Book review: Boycotting Israel is wrong by Philip Mendes and Nick Dyrenfurth

Reviewed by Sol Salbe (This is an extended version of this review) There’s an apocryphal story about one-time Israeli politician Moshe Sneh who wrote in the margin on a speech: “weak point; raise your voice”. It is difficult to raise one’s voice in a book, so Associate Professor Philip Mendes and Dr Nick Dyrenfurth have opted for the next best thing: impress us with footnotes. 149 pages of text are accompanied by no less than 29 pages of footnotes and 19 pages of bibliography. This is quite impressive for something which is no more than a long polemic essay. The authors seem to have made a conscious decision not to engage with the actual case for BDS. They often quote what the BDS supporters are saying and tell us that it is wrong but on only one or two occasion they actually tell us why they think it’s the case. To say that they critically analyse key arguments for and against BDS, as the blurb at the back of the book promises, is to engage in false advertising. It is not as if the case for BDS was open and shut, and the authors have involved thrown themselves into the ring in a last ditch effort. There is a case that can be made against the BDS movement. I’ve debated the issue of BDS myself. But to do this you have listen and provide counter arguments, think outside the box, and source your arguments from somewhere else than just the pro-Israel Hasbara library. Ironically their blinkered approach comes to the fore most sharply when they are on their strongest ground. The BDS movement’s refusal to commit to either a One- or a Two-State Solution, has been taken up by the likes of Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein and the authors do quote them. But the examples they provide of what is on the best case scenario ambivalence on the issue, are from overseas. So, contrary to their promise on page 13 to examine the dynamics of the movement in Australia, the views of the Australian activists are missing. To me this reflects their methodology of digging into newspapers, books and journals rather than talking to people who could actually identify a local activist if they see one. The likes of Paul Norton, Larry Stillman, Andrew Casey, Sivan Barak, David Spratt, and even the present writer, could have provided them with far better examples. In the only debate on the issue to have taken place in Melbourne, the response from the BDS supporters to an analysis of the dynamics of the movement leading invariably to a one state, can be summed in the phrase “and a good thing too.” Of course when the going get tougher, when the BDS movement is on stronger grounds, Professor Mendes and Dr Dyrenfurth duck right out of the picture. On p42 they quote the first Palestinian imitative for a boycott of Israel: The Israeli academy has contributed, either directly or indirectly, to maintaining, defending or otherwise justifying the military occupation and colonization of the West Bank and Gaza, the entrenched system of racial discrimination and segregation against the Palestinian citizens of Israel, which resembles the defunct apartheid system in South Africa, and the denial of the fundamental rights of Palestinian refugees in contravention of international law. Is any of this true? Do the Palestinians have a case? The authors don’t tell us. Critical or not, the analysis is missing altogether.   LANGUAGE If you are going to remain mum, you need to make your case some other way. Mendes and Dyrenfurth appeared to have pick language as a key tool for this purpose. The two self-described progressive writers love to declare that that they are the one in the middle. It was acclaimed repeatedly at both the Sydney and Melbourne launches of the book. They contrast their position to Netanyahu and the settlers on one side and the BDS supporters on the other. But when it comes to their choice of words they actually outdo Netanyahu. Take for example the Gaza war and the second Lebanon war which took place in the ten years since the first “official” “Palestinian Civil Society” BDS call. Israel didn’t attack Gaza – it attacked Hamas and the latter invariably comes with a description of the “The racist, religious fundamentalist Hamas” (p5) or “the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas” (p32) or “Hamas, which demands the violent destruction of Israel” (p61).  You only get to see Hamas’s name on its own when it’s a page or two after the last allusion to it. There is no Lebanon war, there’s the Israel-Hezbollah war. Contrast this for example with the language used by Israeli Defence Forces itself and you can only conclude that the authors motto must be:  ”we cannot be more Catholic than the Pope, but we can be more patriotic than the IDF”. Similarly Israelis citizens don’t do military service per se. No, they only perform their military service “to defend Israel and its citizens against violence or terror”( p81).  The possibility that at least some of the time they actually protect the Occupation or the settlements, which M & D Insist that they are opposed to, isn’t even contemplated. BDS supporters invariably, “ethnically stereotyped all Israeli Jews as evil oppressor nation”. The National Tertiary Education Union which has stayed away from the BDS is naturally “principled” a term which even the union’s leader have not used for themselves on that occasion. And naturally Palestinian citizens of Israel, the majority of whom according to the New York Times (and my own reading of the situation), prefer that description are referred to by the Israeli- terminology of Israeli Arabs. The next cab of the rank is to turn BDS supporters’ factual criticism of Israel into mere allegations. My favourite is this: Israeli cosmetic company Ahava, according to its critics, is located on the Palestinian side of the Green Line… And according to you?  