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Advocating Peace or Promoting Conflict and Discrimination? The Strange Case of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies

March 23, 2011 – 10:43 pm12 Comments

John Pilger, winner of the Sydney Peace Prize. The Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies may have some "hidden agendas" of its own.

By Philip Mendes

The Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney was formed in May 1988 to promote interdisciplinary research and teaching on the causes of conflict, and the conditions that affect conflict resolution and peace. The Centre’s vision statement emphasizes that peace involves not just the absence of violence, but also an end to structural unfairness, and the achievement of justice.

As a social policy researcher who has written extensively about the links between structural injustice and social disadvantage, I can see some merit in their argument that conflict resolution requires addressing the structural basis of oppression and violence. But I also believe that many conflicts are far more complex than that. To be sure, some involve structural oppression of small powerless countries or peoples by larger powerful countries or peoples. But alternatively, other intra-national conflicts often involve persecution by majority groups of minority groups as a result of national, racial and religious hatred. This includes majorities who were themselves previously victims of colonialism or invasion.

In my opinion, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not fit easily into either of these two categories given that it obviously has multi-layered causes, and there is no international consensus on the causes of this conflict. The protagonists and their key supporters are totally polarized. For pro-Israel partisans, Israel is the David acting in self-defense. The conflict is seen as the product of unrelenting Arab and Palestinian hostility since 1948 based on nationalist and religious fanaticism. For pro-Palestinian partisans, Israel is the Goliath bullying the region. The conflict is viewed as the outcome of the exile of most Palestinians in 1948, and the Israeli occupation of territories claimed by the Palestinians since 1967.

Those who genuinely want to promote peace need to find some way of mediating and achieving a mid-way compromise between these two polarized perspectives. Instead, the CPACS seem to have adopted a simplistic view of Israel/Palestine based on the binary opposites of good and bad nations. CPACS’ caricatures deftly avoid the complexity of the conflict, and the existence of moderates and extremists on both sides of the fence. Their aim does not appear to be to support compromise or reconciliation, but rather to impose pariah status on one particular nation. In addition, they seem to have labelled any and all supporters of Israel – whatever their diverse views on solutions to the conflict – as apologists for structural oppression. This labeling has been particularly apparent in two episodes: the 2003 controversy over the awarding of the Sydney Peace Prize to Hanan Ashrawi, and the more recent campaign by CPACS Director Jake Lynch to boycott all Israeli institutions.

Case Study One

In August 2003, the CPACS-affiliated Sydney University Peace Foundation announced that Palestinian intellectual Dr Hanan Ashrawi had won the 2003 Sydney Peace Prize. Ashrawi was an odd choice since she is an unapologetic Palestinian nationalist, not a peace activist. To be sure, she is a relative moderate within the Palestinian spectrum, and precisely the type of pragmatic nationalist Israel needs to negotiate with to facilitate a two-state solution. But in my opinion the award should have been presented jointly to actual Israeli and Palestinian peace activists. And the organizers of the unofficial 2003 Geneva Peace Accord – Yossi Beilin and Yasir Abed Rabbo – would have been perfect, and at that time, highly topical candidates.

Not surprisingly, the decision to award Ashrawi the prize was controversial, and provoked a public and at times aggressive protest campaign from sections of the Jewish community. Geoffrey Brahm Levey and I wrote a book chapter (see our co-edited book Jews and Australian Politics, 2004) at the time which was critical of the nature of this campaign for two reasons: it wrongly portrayed Ashrawi as an extremist, and it was counter-productive in that it focused media attention on alleged Jewish political power rather than the merits of the award.

We were also critical of some of the responses that emanated from the then CPACS Director, Professor Stuart Rees. Rees argued on a number of occasions that the Jewish lobby (or what he called “influential sections of the Jewish community”) was “one of the most powerful lobbies in the world”, and had used “formidable financial power” to protest the decision. He added: “We are being threatened by members of a powerful group who think they have an entitlement to tell others what to do”.

These arguments were both inaccurate and prejudiced. They were inaccurate since this seemingly all-powerful lobby failed to either reverse the decision to award the peace prize to Ashrawi, or to persuade the then NSW Premier Bob Carr not to present the award to Ashrawi. They were prejudiced since they essentialised all Jews as comprising a powerful and united lobby reminiscent of historical far Right allegations that Jews control the world (e.g. the Protocols of the Elders of Zion).

Elsewhere in a 2005 conference paper commenting on the Ashrawi Affair, Rees rejected legitimate charges of anti-Semitism leveled at some extreme critics of Israel. He accused Jews of trying to monopolize victimhood, and implied that supporters of Israel attempt to unfairly silence any criticisms of Israel by branding their authors as anti-Semitic. Rees seemed unaware that in recent decades anti-Zionist fundamentalism and anti-Semitism have increasingly converged. Of course, left-wing attacks on Zionism and Israel incorporating anti-Jewish prejudice are different to the traditional anti-Semitism of the far Right. They constitute a form of political, rather than racial anti-Semitism. And most of their key proponents deny being anti-Semites. Nevertheless, this group arguably create an anti-Jewish discourse and the potential for an openly anti-Semitic movement by demonizing all Israeli Jews and all Jewish supporters of Israel as the political enemy.

Case Study Two

In 2007, the CPACS appointed a relatively unknown British journalist Jake Lynch as their new Director. But Lynch was not unknown to CPACS. As early as 2004, they had invited him to Australia (as part of their Summer School “Peace-Building Media” unit) to promote a teaching video he and his partner Annabel McGoldrick had produced to challenge what they considered to be a pro-Israel bias in media reporting.

