominant, the powerful, the well resourced and well armed because such groups are usually not in need of advocacy, moral support or sympathetic understanding....The work of the artist is to express what is repressed or even to speak the unspoken grief of society. When all is said and done, it looks like the Palestinians have been robbed and abused and are engaged in a desperate struggle for survival and liberation.'

The BDS movement is part of that struggle, yet The Australian painted Lynch as the devil incarnate and Avnon as some kind of human rights saint. Other Australian academics could watch from the sidelines but keep their

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About the Author

Stuart Rees is Professor Emeritus of the University of Sydney and Chair of the Sydney Peace Foundation. He is the former Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation (1998-2011) and of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (1988-2008), and a Professor of Social Work (1978-2000) at the University of Sydney.

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