Boycott vote in Sydney suburb sparks media furor, death threats

(Anne Paq/ActiveStills)

On 15 December 2010, the councilors of Marrickville, a suburb of Sydney, Australia voted by a 10-2 majority to support the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS). A month later, they have belatedly become the subjects of vilification in the press owned by international media proprietor Rupert Murdoch and death threats from Australia’s lunatic fringe.

“What does the desert theocracy of Saudi Arabia have in common with Marrickville Council in Sydney’s Inner West?” howls an article in Murdoch’s Telegraph, under a headline comparing the local authority to North Korea. The piece — which manages to be factually inaccurate on subjects as diverse as kosher food laws and Palestine Liberation Organization factions — goes on to hail Israel as “one of the most innovative and entrepreneurial countries in the world. Its products and inventions find their way into computers, mobile phones and medicines.” The online version of the article seeks to demonstrate Israel’s virtues by illustrating it with both a photo gallery of Israeli swimsuit model Bar Refaeli and a video of her writhing in the sand on a photo shoot.

“This is what passes for ‘journalism’ and commentary over Israel/Palestine in Australia,” laments Antony Loewenstein, the Sydney-based author of Australian best-seller My Israel Question and co-founder of Independent Australian Jewish Voices. His blog also points out the inconsistencies and omissions in recent coverage of the incident by The Australian, supposedly a more serious paper than the Telegraph. The Australian quotes Anthony Albanese, a member of the Australian federal parliament whose constituency covers Marrickville council’s turf. Albanese claims that “Foreign policy is a fair way outside the parameters of the role of Marrickville Council” and suggests that the local authority stick to “local” issues.

But Councilor Cathy Peters, who supported the boycott motion at Marrickville, rejects the suggestion that boycotting Israeli products is outside her remit as a council representative. “It’s not a matter of foreign policy at all, but rather the right of a council to make decisions regarding our purchasing policy and the relationships and engagements we have with outside organizations,” she said in an interview with The Electronic Intifada. “It’s completely within our purview to make those decisions. We’ve done it before. We have an ongoing boycott of companies involved in Burma. The council has a long, proud tradition of making ethical decisions.”

Peters also stressed that many Marrickville residents had expressed their concerns about Israeli actions towards the Palestinians to local councilors. Marrickville mayor Fiona Byrne, writing on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation website, also described how “Marrickville Councilors interact with the people we represent on a day to day level. We have spoken with many local residents, with community and multi-faith groups who have told us of their feelings towards the unresolved issue of Palestine and Israel and their desire to be able to take direct action.” The boycott motion has also, she said, been supported by members of Jews Against the Occupation, and she cited the many Australian church and trade union organizations which have supported whole or partial boycotts of Israeli products and organizations.

Anthony Albanese has in the past been supportive of Palestine solidarity campaigns and critical of Israel’s human rights record, so his stance has surprised some local people. Jennifer Killen, a Marrickville resident who strongly supports the council’s twinning with Bethlehem and its boycott initiative, commented to The Electronic Intifada: “I’m very disappointed in my local member of parliament for not being more supportive of our hard-working local councilors at this time.” Killen also pointed out that the contact details of the councilors who voted for the boycott motion are on the website of the Sydney-based Coalition for Justice & Peace in Palestine, and called on international activists to support Marrickville where its MPs had failed to do so.

Councilor Cathy Peters, a Green Party member, emphasized that the boycott motion at Marrickville had cross-party support and that the former mayor of Marrickville, who visited its sister city of Bethlehem in 2010, was a member of the Australian Labor Party. But Antony Loewenstein and other Sydney commentators have suggested that the realpolitik of upcoming elections could be behind Albanese’s condemnation of the boycott vote. The Australian’s article mentions the risks to Albanese’s seat from the Green Party.

But it failed to highlight the fact that Carmel Tebbutt, the New South Wales state legislature member for Marrickville who is quoted in the same article, is also Albanese’s wife — and that her seat is under threat from Marrickville Green Mayor Fiona Byrne in upcoming state-level elections. The New South Wales Green Party adopted a strong boycott, divestment and sanctions position in December 2010 and Albanese’s attacks on the boycott motion could, Sydney commentators suggest, be an attempt to put some political space between himself and his spouse, and their Green challengers.

Outside the mainstream media, Australia’s nastier extremists have also waded in on the Marrickville debate. An article on the Australian Islamist Monitor website entitled “Australian Council Disgraces Itself” berates the local authority, saying that “you have got it all wrong — you have sided with the aggressors, the bullies, the friends of Hitler and those whom Hitler considered his friends in their antisemitism [sic].” The writer goes on to claim that “Israel is a tiny land surrounded by aggressive Muslim nations and as David Horowitz has pointed out repeatedly, the aim of those nations is to deny Israel the right to exist.” David Horowitz, cited by the Australian Islamist Monitor author, is an American commentator and founder of the Freedom Center who claims that “free societies” are “under attack by leftist and Islamist enemies at home and abroad.” As well as attacking Arab and left-wing campaigners, he has also been accused of racism against African Americans.

And one comment following the article reads: “This is insane I hate these people. I would like to have a 22 and pick them off one by one for target practice. Better still a suicide bomber in their midst. In fact I might make a giant blow up of the photo and sell it to a shooting range.” A “smiley” emoticon follows the comment. Immediately after it, the same commenter, “Skipping Girl,” adds: “God Bless Israel.”

Despite its claims to be “anti-racist in all its forms” and to support freedom of speech when this does not lead to violence, the Australian Islamist Monitor site is rife with hysterical and sometimes violent comments about Muslim people. A number of its contributors have links to more extreme hate sites and have made openly racist comments in other forums. The website’s membership is strictly controlled, with potential members approved by a human moderator as well as by electronic tests. However, in more than three weeks it has made no move to remove Skipping Girl’s bloodthirsty comments.

Cathy Peters says that she has been made aware that some threatening comments have been made regarding Marrickville councilors, but that the matter has been turned over to the council’s general manager for consideration. For her, the larger concern is how the issue of Palestine is debated in Australia.

“I think it’s unfortunate that these kind of emotional comments have been triggered by an overall reluctance by the Board of Deputies and other groups to tolerate debate and criticism of Israeli policies regarding Palestine and the occupied territories,” she says, rejecting charges that Marrickville’s councilors have been influenced by “political correctness” or ideology. Her fellow members, she points out, include some “very experienced” local councilors with diverse backgrounds and political opinions.

“The problem at the moment is one of groups trying to close down dialogue on the subject,” Peters insists. “What is really needed at the moment is a mature, calm debate on Israel’s policies on Palestine and how Australians should respond to them.”

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She now writes full-time on a range of issues, including Palestine. Her first book, Gaza: Beneath the Bombs, co-authored with Sharyn Lock, was published in January 2010. She is currently working on a new edition of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and a biography of Leila Khaled.