AJDS Statement about Limmud Oz

i Jun 5th 2016

The Australian Jewish Democratic Society (AJDS) is deeply disappointed that the organising committee of Limmud Oz 2016 has decided that the invitation extended to Bassam Dally – who was to speak with Sivan Barak (a member of the Executive of the AJDS) in a conversation entitled “Fighting for Coexistence” should be withdrawn. While the organisers claim that the programming policy enables them to ban Bassam from speaking, we believe that this decision represents a hopeless and shameful misstep and should be reversed.

Limmud Oz makes a claim to being a space for broad discussion, dialogue, and challenging conversations. Yet, in deciding that Bassam is not allowed to speak they have effectively applied a very specific and limited litmus test to one speaker. Indeed, this test demonstrates a deep disrespect for the intelligence of the attendees of Limmud Oz and the Jewish community, and shows the organisers to be out of step with where the community is headed. It beggars belief that the organisers truly believe that talking with a Palestinian who also supports the principles of BDS will harm the community. Indeed, a current poll in the right-leaning Australian Jewish News shows considerable support for hearing the views of BDS supporters at Jewish events. Jews of all ideological persuasions want the right to judge for themselves.

In any case, Bassam and Sivan’s session did not plan to touch on BDS in any way. Ironically, it was to be a session about dialogue and coexistence. The possibility of these seem distant when this session, and likely one of the sole Palestinian voices at the Conference, can be swiftly silenced by invoking the BDS bogeyman. At the same time, the organisers thought it appropriate to include in the program a talk with the antagonistic and loaded title, “ The BDS Movement and the Demonisation of Jewish Supporters of Israel.”

Barring people from a conference because they promote a strategy of non-violence as a response to decades of violence is extremely counter-productive. Such censorship limits the already miniscule number of Palestinian voices that mainstream Jews hear. It is also out of step with the increasing support at home and worldwide from Jews themselves.

Moreover, if the reports are accurate that Limmud Oz’s funding was threatened if Bassam had participated, then we worry about the place of donor funding in the community. Surely, as a community, we should be striving to make spaces for the most challenging and demanding conversations, not allowing financial imperatives to close them off.

The Jewish community in Melbourne, and throughout Australia, would benefit immeasurably from talking more, and more openly, with Palestinians. We have much to learn. Sadly, it would seem that the organisers of Limmud Oz are intent on ensuring that this will be made more difficult.

The AJDS calls on Limmud Oz to reverse their decision, and to ensure that future programs are not tainted by this restriction on the sharing of knowledge and open conversation. Our Jewish community will be richer for it.


This statement was written by the AJDS Executive Committee, June 5, 2016


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

i Nov 6th 2015

Reviewed by Sol Salbe

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.

One problem with the book is their methodology.  To me this reflects their own 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.

Of course when the going gets tough, when the BDS movement is on stronger grounds, Mendes and Dyrenfurth duck right out of the picture. On page 42 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.



If you are going to remain mum, you need to make your case some other way. Mendes and Dyrenfurth appeared to have picked language as a key tool for this purpose. The two self-described progressive writers love to declare that that they are the ones in the middle. 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. Israel didn’t attack Gaza – it attacked Hamas and the latter invariably comes with a description of 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. 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”.

The next cab off the rank is to turn BDS supporters’ factual criticism of Israel into mere allegations. My favourite is this: Israeli cosmetics company Ahava, according to its critics, is located on the Palestinian side of the Green Line… And according to them?  Has anybody ever disputed the location of the plant? Don’t the writers have access to any maps to determine the whereabouts of 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 concentrated in a single plant which is in the Mishor Adumim industrial zone.

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 by “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 a 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’s Communists who infiltrated that country so well, they had their agents born there.

And now for the fibs

Every book contains errors.  But they often don’t change the big picture, at most they show that the authors do not know their subject as well as they claim to be.  So all said and done, it is of secondary importance. Lee Rhiannon was a member of the (Moscow wing) Socialist Party of Australia rather than the [Trotskyist-like] Socialist Party.  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?

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 strengthens 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 blue murder at the deception. Well, the boot is on the other foot. The Histadrut (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.

