By: Gulamhusein A. Abba
On Tuesday, December 14, 2010, this small city made history by becoming the first and only municipality to pass a resolution in support of Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel.
After four and a half hours of debate on local issues, the Marrickville Council took up Item 11 – Notice of Motion: Supporting the Global Boycott, Divestments and Sanction Campaign.
The Greens, Labor and an Independent Councilors united at Marrickville Municipal Council to adopt the following resolution moved by Greens Councilor Cathy Peters:
In particular recognition of its sister city relationship with Bethlehem and the strong support for this relationship from local progressive faith communities and other community members, Marrickville Council support the principles of the BDS global campaign and report back on any links the Council has with organizations or companies that support or profit from the Israeli military occupation of Palestine with a view to the Council divesting from such links and imposing a boycott on any future such links or goods purchases.
Marrickville Council boycott all goods made in Israel and any sporting, institutional academic, government or institutional cultural exchanges.
Marrickville Council write to the local State and Federal ministers (Carmel Tebbutt and Anthony Albanese) informing them of Council’s position and seeking their support at the State and Federal level for the global BDS movement.
The meeting was attended by all the 12 members of the Council. The motion was carried, with 10 in favor and 2 against.
The voting on the resolution showed remarkable unity. Of the 12 Council members, the 10 who voted in favor comprised of five Greens, four Labor and one independent. Only two voted against the resolution, both independents (Hanna is Egyptian and Macri is Italian).
And yet, almost immediately after the vote, powerful forces came together in an effort to get the vote rescinded and oust mayor Fiona Byrne, a member of the Greens..
Those who voted in favor of the resolution, and mayor Fina Byrne particularly, became subjects of vilification in the press owned by international media proprietor Rupert Murdoch. A vicious smear campaign was launched. Vitriolic attacks were mounted. Character assassination was resorted to and even death threats were flung.
The local authority was compared to North Korea! It was accused of meddling in foreign affairs. Even death threats came from Australia’s lunatic fringe.
Positioning the issue as being loyalty to “democratic” ally Israel and “terrorist” Palestinians, articles praising Israel and condemning Palestinians sprouted all over.
An article in the Australian Islamist Monitor website entitled “Australian Council Disgraces Itself” berated the local authority and leveled scurrilous charges against it, saying: “you have got it all wrong — you have sided with the aggressors, the bullies, the friends of Hitler and those whom Hitler considered his friends in their antisemitism [sic].” And one comment following the article read: “This is insane. I hate these people. I would like to have a 22 and pick them off one by one for target practice. Better still a suicide bomber in their midst…..”
Surprisingly, Federal Minister Anthony Albanese (Labor), who has in the past been supportive of Palestine solidarity campaigns and critical of Israel’s human rights record, came out strongly against Marrickville’s BDS resolution. Sydney commentators have suggested that the real-politik of upcoming elections could have been behind Albanese’s condemnation of the boycott vote. An article in the Australian mentioned the risks to Albanese’s seat from the Green Party. Also relevant is the fact that Carmel Tebbutt, the New South Wales state legislature member (Labor) for Marrickville, is Albanese’s wife — and that her seat was under threat from Marrickville Green Mayor Fiona Byrne in the then upcoming state-level elections.
In all this hullabaloo the Palestinians and their plight was made invisible.
In the midst of all this drama, the Marricckville Council held a meeting on Feb.15. On the agenda of the Council meeting were questions dealing with the costs of the BDS in both time and money. Pro BDS and anti BDS speakers presented their views on the question. Pulver Jackson, an Aboriginal convert to Judaism, now a Professor of Medicine at the University of New South Wales, told the Council that Wiradjuri Koori, of which she was a member, had to deal with discrimination on a daily basis. She claimed that as a Jew, she was going through this again. She said she objected to the Council excluding sections of the community when making its decisions which, she said, will “divide rather than unite our community”.
David Schlesinger, who lives in the area and is the father of three children, told J-Wire: “I would find it unthinkable if an Israeli cultural show or exhibition was banned from the area and my children could not enjoy locally their own cultural background.”
Greens Council member, who had proposed the BDS resolution on December 14, told J-Wire that her grandparents were in Theriesenstadt during the war. “I am proud of my Jewish background but not of the Apartheid activities of the Israelis in the West Bank…”
Independent Councillors Victor Macri and Morris Hanna, both of whom had voted against the December 14 resolution, were confident that other members of the Council would “see the light” and would vote differently should a rescission move be called.
There are twelve members of Marrickville Council. Five are Greens Part, four are Labor and three are Independents.
At the February 15 meeting, Mayor Fiona Byrne informed the Council and those present that they were still seeking advice on how to put the BDS into practice.
The campaign against BDS became shriller as another meeting of the Council approached. After the state elections, the newly elected Premier of NSW said that one of the first items on his government’s agenda would be to end “Marrickville Council’s embargo on Israel.” One newspaper wasted no time in describing the municipal council’s ethical decision to boycott Israel for its human rights abuses against Palestinians as a boycott of Jewish businesses, and therefore, “bordering on anti-Semitic”, ignoring the fact that BDS only targets businesses that trade with Israel, not Jewish businesses specifically.
Not to be left out, Reverend Fred Nile of the Christian Democrats lent his support to a “Day of Special Support for Israel” to counteract what he said was Fiona Byrne’s “hatemongering” and “anti-Semitic attack on Israel”.
