A court case brought against a Sydney university professor over his support for the Palestinian call for the boycott of Israel has suffered a huge setback after four of the original five complainants signaled their intention to withdraw.
The case against Jake Lynch was originally launched in the Australian Federal Courts in October 2013 by a group of right-wing Israeli lawyers called Shurat HaDin, the Israel Law Center.
The case was supported by four other applicants, including Andrew Hamilton, the Australian-born Israeli lawyer who is also acting on behalf of Shurat HaDin.
But a judge has cited a lack of evidence in the group’s claims against the professor.
Shurat HaDin and its fellow complainants brought the case against Lynch, the director of the University of Sydney’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, due to his support of the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign.
He was previously targeted by Shurat HaDin, along with his colleague Professor Stuart Rees, in the group’s claim against the two academics and the BDS campaign with the Australian Human Rights Commission in July 2013.
In both instances, Lynch was accused of breaching the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act, which deems it unlawful to discriminate against a person “based on race, color, descent or national or ethnic origin.”
On 19 June it was suggested that the four applicants could withdraw from upcoming legal proceedings. That came after Australian Federal Court Magistrate Alan Robertson struck out, on 24 April, significant sections of their original claim. Justice Robertson said they hadn’t established any facts pertinent to the case.
At the time, Justice Robertson said the applicants had failed to include any clear facts linking Professor Lynch’s support for BDS with any specific acts of racial discrimination.
During the case, Shurat HaDin’s lawyer Andrew Hamilton said he didn’t have to argue high quality factual pleadings to prove breach of the act. Instead, he could just argue the “substantive case.” In response, Justice Robertson told Hamilton: “You’ll have to do a lot of work to persuade me of the correctness of that proposition,” The Australian reported.
At the 24 April proceedings, Robertson also capped payment of costs for either side in the event of a legal victory at 300,000 Australian dollars ($280,128). Shurat HaDin has since also been ordered post a 100,000-dollar ($93,426) bond for costs in the event they lose the case.
Lynch told The Electronic Intifada that the April ruling was “significant,” explaining that the judge struck out eleven sections of Shurat HaDin’s statement of claim. This was important because those sections purported to be a factual account of Lynch’s supposed breach of racial discrimination law.
Lynch added that the signaled withdrawal of four of the applicants and the narrowing of the complaint against him “may spell the end of their attempt to have political activism in response to the call for boycott, divestment and sanctions effectively declared illegal.”
However, the case has already cost tens of thousands of dollars, Lynch says, and supporters have set up a website to raise awareness and funds.
Shurat HaDin’s case against Lynch has centered around his refusal to sign a fellowship application for Israeli academic Dan Avnon from the Hebrew University in occupied Jerusalem. In December 2012, Avnon approached Lynch for assistance with an application for a Sir Zelman Cowen fellowship, which pays for academics from Hebrew University to come to Sydney University, and vice versa.
At the time, Lynch declined to assist Avnon, citing his opposition to the fellowship agreement between the two academic institutions. Lynch explained to The Electronic Intifada that he exercised his “right not to participate in, or cooperate with a scheme to which I object in principle.”
The Palestinian boycott movement opposes institutional relations with the Israeli academic establishment. Many Israeli universities are deeply complicit in the arms trade, military occupation and oppression of Palestinians.
In their original thirty-page claim, Shurat HaDin and its fellow claimants argue that Lynch’s refusal to sign the application had the impact of “impairing the recognition, enjoyment and exercise of Professor Dan Avnon’s rights to education; freedom of association; freedom of expression; academic freedom, and work.”
In addition, they argue that Lynch had endorsed, repeated and participated in the BDS call and had encouraged others to also do so, while also training people to participate in retail boycott protests.
The claim also argues that Lynch’s actions had impaired the right and enjoyment of the applicants to free and equal participation in cultural activities, including depriving the applicants and their wives of the opportunity to attend performances of international entertainers in Israel — citing artists such as Snoop Dogg and Elvis Costello.
Both performers are among a growing number of musicians and artists, including Gil Scott Heron, Carlos Santana, Faithless and Cat Power, who have refused to perform in Israel or who have canceled scheduled performances following calls to abide by the Palestinian academic and cultural boycott campaign.
However, with the abandonment of much of its initial statement of claims, Shurat HaDin has now sought to focus on the claim that Lynch refused Avnon employment solely on the basis of his nationality. Lynch has rejected this, saying that the reason he declined support was not because Avnon was Israeli or Jewish, but because of the Hebrew University’s institutional complicity in Israel’s human rights abuses against the Palestinian people.