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 but 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.” (p15 of the survey)

I can vouch that even though I’m a militant post-Zionist, my survey form said 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 been defined as a Zionist.

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 organisations 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 of preventing a demonstration should be given credit for not breaking the law?

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 year 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 Mendes’ and Dyrenfurth’s 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.

Then there’s the Jewish victimhood angle. Chants of “Max Brenner there’s blood on your chocolates” were silly. There were 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 both 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” (Isaiah 1:15) and  “For your hands were defiled with blood” (Isaiah 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.

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 convince 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 as Netanyahu and 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 Palestinians, aren’t going to make the army of boycotters change their mind. So it’s their starting point that 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.

A longer version of this review can be read here.  





The Australian Boycotts, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) group

i Nov 6th 2015

By the Australian BDS Group


The AJDS does not necessary endorse the views represented by this group, though we do foster debate and discussion.


The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) is marked as a civil nonviolent campaign against Israel and its complicit institutions, and is arguably the largest of its kind. BDS works to uncover the systematic oppression of Palestinians, expose the very nature of nationalist right-wing Zionism as a racist ideology and question Israel’s legitimacy as an apartheid state. Its boycott campaign also targets companies that are complacent and supportive of Israel’s violation of international law and human rights. In the official statement of the movement, there are three demands:
1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall,
2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality,
3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.

Israel holds a long history of breaching international law, as well as committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. The most obvious of all of these violations is the military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and its siege of Gaza. Israel literally controls resources within these lands, expanding from access to water and
land to blocking imports to the territories. Installed within the 1967 Armistice Line are the exponential growth of settlements, military checkpoints, and a vast network of roads inaccessible to Palestinians, which inhibit the lives and well-being of those affected in countless ways. In other words, Israel controls every aspect of Palestinian life.

Despite long rounds of negotiations between the PLO and Israel, settlements continued to grow in numbers, creating increasing fragmentation of Palestinian existence.

Last year a UN human rights investigator accused Israel of ethnic cleansing the Palestinians from the West Bank and East Jerusalem by demolishing Palestinian houses on the basis of their ethnicity, resulting in mass displacement and refugees. By doing so, Israel is applying what we call ‘population transfer’ and enforcing laws that cement Jewish privilege. Shimon Peres confirmed the legitimacy of these policies when he said, “Demography will defeat geography.”

A pivotal force in the United States, BDS carries its campaigns from university divestments to supermarket boycotts, putting economic (cultural and academic pressure). Such a growing population against Israel’s policies in the United States stems from public outrage over its government’s blind and unconditional support for Israel financially, militarily, politically and economically, allowing Israel to enjoy political immunity. Australia’s position isn’t any different from the US. Appealing to Israel’s colonialist logic, back in January 2014, Julie Bishop claimed Israeli settlements in the West Bank are not in breach of international law, and denied there was any legal ruling
to challenge this. Positions of this nature diminish Australia’s position and credibility.

Regardless of the intensity of the BDS movement in Australia, its recognition has even forced parliamentarians to take up measures to suppress it. Both ends of politics shun BDS wrongfully, by labelling it ‘anti-Semitic’.
The Liberal Party formed a coalition in early 2013, presenting measures that would cut off all funding to institutions who would advocate for BDS. In October 2014, a petition (authored by a former Israeli soldier) was brought to the Australian government, asking to support the BDS movement. Eventually, the proposal was refused, and opposition leader Bill Shorten (shamefully) denounced the movement, saying “BDS had no support from the ALP and no place in Australia”. Despite condemnation coming from the Australian political establishment, scores of successes have been achieved in the BDS movement worldwide, and expressions from politicians around the world reflect its true ground shaking effect.

There is no end in sight to Israel’s illegal activities and these are only getting worse. Israel’s public and members of the Knesset lean further to the right, showing the world that we cannot place our hope on Israelis to create change from within, particularly in light of Netanyahu’s government’s policies.

