Home » Philip Mendes, Politics and Media

Academic boycotts of Israel are part of the problem not the solution

October 6, 2009 – 11:18 am12 Comments
Statement on the British cultural boycott in the New York Times*

Statement on the British cultural boycott in the New York Times*

by Philip Mendes

The last few weeks have seen a revival of the previously dormant Australian campaign for an academic boycott of Israel.

Jake Lynch, a former UK journalist recently appointed Director of the Sydney University Center for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS), convened a meeting at Sydney University on 15 September to propose an end to institutional ties between the University and two Israeli universities, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Technion in Haifa.

His initiative was supported by 22 signatures from other academics including most prominently Stuart Rees, Director of CPACS; Kenneth McNab, President of CPACS, and retired academic John Docker. Lynch invited Antony Loewenstein and Docker, two anti-Zionist fundamentalists of Jewish origin, to address the meeting in favour of an academic boycott.

Suzanne Rutland, the Head of Jewish Studies at Sydney University, was given a few minutes in question time to speak against the proposed boycott. She was supported by other academics and students. By all accounts it was a fiery and polarized meeting. Lynch later said he would continue to try to persuade Sydney Uni and the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) to endorse a boycott.

He is unlikely to succeed on either count. The Vice-Chancellor of Sydney University, Michael Spence, has stated publicly that “The University does not consider it appropriate to boycott academic institutions in a country with which Australia has diplomatic relations”. The NTEU previously stated in November 2002 that they would not be endorsing any boycott proposal.

The key principles against an academic boycott were recently discussed by Nick Dyrenfurth and myself in The Australian (“Racism risk in calls for Israeli boycott”, 19 September) and will only be rehashed briefly here.

Firstly, an academic boycott of Israelis alone is discriminatory given that it is based on an ethnic stereotyping of all Israelis as exceptionally evil, and is implicitly if not explicitly racist. This was acknowledged by the UK University and College Union in September 2007 when they withdrew their boycott campaign on legal advice that it was an infringement of anti-discrimination legislation. It is only fascists and xenophobes who classify whole peoples as inherently bad or inferior.

Secondly, the UK experience confirms that a boycott campaign will inevitably lead to a demonization of all those who support Israel’s right to exist whatever their political perspective on the West Bank settlements. In practice, this means a boycott of the overwhelming majority of Jews. As the leading left-wing UK philosopher and convenor of the anti-boycott Engage group David Hirsh has noted (here):

The Campaign to exclude Israelis from our campuses brings with it a toxic atmosphere. People who oppose the boycott are portrayed as pro-imperialist, pro-Zionist, pro-apartheid, uncaring of Palestinian suffering…And most of the people thus accused are Jews. With the campaign to exclude Israelis comes a campaign to libel Jewish academics and Jewish union members; Jewish students too.

Thirdly, the key boycotters are not internationalist advocates of Israeli-Palestinian peace and reconciliation. They are rather unconditional supporters of Palestinian nationalism. They favour the dissolution of the existing State of Israel and its replacement with an exclusivist ethno-religious Arab/Islamic state of Greater Palestine.

The key agenda of this paper, however, is not to provide a philosophical criticism of the boycott proposal. Rather, it is concerned with exposing how the boycotters use their one-sided pro-Palestinian bias to misrepresent the reality of the Middle East. For the simplistic construction by the boycotters of all Israelis as evil oppressors (to be blamed and punished) and all Palestinians as innocent victims (to be patronisingly protected from any critical analysis) is completely out of touch with the real events of the last ten years.