In addition, Lynch had a personal/professional grievance against the so-called pro-Israel lobby which was almost certainly known to CPACS. In 2006, he had allegedly been banished from his job as a BBC television newsreader because he protested the BBC’s refusal to construct the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a simplistic story of oppressor Israelis and oppressed Palestinians.

Lynch’s fundamentalist distaste for Zionism and Israel was articulated in detail in his 2008 book, Debates in Peace Journalism. Lynch presented a binary view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on the simplistic notion of good and bad nations. He critiqued media reporting of Palestinian terrorism against Israeli civilians, arguing instead for a mode of reporting that favored the Palestinian narrative of innocent victimhood including their extremist demand for the return of millions of 1948 refugees to Green Line Israel. He also implied that the powerful Jewish lobby in Britain was responsible for the Blair Government’s pro-Israel orientation.

As CPACS Director Lynch quickly took a leadership role in the local Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel. BDS proponents (or at least its most vocal advocates) adopt a reductionist position on conflict resolution. They are not interested in promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace or reconciliation. Rather, they view all Jewish Israelis as oppressors, and favor the dissolution of Israel, and its replacement by a state dominated by a Palestinian Arab majority. All Jewish defenders of Israel’s existence, regardless of their diverse political positions, are likewise depicted as apologists for oppression. Such a position inevitably provokes racist discrimination against Jews.

In May 2009, Lynch chaired a CPACS forum titled “After Israel’s attack on Gaza: how do we work for peace and justice?” Two of the three invited speakers – former Greens Senator Kerry Nettle, and retired academic and long-time advocate for an academic boycott of Israel, Professor John Docker – were hard-line critics of Israel. Jewish trade union activist Angela Budai provided a more balanced perspective.

Lynch subsequently initiated a call for a specific boycott by Sydney University of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the Technion University in Haifa. This call was formally endorsed by CPACS Executive Committee members Dr Kenneth Macnab, Emeritus Professor Stuart Rees and Annie Herro. Lynch qualified his call for a boycott by kindly offering to exempt good Israeli academics such as Jeff Halper who condemned the policies of their own country, and conformed to a test of political orthodoxy. This offer was an obvious example of McCarthyism, and 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” but I prefer the term “self-denying” Jews since they deny any feeling of solidarity with other Jews who are oppressed or attacked) 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.

In September 2009, Lynch chaired a meeting calling for an academic boycott of Israel which featured two speakers: Antony Loewenstein and John Docker, both self-denying Jews and anti-Zionist fundamentalists. The meeting was also attended by a number of pro-Palestinian propagandists with no links to academia. In addition, about 30 moderate students and academics (both Jewish and non-Jewish) joined the meeting half-way to challenge the extremist views of the speakers, and in contrast advocate a peaceful two-state solution.

In 2009, the CPACS-affiliated Sydney Peace Foundation chose to present their annual Peace Prize to journalist John Pilger. This decision was arguably even more controversial than the earlier award to Ashrawi since Pilger’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are not remotely moderate or in favor of peace and dialogue. Rather, he is an unapologetic anti-Zionist fundamentalist who has frequently attempted to diminish and trivialize the extent of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust by equating Israeli actions with those of the Nazis.

In May and October 2010 respectively, Lynch chaired public addresses by two visiting anti-Zionist fundamentalists, American-Palestinian academic George Bisharat and self-dying American Jew Anna Baltzer.

Both speakers favor the abolition of the State of Israel and its replacement by an Arab State of Greater Palestine, and their addresses arguably had the effect of perpetuating Israeli-Palestinian hatred and conflict, and undermining prospects for peace.

In February 2011, Lynch took the critique of the Jewish lobby to a new level. In an astounding article in New Matilda, he seriously espoused the conspiracy theory that the Jewish community was responsible for the ALP switching leaders from Kevin Rudd to Julia Gillard on the grounds that Gillard was more supportive of Israel than Rudd.

The article was both absurd and prejudiced. It was absurd because there was not the slightest difference between Rudd and Gillard in their fundamental support for Israel, and informed commentators such as Barry Cassidy have documented a multitude of influential factors that forced the ALP to overthrow Rudd.

It was prejudiced because it suggested – quoting an earlier superficial argument from Sydney Morning Herald journalist Peter Hartcher – that Jewish financial influence was a key determinant of ALP Middle East policy. Yet neither Hartcher nor Lynch have conducted any empirical analysis of which Jews contribute to the ALP as major donors, what business or political agendas they seek to progress via their donations, whether or not they have any particular interest in Israel, and how their donations compare to those emanating from other ethnic/interest groups such as Chinese Australians, Lebanese Australians, mining lobbyists and so on. Short of any such analysis, this seems to be simply another variant of the old far Right argument that Jews hold disproportionate financial power and wealth which enables them to control political parties and governments.

Conclusion

CPACS’s construction of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to be an odd throwback to the bad old days before the 1993 Oslo Peace Accord when so many on the radical Left confused support for Palestinian nationalism with internationalism. We are hearing the same old morality play dogma: that all Palestinians are progressive including even those from Hamas who are genocidal, misogynist, homophobic religious fanatics, and conversely that all Israelis are inherently reactionary and evil. But there is still time for organizations such as CPACS to redeem their credibility, and actually contribute positively to saving lives and promoting peace in the Middle East.

I can hear it now: the Sydney Peace Prize for 2012 has been awarded jointly to Amos Oz and Sari Nusseibeh. These are two intellectuals who have argued without fear or qualification for a peaceful two-state solution. CPACS have invited the respective Presidents of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and the Arab-Australian Association to present the prize, and to talk more broadly about the history of Arab-Jewish cooperation.

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