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Arab-Jewish Dialogue: a One-Way Street

August 19, 2009 – 5:56 pm34 Comments

Photo courtesty of FreeFoto.com *

By Philip Mendes

The following article is adapted from Philip Mendes’ address to the Jewish Community (JCCV) interfaith relations forum, Tuesday 5 May 2009

Six years ago I wrote a report on my experiences in the Australasian Middle Eastern Studies Association (AMESA). It was not formally published at the time, but appeared on the website of the now-defunct Academic Friends of Israel group. It re-emerged earlier this year, first on the ABC Unleashed website, and then as an ADC report and a front-page AJN story.

The AJN front-page story was as much a surprise to me as anyone else. Contrary to what may have seemed to be the case, the AJN neither interviewed me nor consulted with me. That is not to say that they misreported my views. But I was surprised that a report that was six years old about events more than a decade ago was newsworthy. Having said that, I understand that the views stated obviously fitted with the contemporary debate around the Khatami visit and related local Jewish-Arab tensions.

Larry Stillman from the Australian Jewish Democratic Society (AJDS) has claimed on the internet (see his “Structural failure: Undermining the Jewish Left”) that I am engaged in some type of campaign against AJDS and other moderate Jewish critics of Israel. This is nonsense, and also reflects the way in which AJDS consistently, and for reasons of self-interest, misrepresents the politics of the Jewish community. This paper also appears on the AJDS website so although Dr Stillman claims otherwise, we can reasonably assume that this is an organisational as well as personal view.

It is true the report that I wrote six years ago on the Australasian Middle Eastern Scholars Association (AMESA) contains some very mild criticisms of AJDS. But when I shared it with AJDS representatives six years ago they voiced no objections whatsoever. In fact, one leading member of the AJDS Executive said he agreed with everything I said about AMESA.

I should add that since my acrimonious departure from AJDS approximately six years ago – fuelled by a number of aggressive attacks by key AJDS personnel on my belief that the Jewish Left had a responsibility to critique Palestinian extremism and violence as well as that emanating from Israel – I have gone out of my way not to enter into an ongoing public conflict with that organization. I have tried to be dispassionate in commenting on their views – some of which I have disagreed with and some of which I have agreed with. I believe most people in the Jewish community would concur that I have been more than fair, and that I also scrupulously distinguish in my writings between the illegitimate views of Jewish anti-Zionists and the legitimate views of more moderate Jewish critics of Israel.

I believe, however, that it is about time that AJDS stopped claiming that they are the only left-wing Jews who support peace and reconciliation with the Palestinians. There are thousands of Australian Jews who would support the views of the mainstream Israeli Left on a two-state solution. But most, unlike AJDS, think that both Israelis and Palestinians have to make concessions to facilitate change.  It has to be a two-way process.

During the late 1980s and 1990s, I was involved in numerous discussions with local and visiting Palestinians and Arabs about Israel. I always believed this was a reciprocal two-way process although many Jewish conservatives at the time questioned this assumption.  Initially in the pre-Oslo period, it was about Palestinians and Arabs accepting Israel’s existence in return for Jews and Israelis accepting the right of the Palestinians to a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Hence agreement on what we call the two-state solution. Later after the Oslo Accord was signed in 1993 the debate focused more specifically on dismantling Israeli settlements in return for an end to Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians.

One of the main forums in which I engaged in Arab-Jewish dialogue was the AMESA. AMESA was never just an academic organization. It consisted of three groups: academics including a number of Arabs and/or Muslims, a few Jewish-identifying Jews plus one or two fanatical Jewish anti-Zionists, and some Anglo-Australians who were mostly hardline advocates of the Palestinian cause; members of the local Arab and/or Palestinian communities who always attended conferences; and some individuals who just attended to distribute pro-Palestinian propaganda. There was also some overlap between the three groups.

I saw AMESA as an opportunity to test out some of my theories about the merits and potential limits of Arab-Jewish dialogue. The Arab academics involved in the organization were articulate and confident intellectuals who were capable of offering serious critical analysis of their own side of the conflict. It seemed to me that the two-way process I described above had some potential in this organization.

The process by which I fell out with AMESA may seem on the surface to have been a series of misunderstandings, but it actually conveys some important political lessons. I was invited by the President of AMESA, Christine Asmar (an Australian academic who from memory had married into a prominent Australian Arab family), to contribute an article to the AMESA Newsletter exploring how AMESA might improve its relations with the Jewish community.

In order to facilitate constructive engagement, I suggested the following:

  • that AMESA adopt for its 1999 Conference the theme of “Jewish/Arab dialogue and friendship historically and today”;
  • that AMESA invite the Executive Council of Australian Jewry to nominate two representatives to participate in the Conference Planning Committee;
  • that AMESA invite the Israeli Ambassador and the PNA Ambassador to co-open proceedings,
  • that AMESA consider inviting a mainstream Israeli writer or academic as a keynote speaker; that AMESA invite the editor of the Australian Jewish News and a commensurate Arab community newspaper to speak at a joint session on Australian media presentations of Jews and Arabs, and possibilities for joint action against racist coverage;
  • and that AMESA publicly debate the merits of electing a Jewish supporter of Israel as President within the next five years.

I suggested that these proposals would “probably constitute the minimum needed to convince the Jewish community that AMESA is genuinely becoming what it has always claimed publicly to be: an impartial academic body committed to encouraging Jewish/Arab dialogue and discourse, rather than to promoting the Palestinian cause, or any other narrow ideological or political agenda”

To my surprise, AMESA chose to publish six responses to my article in the same issue without either my prior knowledge or permission. Three of the responses from Orit Shapiro, Clive Kessler and the AMESA Committee were broadly positive. However, the other three responses – from Ray Jureidini, John Docker, and Ned Curthoys – were vociferously critical. Their common concern seemed to be that my proposals would transform AMESA from a pro-Palestinian organization into potentially a pro-Israel organization.

Jureidini, a Lebanese-born Palestinian academic who was then a colleague at Monash University, later told me that he thought I was trying to be provocative, that he had not been told that my piece had been commissioned by AMESA, and would probably have responded very differently if he had been aware. Interestingly, Jureidini, who is now based at the American University in Cairo, recently signed John Docker’s repugnant petition (based on racial/ethnic stereotyping) for an academic boycott of Israel.

