The following article by Philip Mendes and Nick Dyrenfurth appears in today’s Australian newspaper:
A few weeks ago the Australia Israel Cultural Exchange staged the sixth annual Israeli film festival. Lost Islands, a film taking its title from a 1970s Australian television series (which amassed a cult following in Israel), kicked off proceedings. By telling the story of the troubled Levi family, Lost Islands provided a critical yet humorous meditation on Israeli naivety lost amid the onset of the first Lebanon war in 1982.
Israeli filmmaking has experienced something of a renaissance with a number of recent movies, such as The Band’s Visit and Waltz With Bashir, winning critical acclaim in Australia and in much of the world.
However, if it were up to the commissars of the loony Left, no Australian would have the right to see these movies. Nor would they be able to buy goods made in Israel or engage in any cross-cultural activity, whether in academe or in more popular expressions such as cinema.
Taken to its logical conclusion, the proposed cultural and academic boycott of Israel would mean that institutions such as AICE and perhaps scholarly hubs, including the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation at Monash University, would close, preventing a large number of students, Jewish and non-Jewish, from learning about the rich history of the Jewish people. Phone calls, emails and indeed any form of electronic communication with Israel would necessarily have to be prohibited.
Wacky? Not according to the leaders of the Australian pro-Palestinian lobby, who have recently launched a renewed campaign known as Boycott Divestment Sanctions against Israel. Unsurprisingly, Antony Loewenstein, the self-styled enfant terrible of Australian Jewry, is at the forefront of this endeavour.
Other leading figures include the father-and-son academic duo of John Docker and Ned Curthoys, founders of the bizarrely named Australian Committee for Dismantling of Zionism, and Jake Lynch, director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, who presided over the decision to award this year’s Sydney Peace Prize to anti-Israel polemicist John Pilger.
Calls to boycott Israel are nothing new. The Arab League has boycotted Israel since its creation in 1948. The most recent international campaign for an academic boycott of Israel started in April 2002 following the Israeli invasion of Palestinian West Bank cities in response to the mass suicide bombing attacks on Israeli civilians in the previous month.
This was followed by an Australian boycott petition of May 2002, which was initiated by Docker and fellow academic Ghassan Hage. In 2005, Britain’s Association of University Teachers narrowly voted in favour of boycotting two Israeli universities, a decision later revoked. Earlier this year, Docker’s anti-Zionist group, together with Loewenstein and Lynch, unsuccessfully attempted to convince the University of Sydney to cut ties with two Israeli universities, although at a meeting this month they embarked on a renewed push.
Why the boycott calls? According to the BDS movement, Israel is one of the world’s worst human rights abusers and is committing genocide against the Palestinians. Israel is a racist state similar to South Africa under apartheid and its academics areactively complicit in its crimes, they say. This supposedly justifies thediscriminatory singling out of Israeli academics and culture producers on national and ethnic grounds.
Specifically, the idea of a boycott can be demolished by four simple arguments. First, there are legitimate criticisms to be made of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians on human rights and other moral and ethical grounds. But equally the Palestinians are not solely defenceless and innocent victims.
Moderates and extremists exist on both sides of what is an immensely complex conflict and there is simply no proof that Israel is acting more severely than other countries engaged in national and ethnic conflicts.
If anything, Israeli actions are far less brutal than the behaviour of China in Tibet, the US during Vietnam, Indonesia in Aceh and formerly East Timor, and Russia in Chechnya. This is to say nothing of the persecution of minority racial or religious groups within Zimbabwe, Sudan, Iran, Rwanda and elsewhere. But no proposals have been made to boycott all academics within these countries. Nor is there any plan to boycott Palestinian or Arab academics who endorse suicide bombings and other violent attacks on Israeli civilians.
Second, it is simply arrant nonsense to call Israel an apartheid state. While the Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has some superficial similarities with apartheid in South Africa, the analogy cannot reasonably be applied to Green Line Israel given the civil and political rights enjoyed by its Arab citizens. Moreover, Israel does not involve a small white population exploiting a much larger black majority: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a race-based conflict.
Third, there is no evidence that most Israeli academics actively endorse via their teaching and research practices serious human rights abuses. On the contrary, many Israeli academics are active in the political Left and vigorous critics of the occupation. About 400 Israeli academics – about 5 per cent of all academics – signed a petition supporting conscientious draft objectors who refused to serve in the occupied territories.
It is incongruous that many of the boycott proponents are of Jewish extraction. None of these figures seems to have considered that a boycott together with their inflammatory rhetoric (and fundamentalist anti-Zionism more generally) might provoke racist discrimination against Jews.
As the Progressive Zionist organisation Meretz USA has argued, the first effect of a BDS would be to “further sabotage the struggling Israeli peace movement, reinforce the siege mentality amongst Israeli Jews, and drive the country even further into the arms of right-wing demagogues”.
Perhaps the most poignant moment in Lost Islands comes when the father, Avraham, discovers that his son, Ofer, played a role in the car accident that left him a cripple. Rather than seek revenge the father extends the hand of forgiveness to his guilt-ridden son. The ideologues hollering for a useless boycott could well take a leaf out of his book.
Philip Mendes is the co-editor of Jews and Australian Politics (Sussex Academic Press, 2004). Nick Dyrenfurth is the co-editor of Confusion: The Making of the Australian Two-Party Political System (forthcoming from Melbourne University Publishing).