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Arab-Jewish Dialogue: a One-Way Street

August 19, 2009 – 5:56 pm34 Comments

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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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