For the last decade, a central plank of Israel’s strategy to combat its global critics has been something it terms “lawfare” – using courts around the world to attack, defame, silence and intimidate its enemies.
Since Israel is addicted to real life war, it’s no surprise to find that even its diplomats and ambassadors are seemingly unable to think and act in terms other than purely military ones (most of them are former soldiers after all). Take its response to the BDS campaign – the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel until it respects Palestinian human rights.
A reporter for liberal Israeli daily Haaretz, on a recent visit to the Israeli embassy in London, noted a map that was “like the war room of a brigade on the Lebanese border.” This map showed the “front” (another military term) which consists of “the main campuses, the deployment of pro-Israel activists and the location of the ‘enemy forces.’”
Amongst such “enemy forces” are those well-known dastardly anti-Semitic hate-mongers: peaceful campaigners, academic critical of Israel (many of them Jewish) and university students.
Just this week the new Israeli ambassador Mark Regev visited the SOAS campus, in a low-key meeting with university director Valerie Amos. This prompted noisy protests by students, who objected to Regev’s presence on campus and to top-management’s coddling of this high-profile apologist for Israeli war crimes.
There is little doubt in my mind that Regev raised BDS with Amos – or “delegitimisation” as they insist on terming it. Last year SOAS was the first university to hold a popular referendum in which 73 percent of more than 2,000 voting students and staff on campus endorsed academic BDS. “Enemy forces” indeed.
Last month, Yediot Ahronot, the popular Israeli tabloid, convened the latest special conference in Israel focused purely on combatting BDS. There, the Israeli transport minister made another military reference to BDS, this one rather sinister.
Israel Katz called for the “focused civilian elimination of the leadership of BDS.” Remember: BDS is the wholly peaceful act of not buying Israel products and advocating others do the same.
Although it sounds rather like Katz was demanding BDS “leaders” be murdered by Israeli death squads (such as the Mossad and Shin Bet), fear not! Katz insisted he was not talking about assassinations. Maybe. He also made insinuations about how BDS activists have supposedly “crossed the threshold of military and terrorist activity”. One doesn’t need a reminder of how Israel treats those it considers “terrorists”.
And the Zionist left is no better than the right. The leader of Israel’s opposition Labour party ranted in June that “the boycott of Israel is a new kind of terrorism” which, he threatened, “should be fought with all the means and all the power available to countries of the world”.
Which “means” Yitzak Hertzog would prefer exactly is not clear. But such violent-sounding ambiguity is just another example of Israel’s crude intimidations tactics.
And so we return to “lawfare”. And by now we can see why they use that term. Their thinking goes like this: perish the thought we are actually doing something wrong, we just need a new “campaign” against our enemies in the global media conspiracy by anti-Semites against Israel!
Three years ago, Israel’s lawfare strategy received a massive and significant setback in the Ronnie Fraser vs. UCU case. Ronnie Fraser was a maths lecturer and head of “Academic Friends of Israel” (which he admitted in court evidence was basically just him and his wife). With important Israel lobby backing (and apparently funding) he fought a long-running vendetta against the University and College Union for “discrimination” against his Zionist views.
The union’s crime? Raising the possibility of debating the academic boycott of Israel.
After dragging UCU through the courts for years, an employment judge threw the case out in its entirety, ordered Fraser to pay costs, and slammed the legal action’s backers for good measure. He said the case was “an impermissible attempt to achieve a political end by litigious means. It would be very unfortunate if an exercise of this sort were ever repeated.”
Fraser had cynically tried to block his own union from even discussing boycotts of Israel by falsely claiming to do so would be to discriminate against him as a Jew. The judge disagreed. “A belief in the Zionist project or an attachment to Israel … cannot amount to a protected characteristic” under the Equality Act of 2010, he wrote in his verdict.
That verdict was such a crushing blow that it effectively stopped the Israel lobby from using the same strategy ever again, at least in British courts. There were several other similar defeats around the world.
But now the lawfare strategy has a new tack, and it is back in the UK. This time it is more subtle. In March 2015, Southampton University blocked at the last minute an academic conference about Israel from taking place.
They could not fragrantly ban it, as they would have been ordered by a court to allow it to go ahead on free speech grounds. And the Ronnie Fraser precedent also meant that slandering it as anti-Semitic was also highly unlikely to succeed, at least in legal terms.
Instead the masters of “lawfare” are now attempting to misuse (of all things) health and safety law to shut down free speech critical of Israel. The university argued in the high court that the conference had not been banned but merely “postponed” until it could be held again at a later date, “safely”.
But come March 2016, when the organizers tried to hold the conference again, what happened? Lo and behold, the university all of a sudden came up with the additional stipulation of £24,000 in security costs for the conference to go ahead – and by the way the organizers should have to foot the bill.
The Israel lobby of course was a major force in campaigning for the conference to be cancelled.
Speaking to the Jewish Chronicle last year, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews confirmed suspicions that the stated grounds for the university cancellation were a mere pretext: “when we had a meeting with the university vice-chancellor they said they would review it on health and safety terms. The two lines of attack possible were legal and health and safety and they were leaning on that one”.
A “line of attack” – it seems the Israel lobby too is rather addicted to war-like terminology.
Will his latest “lawfare” strategy turn out any better for the lobby than the last? Stay tuned…
Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London and an associate editor with The Electronic Intifada.