But Docker, a fanatical anti-Zionist Jew, was the main concern. He argued absurdly that my intention was to “intimidate, threaten and marginalize Jewish intellectuals” who did not conform to the Jewish community consensus. He claimed that my proposals would lead to the “surveillance and control” of  AMESA by “Zionists” who had also suppressed “debate and discussion” in the media. Similarly, his son Ned Curthoys argued that my proposal was “grotesque”, and reflected a “totalitarian vision for society”

With hindsight, it may have been better to just ignore Docker and Curthoys ridiculous comments.  At the time, I was quite shocked by both the vehemence of their attack and their total misrepresentation of my position. It is now clearer to me that Docker’s actions in 1998 constituted a defence of his political territory. The small handful of “Jewish” anti-Zionists in Australia have generally been constructed as odd eccentrics at best, and as “self-hating freak shows” at worst. AMESA was along with the Trotskyist Left groups one of the few organisations willing to give their views a serious hearing. Docker reasoned probably correctly that if left-wing pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian Jews like myself, who had actual connections with the Jewish community, gained traction in AMESA then his “Jewish” anti-Zionist views would once again be relegated to the ultra-margins. (Both Docker and Curthoys are of part-Jewish background.)

But what happened from there was more complex. AMESA simply refused to publish my response to Docker and Curthoys, and it soon became clear that I had been effectively purged from the organization. Those academics – mostly but not exclusively Arab – who had previously engaged in regular dialogue and often utilized my critiques of the Israeli occupation and local Jewish conservatives in their activism suddenly stopped talking to me. And all this happened in late 1998 well before the breakdown of the Oslo Peace accord and the Second Intifada.

So what does my very personal experience tell us about the possibilities of Arab-Jewish dialogue on Israel? It wasn’t until the outbreak of the Second Intifada and the local Palestinian/Arab response that I clearly understood what had happened with AMESA.

The dominant Palestinian narrative presents a binary view of the conflict. The Israelis are constructed as “bad” evil oppressors, and the Palestinians as “good” innocent victims. Of course, Palestinians vary as much as the Israelis in regards to whether or not they support particular political solutions or strategies. But they are united as a national group in believing that their cause is inherently just. That is, the Palestinians view themselves as the victims of an historical wrong (the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and the associated Naqba or catastrophe) which can only be resolved by the implementation of a just solution. Justice is defined in absolute rather than relative terms, and all opposing narratives are unequivocally rejected.

This means that any viable Arab-Jewish dialogue over Israel will necessarily be a one-way process. Jewish groups who engage in such dialogue will be expected to unilaterally condemn Israeli policies, to accept at the very least that Israel dismantle all settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, withdraw without conditions to the 1967 borders, and accept some form of Palestinian “right of return” to Green Line Israel.

The Arab-Jewish dialogue will not be a two-way process because even though AJDS regularly invite Palestinian speakers to address their forums, there is no local left-wing Arab or Palestinian equivalent of AJDS which will condemn the extremists on their side. There will be no Arab group willing to attack Hamas as a bunch of racist extremists committed to destroying Israel and promoting anti-Jewish conspiracy theories; no group willing to condemn suicide bombings, rocket attacks and other forms of terror by both Hamas and Fatah against Israeli civilians; no group willing to reject demands for a coerced return of millions of Palestinian refugees to the Jewish State of Israel.

Arab-Jewish dialogue is not a waste of time if you want to hear about the Palestinian narrative, and you are happy to participate in a one-way process. But if you want a reciprocal two-way process that condemns extremists and supports moderates on both sides don’t bother.

Dr Philip Mendes is co-editor of Jews and Australian Politics, Sussex Academic Press, 2004

* The photograph accompanying this article is provided by FreeFoto.com and is available here.

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  • I can only take up some of the criticisms made by Philip Mendes of the AJDS in this response. As I have said on my website (see via http://www.ajds.org.au/node/37), I think Philip has done some excellent writing in a range of areas, but sometimes, he is very, very wrong. He seems to now be stuck in the past on old grievances on a one-way street, and has not come to terms with the fact that the ground has shifted considerably. There are, to paraphrase Jackie Mason, new highways and byways.

    Onto some specific points–

    1) Due to serious health reasons at the time, I was not involved in the contretemps which he claims occurred with people in AJDS six years ago, so I am in no position to make a comment about what happened then, and others may choose to do so.

    2) Philip is also erroneous to claim that my criticism of his views on a personal blog is an AJDS view. No, blogs are personal viewpoints. That the viewpoint is personal was clearly stated. Using someone’s personal viewpoint to claim ‘official’ status is just plain wrong. It’s bad scholarship.

    And as I said in my blog piece—-his use of the contretemps with AMESA incident to make a generalised critique of those supporting Palestinian viewpoints or intercommoned dialogue was sloppy (and I documented this sloppy thinking). I also thought his attack on Palestinian intellectuals and their failure to engage in self-criticism was also based on sloppy research, and I documented this.

    3) I am in a position to object to his comment objecting to AJDS ‘ claiming that they are the only left-wing Jews who support peace and reconciliation with the Palestinians’ and statements relating to that.

    It is not a claim I am at all aware of that has been made by AJDS, (and it was also made in a pseudonymous comment to the article I wrote for New Matilda ( http://newmatilda.com/2009/08/04/it-right-speak-jewish-lobby) recently. It is a case of deliberate misrepresentation by Philip of the AJDS. It seems to be a very silly ground on which to attack AJDS–a straw man, if anything. AJDS is one organisation amongst many, but as the SensibleJew website in particular has brought out, there is a crisis of legitimacy in the ‘official’ mainstream.

    But I am also very glad that he makes the claim that there are thousands of ‘left-wing’ Australian Jews there are thousands of Australian Jews who would support the views of the mainstream Israeli Left on a two-state solution. I wish I had evidence to support such a claim and that I could post it all over the place. If it were true, then the ‘official leadership, might take a more sanguine position than the one it appears to hold at the moment.

