Jewish groups condemn ANU conference

Jewish groups condemn ANU conference

Jewish groups have criticised the Australian National University over a conference it's sponsoring on human rights in the Palestinian territories.  

Jewish community leaders say speakers at the conference lack academic credibility and that the meeting amounts to blatant anti-Israel advocacy.


It was being hailed as a ground-breaking conference on Palestinian human rights being sponsored by the Australian National University and the British Academy.


Speakers include Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator, activist and scholar, and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights, Professor Richard Falk.


Talks are also being given by Professor Jeff Halper, co-founder and director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, and Dr Sarah Roy from the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University.


The ANU says the speakers have the right to academic freedom.


But the executive director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Peter Wertheim (wert-hime), says many of the experts speaking at the conference have a history of anti-Israel bias.


"You've got, for example, Richard Falk, who is known for his extreme conspiracy theories about 9/11 and about the Boston bombing. In fact, he was publicly rebuked by no less than the Secretary-General of the UN. Then you've got Jeff Halper, who also made some rather bizarre claims in 2011 to the effect that Israel has developed something he called spectral dust that can somehow track and program and record the DNA of individuals."


Peter Wertheim also attacked the Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi, who has held many prominent positions, and was the 2003 winner of the Sydney Peace Prize.


Mr Wertheim claims the ANU's sponsorship of the conference raises serious questions about its academic credibility.


"It's a concern to us because the Australian National University is one of our top universities and any academic worth their salt will tell you there is a very clear difference between deep research and scholarship on the one hand and political advocacy and propaganda on the other and what we're seeing here is a conference that's in the latter category, political advocacy and propaganda masquerading as genuine academic scholarship."


Professor Richard Falk, who's headlining the two-day series of talks, has hit back at Mr Wertheim's comments, labelling them as defamatory.


Professor Falk says any notion he's a conspiracy theorist is offensive.


"It's an absurdly ill-informed comment. I have repeatedly said that I have no views on how the 9/11 attacks occurred."


Professor Falk says he hadn't anticipated but hasn't been surprised by the criticism levelled at him and the other conference speakers by Jewish groups.


He says those speaking out against him have been influenced by ultra-Zionist NGOs.


And he says their comments detract from efforts to improve human rights in the Palestinian territories - the Gaza Strip, and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.


"It's discouraging because it's an effort to put the focus on the person rather than on the substance of what's being discussed. The messenger rather than the message. That's part of a larger Israeli propaganda strategy, which I call the politics of deflection, trying to get the discussion away from the substantive issues where the Israeli positions are rather weak, from the perspective of international law or human rights."


Professor Falk calls for a greater focus on the issues on the ground in the Palestinian territories, where the UN says Israel maintains restrictions on the movement of people and goods, on access to land and security.


The Australian National University has issued a brief statement acknowledging the conference could be seen as controversial.


But it has stopped short of endorsing the themes discussed.


In its statement the university says:


"The Human Rights in Palestine Conference, which is supported by funding from the British Academy, is an academic conference exploring issues that are at times controversial for different groups. It brings together a wide array of knowledge from 15 speakers from around the world. The University holds no views on the issues the conference explores. Academic freedom means that researchers have the right to challenge and discuss in their areas of expertise."


Meanwhile, in an email seen by SBS, the British Academy has sought to distance itself from the Canberra conference as a sponsor, while stressing that is not a commentary on its content.


The conference website had listed the British Academy as one of the main sponsors of the event before later clarifying its role.


In the email, the Academy says it is not an organiser or direct sponsor of the event, and was not consulted on the program.



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