Has anybody ever disputed the location of the plant? Don’t the writers have access to any maps to determine where about is the settlement of Mitzpe Shalem? A similar sleight of hand is used in relation to the better known SodaStream. Mendes and Dyrenfurth refer to Scarlett Johansson ‘who reaffirmed her promotional role with the Israeli company SodaStream even though ONE of its factories was based in the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. (Emphasis added). One of its factories? Like it had 25 as claimed by Michael Danby?  The entire manufacturing of its home carbonation products is concentrate in a single plant which is in the Mishor Adumim industrial zone. There’s a plant in Ashkelon for the production of syrup concentrates but it is much smaller. The use of language goes to another level still when the authors used their own home-spun terminology which really ought to come with the © copyright sign. But you may wonder why no one else has picked it up terms like “anti-Zionist fundamentalist”. Assoc Prof Mendes used it apparently as early as ten years ago, but other than his co-author, it hasn’t been exactly taken up as any Internet search will show. Virtually every entry would be one of these two people except for one on Crickey.com.au where Guy Rundle described it as “an irritatingly propagandistic term for what Mendes sees as rigid, fantastical and ultimately anti-Semitic opposition to Israel.” As someone subscribing to a post-Zionist viewpoint I find the whole thing amusing. Most of ANZAFs (as Guy Rundle has it) I’ve encountered accept the most fundamental tenet of Zionism about the existence of a relationship between Israel and Jewish people.  [Think of what it means to speak “as a Jew: about it.]Both Zionists and ANZAFs consider it relevant to mention someone’s Jewish status when talking of their view of Israel. The other expression used just about uniquely in this book is “Greater Palestine”. Its use tells you quite a lot about the authors’ mode of thinking.  No one else uses the term, at least not in that sense because there’s no such thing. To understand why that is the case, it is useful to start from the way people like Uri Avnery  see that part of the world. Genuine supporters of the two-state solution in Israel know that the state of Israel within its 1967 borders takes up 78 per cent of the Former British Mandate Territory of Palestine (FBMTP). [That border is also known as the Green Line.] Without exception these people regard the whole of FBMTP as Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel). This was the view of all Israelis until the 1967 war.  After the war thing changed: those who wanted the State of Israel to take over the whole the FBMTP, or the whole Land of Israel, started a movement called precisely that in Hebrew: the Whole Land of Israel movement. They wanted a Greater Israel which is name of the ideology to which they subscribed. But for Palestinians the equivalence remained FBMTP=Eretz Israel=Palestine, this is after all what the British had on the currency and stamps of the territory in the three languages. [In Hebrew it was called Paleshtina with the initials of Eretz Israel in brackets].  So for even the most committed of Palestinians supporters of the two state solution there is only one meaning for the term Palestine, the same meaning that their Israeli counterparts have for Eretz Israel. So what do Palestinian supporters of the two states solution call the other 22 per cent? Well the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the Palestinian Authority, the future State of Palestine – anything except Palestine. So for Palestinians the notion of a Greater Palestine is meaningless. But in Mendes and Dyrenfurth parallel universe there is no Occupation, there is no occupier and occupied and the two sides’ cases are equivalent. Ergo, if Israelis who are unsatisfied with 78 per cent and want the whole cake are in favour of a Greater Israel, then Palestinian unsatisfied with their 22 per cent want a Greater Palestine. The Language Booby Prize has to go to this: “The apparent infiltration by the BDS movement of American academia, evidenced by a number of bodies recently passing boycott motions (p44). Did they think what it means? What do they mean “infiltration”? Are they suggesting that the movement is sending students into courses so they can graduate, become academics and pass anti-Israel resolutions? I suspect they find it inconceivable that ordinary US academics will take up such stance, but it tells you a lot about their mindset. It reminds me of US activist Peter Camejo’s comment about the Vietnam War era Communists who infiltrated that country so well, they had their agents born there. And now for the fibs Every book contains errors.  This one has no exception. But they often don’t change the big picture, at most they show that the authors do not know their subject as well as claim to be.  So all said and done, it is of secondary importance that 1993 Oslo Peace accords were not sponsored by the US or that Lee Rhiannon was a member of the (Moscow wing) Socialist Party of Australia rather than the [Trotskyist-like] Socialist Party.  