Spurious case against Palestine activist

On 29 October, the Israel-based law centre Shurat HaDin filed a case in the Australian Federal Court against Professor Jake Lynch, the director of the University of Sydney’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, over his support of the Palestinian-initiated boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign.

The BDS campaign calls for the boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions that are complicit in the system of oppression that denies Palestinians their basic rights.

Lynch had been previously targeted by Shurat HaDin, along with Professor Stuart Rees, when the centre lodged a claim against them and the BDS campaign with the Australian Human Rights Commission on 31 July.

In both instances, Shurat HaDin has accused Lynch and the BDS campaign of breaching the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act, which deems it unlawful to discriminate against a person “based on race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin”.

The BDS campaign does not target individuals, businesses or institutions on the basis of religion, ethnicity or nationality. Businesses and institutions are boycotted on the basis of their contribution to human rights abuses, their contribution to the violations of international law by the Israeli state and military or their contribution to “rebranding campaigns” that attempt to whitewash Israel’s human rights abuses and war crimes.

Shurat HaDin claims that Lynch’s support for BDS and his refusal to sponsor a fellowship application for Israeli academic Dan Avnon from the Hebrew University violates Australian law.

In December 2012, Avnon approached Lynch for assistance to study civics education in Australia under a fellowship agreement between the Hebrew University and Sydney University. Lynch declined to assist Avnon because of Lynch’s opposition to the fellowship agreement between the two institutions, not because Avnon was Israeli or Jewish, as Shurat HaDin claims.

The Hebrew University has a long history of complicity with Israel’s human rights abuses against the Palestinian people, part of the university’s Jerusalem campus and dormitories being built on stolen Palestinian land in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

The university also has strong ties with the Israeli government and military establishment. A range of Israeli military colleges and training facilities are the responsibility of the university. It also has links to Elbit Systems, one of Israel’s largest military companies. Michael Federman, the chairman of Elbit Systems, is on the Hebrew University Board of Governors. A September 2012 report to the United Nations General Assembly named Elbit Systems for its complicity with Israel’s human rights abuses and war crimes in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Since its launch in 2005 by 171 Palestinian civil society groups, the BDS campaign has gone from strength to strength. In response, Shurat HaDin and a range of other pro-Zionist individuals, groups and organisations have launched a campaign of “lawfare” to undermine the rights of pro-Palestine activists to free speech and freedom of assembly.

Lawfare proponents such as Shurat HaDin regularly use SLAPP suits (strategic lawsuits against public participation) to try to damage political opponents by either financially crippling them or tying them up in court and/or to win public relations victories for the lawfare proponent.

In most instances, SLAPP suit proponents do not expect to win their suit. Their primary goal is to prevent public participation and political activism through intimidation and mounting legal costs.

Shurat HaDin has launched a range of SLAPP suits around the world and in Australia had previously threatened legal proceedings against both World Vision Australia and AusAID, the Australian government developmental aid organisation. It claimed that their support for the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) in Gaza violated Australian and US counter-terrorism legislation. After conducting an investigation into the claims, both organisations found that there was no merit whatsoever to Shurat HaDin’s claims.

Shurat HaDin since its inception in 2003 has claimed to be a “fully independent non-profit organisation, unaffiliated with any political party or governmental body”. However, earlier this month, the UK public investigation group Spin Watch revealed that Shurat HaDin in fact acts as a proxy for the Israeli government.

In a 5 October Spin Watch article, Tom Griffin and David Miller cited US government cables opened by WikiLeaks, which revealed that Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, the founder and director of Shurat HaDin, had “privately admitted to taking direction from the Israeli government over which cases to pursue and relying on Israeli intelligence contracts for witnesses and evidence”.

On 31 October, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ), one of the key Zionist lobby groups in Australia, which has opposed the Palestinian BDS campaign and falsely labelled it “anti-Semitic”, issued a press statement distancing itself from Shurat HaDin’s actions.

ECAJ’s executive director, Peter Wertheim, noted that Shurat HaDin’s campaign against Jake Lynch was being pursued “merely as a political tactic”. ECAJ’s attempt to distance itself from Shurat HaDin’s lawfare campaign against Lynch is no doubt informed by the fact that lawfare attempts against other BDS activists in France, England, Scotland, the USA and Australia have failed.

Shurat HaDin’s lawfare attack on Lynch, academic freedom and freedom of speech has also been condemned by more than 2,000 Australian and international human rights advocates from more than 60 countries, who have signed a pledge supporting BDS and offering to be co-defendants in any legal action taken against Lynch.

The case is scheduled to be heard in the Federal Court on 27 November.

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