By this time, some of the biggest cultural and academic names in the world had thrown their support behind Marrickville Council's boycott of Israel.
Journalist John Pilger, author Naomi Klein, filmmaker Ken Loach and Nobel peace prize laureate Mairead Maguire are among 16 prominent figures who signed a letter of support for the Sydney Council’s resolution supporting the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign.
As against this, New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell wrote to Byrne a few days before the meeting and threatened to fire the entire council unless the boycott was dropped within 28 days.
The boycott was also opposed by the national leader of the Greens Party, Senator Bob Brown, as well as Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd and Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese, whose parliamentary seat falls in the Marrickville area.
Ultimately, the crucial meeting of the Council that all had been waiting for was held on April 19. On the agenda was a motion to rescind the Council’s December 14 resolution in favor of the Council adopting BDS
Four hundred people packed the chamber and down two flights of stairs onto the street. There was waving of "Free Palestine" banners and Israeli flags. Activists shouted and jeered and even walked out. Mayor Byrne at times struggled to keep control.
Anglican Rev David Smith, from Dulwich Hill, invoking Gandhi, spoke of "dark forces" arraigned against "little Marrickville".
When it was the turn of Palestinian Samah Sabawi to speak, she said missing was the Palestinian voice. "I've been ethnically cleansed”, she said. Referring to the hardships being inflicted on the Palestinians by Israel, with special reference to the plight of Palestinian refugees unable to return to their ancestral homes, she said that she was prevented from going to live in the home of her ancestors because she was not Jewish.
While Independent Victor Macri, a Marrickville hairdresser, justifying his position against BDS, pointed out there had been "no consultation with the public”, Independent Morris Hanna, president of the Marrickville Chamber of Commerce, a member of the Egyptian Coptic church and the former mayor (he had signed a sister city deal with Bethlehem four years ago), justified his anti-BDS stand by saying: "It's not a local issue ... this is making a joke of us around the world”
This resulted in the most dramatic moment of the night. A woman lunged forward and shouted at Hanna: "Hang your head in shame! Remember Tahrir Square. Shame on you."
During a fiery meeting that lasted more than three hours and was marked by a lot of confusion, eight of 12 Councilors voted to abandon the Council's December 14 resolution in support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign.
The voting showed that six Councilors (four Labor and two Green) withdrew their original support. Four Green Councilors voted to retain the boycott but the fifth, Max Phillips reversed his previous support and this time voted against BDS.
According to Sonja Karkar, co-founder of Australians for Palestine and editor of its web site by that name: “after hearing statements from 17 speakers, both for and against, and then the councillors themselves speaking to the resolution, the Mayor Fiona Byrne tabled a Mayoral Minute which proposed to rescind Point 2 of the original resolution calling for consumer, academic and cultural boycotts and introduced a new Point 2 – an in principle BDS statement which watered down the original Point 1 in principle BDS statement. The motion to amend sought to have the entire Points1 and 2 rescinded as well as deleting Point 2 of the Mayoral Minute. This resulted in a tie and failed when the mayor and chair Fiona Byrne used her casting vote to defeat it. The Mayoral Minute motion rescinding Point 2 of the original as well as the new Point 2 – to boycott and to maintain an in principle support of BDS – was lost.
"The final motion resolved “not to pursue BDS against Israel in any shape or form” while at the same time maintaining the three tenets of the BDS call - to end the occupation of all Arab lands and dismantle the Wall, to ensure full equality for Palestinians living in Israel and to support the right of Palestinian refugees to return home. This was carried 8 votes to 4 against. None of the councilors who had 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, nor that Point 1 of the original in principle BDS statement had in fact not been rescinded.”
Sadly, at the end of the day, as a result of threats, confusion and politics, the first boycott of Israel by an Australian local council was lost and BDS by the tiny Green inner-western suburb of Sydney got buried! Not even celebrity names mentioned before could help brave Marrickville Council hold on to BDS against Israel
The only comfort Mayor Byrne could draw was the chant of “We love you Fiano” that rang out again and again at the Council meeting.-- and the thought she expressed: "We have put BDS on the national agenda.”
The visibly disappointed Green Mayor Fiona Byrne commented: " “We have created a little egg which is support for the plight of the Palestinian people, and a sledgehammer is being used to break that …..I personally don't understand why we've had a sledgehammer used to crush the little egg of Marrickville Council."
The council moved, and passed a motion to remain concerned about Palestinian rights and called on Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian territory and mayor Byrne stated clearly and emphatically: “The plight of the Palestinian people in the occupied territories has been and remains a source of concern for Marrickville councilors.”
Later, Mayor Byrne and her fellow Greens asserted that "vitriolic correspondence", threats, bullying and intimidation had caused several Council members who had originally voted in favor of the BDS to reverse their vote on April 19.
Federal politics obviously played a part in the Council voting. The Greens and Labor are competing for the Left. Albanese, the federal MP for the local seat of Grayndler, which takes in Marrickville, wanted Marrickville's boycott dumped, and the four Labor Councilors obeyed.
At one level this is a sad and cautionary tale. But at another level, it provides a glimmer of hope. If pro Israel forces resort to turning even local issues into an Israeli-Palestinian issue, it is a sign that they realize that the world is slowly beginning to see Israel as an Apartheid and rogue state, and they, the pro Israel propagandists, are desperately trying to prevent this opinion from spreading.