    What I think is going on here, and having watched Philip’s language of late, is to use ‘two state solution’, or his dialectics over who is or is not an anti-Zionist or really Jewish as the lightening rod for being pro-or-anti Israel and attempt to drive a wedge with imagined ‘binary’ opposition (a term I don’t like, but it has a sort of Manichean tone).

    4) The enormous challenges that Israel as a democracy or a country and society that will undergo change needs a lot of discussion, and I have been surprised to see that even on galusaustralia, one or two posters who I don’t at all consider radical, themselves wondering aloud what things such as ‘two states’ really mean. So rather than Philip using such issues as an axiom about ‘two states’ to ‘wedge’, we need to put many issues on the table, we need to start to seriously talk out loud about, concomitant with progressing a dialogue with local Palestinians on ‘the future’.

    5) Also implicit in Philip’s argument is the view that AJDS is soft on Palestinian or Arab violence, yet in countless letters in the AJN or the broadsheets for example, we have condemned violence and extremism on both sides. And personally, because the rumour also seems to be that ‘we’ have nothing positive to say, on a number of occasions, I have praised aspects of Israeli society and hoped for collaborations on a number of fronts. I have also visited Israeli to try to build academic partnerships (well, I work in academia). Other than moving to Israel, what more can one do?

    What might be controversial for Philip is that people such as myself condemn the occupation and see no redeeming features in it. Nor do we see anything positive in a power relationship between Israel and Palestine is almost totally in favour of Israel to the point of over kill (to use a terrible phrase) in a physical and psychological way. It drains Israel and oppresses Palestinians. It’s point over few shared by Israeli commentators and Israeli human rights organisations.

    6) But what also has to be recognised that the community relationships between communities are unequal: local Jews are long-settled, affluent, and integrated and know how to work the media. Local Palestinians are much more connected with the immediate experience of oppression, have anger over oppression, and are taken with effects of crude propaganda, as well as idiots from the pulpit. Like many new settlers, they are psychologically vulnerable.

    Philip should also recognise that in the same way AJDS members and even Philip himself have copped extraordinary abuse or threats for voicing different opinions, the same applies to local Palestinians–it’s hard to be vocal, particularly in such a community. And regrettably, as Philip points out, the Palestine cause also attracts left sectarians who only cause problems in their desire for progressing the ‘revolution’.

    These factors certainly explain some of the past difficulty in developing open dialogue.

    I think of my experience with communities from the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s–mutual self-hatred. Yet, in the homeland, there has been accommodation, even though I see that the fruitcakes and irredentists still continue with their hatred. If they can do it, Israel and Palestine can.

    7) It is certainly my hope in the next year or two that, for example there can be some joint publications along the lines of bitterlemons (http://www.bitterlemons.org/) which at least give a space to strongly differing opinions. The social media offers tremendous opportunities for this, more than dreary public meetings. I believe that bitterlemons gets millions of hits. If we got 10,000 a year from Caulfield and Preston, I would be very happy.

  • frosh says:

    Hi Philip,

    I think fanatical anti-Zionists who are Jews or part-Jewish (such as John Docker and Ned Curthoys mentioned in your article) are a fascinating topic all on their own. An exploration of this bizarre psychological and sociological condition warrants an article on Galus Australis.

  • ariel says:

    I agree with frosh.

    I further suggest that any Jews who reject Zionism in all its forms doe not represent a legitimate Jewish viewpoint. They go against the entire raison d’être of the Jewish People and should be ignored and regarded as apostates. [They cannot be regarded as apikorsim because the traditional definition of that term (as I understand it; please correct me if I’m wrong) is one who deliberately rejects Torah out of knowledge, not ignorance].

    In order to anticipate some responses to this idea, I also claim that so-called anti-Zionist haredim are nothing of the sort. Most of them accept the status quo of a less than ideal form of sovreignty in Israel which must be cooperated with for the sake of the 6 million Jews who live there. They may believe that the only legitimate sovreignty will come with the arrival of Mashiach*, but this too is a form of Zionism.

    Furthermore, those small chassidic groups who reject all assistance from the State of Israel still believe that Jewish sovreignty in is a significant part of our collective destiny.**

    * In one month’s time, we will enter the year 5770. 770 is gematria בית משיח…I can see I’m opening a can of worms with this one!!

    ** Neturei Karta are the exception. Their support for the effective destruction of an enormous Jewish community (Israel) renders them apostates as well.

  • Les Rosenblatt says:

    I think it is an interesting question as to why Dr Phillip Mendes is not a particpant
    in the Mid-East Dialogue process being run through the auspices of La Trobe
    University’s Centre for Dialogue. There are Australian Jews and Arabs of all political
    and religious stripes and hues engaged in thirty hours of intense discussion seeking to
    diminish the barriers of ignorance, mistrust, and prejudice that separate them so
    destructively from each other. Humour, honesty, and serious contestation of
    interpretive positions are helping to develop trust and understanding. If Mendes is really serious about constructive dialogue, rather than wearisomely deploring his favourite
    Jewish bugaboos yet again, he should front up and ‘walk the walk’ of the present, rather
    than continue to ‘squawk the squawk’ of his long-past AMESA frustrations and his insubstantial shadow-boxing with the AJDS because it considers that from a human rights perspective both Palestinians and Israelis share the same universal entitlements, regardless of the nationalistic and historical complexities.

  • ariel says:

    One more thing:
    Does anyone else think the name “Australian Jewish Democratic Society” arrogant and offensive?
    It explicitly implies that any Jew who is not a member of their “society” are anti-democratic and therefore in favour of some form of totalitarianism…

  • Larry Stillman says:

    Ariel, that is just plain silly. You could play the same game with names such as the Australian Democrats (ie the opposite is anti-democrats, the Australian Labour Party (i.e. hmm, anti-labour, well?) or the Liberal Party (=illiberal).

    Be serious. This is the sort of trivialization that is not required in such discussions.

