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September 30, 2009 – 9:37 am10 Comments

Letters to the EditorBDS unjust and counterproductive

We write in response to the two letters published in The Australian on Monday 21 September by Antony Loewenstein and Jake Lynch, supporting the call for a boycott of certain Israeli universities as part of a more general Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.

In our view, the call for a boycott and the entire BDS concept is counterproductive, marginalises and disempowers the forces for moderation and compromise within Israel, and reinforces the position of the rejectionists on both sides.

It is simply incorrect for Loewenstein to state that Palestinians “overwhelmingly” support the BDS strategy. The Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions, for example, has been careful not to adopt a position on BDS because of its potential adverse consequences for Palestinian workers.

If people want peace with justice for BOTH the Palestinians and Israelis, then positive measures based on an understanding of the narratives of both peoples are needed. These include co-operative ventures of the kind that currently exist between the Israeli and Palestinian Trade Union movements, an end to all racist incitement against Jews in Palestinian schools and media, stopping new settlements encroaching into the West Bank and the removal of the illegal hilltop settlements by the Israeli government, progressive removal of checkpoints (which is already happening), improving the freedom of movement of Palestinians in the West Bank and a return to negotiations.

The moral authority of movements like BDS is undermined by their very one-sidedness. They highlight the suffering of civilians on only one side of the conflict, to the exclusion of the suffering of civilians on the other side. This has been the approach of Lynch’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, which invariably promotes the ferociously anti-Israel views of people like Loewenstein and John Docker. Both of these commentators make no bones about their desire for Israel to cease to exist but have been conspicuously silent about the likely fate of the Jewish majority now living there if that were to happen. It is probably futile to hope that Lynch will take a more balanced approach when he organizes his Centre’s “peace research” conference for 2010.

For over 60 years international law has called for the existence of two states for two peoples. Israeli and Palestinian polling over a sustained period consistently indicates that this is also what a majority of Israelis and Palestinians want. The denial of self-determination and sovereignty to either people has no international legitimacy at all.

Inaccurate, polemical and emotive statements of the kind made by Loewenstein and Lynch merely serve to polarize people and create a climate of hate. As such, their statements are impediments to the cause of peace with justice which they purport to promote.

Associate Professor Suzanne Rutland, OAM, University of Sydney

Associate Professor Mark Baker, Monash University, Melbourne

Doctor Yoke Berry, University of Wollongong

Professor Allan Borowski, La Trobe University, Melbourne

Professor Andrew Markus, Monash University, Melbourne

Doctor Julie Kalman, The University of New South Wales

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  • Larry Stillman says:

    This response only partially satisifes me,even though I am opposed to the BDS, particulularly of academia, though I have suggested before, that an ‘internal’ Jewish boycott of products from the occupied territories would carry some moral authority, akin to endorsed boycotts that have occurred in the US by Jewish organisations of morally unscrupulous organisations and practices (see the on http://galusaustralis.com/2009/09/israel-boycotters-are-hypocrites/.

    However, I do share their concern that in the rhetoric & polemic of the BDS campaign, there appears to be little concern for Jewish rights, indicating, in the campaign, elements of outright hostility to Jewish presence & cultural and historical rights in the contested land (whether in Israel or the future state of Palestine).

    But overall, the message that this letter carries for me is contained in this statement: “they [Lowenstein and Lynch] highlight the suffering of civilians on only one side of the conflict, to the exclusion of the suffering of civilians on the other side.”

    The need to constantly raise (equivalent suffering) and moral equivalence thus qualifies and diverts any suffering. It leads into reinforcement of the view of Jews as eternal victims and not Jewish institutions (ie the army) as perpetrators of terrible violence. It acts as a block to thinking about the practices of the Israeli government as an occupier for decades new or that the Israeli population (and diaspora communities) has been anesthetized to the effects of occupation and military rule. It is notable that the authors of the letter do not call for an end to the occupation, rather, an end to its nastier internal effects.