Until mid 2000, most of the Israeli Left and the Jewish Left worldwide including myself assumed that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and associated settlements were the key barriers to the implementation of a peaceful two state solution. We might call this the “root causes” of the conflict theory. But that theory was undermined by the following seminal events:

  1. The Palestinian Authority’s rejection of the two state proposals introduced at Camp David in July 2000, and subsequently improved on in various forms by US President Clinton culminating in the unsuccessful Taba negotiations of January 2001, and later the rejection of Prime Minister Olmert’s similar proposal in September 2008;
  2. Palestinian demands during and subsequent to these negotiations for a return of 1948 refugees not to the proposed Palestinian State, but rather to Green Line Israel, a demand completely incompatible with any commitment to a two-state solution;
  3. The outbreak of the violent intifada in September 2000 which was really an undeclared war against the Israeli Green Line civilian population including the long parade of suicide bombings. These bombings reached their apex in March 2002. During that horrible month, there were eight separate suicide attacks resulting in the deaths of 63 people and many hundreds injured. The final straw was the attack on the Passover seder in Netanya’s Park Hotel which killed 30 people and injured 140. This attack provoked the Israeli invasion of the leading West Bank cities in an attempt to destroy the terror networks, and stop the carnage. Yet the first Australian boycott petition was ironically initated by Ghassan Hage and John Docker immediately after this invasion in May 2002. Their clear purpose was to blame the Israeli victims of terror, and defend the Palestinian perpetrators;
  4. The ongoing rocket attacks on the Israeli border town of Sderot which only increased in intensity after the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

In short, I now believe that the absolutist nature of Palestinian political culture is as significant, if not more significant than the Israeli West Bank settlements, in precluding a compromise deal. And hardly anybody today
believes that an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank is likely in lieu of commensurate radical changes in attitude on the Palestinian side to bring peace. To be sure, I still believe that the Israelis should withdraw and eventually will withdraw from most of the West Bank to facilitate a lasting two-state solution, but this will only happen as part of an internationally supported peace package that addresses violence, extremism, and national and religious prejudice on both sides.

Today, the Israelis and Palestinians are sadly engaged in a process of mutual destruction.

The Israelis fear that any political or territorial concessions will only be used by the Palestinians to initiate further violence. They associate the suicide bombings with the Oslo peace process, and link the rocket attacks to the withdrawal from Gaza. Consequently, they have elected a government which is ideologically opposed to real compromise and implicitly acts as the political arm of the settlers movement.

The Palestinians are desperate in that they have gained little from years of political and ideological struggle, and believe that the Israelis plan to take over what is left of their national inheritance. Consequently, they have turned to Hamas and other violent groups which favour terror as the first rather than last resort, and oppose any co-existence with Israel.

In this context, the last thing we need are boycotters who demonise one side of the conflict as if they are Collingwood supporters barracking against Carlton or vica versa. Their infantile slogans will only perpetuate the conflict. Rather, we need dispassionate mediators who can build new bridges between the currently irreconcilable Israeli and Palestinian narratives to find a compromise solution.

Dr Philip Mendes is an advisory editor of Engage, the left-wing academic group which campaigned successfully against academic boycott proposals in the UK. He is also a long-time member of the NTEU.

* Image uploaded by j-go & erango in the cungo


Previous coverage on the proposed academic boycott in Galus Australis:

  • Letter from Australian Jewish academics – boycott unjust and counterproductive
  • Michael Danby argues that boycotters are hypocrites

Previous coverage on cultural boycotts in Galus Australis:

Print Friendly


  • frosh says:

    Hi Philip,

    You write: “Thirdly, the key boycotters are not internationalist advocates of Israeli-Palestinian peace and reconciliation. They are rather unconditional supporters of Palestinian nationalism. They favour the dissolution of the existing State of Israel and its replacement with an exclusivist ethno-religious Arab/Islamic state of Greater Palestine.”

    However, I doubt these people are really “supporters of Palestinian nationalism” at the core. Rather, they are against Jews and any degree of Jewish nationalism (Zionism).

    If it weren’t the Jews in conflict with Palestinains, but rather Turks, Han Chinese, or Abbala in conflict with Palestinians, then these boycotters would not (appear to) give a damn about Palestinians.

    This can be evidenced by
    1) that there is no outcry from them against wrongs inflicted against the Palestinians by neighbouring Arab states.
    2) the lack of any substantial boycott movement against any state other than Israel.