  • Larry Stillman says:


    Docker should be able to speak for himself in this forum (should he deign to do so), …but there is a review of his book 1492: The Poetics of Diaspora, in

    http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/shofar/v021/21.3omer-sherman.html which includes the observation that:

    “In addition to examining other 19th – and 20th -century literary representations of the pernicious “Wandering Jew” motif, the author also explores his own family chronicles in deeply moving and highly suggestive ways that may encourage readers to think about hidden or neglected aspects of their own self-representations. Regrettably, there are a few missteps along the way, perhaps inevitable for an idiosyncratic work of such intellectual scope and ambition. For one thing, Docker is remarkably uncritical of recent theoretical trends that are hostile to Jewish Scripture, which he merely echoes, rather than analyzes. And there are times when his Said-inflected celebration of a utopian Islamic past leans toward a dangerous nostalgia for the past—and a gross simplification of cause behind present political unhappiness in the Middle East. In another regard I must add that I always find it disappointing when any scholar employs the condescend ing and effacing term “Old Testament” rather than Hebrew Bible or Torah—but when a self-identified Jew does so it is especially irksome.

    Though it is true that Zionism has often overlooked and neglected the achievements of the Jews of the Islamic world, particularly when it comes to the elite attitude of the dominant culture to Sephardim in the formative years of the modern State of Israel, Docker’s stridently anti-Zionist tone ultimately overshadows his overall achievement.

    This results in such tendentious and overdetermined commentary as a concluding remark that juxtaposes the impatience of the fifteenth-century Sephardim for redemption, and their susceptibility to messianic movements following the 1492 Expulsion with that of 20th -century Ashkenazim who, “for over a hundred years plunged into a far more disastrous messianic adventure, its name Zionism, its activity settler-colonialism, that brings shame and dishonour on the children of Israel.” An ambitious study of great scope and originality, 1492: The Poetics of Diaspora delights most when it delineates the far-reaching cultural consequences of expulsion and disappoints only when it manipulates those events to serve a patronizing and narrow view of Jewish destiny.”

    and see also http://www.borderlands.net.au/vol1no1_2002/docker2.html to see how Docker thinks but again, to his credit, Philip has pursued some of his strange views with justifiable alacrity.

  • ariel says:

    Larry, I am being serious.

    I agree that the same applies to the Australian Democrats and I am just as offended by their commandeering of the term “democrat” as though they are the only party in favour of democracy.

    The other parties have kept their names based on their formations many years ago when in fact the ALP was the only political representative of labourers and the Liberals (formerly the United Australia Party) were anti-unions.

    While, we’re at it, I am also offended by names such as “Jews for a Just Peace” which implies that because I don’t subscribe to their views, I am against a “just peace”, whatever that term means.

  • Larry Stillman says:

    trivial stuff

  • frosh says:

    Hi Ariel,

    I have never been offended by the AJDS name, although the formation of this organization is before my time, and so I am not precisely aware of the context in which they chose their name. However, I have been of the understanding that the AJDS were not originally formed as a reactionary movement against other Jews.

    However, in the cases of J4JP or IAJV, I do find their names a little bit irritating. These groups formed in a very reactionary context, and it does seem that they chose their names at least partly to imply that Jewish voices in opposition to theirs are deemed to be against a “just peace” and lacking in “independence.”

  • rachsd says:

    I have a question for Philip, Larry, Les, and any other readers who have been / are involved in Arab-Jewish dialogue in Australia.

    I think that Arab-Jewish dialogue is extremely important in the Middle East both at a senior diplomatic level, and at a grass-roots level.

    However, having been involved in a few Arab-Jewish dialogue projects (in Australia) while I was at university, I must say that most of the time I found them to be somewhat odd. Although the people involved often had quite different political beliefs, from my perspective relationships between Jews and (non-Jewish) Arabs in Australia are not particularly problematic.

    The one occasion in which I did find a dialogue exercise to be more interesting was when it was organised during a period of tension between Arabs and Jews on campus.

    I’m wondering what people consider to be the aim / benefit of Arab-Jewish dialogue in Australia (as opposed to in the Middle East). If there are people who think that this type of dialogue can influence politics in the Middle East, I’d be interested in knowing by which means they think this influence will take place: for example, is it through the mechanisms of Australian politics (i.e. aiming to change Australian foreign policy), or because of economic influence of Australian Arabs and Jews on the Middle East, or because of a flow of immigration between Australia and the Middle East?

  • Larry,

    Because of your association with the AJDS, you focus on Philip’s comments about that organization and his history with it and AMESA. However, the point of the whole article is actually made toward the end, where he says:

    “… there is no local left-wing Arab or Palestinian equivalent of AJDS which will condemn the extremists on their side.”

    While there are many groups of Jews who choose (for a variety of reasons) to speak up on behalf of the Palestinian cause (or against Zionism), there are precious few from the Arab world who would do similar. There are “Jews against the occupation”, but where are “Arabs against terrorism”?

    To suggest that this is because we are long-settled, while they are more connected with the “oppression” is just more apologist nonsense. During the second intifada, how many degrees of separation was the local community from many of the victims? The Australian community maintains a high degree of empathy with whatever is going on in Israel (and this will be evident from the soon-to-be-published interim results of the community survey).

  • ariel says:

    David, well said. I pointed this out once to a well known Australian Arab “activist” who tried to claim that any groups like Peace Now, AJDS, J4JP, etc. actually want to whitewash all the issues surrounding the Arab-Israel conflict so they can have “peace of mind” without actual peace.
    In this sense, Ariel Sharon was right: there’s no one to talk to.

    I notice that Larry has chosen to reply childishly to those comments of mine which he deems “trivial”, but has not yet commented on the more substantial comments in my original post.

  • Larry Stillman says:

    Ariel & others

    1) I was in the middle of writing a long post last night and there was a power failure which sent me to bed. I think that is an adequate excuse. Now I have to work.

    2) As you might understand, some of us have obligations such as work and family obligations which prevent instant replies

    3) I really have nothing to say about your argument on the names of organisations, as I could probably find any number of Jewish organizational names and play the same game. I also find your post based on your conversation with a Palestinian/Arab really without substance–that was his view of what progressive Jewish organisations stand for. There’s no whitewashing, BUT our primary concern is what goes on in Israel’s name.

