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Letters to Editor – Responses to Mendes

April 3, 2011 – 8:15 pm86 Comments

Below are two slightly abbreviated versions of two lengthy responses we received in regard to the latest article by regular Galus contributor, Prof. Philip Mendes , Advocating Peace or Promoting Conflict and Discrimination? The Strange Case of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.  The first is by Prof. Jake Lynch, and the next is by Prof. Stuart Rees. We have published them here as feature letters. Finally, we have published Prof. Mendes‘ response to Prof. Lynch.

Mendes an assiduous contortionist

“There was enormous confusion over what the Occupation means. A large number of people believed that the Occupation meant simply that the land was occupied by somebody, so many people thought it was the Palestinians who were occupying the Occupied Territories, in the way that a bathroom is occupied or something like that. They just thought it meant people were there”.

So says Professor Greg Philo of the Glasgow University Media Group, interviewed for my film, News from the Holy Land, in an excerpt featured in the recent launch edition of News Goo, my media analysis program for New Matilda. Philo interviewed hundreds of British television viewers in the early Noughties, for a study titled Bad News from Israel. There were, he found, direct correlations between gaps in public understanding, and patterns of omission and distortion in the way the conflict was represented in news on television, in particular.

Both have changed to some extent, in the period since, in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. Journalists have become more savvy, and news organisations more responsive to increasingly determined and well-organised social movement activism around Israel-Palestine and the media. One of the fruits of such campaigning and lobbying activity was an independent review of BBC news on the conflict, carried out by the Corporation’s Board of Governors. BBC journalism was failing to spell out the realities of the Occupation, this found, being caught, as it was, “in a strait-jacket of ‘balance’”, and therefore constrained from explaining the imbalance between an occupying power, in control of events, and an impoverished, occupied people, whose lives are effectively being controlled.

BBC News viewers subsequently became much more likely to witness scenes of Palestinians queuing at military checkpoints, with commentary making it clear that this was to move around within their own territory; to hear that settlements were considered illegal under international law and that the Occupation meant Israelis living on land internationally recognised as Palestinian. And, according to a major recent poll by ICM, people in the UK and six other western European countries are now much more likely to identify Israel correctly as an occupying power: 49% of them can do so, compared with just 9% at one stage in the Philo study.

Daud Abdullah of the Middle East Monitor, which commissioned the poll, connects this increased level of understanding, in turn, with what he calls “a growing rejection of Israeli policies”, after a long period in which Israel enjoyed a “high level of support… because it was perceived as a progressive democracy in a sea of Arab backwardness”. It accords with so many eyewitness testimonies, as from Anna Baltzer, the American Jewish woman who spoke, gently but powerfully, at an event we organised in the University of Sydney last year: that she had been brought up with all the usual pro-Israeli certitudes, only to see them replaced, when she journeyed to the Holy Land to see the realities for herself, with a more clear-eyed picture.

The vast majority of us rely, of course, on media reports for information, and the poll figures suggest there has been sufficient explanation and analysis, in coverage of Israel’s assault on Gaza; its murder of aid convoy workers on board the Mavi Marmara; its land grab through construction of its illegal apartheid wall, and so many other excesses, to equip readers and audiences to discern some of the essential distinctions. The well-worn Israeli propaganda lines flourish only in the dark: when exposed to the light, they shatter, then the pieces gradually fade away.

This is why pro-Israeli lobbyists in so many countries try to pressurise media into maintaining strategic silences on key elements of the conflict, and to limit the range of public debate. One of them here even succeeded, a couple of years ago, in getting SBS News to issue an edict to its journalists, prohibiting the use of the phrase, “Palestinian land”, on air. However, “flak” – identified, in Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s famous “propaganda model” as one of five key filters on media content – usually relies, for its effectiveness, on its disciplinary power, internalised by its targets. The very prospect of having to defend one’s reporting against well-resourced and well-connected critics induces what Antony Loewenstein – my studio guest in the News Goo program – called a “pre-emptive buckle”.

Contortions are necessary to fit reports of the facts within the borders of what the media researcher, Daniel Hallin, called “legitimate controversy”. So considerable effort goes into consigning inconvenient truths and heterodox perspectives to what Hallin called the “sphere of deviance… exposing, condemning, or excluding from the public agenda those who violate or challenge the political consensus. It marks out and defends the limits of acceptable conflict”.

Assiduous in such efforts here in Australia has been Philip Mendes.  When the Sydney Peace Prize was awarded to the journalist, author and film-maker John Pilger, Mendes was quick off the mark with criticism of the decision, drawing attention to a scholarly essay he had published in the Australian Journal of Jewish Studies, titled “John Pilger on Israel/Palestine: A critical analysis of his views and sources”.

Notable in what I called the “Mendes method” was a habit of ignoring “even prominent and clearly important evidence which flatly contradicts the claims being made about the target of the attack” – in this case, John Pilger’s journalism.