This is why BDS seeks to take this role, by placing an economic, political, academic and diplomatic strain on Israel until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights. Panic has sprung in the United States and Israel, and this fear is leaking into the agendas of Australian leaders. Australia is one of the only Western countries to not
have a foot in the door when it comes to BDS achievements in the last decade, but the politicians already fear its effects. Our goal is to unite the people of Australia, whether they wish to partake in BDS campaigns or have their own smaller campaigns and create a strong and respectable organization. We are proud to be a part of this movement,
made of dedicated and passionate people who want to spread this message of human rights, accountability, and equality for all people in the region, Arabs and Jews alike, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, or aspirations.

Statement on Limmud Oz exclusion of Jewish voices and the new Jewish Fringe

i Jun 4th 2015

The Australian Jewish Democratic Society (AJDS) is deeply disappointed at the actions of the 2015 Limmud Oz organising committee in recent efforts to exclude voices from their program.

The headline of an article published in the Jewish News on May 11th boldly exclaims: “Limmud-Oz promises ‘something for everyone.’”  They quote one of this year’s volunteer co-chairs, who advertise that the 2015 Limmud Oz programme promises “something for everyone whatever their interest.”  However, it seems that their actions speak louder than their words, with the exclusion again this year of Dr. Peter Slezak, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of New South Wales (UNSW).  Dr. Slezak was denied the opportunity to speak at Limmud Oz, based on his public support for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, despite the fact that Dr. Slezak’s proposed session was to be on the topic of Jewish philosopher, Hannah Arendt, and completely isolated from the contentious issue of BDS in Jewish communities.

This act by the Shalom Institute, which organises Limmud Oz, is not only a deliberate attempt to make invisible any form of debate or discussion around how Jewish communities in the diaspora can engage with the actions of the State of Israel, but takes it a step further to vilify not only ideologies, but individuals.

We see this decision as being fundamentally immoral and furthermore runs counter to Limmud Oz’s stated core values, which include valuing the rich diversity among Jews, valuing choice in form, content and style in our programmes, and not participating in legitimising or de-legitimising any religious or political position found in the worldwide Jewish community.  These positions have been directly copied from the Limmud Oz website.

The AJDS calls on Limmud Oz and the broader Jewish community to condemn the exclusion of speakers by Limmud Oz and to uphold values of freedom of speech, exchange of ideas and vibrant dialogue, which instead of dividing our communities could further enrich and broaden them.

We also promote support and attendance of the Jewish Fringe, which has been organised in response to the censorship of Limmud Oz and will be held at the same time and place at UNSW.  Speaking on Jewish Fringe, Dr Slezak says: “We hope to demonstrate that there is nothing to fear and much to be gained from open discussion of difficult ideas concerning important issues.”

Further information about Jewish Fringe and its program can be found here.

Read more from Limmud Oz, and download the Jewish Fringe flyer.


This official statement was issued by the AJDS June 4, 2015

Americans for Peace Now’s on the Presbyterian Church’s decision on divestment

i Jun 25th 2014

Following the decision by the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from three U.S. companies whose products, they argue, are used to support Israeli occupation, Americans for Peace Now today issued the following statement:

“Last Friday’s decision of the Presbyterian Church of the United States to divest from three major U.S. companies should serve as a resounding warning for the Israeli government. Increasingly large segments of American society – including ones that care deeply about Israel’s future and invest in it – are losing patience with the nearly five decades-long occupation and with the Israeli government’s refusal to act seriously to bring it to an end. Pressure for decisions like the one taken by PC (USA) is growing, supported by Americans who are neither anti-Israel nor anti-Semitic. It is gaining traction as a direct consequence of Israeli policies that are deepening the occupation to the point of potential irreversibility in the near term, in tandem with the apparent inability or unwillingness of governments around the world to in any meaningful way challenge these policies.

“While the decision of PC (USA) causes great pain for many of us, the discourse and debate surrounding the decision – this year and in prior years – made clear that it is the occupation, not Israel, that is the focus of PC (USA)’s concerns and frustration. Anti-Israel forces were quick to claim PC (USA)’s decision, passed by a very narrow margin, as a victory for their odious cause, but that does not make it so. The truth – evident to anyone watching and listening to the proceedings or who reads the text of the resolution PC (USA) adopted – is that the decision was explicitly and emphatically grounded in commitment to and concern for Israel, in recognition of Israel and its right to exist with peace and security, and in rejection of boycott, divestment, and sanctions efforts targeting Israel.