    4) I and others will try to take up more substantive issues, raised by Frosh and Ariel and Raced or David but it might need a longer post or new article.

    5) But I would say that I decided that I didn’t want to really comment on Ariel’s discussion of apikorsim. Because I have a different religious identity, it’s an argument that I can’t comment on.. BUT, I would say, there’s a huge difference between upfront anti-Zionists like Docker and ‘insider critics’ of Israel like myself. I also thought your remarks about anti-Zionist orthodox can be better dealt with by others.

    6) If you’ve got questions about Palestinians, well, here’s an opportunity.

    You are all invited to a viewing and discussion of the film ‘the Lemon Tree’ The film will be followed by a short talk by, and discussion with Maher Mughrabi, a Palestinian journalist-but pleae, be polite if you don’t agree with what he says.

    7.00pm, Sunday 23 August
    261 Hawthorn Rd Caulfield
    $15 ($7.50 for youth groups members)

    7) please go to http://www.ajds.org.au and download the newsletter. Many issues are discussed there.

  • Tobybee says:

    To get back to the question of Jewish anti-/non-Zionists…
    Is anti-Zionism is a psychological or sociological position? I don’t really understand why. That is, why it’s not a political, historical and ethical position. Just like Zionism.

    Maybe it’s that anti-Zionism and Zionism are just so fundamentally different because they have differing starting points. If we start with the name of this blog – galus – which positions diaspora as exile. Feeling like you live in a state of exile would be, I would think, pretty hard. But not all of us think (or use our histories to make fact the idea that) Jewish life in the diaspora is exile. Some of us think of it as a positive choice, particularly now that Israel exists.

    So it’s not that anti-Zionist Jews – and yes, many of us are proudly Jewish, not ‘Jewish’ or half-Jewish, or Jewish-born, or whatever other derogatory word you want to use – are Jew-hating, but that we don’t feel we live in exile.

    It’s also that our diasporism, our anti-Zionism, comes from a very Jewish part of ourselves, which demands that we treat strangers as we would want ourselves treated; that encourages us not to have exclusive relationships with Jews to the detriment of others. Many of us reject the concept of the nation-state in its totality. Because, historically and currently, modern nation-states require exclusivist constructions of nations, and that brings with it discriminations, whether in the form of keeping immigrants out, throwing around words like ‘un-Australian’, bashing up foreigners on the streets, or genocide.

    If you’re still having problems with these concepts, maybe do a bit of reading – I’d recommend starting with Jonathan and Daniel Boyarin’s “Diaspora: Generation and the Ground of Jewish Identity.”

  • rachsd says:

    Hi Tobybee,

    It’s interesting that you consider the name Galus to be a Zionist name, because the political Zionist position is that now that the modern State of Israel exists, the Jewish people are no longer in exile (Galut in Hebrew) but rather those who are not in Israel are now in a diaspora communities (Tfuzot in Hebrew).

    The reason that some ultra-Orthodox Jews don’t recognise the State of Israel is that they believe that the exile (which is traditionally a spritual state as well as a physical state – the Temple in Jerusalem was traditionally considered to be a sort of site of divine presence on Earth and since the destruction the idea is that God is no longer residing on Earth in the same way) cannot be broken until the coming of the Messiah, which must be initiated (from their point of view) by God rather than by humans.

    To me, the name Galus (in Yiddish) to describe Australian Jewry is partially a positive reclamation of the term used for so many years in a negative sense, and also evokes a sense of being far away from today’s large Jewish centres (in America and Israel).

    I would make a couple of distinctions – first between anti-Zionism and just not being a Zionist. Whilst it made sense to be against Zionism pre-state, I don’t think that it does any longer unless it is in a context of anti-nationalism in general – so if you support dismantling the Israeli state, I would think the only consistent position would be to support dismantling all other states including Australia. Most anti-Zionists, however, actively support dismantling Israel but not other nation-states (even if they are not nationalists per se). Not being a Zionist is (I think) quite different. Being critical of the actions of the Israeli government is different again (and a large proportion of Zionist Jews are critical of the Israeli government).

  • ariel says:

    I was going to write something similar to rachsd’s last paragraph.

    Tobybee writes that “Many of us reject the concept of the nation-state in its totality. Because, historically and currently, modern nation-states require exclusivist constructions of nations, and that brings with it discriminations, whether in the form of keeping immigrants out, throwing around words like ‘un-Australian’, bashing up foreigners on the streets, or genocide.”

    I assume then that you are actively seeking the termination of all recent and current nationalist/tribalist independence movements such as the breakup of Yugoslavia along old tribal (now religious) lines, including the breakaway of Kosovo from Serbia to form a second Albanian state; East Timor; Palestinian independence; every other Middle Eastern country which was artificially carved up by the British and French; the West Papua independance movement; Pakistan’s split from India and Bangladesh’s subsequent split from Pakistan; the Tamil independence movement; etc. etc.

  • frosh says:

    Hi Tobybee,

    I wrote that “fanatical anti-Zionism” (rather than mild anti-Zionism or non-Zionism) by Jews was a psychological/sociological condition.

    It seems to me that there is much confusion in the community between anti-Zionism and non-Zionism, and the terms are rarely differentiated.

    We (at Galus Australis) are planning next week to run an article or two on this distinction.

    As Ariel and Rachsd have written, anti-Zionists ought to be as equally passionate about dismantling all other nation-states. Otherwise they are arguably anti-Semites. And the Jewish anti-Semite is indeed an interesting (but unfortunately not rare) psychological condition.

    The same extrapolation cannot be fairly made for those Jews who are simply non-Zionists.

  • Tobybee says:

    that’s correct – I have a problem with all nationalist movements, and the violence inherent in them. Have you ever asked John Docker, Ned Curthoys or any of the other people who you are talking about? Without wanting to speak for them, I reckon they’d agree with me, at least broadly… But I – and probably others – focus to a larger degree on Israel and Zionism because of the way we benefit from it personally. I speak similarly loudly about Australian nationalism, because I benefit from that too.