South Africa’s Woolworths is unlikely to sue them for saying that a pig head was left at the Kosher section when it has no such section. [The idiots who left the pig head were targeting Jews, they just couldn’t tell the difference between that and the Halal section.) Neither Marcelo Svirsky nor the Embassy of Argentina is likely to sue them for saying he was born in Israel. But not all mistakes are innocuous as the ones above. Why do the authors say on page 107 that in Sydney the Coalition for Justice and Peace in Palestine is headed by long-time Anti-Zionist campaigners Antony Loewenstein and Peter Manning, when Loewenstein has never been a member, and Manning has not been convenor of CJPP since he left to work overseas in 2009? Why are people like Ned Curthoys (Australia) and Ahmed Moor (US) named as leading BDS activists, when everyone I asked among several BDS activists (whom I’ve seen in action) didn’t recognise their names?  Does the fact that Google brings up hundreds of references to Moor all couched in identical terms and all apparently Hasbara sites have anything to do with it? I couldn’t find anyone outside the Hasbara circles according him the same honours. It seems as if he may been promoted because what he said was very useful to the opponents of BDS.  [Perhaps they have taken their cue from the IDF which always posthumously promotes whom it had assassinated to the leader of XYZ at abc. Now what about this one: Imagine the BDS movement quoting a very conciliatory media release from say, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh to argue its case. It’s a message for the ages which really strengthen their case. Then you find out that there was a little sting in the tail. The Media release was put out all right, but only in English and only to certain circles. The people of Gaza were nicely kept in the dark. You’d naturally hear every objective observer, not to mention every single supporter of Israel, screaming at the deception. Well the boot is on the other foot. The Histadrut [Federation] (Israeli equivalent of the ACTU) has indeed put out a statement calling for an end to settlement construction and for the lifting of the Gaza Blockade.]  Surprisingly, or not, there’s no footnote, but I’ve found a version in English. However in Hebrew – Nothing, Nada, Gurnisht. Maybe it’s because Mendes and Dyrenfurth have been mislead themselves, maybe they forgot the footnote. But how do they explain their allusion to Antony Loewenstein’s book without including the title, a footnote, or the book in the bibliography. Could it be that you can’t really call somebody an anti-Zionist fundamentalist and link to a book the first edition of which supported a one-state solution? When talking about Palestinian citizens of Israel the authors try to sound ever so reasonable. So they list some good and bad things about their treatment.  As usual they avoid too many facts and figures. On the positive side they write: “Arabs have served as members of the Cabinet, in prominent positions in the civil service and hospitals, as judges and diplomats and in senior positions in the police and the army.”  Let’s take the first of these claims. One non-Druze Arab, Raleb Majadele, has served has a minister for two years (and ten days!) out of Israel’s 67 years of existence. There are usually more than 20 minsters in the government so we are looking at something in the order of 0.15 per cent. What’s more, like in Australia, the word Cabinet is not used for the entire ministry but just a segment of it. And no Arab has ever served in what is called the Political-Security Cabinet. The other examples are just as inaccurate. And as for the claim that there’s an increased recruitment to the public service, perhaps the question to be asked is: at the current rate how many decades or centuries will it take for Palestinian citizens’ proportion in the public service to reach their proportion in the population, if ever? A great example of the authors’ distortion relates to Australian Jews’ support of Israel and Zionism.  The authors’ case is reasonably sound.  I have no doubt the majority of Australian Jews do feel strongly about Israel. But it is almost as if they cannot help themselves to trip over their own rhetoric. They cite the very comprehensive Gen 08 survey. According to the survey 80 per cent of Australian Jews defined themselves as Zionists.  But they omit something crucial.  The definition of Zionism was so broad as to make it meaning less as Jeremy Kenner explained in the September 2009 of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society Newsletter: Perhaps most problematic is the question Do you regard yourself as a Zionist? With the accompanying explanation that  By the term Zionist we mean that you feel connected to the Jewish people, to Jewish history, culture and beliefs, the Hebrew language and the Jewish homeland, Israel (p 15 [of the survey].) I can vouch that even though I’m a militant post-Zionist, I had to fill the survey (ironically from a town named after the founder of Zionism in Israel) that I was a Zionist, although I haven’t applied that term to myself for just under half a century. By the same token, one of Mendes and Dyrenfurth favourite “anti-Zionist Fundamentalists”, Noam Chomsky, would have also be defined as Zionist. But they don’t only trip over their rhetoric, they add a measure of hutzpah. Having quoted the survey as saying that 80 per cent were Zionists, they decide to give their own estimate that less than 1 per cent of Australian Jews are anti Zionists when given an incredibly broad definition of Zionism 13 per cent didn’t think they were and 7 per cent didn’t know(!) if they were or refused to answer. A crucial argument in relation to any academic boycott of