  • Larry Stillman says:

    I find myself in dispute with Michael Brull for his attacks on AJDS for not adumbrating what it means ‘international intervention’, but this time, on his blog, he has a good, but a wee bit intemperate analysis of some of the flaws in Philip’s historical argument. It has saved me a lot of historical explanation, though I am sure some of Brull’s history is disputable as well.

    Even so, it is illustrative of a split that has occurred in recent years with respect to how the current Palestinian-Israeli situation is regarded: whether is a mutual situation of blame, or whether, as Michael claims, and I tend to agree, the balance of power has continually been in Israel’s favour. Thus, compromise does not necessarily mean equal compromise, but in fact, that Israel may have to give away far more than Palestinians (and in particular, land and resources) to convince Palestinians that this time, it is serious about peace. But the portion I put does not mean that we see Palestinians as ‘innocents’ as is often implied. Rather, they are at the receiving end most of the time, even though Israeli Jews and diaspora Jews feel that they, more than the ‘other’ are the real and disproportionate victims of Palestinian violence. Facts tell us otherwise. That is why Philip’s argument is weak because it doesn’t make explicit the need for international intervention to actually push–and that pushing includes perhaps the renegotiation of the special relationship between the US and Israel if Israel won’t come to the table with both Fatah and Hamas. Israel cannot continue its actions without American support.

    Additionally, I have no idea what Philip means by ‘absolutist nature of Palestinian political culture’. I would like him to defend that position before a group of Palestinians and provide evidence for such a proposition. Some would equally claim there is a similar elite coming out of the military caste in Israel–so all such claims need to be qualified.

    Certainly, the range of Palestinian commentators writing in English shows that free thought is alive and well. I’d suggest a better characterization might be weak political leadership and a crisis in civil society in the fact of enormous internal and external challenges, not all of their own making.

    With respect to Phillip’s characterization of the BDS supporters, I tend to agree with Brull–he has been a bit too loose in implying across the board, a form of ethnic intolerance It’s my argument in fact, that the BDS is for some, an easy form of surrogate campaign against American interests, for some a moral point, and for some on the loose end, yes, anti-Semitic. However, I do agree that the danger of the campaign is that it will steamroll all too easily into something very nasty and savage, mixing up Jews and Israelis and create further divisions between Jews and some on the left. In particular, the campaign fails to understand (or maybe some protagonists do understand –and that is why they are pushing so hard), the integral cultural connection between Israeli and diaspora life that really has nothing to do with the conflict.

    However, the highlighting the fight against that nastiness and the spectre of antisemitism should not be used as an excuse for dealing with the reason why it has come to being–40 years + of occupation have become a prime cause, only adding to scar old grievances which will inevitably surface as grievances grow. A more detailed argument about BDS can be found at this link.

    However what I would have liked Phillip to address, as I have suggested elsewhere on this site, is the moral argument for Jews to boycott products from the West Bank. There are precedents for this sort of campaign in the Jewish community in the US against immoral activity (e.g. kashrut corruption, real estate fraud, and labour rights), and it is what Uri Avnery and associates–opponents of the BDS–though the Gush Shalom, have been arguing for many years should apply to make it clear that the West Bank is stolen property.

    Would Phillip support such a boycott if it gained momentum amongst more organizations than Gush Shalom? Or as an individual, would be boycott local products from the West Bank? this is a serious question–I check the labels when I buy Israeli products for where they are produced.

    For information on the Gush Shalom campaign, see this link.

  • Common Sense says:


    With all respect, Brull is a joke.

    He doesn’t deserve the intellectual oxygen you and others give him.

    In fact, judging by his blog, he’d be best advised to work on simple matters of expression and grammar rather than repeatedly embarrass himself in various forums.

  • eli says:

    Why is that for some reason that the history of Israel for some commentators seems to begin only in 1967 and the preceding 20 years is written off as if it never existed.

    Just for a Recap!

    In 1947 the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine, recommended the division of the British Mandate of Palestine into two provisional states, one Jewish and one Arab

    On 14 May 1948 The Jordanian Arab Legion was given orders to enter Palestine, secure the UN designated Arab area, and then enter Jerusalem

    By the end of the war, Jordan forces had control over the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

    The West Bank and East Jerusalem were occupied by Jordan (formerly Transjordan) for a period of nearly two decades (1948–1967)

    In 1950, with British approval, and despite Arab League opposition, Jordan extended its jurisdiction over the West Bank.
    The inhabitants of the West Bank became citizens of Jordan.

