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Does the CPACS boycott of Israel pass the 'racism' test?

By Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz - posted Thursday, 31 January 2013


In 2007, American psychologists Samuel Sommers and Michael Norton took a group of potential jurors, gave them two profiles with accompanying photographs, and asked them who they would select for jury duty and why. After numerous repeats with nothing changed but which profile matched which photo, the results were overwhelmingly consistent: the black man was not selected.

Very few participants, however, cited race as a reason for their decision. Instead, the reason varied depending on the profile that had been given his picture. The black police-reporter had a conflict of interest; the black advertising-executive was too sceptical of statistics. These factors, apparently, were not so relevant when the same men were white.

Racism, you see, is not always as obvious as some would like to believe. There is generally a 'perfectly rational explanation' for each isolated racist incident. The underlying prejudice only becomes apparent when looked at in a broader context.

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One such case is policy adopted by the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney ('CPACS') of boycotting any ties with Israel and shunning anyone who supports Israel's existence. There have been numerous accusations of racism, especially as the centre has a history of promoting some particularly virulent antisemites, but they are not calling for the slaughter of the 'Christ-killers' just yet, and their explanations for the boycott can sometimes sound reasonable.

For example, CPACS lecturer Paul Duffill recently defended  the policy on academic website The Conversation on the basis that 'the International Court of Justice ruled in July 2004 that Israel is occupying Palestinian territory in violation of international law', and therefore 'a peace centre can hardly be expected to be "neutral" or disinterested.'

Duffill's interpretation of the ICJ's Advisory Opinion is inaccurate. The ICJ has, on occasion, found that States were in territory illegally. For example, a 1971 Opinion explicitly held that South Africa's presence in Namibia was illegal and the international community was forbidden from recognising South Africa to the extent that it functioned there. The ICJ said nothing of the sort regarding Israel and the West Bank, beyond that the international community could not recognise as legitimate Israel's construction of a security barrier to prevent terrorism. The Court was of the opinion that Israel could have instead taken other measures less costly to the Palestinians – although, in their infinite wisdom, the judges decided not to share exactly what Israel's other options were.

Another comparable decision was the ICJ's 1975 Advisory Opinion on the Western Sahara. Morocco had been claiming that it is the true sovereign in the area. The Sahrawi people – who actually live there – disagreed. Again, the Court's findings were very clear: Morocco had no sovereign claim over the Western Sahara and no right to deny the self-determination of the Sahrawi.

38 years on, Morocco has refused to renounce its claims and continues to rule there by force. Nevertheless, in March 2012, CPACS hosted an event with the Moroccan ambassador to Australia.

On one level, doing so does not seem unreasonable for a centre dedicated to conflict resolution. Conflicts are, by nature, complex. Conflict resolution is not a spectator sport, it is seldom about picking a side and cheering them on. Rather, it involves dialogue, understanding and compromise. As one senior Israeli negotiator puts it: 'in any serious peace deal, each side has to write the other side's victory speech'. That, presumably, is why CPACS determined to host a series on the Western Sahara conflict, to which they invite representatives from all sides. A year earlier, they had hosted Sahrawi separatist Aicha Dahane, currently in exile after being driven from Morocco by government persecution.

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Not unreasonable, that is, except Duffill claims that 'a peace centre can hardly be expected to be "neutral" or disinterested.' Apparently that is true when the ICJ rules against Israel, but not when it rules against Morocco. Moroccans deserve to put their case forward and be considered as one side in a complex conflict. Israelis, however, must be shunned. CPACS director Jake Lynch has advocatedunderstanding and compassion for the 'legitimate grievances' of everyone from Hamas to al-Qaeda. Except, that is, for Israelis.

Is this sufficient to prove racism? Perhaps not, but it is certainly a double standard. Further evidence can come from another racism test. Racially prejudiced behaviour, whether conscious or unconscious, can sometimes be identified as it evokes imagery associated with negative stereotypes applying to a person's race. So, for example, a shout of 'go home' has a different meaning when addressed to a refugee than it does when addressed to your neighbour's children; an impersonation of Serena Williams making light of her muscular physic and loud grunting on the tennis court is more benign without including exaggerated 'breasts and booty'; and your best Jackie Chan impression is a lot less offensive without an exaggerated accent and stretched-out eyes.

In 2011, Lynch gave some thoughts on Julia Gillard's defeat of Kevin Rudd. In his estimation, the real story was 'an elaborate plot, involving the active connivance of pro-Israel groups, the US embassy, the mining industry and the Right faction of the ALP, and kept successfully secret'. The idea of the insidious 'Zionist lobby' shutting down all dissent is common throughout BDS literature, and that article was certainly not the only time that Lynch has expressed it.

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About the Author

Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz is a policy analyst at the Australian/Israel Jewish Affairs Council

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