By Associate Professor Jake Lynch, Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney
A reporter for the Australian newspaper, Christian Kerr, asked me for comment about my support, and that of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, for the campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, and specifically a boycott of Israeli universities.
The story arose because I declined a request last month by an Israeli academic, Professor Dan Avnon, to name me as a University of Sydney contact on his application for a Sir Zelman Cowen fellowship, which underwrites exchanges between the University of Sydney and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In explaining my decision, I cited CPACS’ policy, which was adopted, and has since been affirmed, by the Centre’s governing Council.
Mr Kerr asked me specifically whether there were circumstances in which the policy would lead to a distinction between responses to individual academics, and their institutions.
There is a distinction between – on the one hand – engaging with Israeli academics who are representing themselves, and – on the other – entering into institutional arrangements between Australian and Israeli universities. As an example of the former, we in CPACS hosted a talk, a number of years ago, by Emeritus Professor Jeff Halper, co-founder and coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. He was invited to Sydney, and his visit supported, by the Coalition for Justice and Peace in Palestine. Our role was to book a room in the University, and publicise the event among the University community.
As I explained to Professor Avnon, I have nothing against him personally, and his research sounds interesting. He contacted me to ask whether I would agree to his naming me as a University of Sydney contact person in his application for a Sir Zelman Cowen fellowship. I explained, in my reply, that this would involve us in an institutional arrangement with Israeli Higher Education, and as such I would decline to do so, under our support (as a Centre) for BDS. I made the same point in my email that the University spokesperson made to you – that this is a policy of CPACS, not of the University or any other part of it.
The substantive point is, we are compelled to have recourse to initiatives from civil society, such as the BDS campaign, because of the deficiencies of official foreign policy and diplomacy by Australia and other influential states.
Australia’s vote at the UN General Assembly, to abstain on the question of observer status for Palestine, represents a welcome improvement on other recent votes, such as the one in November 2010 when we joined just six other countries in opposing a motion condemning Israeli ethnic cleansing in East Jerusalem. But the fact that this slight shift – from the extreme pro-Israeli fringe of world political opinion, slightly more towards the centre – is greeted as noteworthy here, is eloquent of the shortcomings of Australia’s policy stance and record of previous responses. For the Palestinians’ right to self-determination to be accorded even the very modest recognition that UN observer status confers, should not be seen as a great controversy but rather as a basic pre-requisite to any prospect of peace with justice – which is to say, peace with sustainability.
As has been remarked, it also sends a signal that Israel’s continuing lawless behaviour – its ongoing military occupation of Palestinian territory; its illegal settlement-building and its disproportionate killing of civilians – are deemed unacceptable by the world at large. I welcome the calling-in of Israel’s Ambassador to Australia, to hear complaints about the announcement of new settlements following the UN vote, but, again, this is a very modest step and it comes after so many sub-optimal responses in the recent past.
It is that clear message of unacceptability – for Israel’s expansionist policies and militarism – that the BDS is calculated to send. The message has not been clear enough from many governments, including Australia’s, and that has contributed to the problem. By withholding our cooperation on an institutional level, we are doing our bit to make up for that.
(To anticipate responses you may receive… Sure, lobbing rockets into civilian areas, as some Palestinian armed factions do from Gaza, is also unacceptable – but on that score, there is no shortage of condemnation, and the Palestinians pay a heavy political price for it).
In a later email, Mr Kerr asked me about a grant I successfully applied for under the International Seminar Support Scheme, run by AusAID, in 2010. Had AusAID asked me, he wanted to know, about CPACS’ policy, before giving me the grant?
I replied that no, they had not, and neither would they have any occasion to, since the two issues are entirely unconnected. Any attempt to link them would, I wrote, be ‘comparing apples with oranges’.
The rules of the ISSS specify that it is to be used only to meet the expenses of delegates from developing countries attending conferences, and indeed that is what we used it for, when we hosted the biennial global conference of IPRA, the International Peace Research Association.
