Right to Boycott: Against the Complicit Quietism of Mendes and Dyrenfurth

Nick Riemer and David Brophy

ABC Religion and Ethics, 8 May 2015. Read the original here.

With American support, a prosperous nuclear-armed state illegally pursues a brutal policy of ethnic cleansing.

The local populations that, decades earlier, were dispossessed in a bloody colonial war are now the objects of relentless oppression.

Protracted negotiations at the highest levels of international diplomacy lead only to a widening of the state’s territorial bootprint, at the expense of countless lives, and the destruction of victims’ homes, farmland and future.

Periodically, the state in question unleashes devastating military onslaughts against the impossibly cramped ghetto into which almost two million people are corralled by a blockade and siege. Thousands of people are killed. Campaigners around the world, including here, call for the state to be boycotted.

These boycott activists, it turns out, are racist “extremists” in the line of the Nazis. Far from a human rights struggle, their movement is “malevolent” and “bigoted,” a “McCarthyist” plunge into “zealotry,” willingly harnessing the worst forms of prejudice, and educating followers that “the Jewish state is at the centre of all that is wrong in the world.” Wherever it exists, its “original sin” presents a clear threat to racial harmony. Its shrill propaganda may call for justice and peace, but its real “commandment” is the ethnic cleansing of millions of people.

The boycotted state is Israel, and the quoted conclusions are the ones drawn by two of its local defenders, Philip Mendes and Nick Dyrenfurth. Mendes and Dyrenfurth have been pressing the case against the international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign, both on this site and in their new book, Boycotting Israel is Wrong.

In both places, Mendes and Dyrenfurth recycle many of the usual pot-shots against BDS, with particular reference to Sydney Staff for BDS, a group of Sydney University employees, to which we belong, and which campaigns for our institution to cut official ties with Israel. The extraordinary witch hunt being conducted against our colleague Jake Lynch and other Palestine activists at Sydney provides the immediate context.

Mendes and Dyrenfurth’s superficial sobriety might disguise, for some readers, the virulence of their arguments – if “argument” isn’t too generous a term for the farrago of invective, misrepresentation and paradox jammed into their colourless prose. This isn’t unexpected: it’s obviously too much to ask that both sides of a debate about Israel-Palestine reasonably argue the facts. That role appears to fall, once again, to us. We assume it willingly: the failure of Mendes and Dyrenfurth to heed either reality or the demands of reasonable argumentation is conspicuous, and unacceptable.

As the most recent arrivals on the small Australian BDS scene, Sydney Staff for BDS has made its politics eminently clear: we’ve unambiguously stated that we’re “opposed to all forms of discrimination including racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and sexual discrimination,” and that we “aspire to the achievement of basic equality for all people in Israel-Palestine, regardless of race or religion.” BDS, we’ve noted, “targets Israel’s crimes against Palestine precisely as flagrant instances of oppression and discrimination, thereby contributing to the broader struggle for a just world.”

Mendes and Dyrenfurth, it seems, know us better than we know ourselves. The existence and content of racism, they tell us, is defined by its victims. If Jews say we’re racists, then we are. Quod erat demonstrandum! Apparently, we are not just racists – we also “use anti-Semitism” to further our goals, and are more interested in targeting “left-wing Zionists” and proponents of the two-state solution than we are in attacking Netanyahu. The current strength of the Israeli Right, you see, is partly our fault.

It gets worse. We say that we are opposed to anti-Semitism, and that we seek justice and peace for everyone in Israel-Palestine, but what we are actually after is nothing other than the end of Israeli statehood – “maximum justice for Palestinians” and “absolute injustice for Israelis.”

Since they think these claims apply to BDS activists as a matter of definition, Mendes and Dyrenfurth seem not to feel the need to provide evidence when applying them to us. Their minimal attempt to substantiate their polemic consists of their interpretation of statements by two BDS activists overseas: Omar Barghouti and Haider Eid.

The boycott campaign is, of course, a global one. But is there any global solidarity movement where precise goals and motivations are identical from one activist to another? There is much we admire in the work of Barghouti and Eid, but there is a reason we have different names to them – we are not the same people.

If one’s aim is to critique BDS in Australia, it is best to observe the following rule: if overseas activist X says something, check whether local activist Y holds the same view before attributing it to them. We wonder how Mendes and Dyrenfurth would feel if we attributed views to them on the basis of comments by, say, the figurehead of American Zionism, Alan Dershowitz?

In the imaginings of Mendes and Dyrenfurth, we stand for the ethnic cleansing of Jews from Israel-Palestine and absolute injustice for Israelis. In the real world, we stand for exactly what we say: political arrangements which support peace, justice and democracy for everyone in Israel-Palestine, whatever their creed or nationality.

The first step toward instituting these arrangements is to exert pressure on Israel by means of boycott, divestment and sanctions. BDS is a tactic, not a monolithic movement. It can be, and is, employed by people regardless of their position on Israeli statehood. One of the key goals of many BDS activists, us included, is securing the right of return for Palestinian refugees. This demand shouldn’t be misconstrued as entailing a one-state solution. Demanding recognition of Palestinian refugees’ right of return is not the same as demanding their actual return.

It is not for us to prescribe to Palestinians what to do with their rights, once secured; only the Palestinians themselves, the right-holders, can decide that. It is perfectly conceivable, for instance, that they might prefer resettlement elsewhere, or financial reparations, instead of actual return. Mendes and Dyrenfurth, however, claim that this kind of settlement is “anathema to BDS activists.”

