Dr Spence, reject calls to punish Palestine-justice supporters

Issue 
Jake Lynch.

Sydney Staff for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions sent this open letter to University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence on March 25. The letter is in response to Spence’s email of March 19, in which he claimed anti-Semitism was the trigger for the university’s investigation into the student protest at the March 11 lecture by Colonel Richard Kemp and its sequel.

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We are compelled to write to you to register our serious concern about the concerted campaign being conducted against Palestine activists at the University of Sydney.

We are appalled at the virulence and insistence with which prominent supporters of Israel have been publicly calling on you to “take action” in response to events at Richard Kemp’s March 11 talk, by sanctioning both the students who conducted a small protest there, and those members of staff, present in the audience, who subsequently defended their right to do so.

These calls appear to be principally focused on having Associate Professor Jake Lynch and Dr Nick Riemer dismissed from the university. In Lynch’s case, this is the demand explicitly being made by the Australasian Union of Jewish Students via their online petition, which we note has now been closed.

Such demands for the dismissal of staff members or the disciplining of students are entirely unwarranted and unjustifiable. Dismissal of academics is the most serious action that can be taken against them, and is traditionally only done under the gravest circumstances of misconduct or moral turpitude.

Whatever our various opinions on the legitimacy of the students’ protest, we call on you to firmly reject the suggestion that any action should be taken against anyone present at the lecture.

Associate Professor Lynch is one of Australia’s most prominent human-rights campaigners and anti-racists. His unshaking commitment to the cause of Palestine justice has earned him formidable enemies. The racial discrimination lawsuit brought against him by the Israel Law Centre, Shurat HaDin, which he defeated in 2014, is the clearest example. Claims that Lynch’s response to the physical assault launched against him by a member of the audience at Kemp’s talk constitutes evidence of his anti-semitism demonstrably have no basis in fact and are obviously politically motivated.

Dr Riemer, for his part, is an active participant in a number of anti-racist and human-rights campaigns.

There are no possible grounds on which either Lynch or Riemer could reasonably be disciplined. They asserted a right for students to protest at a campus political meeting. They supported justice for Palestine. They objected when students were in danger of serious injury through being violently ejected by the university’s security staff, for whom you are ultimately responsible. By any reasonable measure, none of these actions constitutes any justifiable grounds for dismissal.

Lynch and Riemer uphold the right to peaceful protest as a core civil liberty. For the University of Sydney under your leadership to take action against anyone, whether students or staff, for their actions on March 11 would seriously discredit your own commitment to the fight against racial prejudice, and the commitment of your institution.

Lynch and Riemer were acting in the context of the greater moral responsibilities which confront academics in light of the reality in Israel-Palestine. This constitutes the necessary background to any reasonable assessment of the present issue.

Israel’s gross violations of human rights and international law, which Lynch and Riemer’s critics seek to excuse and thereby perpetuate, have been condemned by every international human rights organisation, including Israel’s own, B’Tselem. As we write, illegal settlement activity continues unabated, involving the rolling ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, the destruction of homes, farmland and heritage, the ongoing dispossession and displacement of large numbers of people, and the further subjection of Palestinians to the checkpoint controls, arbitrary imprisonment, and oppression of a brutal settler state.

Unarmed civilian protesters are regularly shot dead by the IDF on the West Bank. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 3000 civilians not participating in hostilities have been killed by Israeli Forces in the West Bank since 2000.

More than 2200 Palestinians, 1500 of them civilians, and more than 500 of them children, were killed in last year’s war in Gaza, which also flattened whole areas of Gaza City and elsewhere, led to the internal displacement of 100,000 people, and generated two million tonnes of rubble.

2014 was, indeed, the deadliest year for Palestinians since 1967, on UN figures.

In light of these facts, Richard Kemp’s claim that “no army in the history of warfare had taken greater steps than the IDF to minimise harm to civilians in a combat zone” is as serious and irresponsible a misrepresentation of the truth as his nakedly racist claim, made in a February 2 tweet, that “The current price for a Palestinian to kill a Palestinian child to discredit Israel is $10,000. $8000 to the family, $2000 commission.”

We call on you, Dr Spence, not to allow yourself to be made the agent of the Israel lobby’s persecution of those committed to a just peace in the Middle East.

If the University of Sydney is committed to anti-racism and justice, as it claims, it would be deeply shameful, to say nothing of ironic, if you took any action against Palestine activists on your campus. These activists are engaged in one of the most important, and most symbolic, anti-racist and human rights struggles in the world today. A decision to sanction them would set back the struggle in Australia against racism, not just for Palestinians, but for all oppressed peoples, and would lastingly undermine any claim that Sydney is an institution opposed to historic injustice and racial prejudice.

[You can sign on to the letter here]

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