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Israeli legal group files class action against USYD academic

Avani Dias investigates the latest development in the USYD BDS saga

Shurat Hadin
Photo: Shurat HaDin

Shurat HaDin, an Israeli civil rights group, has filed a class action against Sydney University academic, Associate Professor Jake Lynch.  A press release sent to Honi Soit on Thursday evening stated that they have done so under the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (RDA) suggesting that Lynch’s involvement in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement is unlawful as it involves a “distinction, exclusion or preference based on race… or national or ethnic origin”.  

Established in 2003, the Israeli based group, Shurat HaDin, describe themselves as world leaders in “fighting for the rights of terror victims” in Israel as they seek “to bankrupt the terror groups and grind their criminal activities to a halt – one lawsuit at a time”.  They cover the BDS movement around the world in great detail, providing reports on subjects such as the boycotting of Brad Pitt’s latest movie World War Z, as it depicts Israel in a positive light, to the encouragement of Korean rapper, Psy, to refrain from performing in Israel.  As their press release notes, this most recent complaint filed by Shurat HaDin’s Australian solicitor, Alexander Hamilton, is the first time the RDA has been used in Australia against those involved in the BDS movement.  Hamilton argues that the BDS movement “does nothing to help Palestinians… [and] is merely an excuse for the vilest public anti-Semitic campaign the western world has seen since the Holocaust”.

Professor Lynch, who is head of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS), in 2009 wrote to the Vice-Chancellor asking him to “revoke fellowships schemes between the University of Sydney and two Israeli universities”.  More recently, Lynch denied Professor Don Avnon of the Hebrew University the permission to use his name on an application under a fellowships program between both institutions last year. According to a press release by the ‘Australians for BDS’ group, “Prof. Lynch refused, citing his and CPACS’ support for a boycott of institutional links with universities in Israel.”

Emeritus Professor Stuart Rees, Chair of the Sydney Peace Foundation, alongside Lynch, has emphatically supported the severance of Israeli academic ties.  When told by Honi about the class action, he stated that this was the first he had heard of it and that it was typical of the “deceitful way these groups carry on”.  Rees emphasised that groups such as Shurat HaDin are selective in the people that they inform about their actions, sending press releases to Jewish news sources and The Australian, who have been following the story enthusiastically.  “The essential point is that it’s outrageous that a law firm in another country could be attempting to stifle free speech in Australia.  Imagine if we in Australia attempted to do the same to citizens in Israel,” said Rees, after being questioned on the incident.  Rees, and other supporters of BDS, maintain that this is a “human rights based movement” and “a call for justice by all sectors of Palestinian civil society and supported around the world by unions, civil society and human rights groups.”

Professor Rees and other supporters of the BDS movement at Sydney University have launched a petition to support ‘Australians for BDS’, and to be named as a co-defendant should the claims of Shurat HaDin result in legal action.

Dr Belinda Smith, an expert in anti-discrimination law from the Law Faculty of Sydney University, says that she has never heard of a case of this nature.  Any action filed under the Racial Discrimination Act must first be made in the form of a complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission in writing.  The Commission must always be impartial and it is not a court that can determine whether discrimination has occurred.   The Commission simply acts as a conciliator that aims to resolve a matter between parties.   If the respondent, in this case Professor Lynch, does not admit to it, then the only thing the Commission can do is to terminate the matter and allow the complainant to go to court.

Dr Smith, who has had no involvement with the BDS movement on campus, stated that this was an odd case, as in practice individuals typically lodge claims on their own behalf rather than soliciting a group in another country to do so.  In addition to this, she suggested that although the RDA is one of the most open acts in the way that it has been written, the complainant must still prove how they have been harmed. She is unsure whether this has occurred in this case.  She stated that it is unlikely Professor Lynch would admit to the claim and reward Shurat HaDin with damages, and thus there is a chance that this case will go to the Federal Court or the Federal Circuit Court.

When asked about support for Professor Lynch and his associates, the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies stressed the importance of academic freedom and their condemnation of political attacks on the professional autonomy and integrity of university academics because of their association with the BDS campaign.  The University’s administration has previously stated that while they don’t agree with the motivations of the movement, they defend the rights of academics to write and speak as they wish.

As Professor Lynch is currently on study leave, he was unable to comment on this matter.