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Opinion

Israel and the erosion of democracy: an Australian story

Academic freedom is in jeopardy after an Israeli law firm threatens two professors with legal action.

Last Modified: 17 Oct 2013 07:24
Samah Sabawi

Samah Sabawi is a Palestinian writer and Policy Adviser to Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian policy network.
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"Defending the rights of academics to express their views on controversial issues is a basic tenant of democracy", writes Samah Sabawi [EPA]

A few months ago I signed my name as co-defendant to a possible legal action threatened by an Israeli law firm, Shurat HaDin, targeting two Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS) academics - Professors Jake Lynch and Stuart Rees for publically refusing to co-operate with Israel’s Hebrew university. Almost two thousand Australian and international academics, writers, human rights activists and other members of civil society have since joined this unprecedented historic act of solidarity signing as co-defendants along with the two targeted professors.

Jake Lynch was practicing a basic democratic right when he made a moral and ethical decision to refuse to collaborate with an academic representing Hebrew university. Part of Hebrew university campus and dormitories were built on illegally annexed Palestinian land in contravention of the four Geneva Conventions. The university also sponsors the archeological digs in the Occupied Territories , appropriating Palestinian historical artifacts, preventing Palestinians from accessing those sites and displacing them from there - an act considered to be plundering under International Humanitarian Law. There is a long list of other violations by Hebrew university such as its links to Elbit systems - one of Israel's largest military security and surveillance companies that monitors and maintains Israel's continued illegal occupation of Palestinian land. But this story is not just about Jake Lynch or Hebrew University, it is a story about how democracy functions.

Defending the rights of academics to express their views on controversial issues is a basic tenant of democracy. Given that democracies are a work in progress, it is up to us as citizens within democratic nations to use our voice to protect our civil liberties. Part of this means we have to empower those who have been disempowered and stripped of their basic human rights, both at home and abroad. This does not bode well for Israel - a state criticised by UN bodies and reputable human rights organisations for its flagrant human rights violations.

Israel’s supporters react to criticism in two ways. The first is by intimidating and slandering critics claiming they are anti-Semitic and/or terrorist sympathisers. The second is by attacking and eroding our democratic rights thus destroying the tools by which we are able to expose its abuses and war crimes. 

Academic freedom is hindered when governments interfere with their citizens’ right to form and express independent political views.

In this case, Israel’s network of supporters has launched all the fire power at their disposal, slandering the academics while pressuring the Australian government to erode our democratic right to dissent. CPACS is now faced with the real threat of losing federal government funding for programs unrelated to the campaign “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” (BDS), solely on the basis of the political views held by the Centre’s director Jake Lynch.

Academic freedom is hindered when governments interfere with their citizens’ right to form and express independent political views. Last year following lobbying by the National Tertiary Education Union, the former Gillard government introduced a proposal to reform the objectives of the Higher Education Support Act making it a condition of funding that higher education institutions uphold academic freedom. Jeannie Rea, the National Tertiary Education Union president told Sydney Morning Herald, ''these changes…are an explicit acknowledgment that university staff has a right and a responsibility to exercise free intellectual inquiry, including the right to expression of controversial or unpopular opinions without being disadvantaged or discriminated against.''

The significance of this reform was lost on Australia’s new government. Before winning the elections, the now Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop promised to deny funding for projects by all academics who voice support for boycotting Israel regardless of whether or not these projects are related to the Palestine/Israel conflict. 

But make no mistake about it, this policy of repression will not only target pro-Palestine supporters or critics of Israel, it will impact all sectors in Australian civil society. PM Tony Abbott has plans to re-prioritise about $900m in annual Australian Research Council (ARC) grants ensuring that only projects that are deemed worthy by the Liberal government and in line with their ideological beliefs will receive funding. The National Tertiary Education Union was amongst the first to criticise this infringement on democracy. Other condemnations followed from many peak bodies in the sector including the Deans of Arts, the Council for Humanities Arts and Social Sciences (CHASS), Science and Technology Australia (STA), Social Sciences and Humanities, the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) and Universities Australia.

I asked Jake Lynch to comment on the possibility that he may find himself without funding for his research. This was his response:

“Julie Bishop's attempts to stifle dissent on a key issue of foreign policy amount to an abuse of office and reflect badly on the integrity of Australian public life. I fully accept that I am entitled to no public money to pursue or publicise the academic boycott of Israel, and indeed I have never sought, nor received any. But Ms Bishop's threats to withhold government research funding even for unrelated topics is an attack on intellectual freedom, aimed at intimidating others from engaging critically with Australian government policies on the Israel-Palestine conflict.”

At the end of this month we will find out if Professor Jake Lynch will be denied funding for a Discovery Project grant from the Australian Research Council because of his critical views regarding a foreign state; views that are shared by notable human rights advocates world-wide including the Rev. Desmond Tutu. In the meantime, the list of co-defendents will continue to grow as more of us rise to say no to Israel’s bullying tactics that threaten our basic democratic right to non-violently oppose its racist violations of intentional humanitarian law.

Israel is indeed good for western democracies but not for the reasons it claims; it is good because it exposes the hypocrisy and faults that are inherent within other democratic systems. If we cannot openly debate controversial issues within university campuses or hold controversial views on a foreign government then our democratic rights and freedom of expression are in peril.

Samah Sabawi is a Palestinian writer and Policy Adviser to Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian policy network.   

Follow her on Twitter: @gazaheart

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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