Sydney University to host BDS conference

A conference on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign for Palestinian justice will be held at the University of Sydney over July 28–29. Free and open to the public,….

A conference on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign for Palestinian justice will be held at the University of Sydney over July 28–29.

Free and open to the public, the conference will be the largest ever held on BDS in Australia, with three keynote lectures, four discussion panels and more than 30 separate talks on a wide array of topics.

It is hosted by the university’s Department of Peace and Conflict Studies and supported by a wide range of community organisations, including the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network. This is the first time a BDS conference has been hosted by an Australian university.

As Israel’s brutal repression of Palestinians strengthens, BDS, now in its twelfth year, has become the focus of the international Palestine solidarity movement.

Modelled on the campaign against South African apartheid, BDS demands an end to the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza, the recognition of Palestinian refugees’ right to return to the homes from which they were evicted, and full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel.

The conference’s special international guest is American-Palestinian activist Yousef Munayyer, head of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights. Munayyer will speak at a plenary on “Building towards sanctions: Palestine rights work in the US under Trump” on July 28.

Munayyer said: “This conference in Sydney, which I am happy to participate in, is an important indicator of the growth and vitality of the Palestinian rights movement around the globe and in Australia in particular.”

Despite last year’s successful UN Security Council Resolution against settlements, decades of stalled negotiations show that Palestine supporters cannot look to official political mechanisms to advance the campaign for a just peace in Palestine–Israel. As a result, the role of civil society movements like BDS is crucial.

In Australia, a number of BDS efforts are underway, but the campaign here has not yet reached the levels of activity or public consciousness seen in some other parts of the world. Presenters based in Malaysia, Japan, Italy, New Zealand and the US will join local activists and academics at the conference to discuss the state of BDS efforts around the world.

The institutional academic boycott has emerged as a recent area of particular activity for BDS activists in Australia. Contrary to a common misconception, the academic boycott does not mean refusing to participate with all academics based in Israel: it just involves boycotting Israeli universities and Israeli academic officials — those academics, in other words, who lead or represent Israeli higher education institutions, all of which are complicit with Israel’s repression of Palestinians.

Ghassan Hage, Future Generation Professor of Anthropology and Social Theory at the University of Melbourne and a recent exponent of the academic boycott, will give a keynote talk on “BDS: from internal to external critique”. Hage will explain what led him to adopt BDS after previously being critical of it.

To be opened by Australian-Palestinian writer and activist Samah Sabawi, the conference will consist of two days of stimulating sessions on a wide range of topics on BDS, Palestine solidarity and the politics of Palestine–Israel in Australia and abroad.

Sessions will discuss the link between Palestine and Aboriginal justice struggles, BDS and freedom of speech, academic freedom and the boycott, and student activism for Palestine, among others. Cathy Peters and Sylvia Hale will discuss BDS and the Greens. Assistant national secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia Warren Smith will talk on Palestine solidarity efforts in the union movement.

Sydney academic Jake Lynch, who successfully defeated a case waged against him by an Israeli “lawfare” centre for upholding the boycott, will present an analysis of the workings of pro-Israeli influence in Australia. Jewish BDS activists will discuss the issue of anti-semitism, the typical slur used by Zionists to discredit BDS. Sporting, cultural and economic boycotts will also be addressed, as will critiques of BDS, the history of Palestine solidarity movements and the dynamics of the Israel lobby in Australia.

Presenters include Guardian Australia columnist Jeff Sparrow; New Matilda columnist Michael Brull; Shamikh Badra from the Palestinian People’s Party; Hilmi Dabbagh from the Palestine Support Network Australia; Handala-Italia, a collective of Italian academics; Nazari Ismail from BDS Malaysia; and Don Carson from the Wellington Palestine Group (NZ).

Historian Roger Markwick will talk on “Bolshevism, Balfour and Zionism: A Tale of Two Centenaries” and John O’Brien, author of a history of the National Tertiary Education Union will talk on Palestine solidarity efforts and BDS in the NTEU. Jewish academic Peter Slezak and Marcelo Svirsky will consider anti-semitism, and Vivienne Porzsolt from Jews against the Occupation will run a panel discussing Palestine organising in the Jewish community, to which Jordy Silverstein from the University of Melbourne and the Australian Jewish Democratic Society and Yaakov and Yehuda Aharon from the Jewish Left Collective will contribute.

“Overall, the conference promises to offer a stimulating opportunity to assess the state of BDS in Australia and the world,” said Nick Riemer of Sydney University, one of the conference organisers. “It’s particularly appropriate that we’re holding it at Sydney University, which has emerged as a key site for academic BDS activities in Australia.

“In hosting this free, open conference, we’re contributing to greater public understanding of the BDS campaign, and discharging one of the university’s main obligations — harnessing rational argument to support a more peaceful and more just world. As a crucial global human rights issue in the West, it’s urgent for universities to get behind the BDS campaign.”

The conference opens on July 28 at Sydney University. Participants can register on the conference homepage.