“Americans for Peace Now weighs all activism in light of our primary mission: preserving Israel’s future and its security and viability as a democracy and a Jewish state. From this mission, we, as a Jewish, Zionist organization, derive our conviction that settlement expansion must stop, the settlement enterprise must be rolled back, and the occupation must end – for the sake of Israel’s own security and its own future. Consistent with this mission, we oppose boycott, divestment, and sanctions efforts targeting Israel, and we condemn organizations and activists who seek to undermine Israel’s existence.

“Consistent with this same mission and convictions, we have long argued that activism should be targeted across the Green Line separating Israel and the occupied territories.  We actively call for the boycott of settlements and settlement products. With respect to divestment, we do not take a position on specific companies, including those at the center of PC (USA)’s debate. As a matter of principle, we believe it is legitimate for activists to press companies to adopt practices that deny support to settlements and the occupation, including through targeted boycotts and divestment. In such cases, we believe that the onus is on activists to demonstrate that their target is the occupation and its manifestations, rather than Israel’s existence and legitimacy, the welfare of innocent Israeli civilians, or legitimate Israeli security practices.

“Likewise, as a matter of principle, we believe that activism must take into account the fact that Israel has legitimate security needs related to the occupied territories. The line between contributing to the occupation and addressing these needs may not always be clear-cut, and targeting activism narrowly enough to take into account this complicated situation presents a serious challenge. Absent a peace agreement, Israel has undeniable security needs related to the occupied territories. For example, securing its border with Jordan and preventing terrorism emanating from the West Bank into Israel. In many cases, like these, the line between contributing to the occupation and permitting Israel to address legitimate security concerns is not clear. Nonetheless, if careful enough distinctions are drawn, we believe that such activism can advance the goals of ending the occupation and promoting peace and a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We believe that activists who hew to these principles – as PC (USA) and the great majority of its activists appear to have done – deserve credit. Going forward, the legitimacy and effectiveness of their decision will be a function of how effectively they continue to demonstrate that the goal of their activism is to challenge Israeli occupation, not Israel’s existence.”

For more click here.

Responses to the Sodastream controversy

i Feb 16th 2014

In response to the attacks on Oxfam from leading Australian Jewish organisations for parting ways with Scarlett Johannson over her conflict of interest (promoting Sodastream while being an Oxfam Ambassador) ,  two letters were published in the Australian Jewish News (14 Feb 2014).

One is from Andrew Casey who has a long association with the Australian union movement, including the ACTU. He is also a member of TULIP, Trade  Unions Linking Israel and Palestine.  It should be noted that Michael Danby, a member of the Australian Labour Party and Member for Melbourne Ports has slammed Oxfam’s  position on Settlement Products and Ms Johannson.  He is himself a former union official.  It would be  interesting to know his response to Andrew Casey’s letter

The second comes from AJDS member Larry Stillman.





The AJDS and our ‘Don’t Buy from the Settlements’ Campaign – An Introduction

i Jun 21st 2013


Open discussion is an important aspect of any community. When the AJDS launched its ‘Don’t Buy from the Settlements’ Campaign in Pesach this year, we did so with the aim of being part of an ongoing, world-wide discussion about the ways that everyone who cares about Israel/Palestine can be a part of helping to shape a new future for that part of the world and its inhabitants. While many people from all sorts of communities have supported and taken part in the campaign, the campaign has been criticised by some. This is inevitable in any political campaign.

But there has also been a lot of confusion about what the campaign is and what it means. In particular, a lot of people have been confused about what distinguishes this campaign from BDS, and there are many within the Jewish communities in Melbourne who have criticised the campaign because of that.

The different members of the AJDS executive have had a range of experiences since the campaign was launched, and have many opinions regarding the different issues involved.