Mendes labeled Pilger as “an anti- Zionist fundamentalist [who] regards Israel as a racist and colonialist state which has no right to exist, and should instead be replaced by an Arab State of Greater Palestine”. But he completely ignored Pilger’s best-known piece of journalism on the conflict, the TV documentary, Palestine Is Still The Issue, in which the closing, in-vision commentary says: “Israelis will never have peace until they recognise that Palestinians have the same right to the same peace and the same independence that they enjoy. The occupation of Palestine should end now. Then, the solution is clear. Two countries, Israel and Palestine, neither dominating nor menacing the other”. (Elsewhere in the same film, Pilger makes it clear that “occupation” refers to Israel’s illegal occupation of the Palestinian Territories since 1967).

To refute every mendacious and/or tendentious claim in Mendes’ latest missive would require more attention than can reasonably be expected from even the most patient reader, so I will concentrate on just two. Just as his foray into critical media studies, in his article on John Pilger, revealed what I called, in my own article, his “misunderstandings of key concepts and debates in journalism”, so his attack on CPACS displays his ignorance of conceptual issues in Peace and Conflict Studies. “Those who genuinely want to promote peace”, Mendes declares, “need to find some way of mediating and achieving a mid-way compromise between… polarized perspectives”.

Locating the potential for compromise is characteristic of Conflict Resolution – an important approach to social conflict, but far from the only one for theorists and practitioners committed, as CPACS is, to a normative stance of peace with justice. Compromise has been the declared guiding principle of US-led mediation efforts, which have accompanied the gradual (and now accelerating) dispossession and subjugation of the Palestinians over many years. If, as we hope, the conflict is to be transformed into a phase marked by a significant reduction of violence – structural and cultural, as well as direct violence – then aspects of compromise will be necessary, but not on underlying justice issues because they bear upon human needs, which cannot, by definition, be traded away. That is why the concessions, which – according to the papers leaked to Al Jazeera and the Guardian – were offered by Palestinian negotiators, were untenable: they could not be enacted in practice without a massive escalation of the repression of the Palestinian population that is already underway.

The second issue is one whose intrinsic illogicality stands out, even amid Mendes’ twisted reasoning. When the BBC Governors’ report came out, in 2006, I was a presenter and reporter for BBC Television News. I wrote a piece for the newsletter sent to members of the Frontline Club, in London, welcoming its conclusions. As was, by then, the BBC rule, I had to submit it for clearance to BBC managers – who at that point conceived of themselves as being “under attack” from the Governors. It would be “very odd”, pronounced the manager who censored my article, “for a presenter to be seen to be siding with the report”. In the few months left of my television career, before taking up my position as Director of CPACS, I did no more presenting on BBC World news, although I still worked as a reporter, including a major on-air investigation from a trip to the Philippines.

Mendes claims that this incident gave me “a personal/professional grievance against the so-called pro-Israel lobby which was almost certainly known to CPACS”, suggesting that this somehow accounts for my views on the subject. As will be apparent to any fair-minded reader, this sequence of events must in fact have occurred the other way round. I welcomed the Governors’ conclusions BECAUSE I had already been critical of BBC journalism for its unintentional complicity with efforts by pro-Israel lobbyists to confine chunks of understanding to a “zone of deviancy”, thereby prolonging the state of ignorance detected in Greg Philo’s research: criticisms echoed, to some extent, in the report.

The countries whose people were polled in the ICM survey all take a more balanced approach to the conflict than Australia. Australia is one of only seven countries to have voted, at the UN General Assembly last November, against a motion which “reaffirmed the illegality of Israeli actions intended to change the status of Jerusalem…  [and] Reaffirmed [the GA’s] commitment to the two-State solution of Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security within recognized borders, the Assembly also stressed the need for Israel to withdraw from Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem”. The only other countries opposing this motion were Israel itself, the US and four Pacific micro-states whose votes have, essentially, been bought – the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and Palau.

This is connected with the narrowness, in mainstream media and political discourses here, of the zone of “legitimate controversy”. Compared with the UK, social movement activists here tend to concentrate, instead, on action in alternative public spheres such as the impressive website and media monitoring service maintained by Australians for Palestine – and indeed our own program of public talks and general community engagement here at CPACS, often in partnership with the Coalition for Justice and Peace in Palestine. That takes longer to filter through, but there is evidence that it, too, is taking effect.

An online survey by Research Now, of 1,021 Australians in 2010, showed the lingering salience, in many people’s apprehension of the conflict, of the historically unfounded belief that the underlying cause is “ancient hostility between Jews and Arabs” – the explanation left to prevail by default in so many media accounts. However, Eulalia Han and Halim Rane, in a paper presenting the findings, also note that “The majority of Australians (55%) understand the Israel-Palestine conflict to be about ‘Palestinians trying to end Israel’s occupation and form their own state’”.

To illuminate such issues is a legitimate function of scholarly endeavour in its articulation with debates in the community at large. CPACS’ work sheds light on the conflict. The potential effect of Mendes’ contributions is to maintain the darkness.

Associate Professor Jake Lynch, Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney. The views expressed are his own.

More accusations of mendacity against Mendes

It is tiresome to respond to the latest article by Philip Mendes. But to ignore his repetition of the same mantras that he has used for years, would be to abstain from the responsibility to contribute constructively to commentary on the conditions for peace in the Israeli / Palestinian conflict. Mendes’ arguments and his manner of mounting them should be challenged.