    And you? are you equally encouraging of all liberationist movements? (which isn’t to say that I agree with your logic, because I very much don’t, but if you’re going to throw it around, I’ll throw it back at you)

    but my point was, much more importantly, that you shouldn’t dismiss anti-Zionist Jews as not being fully Jewish. It’s a violent act of discrimination.

    and rachsd, i like your descriptin of galus, although the blog clearly identifies it as an exile, and whatever it’s exile from – as you say, it’s from America and Israel – I can’t imagine that feeling like you’re exiled would be fun. the idea of diaspora i like is one which has no centres, but only peripheries.

  • ariel says:

    Tobybee, I believe there is a difference between nationalism and liberationism.

    As I see it, a nationalist believes in the territorial integrity of his/her country and that all who wish to live in it as citizens must live according to the rule of law of that country and adopt its culture as its own. This does not mean that minority groups such as Jews in Australia should assimilate; rather we should be just as comfortable praying in Hebrew in a shule as we are sharing a beer at the pub while watching the cricket.

    A liberationist believes that all minorites are by definition oppressed by their host culture/nation and have the right to secede and form their own mini-state.

    If we go by these definitions then I am definitely a nationalist. For example, if Albanian Kosovars feel uncomfortable in Serbia, they should move to Albania where they will feel more comfortable. They should not have the right to breakaway and start a new country.

    I would apply the same standard to Arabs in Israel. If they choose to live by Israeli law and accept its predominant Jewish culture, whilst maintaining their own, then I welcome it. If on the other hand they feel uncomfortable and unable to integrate, they should move to one of the other 23 Arab countries.

  • frosh says:

    Hi Tobybee,

    You wrote

    “…you shouldn’t dismiss anti-Zionist Jews as not being fully Jewish. It’s a violent act of discrimination.”

    If this was addressed to me, or in reaction to what I wrote, then let me clarify by saying that I used the term part-Jew as Philip Mendes has used this exact term in his original article. Furthermore, I assumed he used this term because that is how those individuals nominate/consider themselves. This is not discriminatory (and certainly not violent!), but rather it is recognising how they define themselves.

  • GalusAustralis says:

    Editor’s note: our spam filter wrongly classified one of Larry’s comments as spam so please note that there is a newly appearing comment from Larry toward the beginning of the comment thread.

  • Jon says:

    Just on Tobybee’s comments regarding the concept of the nation state.

    Despite claims that I heard probably about 10 years ago that the nation-state was fast disappearing and we were heading towards a more universalistic future, I think that this prediction was completely wrong. The nation state is here to stay.

    I think, however, we need to distinguish between different types of nation states. I would say there are two types of nation states: one bound more on a civic nationalism (such as immigrant countries like Australia and the US) as against others bound more on ethnic nationalism such as in Israel (ie – a Jewish state) or other countries, such as Croatia and Serbia.

    In years gone past, there have been interesting debates in Israel about how jewish the state should be, and whether Israel should head towards being defined less by its jewishness.

    This probably falls outside the discussion of antizionist/non zionists etc (although not entirely), but thought it was an interesting point to note.

  • Rachel,

    I don’t know of any variations of Zionism that say the State of Israel represents the end of Galus. Rather, it is called reishit tzmichat ge’ulatenu – the beginning of our redemption. Wherever Jews live, we have been in a spiritual exile for nearly 2000 years since the destruction of the second temple.

    You are quite correct about the distinction between the ultra Orthodox anti-Zionist view (that the State is premature) (and this includes Neturei Karta – it’s just a question of degree) vs the “secular” Jewish anti-Zionist view (that the State is wrong).

  • rachsd says:

    Hi Tobybee,

    Just to clarify that when I called America and Israel the contemporary Jewish centres, I meant that from a practical rather than ideological point of view. There are much larger Jewish communities America and Israel than in Australia, and so although I like living in Melbourne, I do often feel that my options in terms of Jewish life here are lesser than they would be if I was living in say Jerusalem or New York City. A large proportion of Australian Jews arrived in this country from Europe and a commonly reported narrative is that they wanted to be as far away as possible from their birth-places. Whilst I do not feel the same way, I do think that this kind of sentiment is a large part of the history of this community, and being far away from the larger Jewish centres (I mean this in terms of population size) also has an important influence on Jewish life in this country.

    That is my view. In terms of the view of the website, Galus does mean exile and there is a translation in the editorial page of the site. In terms of the positive/negative connotations, I think the term is being used here ironically but there is actually no ‘official’ website view on how the name should be interpreted. (If it was to be interpreted literally, it would probably situate the website in the non-Zionist ultra Orthodox world rather than the Zionist world because as I said, Zionists are generally not in favour of using the term galut today and like you, favour the term diaspora.)

    The problem of knowing when to interpret language literally is an old one and Maimonides wrote a very interesting book about it many years ago. It’s called The Guide for the Perplexed and I would highly recommend it to all.

    In terms of anti-Zionists being anti-nationalists, I would have to disagree that the majority of anti-Zionists oppose other nationalisms in equal measure to Israeli nationalism. Consider for example, the Ken Loach’s boycott of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival. He boycotted the festival because it has received funding from the Israeli government. The equivalent action to oppose Australian nationalism would be to boycott all Arts events and exhibitions that have received funding from the Australian government. The list of funded events if anyone would like to take this on is here, and includes amongst other things, a range of Aboriginal cultural events and festivals. I never heard of such a boycott and doubt that there are many anti-Zionists willing to support such a boycott.

    Opposing such things as the Australian citizenship test, detention of asylum seekers, and supporting Aboriginal land rights (unless one was to support the entire land falling under these rights and the dismantling of the Australian government), are not equivalent to the types of actions taken by anti-Zionists against the Israeli state. The latter are actions against the state as a whole rather than particular practices. Actions in Israel that would be equivalent to opposing the Australian citizenship test, detention of asylum seekers, and supporting Aboriginal land rights (in particular tracts of land), would be opposing Leiberman’s proposed Israeli citizenship requirements, opposing detention of asylum seekers in Israel, and supporting a two-state solution respectively. (I would think that anyone who did this would find themselves in the company of a large group of Israelis and Australian Jewish Zionists.)