In particular, there are a variety of opinions within the AJDS Executive and former exec about the Palestinian-led ‘Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions’ movement – more commonly referred to as BDS. This coalesces around questions of what BDS is and what its relationship to the Zionist community and Israel is, as well as how this positions relations between Israelis and Palestinians.  While we have these differences, AJDS’s ‘Don’t Buy from the Settlements’ Campaign emerged after several years of internal discussion which was informed by, but quite separate to, anything proposed by what is known as the BDS movement.

While we have these differences about how to consider the BDS movement, we believe it is important to share them. This is because we recognise that many of the issues raised by proponents of BDS are part of a progressive concern for justice, peace and reconciliation.  However there are inevitably some differences that are felt by some of us, and these need to be explained. In fact, these various viewpoints also overlap.  Thus, we also make it clear that there is no ‘split’ in AJDS; there are simply different opinions on a complex ‘movement’. This is a movement which is unfortunately often seen as monolithic and universally evil by some members of the Zionist Jewish community and its allies, but is recognised as quite heterogeneous by many of those outside of it.  This difference in perceptions about the BDS, the volatile nature of the relationship between Israel and Palestine, and the existence of diverse political opinions are some of the reasons why it has been so difficult to develop any consensus position in AJDS, and why we recognise that consensus positions on this issue are not necessary.

There is nothing more important than being able to speak and talk openly about our differences, rather than be subject to the strident and dishonest criticism which comes from some quarters in the Jewish community. The recent condemnation of AJDS by affiliates of the JCCV is an unfortunate example of this problem.

We hope that you will read the pieces that come from four members of our executive – Jordy Silverstein, Larry StillmanDennis Martin and Jemima Light – in the open spirit in which they were intended: to tease out some of the difficulties and the ambivalences, as well as some of the certainties, in grappling with these issues.

Airbrushing dissenters out of the Jewish community – Harold Zwier

i Jun 20th 2013

By former AJDS Executive Committee Member Harold Zwier

On November 29, 2012, the General Assembly of the United Nations voted to upgrade the Palestinian status to a non-member observer state. The UN adopted the resolution by a majority of 138 in favour to 9 against with 41 abstentions. Australia was one of the abstentions.

Since then, the Australian Jewish Democratic Society (AJDS) has managed to remain in the firing line of the peak bodies of the Jewish community – the Jewish Community Council of Victoria (JCCV); the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) and the Zionist Council of Victoria (ZCV).

The AJDS journey began with a letter sent to Australia’s Foreign Minister in December 2012 and ended with condemnation at a JCCV plenum meeting in early June 2013. I think the various events that occurred during that period reinforce the stereotypical image of the Jewish community as being quite intolerant of dissent. You can be the judge of whether that accusation is reasonable.
The background to these reflections can be found in the timeline.


There have always been claims that the leadership of the Jewish community tries to silence critics – whether they are critics of Israel or the Jewish community. But I disagree. There is a variety of media outlets available for the dissemination of opinions across the political spectrum and no way to effectively stifle differing viewpoints or prevent them from being published.

There is however the time honoured political tactic of delegitimisation. It is a tactic shared across the political divide. It is used to great effect by some leaders in the Jewish community in order to undermine and marginalise their opponents – inside or outside the community.

The JCCV claim that the AJDS did not have the right to refer to its JCCV affiliation in its letter to Senator Carr is strange indeed. By its own admission the JCCV agreed that it is unable to cite a rule, policy, or written understanding to support its Orwellian assertion. By its own admission it agreed that the reference to the AJDS affiliation was factually correct – how could they do otherwise??

No credible public body in an open liberal democracy such as Australia, which espouses the principles of inclusiveness, diversity and pluralism could claim that its affiliates have no right to refer to their affiliation in any material produced, letters written, statements released, or other public pronouncements. Yet this is what the JCCV requests of its affiliates. In pushing its argument with the seriousness of a school principal chastising a misbehaving student, the JCCV only succeeded in looking like a bully.

As a political tactic it was effective, but for those of us who have a more balanced view of the role of the JCCV – to provide an inclusive and pluralistic environment that allows the diversity in our community to flourish – the JCCV has acted appallingly.