    Rather than attempting to establish an independent Palestinian state for its West Bank subjects, Jordan formally annexed East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

    In 1967 Israel in a preemptive strike in lieu of Jordanian forces preparing,along with other Arab nations, to attack and conquer the State of Israel, expelled all Jordanian forces from the West Bank and Jerusalem

    On July 31 1988, Jordan ceded its claims to the West Bank.

    Since 1988 as Phillip Mendes has already stated Israel has on at least 3 occasions attempted to return up to 98% of the West Bank and including East Jerusalem.Each one rejected!

    Can you please please please explain to me how you can agree that ….” arguing for many years should apply to make it clear that the West Bank is stolen property…….”

    Israel wants to give it back however it seems that the Palestinians are reticent in taking it, lest they then become accountable as leaders to their own population without Israel as the scapegoat.

    Just as an aside I wonder if you check the labels to see what products are produced in China, while they occupy Tibet.Ooops sorry that has nothing to do with the conflict

  • Chaim says:

    Has this topic not been debated to “death”….

    The real question is did anyone actually change their view or all we are just fixed and like arguing?

  • Chook says:

    Spot on Eli: if the Arab states accepted the UN resolution of 1947 there would be no wars or occupations and poor old Antony Loewenstein would have to work to make a living. But what I really find silly is that prime minister Bibi (I can’t be bother working out how to spell his real name), doesn’t listen to president Obama,(much easier to spell), so what makes the Stillmans and Brulls of the world think they can have an influence. Loewenstein doesn’t care as long as he can sell his books.

  • TheSadducee says:


    The problem with going back to 1947 is that other issues pop up which raise uncomfortable questions. For example – just to address resolution 181 – you seem to have forgotten that the resolution proposal called for Jerusalem and Bethlehem to be regarded as neither Jewish nor Arab but rather an international zone controlled by the UN.

    This was never implemented despite the Jewish authorities (later Israel) having agreed to it. Noting this, one must ask the question about how genuine they were in implementing the resolution even if the Arabs had agreed to it?

  • Chook says:

    TheSadducee, with respect, asking how genuine they (I suspect you mean Israel) has no meaning. It’s like asking if I won a million dollars would i give 1/2 to charity? Lets deal with reality and not with such un-testable issues. Despite all the other reasons, Israel would not have attacked its neigbours in 1948 knowing very well that they could loss.

    PS anyway you could put a spellcheck in somehow, pease.

  • TheSadducee says:


    I put the question forward because people refer to UNGAR181 as a vehicle to provide legitimacy to aspects of their arguments eg. your own argument that the Arabs refused to accept it, the Jews did, if the Arabs had accepted all these problems could have been avoided etc.

    However the intentions of the Jews (Israel) can be tested because they did not (and have not) implemented the resolution at all.

    It is fine to use the resolution as a source of legitimacy, but it is slightly hypocritical to ignore its contents, especially if you agreed to it.

    ps I have no control over this site – was there something wrong with my spelling?

  • philip mendes says:

    After penning this article I noticed that Jake Lynch from CPACS had penned another article (6 October) on the Transcend website arguing again for an academic boycott. Perhaps realising that his original argument was based explicitly on ethnic stereotyping, he has now partly backtracked and suggested that only “bad” Israeli academics should be boycotted. He seems totally unaware that this very idea was proposed by the UK Association of University Teachers in 2005, and totally discredited in public argument.

    This was because the offer to exempt “good” Israeli academics who condemned the policies of their own country and conformed to a test of political orthodoxy was an obvious example of McCarthyism. It also taps into a long history of radical Left anti-Semitism whereby a small number of unrepresentative token Jews (some would call them “Uncle Toms”) are opportunistically encouraged to exploit their own religious and cultural origins in order to vilify their own people. The radical Left would never employ such techniques against other historically oppressed groups.