  • rachsd says:

    Hi David,

    You’re right, Zionism which is understood as reishit tzmichat ge’ulatenu (the beginning of our redemption) by religious Zionists is different from the end of the period of galut (exile). And I would argue that the secular Zionist view is a bit different again.

    Nonetheless the official language used by the State of Israel to describe the non-Israeli portion of the Jewish world is not galut but rather tfutzot (for example the Diaspora Museum is called Bet HaTfusot) and I think this is an ideological position although I’ll have to think about it a bit more to try to dig up some sources to support this.

  • Chaim says:

    Tobybee – have you read the bible lately?

    It is about the Jewish people following the Torah / mitzvos in Israel including having a king and a state/nation.

    Every time they were exiled from the LAND of Israel they have prayed, desired the return to the Land.

    There is no such thing as being Jewish and being anti-Zionist.

  • David Zyngier says:

    Rachel asks: I’m wondering what people consider to be the aim / benefit of Arab-Jewish dialogue in Australia (as opposed to in the Middle East)?

    Given the enormous degree of ignorance by Jews about Palestinians and other people of Arabic and Islamic backgrounds in general (and vice versa) it should be obvious that if people are genuinely serious about understanding the views of other groups of people who are also deeply committed – involved with – central to – a solution of the Israel/Palestine conflict, then actually speaking with Palestinians is a first step!

    If Mendes then was really serious about understanding the Palestinian narrative of history (and why they find it so problematic to understand why the Jews, like the Palestinians, are a people, a nation desirous of and deserving of a homeland) then Mendes would have stopped carping on about his personal problems with Curthoys, Docker and AMESA of a decade ago and moved on!

    Here in Melbourne there a number of Palestinians who do regularly relate through dialogue – both formal and informal – with Israelis and Jews of varying opinions – conservative, progressive & secular Jewish & Israeli Zionists through to Post and anti-Zionist Jews & Israelis. There even has been established an informal school where Jews are starting to learn Arabic from Palestinians.

    If Mendes was the progressive and left thinking Zionist that he claims to be, then he would surely would have thrown his considerable talents as a polemicist and propagandist behind the Australian branch of the Israeli party of the secular Zionist Left Meretz.

    And if Meretz Australia was too Left for Mendes then why has he not started his own organisation or group with the “There are thousands of Australian Jews who would support the views of the mainstream Israeli Left”?/i>

    Or perhaps Mendes is just more interested – perhaps like Lowenstein, Curthoys & Docker – in self-promotion and acceptance – in his case in the mainstream Jewish community – in the others in the mainstream Left community – that he cannot find the time or the energy to be engaged in genuine struggle for what he believes in? So instead he spends time and energy attacking the only genuine grassroots Australian Jewish organisation that is regularly engaged with Palestinians – the Australian Jewish Democratic Society.

  • DavidZ,

    You start off talking about the benefits of dialogue, but then just as quickly as you claim Mendes keeps playing the man instead of the ball, you spend the rest of your post doing the same!

  • philip mendes says:

    Larry Stillman and Les Rosenblatt (both members of the AJDS Executive Committee but apparently denying any official status although no other representatives of AJDS have dared to publicly contradict them) make a lot of noise in their replies, but don’t actually address the core issues I raised about the malevolent way that AJDS constructs the views of the broader Jewish community, and its relationships with such.

    This is exemplified by Larry’s recent polemic in New Matilda, 4 August (also republished on the AJDS website and published in shorter form on the Liberty Victoria website) titled “Is it right to speak of a Jewish lobby”? This paper, written under his AJDS byline, suggests in conspiratorial fashion that all the mainstream Jewish bodies – he specifically names the ADC, AIJAC, ECAJ, the state Community Councils, Zionist Councils, AUJS – form an unyielding, unthinking right-wing Jewish lobby which supports Israeli Government policy without qualification, and seeks to silence any alternative views. In other words, they are the enemy.

    The problem is not only that this represents an ill-informed and non-evidence based view of the Jewish community, or even that it reinforces existing essentialist prejudices within the anti-Zionist Left about Jews all being “hardline Zionists”. It also reflects a simplistic view of what is happening in the Middle East. Stillman is suggesting that there is a black and white choice between supporting a Greater Israel that permanently denies Palestinian national rights and guarantees ongoing conflict, or alternatively endorsing an ultra-dovish view that peace and reconciliation will reign supreme if only Israel withdraws immediately without negotiation to the 1967 borders to facilitate a two-state solution. What Stillman doesn’t note is the view held by many left-wing Israelis and Australian Jews who oppose the Israeli military occupation and West Bank settlements, but hold a serious fear based on the reality of Palestinian violence and extremism since September 2000 that one-sided Israeli concessions rather than negotiated mutual compromise may well lead to ongoing and intensified war, rather than the hoped for peace. This is a view that I have often expressed (for David Zyngier’s information particularly) in the pages of the Meretz USA journal, Israel Horizons.

    In his polemic, Stillman also argues ridiculously that I represent one of the more hardline elements of this supposedly united Jewish lobby. He says that “former leftist Philip Mendes” provides a “strident attack on critics of Israel including AJDS”. Newsflash to Stillman. I will define my politics, not my critics. If Stillman really wishes to understand my philosophical approach, he can just walk a few hundred metres from his office to the Monash University library, borrow my latest book Australia’s Welfare Wars Revisited (UNSW Press, 2008) or even do himself a big favour and buy it at the nearby bookshop, and read pp.4-7 on my left-wing social democratic views.

    Another newsflash to Stillman. My long paper on Jewish Anti-Zionism which I delivered to the recent Limmud Oz conference in Sydney (just published in edited form in the US Midstream Magazine, Volume LV, no.3) distinguishes at great length between legitimate left-wing Jewish critics of Israel who are critical of settlements and the occupation, and illegitimate Jewish anti-Zionists who wish to see Israel destroyed. It even praises ADJS for its mild criticism of the anti-Zionist Independent Australian Jewish Voices (IAJV). If Stillman is struggling to understand this distinction, then perhaps this reflects the fact that many Jews are now struggling to understand the differences between the rhetoric of AJDS (or at least that of Stillman) and the rhetoric of the IAJV on the alleged threat posed by the “Jewish lobby”. In contrast, the founding leaders of AJDS and its predecessor organisation, Paths to Peace, took a long stick in the 1970s and 1980s to the arguments of the earlier local anti-Zionist group, Jews Against Zionism and Anti-Semitism.

