After months of pressure from apologists for apartheid Israel, eight Marrickville councillors, including two Greens councillors, voted on April 19 to rescind the Council’s near unanimous December 2010 decision to support the global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.
However, an important national discussion about Australia’s responsibilities to help Palestinians win their rights has begun.
Marrickville was the first local government body in Australia to pass such an ethical investment motion (although councils in Europe have done so).
But a massive intimidation campaign by the pro-Israel lobby, the two big parties and the Murdoch media, including death threats against the mayor, ensued.
Apologists for apartheid Israel avoided talking about the facts, instead arguing that councils shouldn’t stand up for human rights.
Unfortunately, two Greens councillors agreed — Max Phillips declared beforehand he would not support BDS (his own state party’s position).
Labor councillor Mary O’Sullivan moved that council resolve “not to pursue BDS against Israel in any shape or form”.
Greens councillor Peter Olive, who also opposed BDS, amended the motion to include the three tenets of the BDS call — to end the occupation of all Arab lands, to dismantle the apartheid wall, to ensure full equality for Palestinians living in Israel and to support the right of Palestinian refugees to return home.
But Sonja Karkar, from Australians for Palestine, said on April 22: “None of the councillors who opposed the BDS resolution seemed aware of the incongruity of now voting for a motion that included the very demands that BDS seeks, while refusing to do anything about it.”
During the debate — witnessed by 200 people from the local community — 18 people and all 12 councillors spoke.
Dr Peter Slezak of the Independent Australian Jewish Voices (IAJV), dismissed the argument that councillors should not stand up for human rights.
Antony Loewenstein, author and a co-founder of IAJV, reminded people that Israel, not Palestine, is the oppressor nation and that Israel acts with impunity because the West, including the US and Australia, support it.
Greens councillor Cathy Peters (while showing a slide of occupied Palestine), recounted the vice-chancellor of Bethlehem University, Brother Peter Bray's claim that the Israeli Defence Force was engaged in summary executions in Bethlehem.
She also listed the many European councils that have endorsed the BDS campaign, explaining that their state and federal MPs had not publicly denounced these councils or threatened to sack them.
Greens councillor Marika Kontillas said that councillors had received hundreds of emails in support of their BDS stand — including from journalist John Pilger and human rights lawyer Julian Burnside.
Independent councillor Dimitri Thanos refuted the corporate media’s claims that rate payers would be $3-4 million worse off, stating that council had a “duty” to pursue an ethical investment policy given it had already decided on a sister-sister relationship with Bethlehem in occupied Palestine.
The report by Gary Moore, the council's Director of Community Services, on how council could proceed with its BDS position made it clear that an ethical investment approach was indeed possible.
The council also had the option to proceed in a specific, targeted way that would not incur any costs to residents. But this was not discussed.
Rather than discuss the issue, anti-BDS speakers, such as Professor Alan Rosen, focused instead on the divisiveness that had been “caused” by the debate over BDS.
Former ALP mayor Sam Iskander was shamefaced when he said he still stood for social justice. “But we have to be sensible,” he said to loud jeers.
One person pulled off her shoe and turned her back before walking out of the meeting in disgust.
It was sad to hear the pathetic justifications for not supporting BDS from the other so-called left Councillors: “There are many residents who have issues in their lives and this is not one of them,” said Mary O’Sullivan; “Local government is not the place to deal with complex international issues,” said Laura Wright.
Yet, 12 years ago, when Labor held the majority on council (with then councillor, now ALP MP, Carmel Tebbutt), it successfully moved to refuse associations with firms that dealt with Myanmar (then known as Burma).
The campaign against Marrickville Council’s support for BDS shows just how worried apologists for Israel are about the growing global support for an ethical local policy towards Israel based on its treatment of Palestinians.
Samah Sabawi, a Palestinian from Gaza who addressed the meeting, summed it up when she said: “BDS is a call from an oppressed people to the world to act against tyranny.”
The challenge for Palestine supporters is to get better organised to demand the Australian government stand up to this tyranny.
[Pip Hinman is helping organise a meeting in Marrickville, "Boycotting Israel is the right thing to do: Why Murdoch's Australian is wrong over BDS", on May 13, at 7pm, Holy Trinity Church, 11 Herbert Street, Dulwich Hill.]