An essential part of the compact of a free society is that all its citizens are afforded protection from persecution and freedom from fear. […] When a segment of society is targeted by reason of its identity – be it a religious, ethnic or national identity – the right of that segment to live free from fear is compromised.
That’s Peter Kurti, a visiting Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, calling the Greens anti-Semitic for supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.
How perverse that 2011 piece seems now! In Gaza, nearly two million people are being targeted by reason of their identity. Literally rather than metaphorically targeted, with air strikes and tank shells and helicopter fire from the world’s fourth largest army raining down on a dense urban area. There’s no way to describe what’s taking place other than deliberate collective punishment.
In an earlier phase of the assault, the IDF dropped leaflets and used recorded phone calls to warn a hundred thousand Palestinians to leave their homes. No-one even pretended that these people were all Hamas members but their houses and apartments were nonetheless deemed legitimate targets. One struggles to find a historical equivalent – but, for the sake of argument, imagine if, during the height of the Troubles, the British government had announced it would bomb entire neighbourhoods of Belfast, and tell the householders to leave or die.
Here’s a video from the strikes on Gaza, a clip illustrating what the IDF calls its ‘knock on the roof’ method. The army fires an explosive projectile at a building, a signal to the inhabitants to flee. Fifteen minutes later, unseen planes obliterate the whole structure.
The entire business – the notion that it’s okay to signal civilians to flee by firing explosives at their buildings – makes sense only in a dehumanisation so profound that it’s been entirely internalised. The campaign might be ostensibly directed against Hamas but the IDF holds all Palestinians guilty. If you’re an army commander and you’re feeling charitable (‘the most moral army in the world’), you might allow women and children to scurry away before you destroy an apartment block. But if you don’t, it doesn’t much matter. They’re only Palestinians.
Let’s not forget that Gaza is blockaded and has been for years, which is why that bleeding heart David Cameron called it a ‘prison camp’. Even before the current assault, the stranglehold imposed on this tiny area meant that more than half of Gaza’s people survived on United Nations food aid, with no electricity for 16 hours a day. The power shortages mean that few essential services functioned properly. With the Israelis preventing the importation of building materials, the facilities destroyed in the last assault (‘Operation Cast Lead’) could not be repaired.
The warnings, then, are charades. There’s no safe place, there’s nowhere to go. And the Israelis know it. ‘Gaza and its vicinity are a battleground,’ explains a Government Press Office statement for reporters. ‘Covering the hostilities exposes journalists to life-threatening danger.’
True enough. But what of the 1.8 million people – half of them children – who call Gaza home? They’re exposed to life threatening danger, too. What are they supposed to do?
Over the last days, with the ground assault under way, we’ve seen the answer to that. They’re supposed to die – or, at very least, they’re supposed to feel they could die at any minute, as drones, F-16s, Apache helicopters, naval warships, tanks and artillery go to work upon a destitute and overcrowded urban area.
The clip below shows the inevitable result – uncollected bodies (many of them children) lying in the streets of a devastated city.
If you look at such scenes and you don’t see a problem, you are morally dead.
‘Atrocity’, ‘massacre’, ‘crime against humanity’: one thinks of Conrad’s reference to ‘the old, old words worn thin, defaced by ages of careless usage’. But there are times when such terms ring true – and we’re living through one of them.
Whatever Hamas has or hasn’t done, attempts to justify a military assault on a city of millions necessarily rely on a terrorist logic: it’s the imposition of a collective responsibility that holds every Gazan guilty simply because they live in Gaza. The grotesque Alan Dershowitz spells it out: ‘[C]ivilians [will] continue to pay the heavy price for Hamas’s hatred of Israel and contempt for its own citizens.’
It’s the exact argument Osama bin Laden made when he explained that the actions of the US government rendered all Americans legitimate targets.
In the context of this obscene effort to blame the slaughter of Palestinians on the Palestinians themselves, let’s turn back to the debates in Australia about the BDS campaign.
Today, much of the liberal intelligentsia refuses to unequivocally oppose the IDF’s carnage in Gaza on the basis that Hamas, too, fires missiles. If only the Palestinians embraced non-violence, we could rally to their cause. Until then … well, it’s all very complicated and unpleasant and we don’t much like to think about.
But what could be less violent than BDS? The BDS campaign does not leave dead children strewn in the streets. It launches no missiles; it fires no weapons. One could scarcely imagine a more peaceable response to the horrors now unfolding than the simple decision of ordinary people to shun certain products and services.
Peter Kurti pitches his anti-BDS spiel in terms of liberty, an entirely risible approach. In fact, the freedom he invokes implies the right to boycott. If you are free to buy Max Brenner chocolate, you are, by definition, free not to buy it – otherwise what we’re really talking about is making shopping at Max Brenner compulsory.
