A pro-BDS academic at the University of Sydney has defended the conduct of his colleague, Associate Professor Jake Lynch, during the disruption by protesters of a lecture by Colonel Richard Kemp at the University of Sydney on March 11 (Why Jake Lynch was waving money around at an anti-Israel protest, March 25). In doing so, Dr Nick Riemer only digs Lynch into a deeper hole.

Riemer begins by accusing Lynch’s critics of attempting to silence him by a variety of devious means, including the legal action brought against Lynch in 2013 under the Racial Discrimination Act. The case was ultimately withdrawn. At the time, Lynch himself characterised the case as “an attempt to stifle debate”. Now Lynch and Riemer defend the actions of the protesters on March 11 – actions that were intended not merely to stifle debate, but to shut it down altogether.

Colonel Kemp had been invited to speak on “Ethical Dilemmas of Military Tactics in Relation to Recent Conflicts in the Middle East: Dealing with non-state armed groups”. The topic has obvious relevance to Australian military operations overseas and is the kind of topic that is often written about and debated in centres of higher learning in Australia and many other parts of the world.

A few minutes before the lecture started, a small group of protesters were photographed by JWire outside the lecture theatre handing out leaflets. Three of them held a large sign bearing the words “Cut ties with Israeli Apartheid” and “Sydney Uni Staff for BDS”. One of the people holding the sign was Lynch.

If the anti-lecture activity had been limited to a demonstration outside the lecture theatre, no reasonable complaint against it could have been made. Sadly, however, that was not the case.

As is now well-known, about 20 minutes into the lecture, a group of a dozen or so protesters stormed into the lecture theatre, chanting slogans, one of them through a megaphone, shouting down Colonel Kemp and preventing him from being heard.  At least one of the pre-lecture protesters, a student, participated in these actions.

One protester then delivered a long diatribe in defence of the Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir, whose preacher, Ismail al-Wahwah, delivered sermons in July 2014 and March 2015 ranting against Jews, describing them at one point as “the most evil creature of Allah.” The protester then began to chant slogans against Israel while others spread throughout the room and continued the chanting.

It is astounding that Riemer seeks to excuse the conduct of these protesters as legitimate disruptive protest. He seems to be saying that the protesters had the right to act as the self-appointed censors of the University. They were not only trying to deny Colonel Kemp his freedom to speak – to deliver the lecture he had been invited to give – but also the freedom of members of the audience to hear what he had to say and to question him and engage him in debate.

The conduct of Lynch and Riemer during the melee that followed the protesters’ invasion of the lecture theatre is now under investigation by the University, and rightly so. This is not the time and place to add to the series of claims and counter-claims that have been made in various published articles by their detractors and defenders. Their actions were witnessed by many people and were recorded on several videos and in photographs.   The investigators have much material to sort through. I do not propose to pre-empt their task.

But I cannot let pass without comment Riemer’s ludicrous attempt to justify Lynch’s conduct in waving a banknote or banknotes in the face of an elderly woman, and perhaps others.   Riemer insists that Lynch acted in self-defence against a “series of physical attacks” against him by the woman. The “physical attacks” consisted of the woman throwing water at him and kicking in his direction, but not connecting.  We have yet to hear the woman’s side of the story.

The plea of self-defence against such an unlikely assailant strains credulity, but even if it is accepted at face value, it does Lynch little credit.   Regardless of the view one might take of the conduct of the elderly woman, it is appalling that an academic of Lynch’s seniority should have stooped to such an unedifying gesture.   It brings the whole academic community at the University into disrepute.

It therefore comes as little surprise that one of Lynch’s supporters initially denied that the banknote incident had occurred. The day after the lecture, Lynch’s fellow member of the governing council of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS) at the University, Paul Duffill, posted the following comment on Facebook:

I was at this event, sitting about 2 metres away from where this photo was taken. The claim “Professor Jake Lynch holding money to the face of a Jewish student” is completely false. In this photo Professor Jake Lynch is holding his mobile phone [as a camera to record the actions of security staff and one other individual]

Duffill berated those who had accused Lynch of waving banknotes in the faces of others and demanded an apology. But in a later post on the same Facebook page Duffill sheepishly admitted:

“I have since spoken to Prof. Lynch and Prof. Lynch has confirmed that at some stage during the event he did remove banknotes he was carrying from his own pocket…”

Duffill nevertheless went on to defend Lynch’s actions on Facebook and again at greater length on Online opinion. Riemer’s defence of Lynch’s actions is in much the same vein as Duffil’s.

Apparently, however, not all of Lynch’s supporters have their stories aligned.   Fahad Ali, President of Students for Justice in Palestine, continues to dispute that Lynch waved money in anyone’s face at the lecture. Perhaps Ali feels that he has no choice but to remain in denial. In a Facebook post the day after the lecture, Ali commented:

If Jake had waved money on the face of a Jewish student, I would be the first person to call for him to be sacked”.

Also objectionable is Riemer’s attempt to silence criticism of Lynch’s deplorable actions by claiming that the charge of antisemitism is a “smear” and “politically motivated.” The accusation that Jews falsely “cry antisemitism” is a common strategy deployed by anti-Israel activists when they seek to deny and shut down any serious scrutiny of their actions when those actions cross the line into racism.

The charge of antisemitism is not levelled lightly. It was not directed at those who stormed the lecture theatre and denied Colonel Kemp the right to speak in support of the Jewish State. It was not even levelled at the students whose visceral chanting and abuse characterised the Jewish national home as irredeemably evil while they sought to defend an Islamist group which views Jews as subhuman.

The charge of antisemitism made publicly by Colonel Kemp stemmed principally from the money-brandishing incident.  In light of the suspension and barring of Professor Barry Spurr in 2014 and the University’s stated opposition to racial vilification, this is a matter which Lynch and his followers would do well to take very seriously.

As an alumnus of the University of Sydney, and someone who retains considerable affection for the place, it pains me that CPACS, which might be expected to uphold principles of peaceful academic discussion and debate, has come to be perceived as a Centre that shamelessly abuses its setting within a major University to promote political crusades for various causes, thus compromising the University’s credibility as a centre for serious and unbiased academic scholarship.

The University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences conducted a review of CPACS in late 2014 but the results have not been published.

CPACS has long been an embarrassment to the University, as it would be to any institution of higher learning that values academic excellence. After what happened during the disruption of Colonel Kemp’s lecture, shame has been added to embarrassment.

This piece was written by Peter Wertheim, the executive director of The Executive Council of Australian Jewry