The JCCV’s objection to the letter sent by the AJDS to Senator Carr has to be understood in the context of the ECAJ’s objection to Australia’s abstention on the UN resolution. A media release from the ECAJ, dated November 27, says in part, “It is disappointing that the Australian government has decided to abstain, rather than vote ‘no,’ in the (UN) General Assembly on the proposal to grant the Palestinians Observer State status…”.
From the ECAJ perspective the AJDS letter essentially dampened the impact of the ECAJ statement by making the point to Australia’s foreign minister that the Jewish community was not monolithic in its opposition to the decision to abstain on the UN vote.

The AJDS is indeed a small voice when expressing its views to government. However, the fact that a Jewish community organization, which is an affiliate of the JCCV, made what is after all, a fairly uncontroversial point – that there is a diversity of views in our community – cut across the message the ECAJ wanted the government to hear. That the ECAJ then wanted the JCCV to bring the AJDS into line is certainly plausible – especially since the mechanism chosen by the JCCV was to forbid the AJDS from making reference to its JCCV affiliation in correspondence.

The JCCV in effect said, “You can make any representations you want to anyone. You can tell them that you are a voice in the Jewish community. But we forbid you from telling them that you are an affiliate of the JCCV without getting our explicit permission.”

The argument, of course, runs both ways. Many people believe that the AJDS deliberately referred to its JCCV affiliation as a way of bolstering its own status. The AJDS however (and I was one of the authors), says that the focus of the letter to Senator Carr was in its content, and the reference to affiliation was to establish the AJDS as being a voice from within the Jewish community.

It is worth keeping in mind that on the issue of the UN vote, the ECAJ was using its status as representative of the Australian Jewish community to make a political point. Moreover it was a political point that represented the views of many, but not everyone in our community. Rather than being concerned by the letter from the AJDS, the ECAJ should have welcomed it. Political diversity is not something to fear in the Jewish community.

My final point is about the AJDS campaign against settlement products. The campaign to not buy settlement products was always going to be controversial. Its aim was to provide information to the Jewish community about the Israeli settlement project; how the settlements are an obstacle to negotiating an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and how we can all play a small part in opposing the settlement project by not buying its products.

But it also needed to be sensitive and balanced in its presentation. Encouraging people not to buy settlement products could have been balanced by suggesting they instead buy other Israeli products ie. to reinforce the message that the focus was on the settlements – not on Israeli products in general.

As other political commentators have observed, if the public effect of a campaign is to focus attention on the actions of the organisation running the campaign, rather than to focus attention on the substance of the campaign, then the outcome is likely to be counter-productive. And so it has proved.

At the JCCV plenum meeting of 3rd June, the AJDS could have used the opportunity presented by the debate, to publicly argue in favour of its campaign, to explain its purpose, and to forcefully separate itself from the global BDS campaign for a blanket cultural, economic and academic boycott of Israel. Instead, it essentially remained silent.

The AJDS has a vital role to challenge and inform the Jewish community about a range of issues, and to throw light on areas that are quite deliberately avoided by some of the Zionist leaders. But it can only be effective if it can engage with the community and articulate a position that demonstrates a balanced understanding of complex issues. For all of the political machinations of the leaders of the Jewish community in the last 6 months, I think the AJDS too needs to lift its game and remember its voice.

BDS: Yes, No, Maybe, but what is it? – Larry Stillman

i Jun 20th 2013

By AJDS Executive Committee Member Larry Stillman

For reasons of space this is a summary of a much longer analysis which is appended here.

The Jewish Community Council’s condemnation of the AJDS for alleged sins and crimes brings forth the big question—so just what is BDS?  What the bulls, bullies and others in the Lobby present is something far different from the reality. It is hard at times to know what is fact, impression, or interpretation.  This is what makes it difficult for a number of us at an Executive level to come to a consensus position because we all see the BDS movement differently.

In my opinion, any analysis of the BDS movement inevitably brings to account beliefs (or prejudice) on a whole range of issues, such as Zionism, Israel as the State of the Jews, the Right of Return and so on.  These are views I have written a lot about over the year in places like Galus Australis (search under my name).