    Thus, the ‘suffering’ argument is a cop out from being able to say, that in fact (and the facts are on the ground) the suffering is not equivalent: the ration of violence is completely unequal, that one highly armed, professional army (Israel) is dealing with by and large, a popular insurrection, and the majority of victims are Palestinians, not Israeli Jews.

    Thus, it is also a cop out from being able to say that: we believe the occupation is wrong; that the iron fist policy is wrong; and that policy and military decisions since at least 1967 have led down the path of violence and increased the propensity for terror and extremism. The evidence of the two Lebanon Wars and two Intifadas, and now Gaza (Goldstone’s forensic inquiry at which Israel stupidly spat the dummy) show just how terrible and wasteful a policy it has all been,

    The authors, if they oppose a boycott, should be able to offer an alternative to the current practices of the Israeli government if they are going to gain credibility for their argument amongst the ‘opponents’ .

    And these things have to be said without falling into other equivalence arguments (as well as the ‘oh, and the Arab regimes are nasty as well argument’)


  • ariel says:

    Larry says: “It leads into reinforcement of the view of Jews as eternal victims and not Jewish institutions (ie the army) as perpetrators of terrible violence”

    Sorry, but I understood that this is what armies are for…

    I extrapolate from Larry’s view that the IDF should trade in its semi-automatic rifles for feather dusters and use of colourful language to defend themselves against Palestinians armed with RPG’s and suicide belts.

    On a more serious note, I saw footage one evening on the news of Palestinians kids hurling rocks at IDF soldiers. One soldier put his weapon to one side and proceeded to collect rocks and throw them at the Palestinians so that they would see how much a rock hitting someone in the head doesn’t hurt.

    (As an aside, I propose that for every Qassam missile fired from Gaza, Israel should fire back a barrage of similar sized mortars, without guidance systems, so that they also land indiscriminatly).

  • Ittay says:

    Uri Avnery, who represents pretty much all that is left of the Israeli peace camp, is also against a boycott, and the occupation. Larry, I think this article may be what you were hoping to see in the letter by the Australian academics.


  • Larry Stillman says:

    Yes, it is a great piece by him.

  • Jon says:

    I was interested to note that Loewenstein and Brull have both linked this letter on their blog, without actually commenting on GalusAustralis.

    For the benefit of the blog, Loewenstein comments on his blog in part that the solution proposed by those above [being the academics”] is “essentially to do nothing and hope and pray that Israel will come to its senses” and concludes by saying “for them, Zionism remains a romantic ideal … they refuse to acknowledge what Israel has become with their backing and blind support”.

    From my reading, its not saying that: its essentially endorsing the Obama approach, which Israel has strongly tried to resist, namely stop construction of settlements and return to final status negotiations.

    It seems to me that all this talk about BDS seems to be promoted from a fringe minority of activists, who reject a two state solution in any event (in which case final status negotiations over a 2 state solution is a waste of time) and is not endorsed by even those on the Israeli far left such as Uri Avnery.

    It should be noted that where “pressure” has been most successful as against Israel, is actually when the US applies pressure – the two examples which Aaron Miller in his book points to: Carter’s efforts in securing the Israeli/Egyptian deal and Bush Snr in linking loan guarantees to settlement activity. Jewish liberal organisations in the US, such as J-Street have been pushing exactly this approach: that is a more engaged and involved US in the I/P conflict.

  • Larry Stillman says:


    I don’t read at all what you suggest in the letter from the academics above, that the Obama agenda is supported –I’d like something far more explicit. However, even endorsing Obama strongly will draw a lot of flack, and that is maybe why it is not even mentioned. I think it is time to stand up and be counted, but regrettably, I suggest it is hard for some academics to put forward such views because it is too politically sensitive for them to do so. However, I would like the academics who signed the letter above to address it themselves, but then, we are not all political analysts, but rather, cultural specialists, historians etc. The BDS is offensive to Jewish freedom of discourse and research, between Israel and the rest of the world, and that is why it gets such a strong response.