Mendes and Dyrenfurth recognise that the “ethnic cleansing of most Israeli Jews from their homeland” would be “disastrous.” We agree. Not a line in their article, however, and precious few in their book, get devoted to any equivalent point about the ethnic cleansing of Palestine since 1948. This selectivity is a grave indictment.

For the record, we do not “use” anti-Semitism in order to further our cause: as the Kemp affair demonstrates (again) we are the objects of vexatious charges of anti-Semitism – now disproven – on the part of our political opponents. Nor is there a shred of evidence for the claim that we stereotype “all Jewish supporters of Israel as in some way evil”: our critique of Zionism is political, not metaphysical.

In their book, Mendes and Dyrenfurth correctly stress that “the BDS campaign has made little headway in the Australian mainstream.” It is curious, then, that they describe the campaign as a “key source of intolerance in Australian society.” Such incoherence is all too characteristic of their work. Take, for example, their claim that the Israel lobby in Australia isn’t powerful. Of course, we would be the first to welcome such a state of affairs. But as recent objects of the lobby’s attention, several staff at the University of Sydney can attest to its strength. We all retain our jobs – for the moment. How much longer Jake Lynch can withstand the protracted campaign waged against him remains unclear.

The “original sin” of the BDS movement, as Mendes and Dyrenfurth call it, isn’t limited to its consequences for Middle East politics; it also does damage, they claim, to “a range of progressive organisations and local communities.” In Australia, it sows division on the Left, thereby undermining “progressive unity” in opposition to the Federal Government’s cuts to university funding, indigenous programmes and social welfare, and what – in an astonishing understatement – they call “the increasingly hardline policies on asylum seekers.” We agree with Mendes and Dyrenfurth that all these things must be addressed, but we’d prefer to take our advice on how to do so from other quarters.

The greatest flaw in the argument advanced by Mendes and Dyrenfurth, however, is their silence about any positive programme for peace in the Middle East. A tokenistic five (generously spaced) pages on this topic, crammed with reassuring statements about “humility … empathy, dialogue, and compromise” are tacked on, afterthought-like, at the end of their book.

But motherhood statements don’t automatically grant access to the moral high-ground. A premise of BDS is that “dialogue” has failed and that a logic of pressure is necessary. A key instance of dialogue, the Oslo Accords, contributed “to greater insecurity for Israelis and, in the occupied Palestinian territories, a more deeply felt, and resented, matrix of Israeli control.” Mendes and Dyrenfurth make no attempt to address this central plank of boycott politics.

Several other examples of moral inversion and political prejudice must be pointed out. Fundamentally, Mendes and Dyrenfurth claim, BDS is “a continuation of the Palestinian war against Israel by non-violent means.” In light of the staggering body-count resulting from the assaults on Gaza in 2008 and 2014, that phrase is worth dwelling on: the Palestinian war against Israel. This, not BDS, is the kind of reversal of the truth that undermines progressive struggle on the Left: David’s “war” against Goliath; Aboriginal people’s “war” against the rest of Australia; refugees’ “war” on our borders.

The return of Palestinian refugees to their land, Mendes and Dyrenfurth write, would “almost certainly turn the Jewish population into a disempowered minority.” The racist corollary is that the only “disempowered minority” that can be tolerated are the Palestinians. Mendes and Dyrenfurth, after all, tell us that they are “highly pessimistic” that there can be any resolution in the region in the short term, and “don’t pretend to have all the answers to solve this bitter and complex conflict.”

The reality is that they have no answers or proposals, other than the maintenance of the illegal and murderous status quo, the inhumanity of which they barely acknowledge in a book wholly devoted to point-scoring against their opponents. All they are after is some form of “partial justice” for both sides of a conflict in which “there is no simplistic right and wrong.” Partial justice? No prizes for guessing which side will get the better “part.”

Mendes and Dyrenfurth state that some form of international trusteeship may be necessary “to break the deadlock required to guarantee Israeli security needs and genuine Palestinian self-determination.” Their phrasing speaks volumes: it is “Palestinian self-determination” – not “Israeli security needs” – which gets qualified as “genuine,” so as to better distinguish it from all those fake forms of self-determination being touted. Who, we wonder, will decide which self-determination counts as real, and which doesn’t?

It goes without saying that, within this logic, Israel’s security needs call for no such adjectival modification: unlike Palestine’s need for self-determination, they do not need to be declared as genuine or not; they are self-validating. As Mendes and Dyrenfurth claim, Israel simply cannot withdraw from the West Bank, because that would provoke rocket attacks. The occupation, we are to conclude, is basically defensive.

The position adopted by Mendes and Dyrenfurth is scaffolded around a series of fanciful pseudo-arguments which do not conform to reasonable standards of accuracy, coherence or objectivity. Their critique of BDS is as hollow and dishonest as their factual claims about its advocates. Their complaint that the BDS campaign never provides “any practical plan for advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace and reconciliation” ignores the fact that we are implementing a well-established and proven tactic, while their complacent quietism covers over the murderous reality of oppression that rolls on implacably beneath.

The fact they found it necessary to write a book denouncing the BDS campaign encourages us to think we may be getting somewhere.

Nick Riemer is a senior lecturer in the departments of English and linguistics at the University of Sydney. David Brophy is lecturer in history at the University of Sydney.

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