    Stillman argues quite rightly that personal attacks on Jews by other Jews are despicable. I first wrote about this problem in a joint opinion piece with Sydney activist Dawn Cohen in the Australian Jewish News of 23/4/04 (See “When Middle East politics becomes personal”). I cited two examples from my own experience where abuse and threats had emanated from individual Jews on the extreme right and the extreme Left. These two gentleman both later apologized. In more recent years, the underhanded “scab” tactics aimed at suppressing my freedom of speech have sadly come almost exclusively from the extreme Left. I call them the “progressive stalkers”.

    Philip Mendes

  • David Zyngier says:

    Mendes writes that Stillman writes:
    “in conspiratorial fashion that all the mainstream Jewish bodies – he specifically names the ADC, AIJAC, ECAJ, the state Community Councils, Zionist Councils, AUJS – form an unyielding, unthinking right-wing Jewish lobby which supports Israeli Government policy without qualification, and seeks to silence any alternative views. In other words, they are the enemy”.

    I do believe that Mendes here sets up Stillman’s carefully crafted critique as the proverbial strawman – to be blown down with a puff of his eloquent wind!

    Does Mendes actually believe that any of the above named organisations seriously have ever publicly challenged Israeli government policy or even permitted discussion of opposition views within their own internal fora? In fact the existence of the Sensible Jew and its importance to the Jewish community as indicated by not one but two lengthy pieces in The Age bears witness just that fact – that the so-called representative communal organisations have sought to present a united front of unquestioning support of Israel government policy in relation to the illegal occupation of and settlement in Palestinian territory. In order to do so these organisations – if you like – a lobby – seeks to label any opposition to such policies as either anti-Israel or anti-Semitic or both.

  • Larry Stillman says:


    You are clutching at straws.

    1. I nowhere suggested that there is a conspiracy or unity amongst the Jewish right, but there is often a convergence of interest. In the New Matilda article, I suggested “Depending on who you talk to it is a lobby, or definitely NOT a lobby, or a loose coalition of interested parties, or an ethnic interest group.”

    I also said, “But for several reasons it is difficult to give an accurate title to their source. It is not a unitary bloc of people, and disagreements and competitiveness occur within it — but generally it claims to be the representative lobby of Australian Jewish opinion on Israeli issues, invariably taking a position that justifies Israeli Government policy in the interests of both the State of Israel and the defence of Jewish rights around the world.” In the piece that was originally written. I was going to add in egos as well, but I left that out.

    Thus, on that count, you have already lost a few marks in his essay.

    2. I should have qualified my limiting your ‘left’ credentials. Perhaps more accurately, I should have called it left-baiting of the AJDS and other critics of Israeli policies, which in my opinion, only aim to ultimately shore up intransigent positions and groups that are hostile progressive views on Israel. Thus, I think you have made a gross error in choosing this path.

    4. As you well know, I have complimented your work on a number of occasions on matters Middle Eastern as well as welfare. For example, your discussion on Jews of Arab lands is something all left-critics need to take seriously in discussions of reparations and rights of return.

    However, not all your work is so nuanced. While you cite a paper in Limmud Oz, where you give us a B-league guernsey, the fact remains that your paper recently published by Bnai Brith contained unsubstantiated allegations of Uncle Tom like behaviour against members of the AJDS

    In it, you wrote without evidence “at least some AJDS members may have wanted to be recognized as “good Jews” in the Arab community, and to be applauded for their “bravery” in speaking out against the allegedly oppressive Israeli Government and its censorious apologists in Australia”. You used the term ‘good Jews’ (something like an ‘Uncle Tom’) at least once before in discussing people of Jewish background involved with the sectarian left. (see http://webstylus.net/?q=node/260 for details).

    You present no evidence for the assertion concerning ‘less benign motives’ for ‘some AJDS members’, and the desire to be recognised as ‘good Jews’. But the assertion has been made and the damage done.

    This is not scholarship, it is sniping polemic. It is this aspect of your work that leaves me, and others, puzzled as to its motivation, particularly because such work seems to have been picked up quickly by the Jewish right internationally as ‘evidence’.

    4. AJDS has publicly distanced itself from the IAJV since the schemozzle over its politics after its initial founding when many people signed a petition in good faith. I’ve also made that clear on a personal level in letters and other places. Yet once again, you raise the canard of identifying my politics with that of IAJV. Wrong wrong wrong wrong.

    5. Legitimately, there is a degree of difference how many people view the risks that face Israel post second Intifada.

    You see the risks as high, based on views about Palestinan politics, the influence of religious-nationalism, and militarization, others, like myself, see the risks substantially compounded by Israeli intransigence and militarization the expansion of settlements, the creation of Bantustan-like enclaves, as with Palestinians, a heady cocktail of religious and secular nationalism.

    ‘Mutual concessions’, thus far, haven’t resulted in much for Palestinians in the way of access to land, resources, and their rights.

    A new path needs to be undertaken under international auspices. And in any case, internally, Israel is going to face a crisis-the demographic crisis of its own Palestinian majority. Like it or not, the State of Israel itself is going to change by force of demography.

  • Larry Stillman says:

    Excuse the typos please, one and all, it is late for me!

  • Chook says:

    it’s all good stuff reading your comments, when I have nothing better to do. I haven’t had any comments in the AJN lately (are you guys there reading this?) because of their new thing about comments, I mean it’s harder to get registered there than with the CIA. But seriously guys; yours, mine, our, comments really have no impact or anything. The powers that be in the middle eastand else where don’t even know we exist, and why should they, as if they would take advise from a Chook. I do it because, maybe, I have too much free time on my hands. I would be a far more useful being if I collected money for some worthwhile charity, such as the Antony Loweinstein relief fund; that way he would not need to write all that nonsense about Israel to make a living.

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