“Revoke this scheme”
Hebrew University, Lynch explained to The Electronic Intifada: “runs training courses for the military; its Mount Scopus campus is partly built on land seized from its rightful Palestinian owners, and the chairman of its board of governors is Michael Federmann, who is also chairman of Elbit Systems, one of Israel’s biggest arms dealers.”
Lynch added that in 2009, three years before Avnon had approached him for assistance, he had previously written to the vice chancellor of Sydney University “asking him to revoke this scheme and the one involving the Technion University, Haifa (which operates in a similar way).” The vice chancellor, however, declined to do so.
Lynch said he “was in no position to offer employment to Prof. Avnon, or to withhold it, since I was not acting as an agent of the University of Sydney.” Lynch noted he had informed Avnon, when declining to support his fellowship application, that he was not acting on behalf of the university.
Throughout the legal proceedings, Lynch’s lawyers have repeatedly argued that the case is politically motivated and part of the broader offensive by the Israeli state against the BDS campaign. They have noted that Avnon hasn’t been disadvantaged or racially discriminated against by Lynch declining to support his application, given that the academic had successfully taken up the fellowship at Sydney University in March 2014.
Despite the complaint centring around Avnon, he was not approached by the legal group to participate in the case, to act as a witness or to even submit an affidavit in support, The Australian reported.
Shurat HaDin made it clear they were not seeking any financial penalties against Lynch should they win the case. Instead, they would demand that Lynch publicly renounce the BDS campaign and apologize for supporting it.
In the wake of their crumbling case against Lynch, Shurat HaDin’s founder, Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, has lashed out at the Australian Zionist community, accusing them of failing to “stand up for Jewish rights.”
In response, according to the Israeli daily Haaretz, at least one senior member of the Zionist leadership in Australia deemed Shurat HaDin’s narrowing of its claim as proof that the case has backfired. The anonymous Zionist leader deemed Shurat HaDin’s actions as “pathetic,” saying it now “leaves us to pick up the pieces.”
Shurat HaDin’s case against Lynch was opposed from the beginning by the key Zionist lobby groups in Australia.
The Executive Council of Australian Jewry, which opposes BDS and smears it as “anti-Semitic,” issued a statement in October 2013 distancing itself from the legal case. At the time, the council’s executive director, Peter Wertheim, noted that Shurat HaDin’s campaign against Jake Lynch was being pursued “merely as a political tactic.”
The use of SLAPP suits (strategic lawsuits against public participation) to try and tie BDS supporters up in court, to financially incapacitate them or to win public relations victories has become a popular tactic with supporters of Israel who try to stop boycott campaigns.
However, “lawfare” proponents around the world have had little success with such suits. Prior to launching its case against Lynch, Shurat HaDin threatened legal proceedings against World Vision Australia and AusAID (the Australian government’s developmental aid organization) over their support for programs run by the Union of Agricultural Work Committees in Gaza, claiming that it violated Australian and US counterterrorism legislation.
Both organizations temporarily suspended support for the programs while investigating Shurat HaDin’s claim. But AusAID soon resumed support for the program, as did World Vision Australia.
Both groups found there was no merit whatsoever to Shurat HaDin’s claims, according to Tim McCormack, a professor of law at Melbourne University and advisor to World Vision, in an article published on the Zionist blog Galus Australis.
While Shurat HaDin claims to be a “fully independent nonprofit organization, unaffiliated with any political party or governmental body,” a US embassy cable leaked by Chelsea Manning reveals that it had acted as a proxy for the Israeli government spy agency Mossad.
In October 2013, UK transparency monitor SpinWatch noted that Shurat HaDin founder Nitsana Darshan-Leitner 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.”
In the wake of Shurat HaDin’s case against Jake Lynch, more than 4,200 Australian and international human rights advocates, including academics, from more than sixty countries have signed a pledge and petition supporting both BDS and Lynch.
Lynch told The Electronic Intifada that the support has been “vital in fighting the court case and opposing the despicable attack on political freedom in Australia.”
Kim Bullimore has lived and worked in the West Bank and is a co-convenor of the Melbourne Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid and a co-organizer of the first national Australian BDS conference in Melbourne in 2010. Bullimore has a blog at http://livefromoccupiedpalestine.blogspot.com.au and tweets at @rafiqa65.