    So now Lynch is not only proposing a bad malevolent idea (the boycott), but obtuse strategies that have been demolished elsewhere.

    Philip Mendes

  • David Zyngier says:

    The acceptance by Jewish communities around the world, including Australia and Israel – of the suggested
    “two-state solution” is a rather new phenomenon (post Yom Kippur War 1973) definitely, probably more likely post 1995 (after the assassination of Rabin).
    Up until 1973 among Jews only the Radical Zionist Left in Israel and the Diaspora supported such an idea. Security Council resolutions dating back to 1976 supporting the two state solution based on the pre-1967 lines were vetoed by the US as a permanent member. The idea has had overwhelming support in the UN General Assembly since the mid 1970s. (see Wikipedia for a reasonable history of the concept.)

    While the support of a two state solution appears on the surface to be fair and reasonable – for the current supporters of the proposal within the Jewish community here (but probably-possibly not Dr Mendes), it is actually a really hollow and empty gesture.

    As explained to me by a Palestinian peace activist in Melbourne (who accepts by
    the way  the legitimacy of the State of Israel) unless such a proposition is accompanied by an acceptance of the illegality of ALL Israeli colonization of the occupied West Bank since 1967, then indeed there can be only a hardening of the Palestinian position playing entirely into the hands of the fundamentalist Hamas & Hizbollah and worse the Al-Qaeda supporters currently at war with Hamas in Gaza.

    Therefore to be consistent as the Sadducee above has tried to explain in relation to UNGAR181 and to comply with International Law in relation to military conquest Israel must either remove ALL
    settlers and  colonial settlements (Moshava or Yishuv the correct
    translation of the Hebrew  הישוב
    according to my Ben Yehuda Dictionary) are by International Law deemed colonial outposts and must be removed or
    else Israel should leave the settlements where they are but their Jewish inhabitants can become citizens of Palestine just as there are 2 millions Palestinians who are citizens of Israel!

    Appeals to the words of some holy covenant recorded by the hand of man (or woman) but supposedly transcribed verbatim somewhere in the Sinai Desert some 3 500 years ago from the mouth of an invisible and ineffable supreme being just doesn’t “cut the mustard” in International Law.

    So Dr Stillman’s suggestion to Dr Mendes (and others in the Jewish Community) to follow the lead of one of the first proponents of the Bi-National State or No State Federation   – Uri Avneri (who incidentally was a member of the Ultra Right Irgun
    in his youth) to boycott all Israeli products and produce from Occupied Palestine makes real sense. As Dr Stillman:

     explains the balance of power has continually been in Israel’s favour. Thus, compromise does not necessarily mean equal compromise, but in fact, that Israel may have to give away far more than Palestinians (and in particular, land and resources) to convince Palestinians that this time, it is serious about peace.

    This is what my Palestinian friend asks for – a sign that we are genuine and not talking about some sort of weasel worded compromise that will leave 350 000 fundamentalists who reject the notion of Palestinian nationhood and sovereignty occupying and dividing what is left of their homeland. And these
    settlers expand day by day – even expelling Palestinian families form their
    homes in East Jerusalem (see this weeks Jerusalem Report for pictures of the Umm
    Nassir family observing Ramadan on the pavement outside their former home which
    is unoccupied while renovations take place – reducing any possibility of making a just settlement that acknowledges that both Palestinians and Jews have rights to national self determination
    (but not at the expense of any other people’s right.

  • Mohan replies says:

    There is no evidence of Israel’s committment to a two state solution. All that is sen is talks, meetings, shelved agreements, road maps et al while the barier and settlements continue to expand as do exclusive roads and checkposts. Netanyahu is willing to halt new settlements for three months in excahnge for 25 or so military aircraft. This freeze will leave untouched buildings underway.

    Another decade of such a “peace process” and there will be no Palestine left to speak of. A genocide (death of a nation) accomplished and there can be the new apologetics that it is “too late” to speak of peace.

4 Pingbacks »

Leave a comment!

You must be logged in to post a comment.