Tale of principled Sydney University academic on Palestine and BDS

The following story appeared in Rupert Murdoch’s Australian newspaper yesterday on its front page:

The Sydney University’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, which has thrown its support behind controversial Palestinian leaders, has cited its boycott of Israel for refusing to help an Israeli civics teacher who has designed programs for both Jewish and Arab children.

Hebrew University of Jerusalem academic Dan Avnon is credited with developing and implementing the only state program in civics written for joint Jewish-Arab high schools.

He approached the head of the Sydney University centre, Jake Lynch, for assistance with studying civics education in Australia under a fellowship agreement between the two institutions.

But Associate Professor Lynch rebuffed the request, citing the centre’s support for the anti-Israeli Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

The centre helped establish the Sydney Peace Foundation, which awards the Sydney Peace Prize. Past recipients include the controversial Palestinian activist Hanan Ashrawi.

The centre’s website says it “promotes interdisciplinary research and teaching on the causes of conflict and the conditions that affect conflict resolution and peace”.

Professor Avnon contacted Associate Professor Lynch, expressing interest in spending time at the centre and meeting him.

Associate Professor Lynch emailed in reply: “Your research sounds interesting and worthwhile. However, we are supporters of the campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, and that includes the call for an academic boycott of Israeli universities.”

The BDS movement explicitly equates the Jewish state with apartheid-era South Africa.

The campaign was started in 2005 by 171 Palestinian non-governmental organisations as a form of “non-violent punitive measures” against Israel until it “complies with the precepts of international law”.

The BDS campaign has included protests outside the Max Brenner chain of coffee shops, which are Israeli-owned.

The boycott was led in Australia by Greens council members in Sydney’s inner-west, including former Marrickville mayor Fiona Byrne, whose council voted to support the boycott in 2010. It was dropped after widespread criticism from the federal and state governments, business leaders and the Jewish community.

In 2003 the awarding of the Sydney Peace Prize to Dr Ashrawi provoked fierce debate and protests, arising from her role as a Palestinian spokesperson in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israeli hard-liners loathe Dr Ashrawi, branding her a propagandist and an apologist for terrorism.

Professor Avnon – who has written on moving beyond the Jewish-Palestinian divide to develop a new sense of citizenship in Israel – said of the centre’s decision: “I find it ironic that you promote a policy of boycott that does not distinguish one individual from another. It is ironic because, like myself, many (probably most) intellectuals and scholars in relevant fields are doing our best to effect change in Israeli political culture. We pay prices for going against the institutional grain. And then we turn around and meet such a ‘blind to the person’ policy.”

Professor Avnon continued: “One common tendency that must be changed if we ever want to live sane lives is to debunk categorical and stereotypical thinking when dealing with human beings.” He received no response from Associate Professor Lynch.

University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence rejected a call from Associate Professor Lynch in 2009 to cut links with the Hebrew University and a second Israeli institution, the Technion, in the city of Haifa. “I do not consider it appropriate for the university to boycott academic institutions in a country with which Australia has diplomatic relations,” he wrote in response at the time.

A spokesman for Dr Spence said his position had not changed.

The spokesman said Associate Professor Lynch was “entitled to express a public opinion where it falls under his area of expertise”, but added, “on this particular matter he does not speak for the school, the faculty or for the university”.

The Australian was unable to contact Associate Professor Lynch yesterday.

Professor Avnon said he had received “heart-warming, collegial and positive responses” from other staff at Sydney University. “I look forward to associating with them and learning from and through them about Australia’s policies in civic education and other issues,” he said.

Today the paper publishes this story:

The head of the University of Sydney Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies has defended his refusal to assist an Israeli civics teacher who has designed programs for Jewish and Arab children with research work in Australia.

In a stinging critique of Australia’s foreign policy, Jake Lynch said the centre boycotted Israeli institutions “because of the deficiencies of official foreign policy and diplomacy by Australia and other influential states”.

He said supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel sent a “message of unacceptability for Israel’s expansionist policies and militarism”. “The message has not been clear enough from many governments, including Australia’s, and that has contributed to the problem,” Mr Lynch said.

“By withholding our co-operation on an institutional level, we are doing our bit to make up for that.”

The Australian revealed yesterday that the centre had rejected a bid by Hebrew University of Jerusalem academic Dan Avnon, credited with developing and implementing Israel’s only state program in civics written for joint Jewish-Arab high school students, for assistance with research on the basis of the policy.

Civics education is one of the most sensitive subjects in the Israeli school curriculum. Earlier this year Professor Avnon took a strong stand in a clash over the treatment of a senior education official over the treatment in the curriculum of the incidents of 1948 that led to the birth of the Jewish state. He warned in local media against “an agenda that places an emphasis on nationalistic values at the expense of civil values”.

On moving beyond the Jewish and Palestinian civil divide, Professor Avnon has warned how “locked horns represents a static headlock, which causes psychological and sociological immobility and consequently a diminished quality of life”.

The ban on Professor Avnon provoked anger from the Coalition, which called on Foreign Minister Bob Carr to reveal if the centre declared its pro-BDS stand before receiving a $47,000 grant from AusAid in 2010. Associate Professor Lynch said this was like comparing “apples and oranges”.

Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop demanded Senator Carr repudiate the BDS campaign.

“The decision of the centre to put a ban on contacts with Israeli academics is completely at odds with the aims of a centre that purports to be dedicated to studies in peace,” Ms Bishop said.

The centre is outspoken on other policy issues, with its most recent annual report attacking the war on terror and accusing “official Australia” of attempting to sweep the issue of West Papua “under the carpet”.

Sydney University provides two salaried staff positions, including Associate Professor Lynch’s, at the centre.

Associate Professor Lynch said the centre received research income tied to specific programs and “a few diddly amounts” as a part of Sydney University’s school of social and political sciences.

Two letters appear:

I fundamentally object to Sydney University academic Jake Lynch’s rejection of Hebrew University’s Dan Avnon’s initiative in seeking assistance in teaching civics in Australia for Jews and Arabs and Lynch’s support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (“Uni peace centre rebuffs Israeli civics teacher”, 6/12).

This movement is misguided and will surely produce the exact opposite to the effect intended. From a perspective not directly connected with Israel or Judaism, I profoundly disagree with Lynch’s stance on this.

I believe the BDS movement is supported by people who are racist and anti-Semitic. The movement has no intention of promoting peace between Israelis and Palestinians and if, perchance, they do, are so misguided that they obviously have no idea how this peace could be brought about.

I hope that Lynch can see a broader perspective and reassess his decision and disown any association with the BDS campaign.

Duncan Miller, Brisbane, Qld

Christian Kerr’s article makes no reference to the issue of Israel’s continued flouting of the rules of international law. Neither is there anything about the occupation of Palestine, about settlers stealing Palestinian lands, about the siege of Gaza affecting 800,000 children.

History teaches that the chances of respecting human rights are increased, not when a professor tinkers with a civics curriculum, but when courageous individuals take stands against easy establishment views.

The people mentioned in Kerr’s article – Hanan Ashrawi, Fiona Byrne and Jake Lynch – have taken such stands. May they continue to do so.

Stuart Rees, chairman, Sydney Peace Foundation, Sydney University, NSW

Jake Lynch sent me the following correspondence yesterday to be published so people understand the agendas of the Murdoch press and read his full answers. I salute his public stance, far too rare for academics today. Standing up for justice in Palestine has never been more important:

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.

My reply:

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).

Follow-up question

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.

Broader issue

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.

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