Israel is the behaviour of Israeli universities. Mendes and Dyrenfurth finally engage with the argument in their conclusion. They write: “That in 2012 , the targeted university’s  president, Joseph Klafter, had courageously granted approval to students organisation  seeking to hold demonstrations on campus commemorating the Nakba, earning him a nationalist inspired backlash…” The president of Tel Aviv University didn’t think he was courageous, merely obeying the law as he had no choice. In a message to students he wrote (Heb): “At the request of some students, the university approved activities to commemorate Nakba Day, in accordance with the principles of democracy and the law of the State of Israel. The university acted in accordance with the law, which makes it illegal to prevent expressing any opinion in this regard. At the same time the university made the organisers bear all the costs of carrying out the demonstration [ie security guards presence-tr[ thus maintaining the careful balance mandated by the law. So a university president who had no legal means preventing a demonstration should be given credit for not breaking the law? Sometimes the distortion is so egregious one cannot think of an excuse. And it’s true that an organiser of the event and the person who missed out on the occasion I feel a little personally aggrieved. Speaking of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society’s vote on its own limited form of boycott they write: “The motion was passed following an invited address to AJDS members by Samah Sabawi, a representative of the of the pro-BDS Australians for Palestine [AFP}group. “ Except that she wasn’t. The speakout/forum was organised to explore three possible avenues for people who felt concerned about Israel action in Gaza and Lebanon. We couldn’t find anyone opposed to what Israel was doing but opposed to any form of boycott, despite extensive call for such a speaker. The second position, taken by the present writer that some forms of boycott were desirable but there were too many issues with the BDS™ movement. Sabawi was to put the full BDS position but as a Palestinian activist, not an AFP representative.  The authors know it. They have a footnote for the AJDS full report on the event. [In the event AJDS members were so late that I gave up my time.] Of all the examples in which the authors, shall we say, stretch the truth, none illustrates the case better than the one on pp124-125.  Referring to the French company Veolia, which operates the light rail into Occupied East Jerusalem and citing an article in Haaretz from 2012 they write: “On several occasions when the transport and water management company was not offered a contract or its existing contract was not renewed, BDS activists claimed ‘victory”. Mostly, BDS activists merely inferred the reasons behind each decision and more generally ignored the company’s long-term strategy of withdrawing from the transport business.” There’s an irony in the last clause. You see Veolia didn’t quite withdraw from transport, it went into partnership setting up Transdev which now manages the light rail operation. And Transdev has not only not moved away from public transport it has expanded its PT operations. And the irony? Both authors live in Melbourne.  In August 2013, a years and half after the Haaretz article Transdev took over 30 per cent of Melbourne bus services. Transdev operate 52 routes across metropolitan Melbourne with a fleet of around 500 buses from four depots. It’s just about impossible to travel through Melbourne without seeing their buses.  Yep, they are withdrawing from the transport business. Simply Wrong arguments Language is one thing, distortion is another but of Mendes and Dyrenfurth arguments are simply wrong. Here’s an egregious example: BDS singles only Israel for boycott, ignoring far worse human rights abuses and bitter ethnic-religious conflicts. If anything, Israeli actions are far less brutal than the behaviour of China in Tibet, the United States during Vietnam, Indonesia in Aceh and formerly East Timor and Russia in Chechnya. Check out the claim: find out the death toll provided by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch or even Wikipedia for Tibet, Aceh and even Chechnya during the BDS period of 2005-2015. They are all far lower than the figures for the Palestinian people. Tibetans, Acehnese, Chechens all get the right to vote (for what is worth in some of those countries); they are all citizens. Sure, Vietnam was worse but that war ended 40 years ago and every single one of the BDS supporters whom I have known for those 40 years were with me on the front line in Vietnam Moratorium demonstrations. The authors then list Zimbabwe, Sudan, Iran and Rwanda as other examples of worse human rights abuse than Israel. That’s true. But these countries face sanctions and some of their leaders are either facing court or cannot travel outside their country because of international warrants against them.  