    In terms of BDS as a symbolic campaign for anti-imperialist circles, the Israel-US relationship is in a similar category to relationships in Latin American and elsewhere in which the US has a long and inglorious history of supporting the brutal suppression of the locals (while lots of Jews who don’t know much about US history might scoff at the parallel, it’s not lost in many other countries, e.g. Greece). Israel is an easy surrogate for the sometimes quite understandable hostility to the US, and this has certainly been picked up in Europe and elsewhere Coupled with some crude anti-Zionism or anti-semitism…we know the problem.

    But nor should it be assumed that it is a one-way street for Israel with the US. Israel doesn’t have an open cheque book with the US, and US strategic interests (and economic interests) do not necessarily dovetail with Israeli interests. Israel and Palestinians have demonstrated that they can’t make peace without intervention and thus, the US will increasingly call the shots in its own self interest, particularly if money is in short supply. Israeli and Zionist lobby tactics will increasingly fall on deaf ears. The Mearsheimer-Walt thesis is probably dating very quickly.

    But why have Zionists not been able to think more deeply about this problem of increased dependency rather than autonomy (which I understand only began in earnest in the late 1960s and after the Yom Kippur War?

    A couple of reasons for this political myopia a) the large number of American religious Jews in Israel who simply don’t think of the US other than as an automatic link, culturally and politically that will always support a religious-national agenda in Israel, with Israel as a branch suburb of the mainland US, and this ‘Americanism’ has been assumed by the rest of the population b) playing up the strengths, rather than potential weaknesses of the relationship (dependency on aid and intelligences) has been in the interests of the Israeli political establishment c) A+B have resulted in a pretty crude approach to the ‘special relationship’ which has probably read too much into its long-term health, despite the noise from the Israel Lobby (Jews and Christian Zionists-an even weirder, dangerous species).

    So, to conclude: deconstructing BDS is not just about being anti-Israel, but it is strongly linked into struggles against oppression in many countries, and because Israel is so close to the US, Israel is a good surrogate.

  • Jon says:


    My point was Israel’s dependence on the US gives the US influence to exert pressure on Israel, if need to be – hence my examples with Carter in relation to the Israel/Egyption deal and Bush Snr in relation to loan guarantees. More often than not, US pressure actually turns out to be a good thing for Israel in the long term.

    The diverging interests between the US and Israel you talk about are particularly noticeable at current: when you have a liberal democrat with Obama and a right wing PM with Netanyahu. You didn’t have to be smart to realise a conflict was going to arise. Could you really see Netanyahu agreeing to a real settlement freeze, or enter into serious final status negotiations with his current coalition, or given his own ideological beliefs?

    I suspect that whilst Netanyahu may have had a “victory” of sorts in NY recently with Obama, that it will be short-lived, and the next confrontation with the Obama administration will be in the offing shortly.

    The difficulty I think Obama faces is that despite the fact that he believes that his course is actually in Israel’s interests (and seems more consistent with that of the traditional Israeli left – I don’t include Barak in that), he has failed to convince the overwhelming majority of Israelis, who have broadly supported Netanyahu in his confrontation with Washington. This is where the situation say differs from Shamir’s confrontation with Bush Snr, whose confrontation hurt him and ultimately led to Rabin being elected.

  • David says:

    A clever article I have found on the net:

    Hideous spectre of censorship

    15 August 2003

    Ghil’ad Zuckermann


  • Jonathan says:

    David, thank you for the link. Among other things, the piece includes one of the best alliterations I have seen:

    We should continue to write academic articles with Shanghai professors and participate in conferences
    ___in Moscow, Alaska or a law school near Al-aqsa___.

    Palin should be happy with that. J

  • Thanks, David – that’s a great article. Sadly, it looks like something that could have been written today.

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