BDS is not so much movement or clear platform as a loose and leaderless coalition that has grown from an original statement (the Palestinian BDS National Committee call in 2005 by a host of organisations that has a sort of canonical status), resulting in many different tendencies.  However, because it does not represent a political party’s position, but rather a “call”, it has become scattershot, resulting at times in a political extremism that bears no relation to the conduct of international affairs. This is the position also taken by Norman Finkelstein.

I know that there are many individuals and organisations that do not take on any of the positions I criticise below.   They take a more objective and less emotive human rights approach. They focus on targeting action that is meant make a clear statement about the Occupation, without confusing it with other, often more controversial, complex, and ambiguous agendas.  Such work as far as I am concerned is commendable and should be supported.

By wanting to take on everything, elements in BDS, with a stated agnosticism about the future, key proponents are being disingenuousness and irresponsible and can’t say that it is up to Palestinians to figure out the solution.   On the other hand, the BDS movement also has a dogmatic one-stater stream that as far as I am concerned has little comprehension of inter-communal complexities.

Thus, one only needs to read accounts of the tortuous negotiations that went on in South Africa to realize how little commitment there is to building a mutual coalition for conflict resolution in some elements of the BDS movement.  The refusal or reluctance (your choice) to engage in what might be called “ lobbying in suits” amazes me. Yet from personal experience I know that parliamentarians are desperate for information on alternatives.  This is not the same as sloganeering. The incapacity to sit down with people on the Left who share some but not all your opinions additionally appears to be to be a fundamental strategic mistake.

The hard-line that has developed in regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (particularly with regard to the “legitimization” issue or the wish to change the goal posts to 1948 or even before that) is reminiscent of positions of decades ago, rather than an accommodation to practical politics.  It was believed that Zionism would somehow magically wither away.  This is not the real world.  The BDS movement has consequently over-played its hand strategically by obsessively turning on Israel, as distinct from the Occupation, and strong human rights agenda for Israel proper.  It has left itself open for accusations of hypocrisy for not looking at human rights violations by other countries, or ethno or religiocentric constitutions in other states.

There is also a tendency to dogmatism including a global anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist agenda that goes well beyond the problem of Israel.  There is a fetish about not privileging what is seen as the voice of the oppressor (that is Israelis), because admitting that Israel even exists as a state entity, is a concession to its colonial past (while completely downplaying the tragic circumstances which simultaneously made it a haven for Jews). Independent action by Palestinians to redeem their stolen rights is viewed as the sacred and sole foundation on which to solve the problem.  In the particular circumstances of the Israel-Palestine conflict – this cry of injustice and need to prove the legitimacy of one’s existence results in political fantasy, as much as it was in South Africa to believe that the oppressors could be excluded from the solution.

But to say that the BDS movement, because of the anger over what happened to Palestinians is inherently anti-Semitic, is way off the mark.  However, it is true that anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists have aligned themselves, whether they come from Western countries or Islamist causes and the BDS movement suffers from this pollution though when identified, I see that people are expelled from local organisations.  But then we see the same element of racism occurring in Zionist activity such as the settler movement (who don’t get expelled).

Despite these problems, many of the issues that BDS highlights have certainly been part of the left conversation in Israel for decades, and are now reflected in broader political conversations within Israel itself and others abroad: full recognition of the Nakba and its effects, including ethnic cleansing; the effects of Occupation; the creeping culture and institutionalisation of a local form of apartheid or ethno-separatism whether in the territories or Israel;  Israel as a so-called Jewish democratic state or a democratic state of all its people;  the collapse of rule of law and many other matters.  Other controversies such as the Law of Return (Jews)/Right of Return (Palestinians) as a part of the future settlement as well as one state/two states options are also part of the conversation.  Of course, this also puts the whole issue of Israel as Jewish majority state on the table.  And by the way, I consider mutual national apologies as necessary.

But as long as Israeli governments continue down the current path, like it or not, BDS will continue on a strident, discomforting, and at times irrational path, which will impede what I see as a necessary alliance with many Jews who don’t like what Israel has become.