Israeli leaders are treated as honoured guest. If anything this is where the BDS movement is on very firm ground. Ordinary people need to act when government don’t, but can take a back step if their government do. BTW I wonder why West Papua isn’t mentioned. Is it because the Indonesians have established settlements in the region? And somehow the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is responsible for the Israeli Apartheid terminology. Never mind that the terminology has only been used since 2007 and the USSR ceased to exist in 1991. The USSR had accused had accused Israel of racism ergo, they are were responsible for the use of the Apartheid term. Then there’s the Jewish victimhood angle. Chants of “Max Brenner there’s blood on your chocolates” were silly. There were also far too many degrees of separation between the target and the Israeli military. But blood libel? I remember chants about blood and dead kids going back to 1968 and the Vietnam War. It’s a common English expression with equivalents in German, French, Russian Yiddish and other languages as noted by pre-eminent Israeli linguist Ruvik Rosenthal (Heb). In this recent article Rosenthal writes: “The phrase ‘blood on their hands’ is a phrase which has a fascinating historical trail. It arrived in Hebrew from Jewish and European cultural sources. It’s the moral-legal definition of someone who killed or was involved in the killing of innocent people. “ The expression has Biblical roots:  the prophet Isaiah says “your hands are full of blood” (1,15) and  “For your hands were defiled with blood” (59,3). Whatever you think of the Max Brenner protesters, they were using the ancient expression correctly. And it carries none of the connotation which the authors attribute to them. The whole worldview promoted by the authors has got it back to front. BDS is not similar to the Nazi boycott of Jews. It is similar to the Jewish counter-boycott of the Nazis and the whole of Germany. No one has put recently as well as Daniel Blatman, Professor of the Holocaust and Genocidal studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem: BDS provides the means for non-state actors to act against the Occupation, dispossession, illegal settlement and the terrorism carried out by Israel against the Palestinians. Its purpose is to put an end to a form of civil separation based on racist principles, and to fight for the Palestinians’ right to self-determination. Anti-Semitism? Expressions reminiscent of what the Nazis said about the Jews? These exist only in the imagination of those who react hysterically, which in turn, is reminiscent of the Nazi reaction of the anti-German boycott which Jewish activists tried to mobilise with their meagre resources. Our Minister for Justice and others have proposed that we boycott the boycotters. That’s the way the Nazi Party acted when it organised an anti-Jewish boycott as of 1 April 1933 in response to the Jewish anti-German boycott. The Nazis, who were beholden to their fantasies about Jewish power in the world, reacted violently as they feared the boycott may disrupt the German economy. No one would have expected them to replace their antisemitic demagoguery with a policy of treating their victims with justice and equality. But the reactions of the Israeli leadership and of some journalists suggest that here too there’s a preference for hysterical nationalist rhetoric over the adoption of policies that will end the Occupation, would make the very existence of BDS and would return those who take advantage of the movement to promote their opposition to Israel’s existence, back to their position on the margins. Tied to this reverse order claim is the notion that the distribution of literature of antisemitic or the posting of antisemitic comments on BDS social media sites taints the whole movement. The authors cite Durban. Are they going to hold the Australian Labor Party responsible for every bit of material distributed at its forthcoming conference? The argument can be turned around. Virtually every identifiable person standing with our current Prime Minister in the infamous “Ditch the Witch” protest is both a climate change denier and an opponent of BDS.  Should the BDS movement go along the same track? I think they’d be making a big mistake if they go along that track. Impossible to achieve To my mind, the problem with this book is not so much the clumsy execution. It is not that it is merely wrong, this book set out to achieve the impossible.  You cannot convinced those who have moved or are moving to support the boycott movement from the authors’ vantage point. The authors share the Israeli government (and Loyal Opposition’s!) view on virtually every single major aspect of the conflict: They think of Gaza in the same way and Netanyahu and Opposition Leader Herzog, they view Israel’s wars in the same way, Given a choice between the continuing Occupation and its immediate removal they’d opt for the former. They’ll find excuses to back up a military officer who shot a Palestinian teenager in the back and if they have protested Israel’s citizenship law I’d be most surprised. On the other hand those who are opting for the boycott movement are on the whole motivated by high ideals. People like the authors who show absolutely no empathy to the Palestinians aren’t going to make the army of boycotters change their mind. So it’s their starting point which leads them astray. Twenty years of negotiations have come and gone. For the Palestinians, there’s nothing positive to show for it. As Noam Sheizaf has pointed out, Israelis are happy with the status quo. No change is their preferred option. In other words a perfect example of the application of Newton’s first law of motion to politics: An object will remain unless compelled to change its state by the action of an external force.  The Boycott/BDS movement is one such potential force.  There may be stronger potential forces.  There may be a better way of applying that force (or there may not be). But I daresay that if someone does come with a better alternative it would be someone with a different paradigm to Mendes and Dyrenfurth.                       
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