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Criticism of Israel’s policies should never be equated with hatred for Jews

By Professor Stuart Rees

“ANTI-SEMITE!” “Racist!” “Despicable values!” “Should be sacked!”

I received these comments and accusations following an article by Christian Kerr in The Australian on May 14. He correctly quoted me saying Liberal MP Christopher Pyne’s support for the London Declaration against anti-Semitism was “populist”.

Kerr may not have expected the subsequent vendetta against me, let alone the demands last Friday by former Speaker of the federal parliament Peter Slipper that, as an anti-Semite on a public payroll, I should be sacked.

My point was that the London Declaration against anti-Semitism is a consensus document. Politicians are applauded and often applaud themselves for signing it and take no risk in doing so. Pyne’s press release was a “pat myself on the back eulogy” and a gratuitous attack on the Palestinian-initiated Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions supporters whose campaign is seldom explained in mainstream media and easily depicted as controversial.

You can support both the London Declaration and the BDS campaign. However, that distinction is easily lost when individuals are demonised and Israel’s constant flouting of international law is deliberately diverted by discussion of other countries’ human rights abuses.

If attitudes to Israel and the BDS campaign are distorted, it can have serious repercussions. For that reason I’ll detail the events that prompted Kerr’s article, the accompanying editorial in The Australian and the subsequent abusive emails.

First, a woman I’d never heard of asked me to comment on Pyne’s support for the London Declaration and his manifestly nonsensical claim that university activists who support BDS undermine the right of Jewish people to live in their Jewish homeland. I naively assumed that a quick response was the end of the matter. It wasn’t. She wrote back saying the Prime Minister had also signed the declaration and asked if I had the same sentiments about her as about Pyne.

Somewhat impulsively I replied “of course”, meaning that signing the London Declaration as a sign of moral virtue was an easy decision. By contrast, Stephen Hawking’s support for the BDS campaign is a much more politically and intellectually demanding decision.

My exchange with this lady finished up on Kerr’s desk and led to a heading next day saying I had lashed out at the Prime Minister. Really?

Kerr’s article was accompanied by an editorial headed “Strange way to promote peace” with the subheading, “Critics of Israel should turn their attention to Iran”. This implied that by criticising Israeli policies I was siding with Iran’s supreme leader, who was quoted as saying “any deal that accepted the Jewish state’s existence would leave a `cancerous tumour forever”‘.

This technique of deflecting attention from the cruel and illegal policies of Israel depends on misinformation. It is implied that if you support BDS you must be anti-Semitic and are therefore no different from Israel’s religious fanatic opponents. Guilty by association. Positions polarised.

Projects run by the Sydney Peace Foundation and the University of Sydney’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies include support for the struggle of indigenous West Papuans, advocacy for the vulnerable Tamils in Sri Lanka and criticism of capital punishment in Iran and Saudi Arabia. The centre also provides English classes for refugees on temporary protection visas.

It is false to suggest, as in The Australian’s editorial subheading, that we pay attention only to Israel. I have just returned from Paris, where the Sydney Peace Foundation honoured the widow of the late Stephane Hessel, a Jew, a survivor of the Holocaust, an architect of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, author of the bestseller Time for Outrage, a hero of the French Republic and an enthusiastic supporter of the BDS campaign.

Hessel wrote: “When governments cannot be relied upon to defend humanity it is the role of us, the people, to lead the struggle for justice.”

The BDS campaign is grounded in international law and has nothing to do with anti-Semitism or delegitimising Israel. Israeli professor Ilan Pappe contends that it is a sacred duty to end Israel’s oppressive occupation as soon as we can and that the best means for this is a sustained BDS campaign.

There are other reasons for turning to BDS. Negotiation and diplomacy have produced nothing but the enlargement of settlements, the continued siege of Gaza and the absurd claim that a two-state solution is possible when the two sides are so imbalanced, economically, militarily and politically.

The peace process is a sham. Politicians play a cruel game if they do not recognise this but it requires vision and courage to say so.

As for Slipper’s demand that it was outrageous that I was paid public money to explain and support BDS and that I should therefore be sacked, for the past 13 years I have been a volunteer at the centre and foundation.

I have not been paid any salary, nor claimed any expenses. I have worked in diverse campaigns, often in dangerous places, and have been committed to raising funds for students from the poorest countries.

Such activities are fuelled by the values that The Australian said, albeit delicately, were strangely skewed but that Slipper described as despicable.


This article was first published in The Australian, on 21 May 2013. 

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