There is a list of eligible countries for delegates, which, while not applied strictly in every case, certainly does not and would not include Israel, purely on the basis that it is not a low-income country.
There is a broader issue with the way in which the Israel-Palestine conflict is generally reported in Australian media. In my research project, A Global Standard for Reporting Conflict, I played ‘two versions’ of TV news stories about conflict to audiences in four countries, including Australia.
One of the stories here was about an episode of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, involving a small exchange of fire on the Gaza border and the arrival in the region of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to broker the next round of the ‘peace process’ – the ‘talks-without-conditions’ invariably favoured in ministerial rhetoric about the conflict, here in Australia and elsewhere, which have so miserably failed to bring peace.
Anyway, the most widespread response among research participants was one of déjà vu: a mental switching-off, with a widely expressed view that the same report could have been played, in its essentials, ten, 20 or even 30 years ago.
When the same story was re-versioned with some new material, however, audiences sat up and took notice. One new element was a map showing the ‘amazing disappearing Palestine’ – how the territory available to Palestinians has been shrunken, divided and reticulated by decades of illegal land-grabs. And the other was an interview with a Palestinian refugee here in Sydney, who likened the situation on the occupied West Bank to setting out on a journey ‘from Marrickville to Glebe’ only to meet ‘fourteen army checkpoints’ along the way.
These are key facts, essential to any serious understanding of the conflict. Their impact on a jaded Sydney audience, who expressed great appreciation for them as helpful to clarify the story, shows their rarity value. Why are they so rare, in television reports about the conflict? Perhaps because reporters instead contrive to set the boundaries of what an influential media researcher, Daniel Hallin, called ‘legitimate controversy’ in a way that owes nothing to the realities on the ground, and everything to the partial view that has prevailed, in recent times, in the mainstream of Australian politics.
It’s important to emphasise how parochial this view is. It is not odd that people active in the BDS campaign wish to signal the unacceptability of Israeli militarism. Quite the contrary – in global terms, it is odd that leading politicians here do not do so more strongly and more often. It is not odd that Australia does not oppose Palestinian observer status at the UN – it is odd that it does not support it.
For Julia Gillard to be greeted, as she was on her trip to Israel in early 2009, shortly after the last attack on Gaza, as having been ‘alone in standing by us’, signals clearly how out of touch she was. The message she sent last week, that her own preference would have been for Australia to cast its UN vote in the ‘no’ column, indicates the continuing inadequacy of her stance on this issue. Thanks to the Labor MPs who ensured that ignominy, at least, was avoided – and to Bob Carr for calling in the Israeli Ambassador for a telling-off.
These are baby steps towards the mainstream of world opinion, and they need to be lengthened and strengthened. The BDS campaign is there to keep that issue on the agenda.
Christian Kerr returned with two further questions, (1) about the sources of income for the Centre, and (2) about the Centre’s other key areas of work.
Well… The Centre does not really have ‘income’ in that sense because the ‘business’ we do is in our coursework and research student programs, and the fees people pay to study with us accrue at School and Faculty level. We are one of six units in the School of Social and Political Sciences, which is in turn one of five Schools in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (one of 17 Faculties in the University, I believe). Academic and general staff in the Centre are employed through the Faculty.
Now and then we get research income, as for instance from the Australian Research Council, but that is earmarked for carrying out a specified research program as you may imagine.
There are a few diddly amounts, for instance now and then we get a couple of thousand or so from the School budget, which we use to pay for ‘ticking-over’ expenses such as printing course readers and annual reports, but they are insignificant in comparison.
My own chief research interest is Peace Journalism, but staff and members of the Centre are interested in a range of issues – yes, West Papua is one; peace with justice in Sri Lanka; nuclear disarmament; transitional justice and reconciliation after violence; human rights including those of asylum seekers… The list is long.
As you are looking into our sources of income, are you also looking into how Israel pays for the weapons it uses in its disproportionate attacks on the Palestinians? If not, why are you drawing attention to the mouse in the room, not the elephant?