Of course, the hypocrisy over BDS mirrors the hypocrisy over Israel more generally. Jake Lynch recently won the court case brought against him by the Israeli legal centre Shurat HaDin over his refusal to endorse an application for a fellowship at the University of Sydney by an Israeli political theorist.
Lynch’s stand – a response to a call by Palestinian academics and intellectuals to isolate an education system that fundamentally discriminates against them – proved controversial even among progressives, some of whom suggested that an academic boycott violated the spirit of scholarly exchange.
But few of those condemning Lynch’s actions acknowledged that, actually, sanctions are a routine part of the Australian higher education system.
Let the government explain:
Australia implements United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions regimes and Australian autonomous sanctions regimes.
Australia is obliged to implement UNSC sanctions regimes as a matter of international law.
In addition, the Australian Government has decided to implement Australian autonomous sanctions regimes as a matter of Australian foreign policy. Australian autonomous sanctions regimes may supplement UNSC sanctions regimes, or be separate from them.
These sanctions are imposed by all the universities. Here’s how Monash puts it:
The Sanctions Laws are punitive measures imposed by the Australian Government as a foreign policy response to situations of international concern. The purpose of the Sanctions Laws is to target persons, entities and governments most responsible for these situations.
The Sanctions Laws bind the University and entities over which the University exercises effective control. The Sanctions Laws impose sanctions against foreign states, individuals and entities.
In other words, the academics and vice chancellors condemning Lynch’s stand as inconsistent with his position were either lying or deluded. Academics apply sanctions all the time; indeed, they can be punished quite severely if they don’t apply them.
Critics of BDS routinely accuse campaigners of double standards. But, as Larry Derfner argues, the double standards are on the other side. Discussing the 2013 decision by the American Studies Association to support BDS, he writes:
As of Friday at noon, a Google search of “human rights sanctions” turns up over 40 million results. There are human rights sanctions and other punishments against China, Russia, Iran, Syria, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Yemen, Belarus, Cuba, North Korea and lots of other countries. And these sanctions weren’t put in place by some minor academic group like the American Studies Association, but by the United States of America, the European Union and/or the United Nations Security Council. Furthermore, these sanctions hurt those countries quite a bit more than the ASA’s boycott of Israeli colleges is likely to hurt Israel. […]
The world doesn’t punish this country unfairly – it doesn’t punish this country at all, while America rewards it lavishly.
The ASA boycott, like the rest of the BDS movement’s achievements, are not examples of the world’s double standard against Israel – they’re Quixotic, rearguard actions against the world’s blatant double standard in Israel’s favor. If this country were treated with a minuscule fraction of the severity the West ordinarily visits on human rights violators, the occupation would have ended long ago.
The most obvious illustration of Derfner’s point is the American military support for Israel: according to one recent estimate, the US has provided the IDF with more than $121 billion worth of weapons since 1948, and is subsidising about 25 per cent of Israel’s annual defence budget in recent years.
Australia’s backing is more political than military but you can still see the grotesque hypocrisy at work.
One of the countries against which Australian universities currently impose sanctions is Iran. DFAT explains why:
The UNSC adopted resolution 1737 (2006) on 27 December 2006 imposing sanctions in relation to Iran in response to the proliferation risks presented by the Iranian nuclear program and, in this context, by Iran’s continuing failure to meet the requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors and to comply with the provisions of Security Council resolution 1696 (2006). The sanctions were extended by UNSC resolutions 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008) and 1929 (2010).
Australia also implements an autonomous sanctions regime in relation to Iran.
The Australian Government announced the autonomous sanctions regime in October 2008 in response to Iran’s proliferation-sensitive nuclear and missile programs and efforts to contravene UNSC sanctions. The sanctions regime has been amended on several occasions since.
No-one seriously claims that Iran currently possesses atomic weapons. For what it’s worth, the Iranian regime insists its research schedule is entirely directed to peaceful ends. Be that as it may, because Iran might – at some stage in the future – develop an atomic bomb, there are currently all sorts of strictures on how Australian academics can relate to their Iranian counterparts.
Now, in 2013, former Knesset speaker Avrum Bur openly admitted what everyone had known for years: namely, that Israel possesses both nuclear and chemical weaponry. Yet, despite an estimated arsenal of some 80 atomic weapons, Israel remains conspicuously absent from the DFAT list intended to fight ‘proliferation’.
The question, then, is not whether universities should apply sanctions, because they already do. The real debate is about whether Israel should be held to a standard routinely applied to other nations.
The Australian Right will back Israel whatever atrocities it commits, in much the same way conservatives backed apartheid-era South Africa until the bitter end. But what will the liberal intelligentsia do?
Yes, there are arguments against the BDS campaign. But as Rania Khalek argues, most of them replicate, almost exactly, the justifications given by liberals for not boycotting South Africa – and history does not judge such positions kindly.