Two particular shortcomings characterize this latest article. (i) Reliance on inaccurate ‘I also believe’, ‘In my opinion’ arguments (ii) His assumption that derision impresses and might even be regarded as a form of evidence. There is also a holier than thou, privileged point of view which comes across as a cruel indifference to the plight of others. I’ll refer to privilege and cruelty later. Inaccuracies and derision first.

Mendes refers to the Sydney University Peace Foundation. There is no such body. The Sydney Peace Foundation’s major partner is the City of Sydney. The Foundation is accountable to a Council with diverse membership, many of whom have nothing to do directly with that university. He refers to an Arab Australia Association when I think he means the Australian Arabic Council. But who cares ?  It’s his opinion that matters.

Many of Mendes’ inaccuracies derive from his love for the word ‘binary’ and his drifting into either/or accounts of  the Israeli /Palestinian conflict. Yet he says that’s what others do, not him. He projects a way of thinking as in his polarizing language: ‘pro-Israel partisans’, ‘pro-Palestinian partisans’, ‘pro-Palestinian propagandists’, plus his claim that any  critics of the State of Israel are practising a form of anti-Semitism  and are in effect ‘demonizing all Israeli Jews and all Jewish supporters of Israel as the political enemy.’  Whose is the binary analysis ?  Who avoids  even a touch of self appraisal ?

Critics of the militaristic policies of successive Israeli governments, including Israeli commentators, distinguish between citizens of Israel and the policies of governments but such a distinction does not hinder Mendes. Critics of Israeli policies, he says, ‘seem to have labelled any and all supporters of Israel… as apologists for structural oppression’. He knows this because of his high opinion of his own wisdom: he is someone who ‘has written extensively about the links between structural injustice and social disadvantage.’

He concocts a couple of case studies to parade his ‘I’m right’ views, even if he has never observed events directly, never interviewed the participants he’s referring to. What does that matter ?  For example, he claims that those who identified the powerful campaign to stop the 2003 Sydney Peace Prize being awarded to Dr. Hanan Ashrawi were prejudiced because ‘they essentialized all Jews as comprising a powerful and united lobby reminiscent of historical far Right allegations that Jews control the world.’ He plants words in the mouths of others. Who cares as long as Mendes’ view prevails ?  Yet many of the most outspoken supporters of the choice of Dr. Ashrawi were prominent Jewish citizens of Israel and leaders of diverse Jewish groups in Australia. Such courageous individuals refused to be lumped together as ‘all Jews’, a homogeneous group which would always have commitment to pro Israel views.

His determination to recreate a sort of Mendes Maginot line separating ‘them’ from ‘us’ becomes clearest when he refers to the world wide campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, a campaign which would not have been conceived if Israel had not denied Palestinians their basic human rights. That campaign gained world wide support  in reaction to the Israeli government’s ‘don’t care’ attitude to international law and the brutalities committed in the 2009/2010 operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Mendes also ignores the recent revelations that Israeli leaders’ commitment to the peace process has been a sham and that Palestinian negotiators have been regarded as letting their people down. But that sort of analysis does not fit with his views that all supporters of the BDS campaign, which includes significant Jewish leaders, see ‘all Jewish Israelis as oppressors..’

The derision in his writing leads to inaccuracies, or is it that he’s aware that massive generalizations carry no weight and he should therefore fall back on derision ? Jewish critics of Israeli policies such as the continued building of settlements in flagrant disregard of international laws, are branded by Mendes as self-denying Jews. In this list he includes the highly regarded American Jewish researcher and author Anna Baltzer whom he calls a self dying (sic) American Jew. People who participated in a Sydney University meeting to discuss the BDS campaign were ‘pro Palestinian propagandists’ whereas a student group who arrived one hour after the meeting began appeared to come to protest their carefully rehearsed opposition to the  BDS campaign. Even though he was not present at that meeting, he calls these latecomers ‘moderates’ and reserves his sneer for meeting participants ‘with no links to academia’, as though his employment by Monash University automatically makes his views more credible than those of other citizens.

Mendes appears to regard himself as one of ‘those who genuinely want to promote peace’, yet he has no notion that peace with justice is the goal that could have produced security for Israel and a viable, self respecting and independent Palestine. In his own commentaries there is no reference to justice.

Peace with justice involves a struggle for human rights, for the promotion of non-violence and for dialogue about the needs of a common humanity. Such a struggle and dialogue has been the focus of my many meetings, over several years with peace activists in Israel and across the West Bank. Such objectives are also the concern of Sydney University’s Centre for Peace &  Conflict Studies as led so effectively by Dr. Jake Lynch.

Mendes does occasionally distinguish between critics of Israel, as between moderates and extremists, yet it sounds as though he’d rather not make such distinctions, it being easier to lump together all those with whom he disagrees. For example, groups which have opposed the racism inherent in many Israelis’ attitudes towards Arabs ‘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.’

Stuart Rees, Professor Emeritus of the University of Sydney and Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation

Response to Prof. Lynch from Prof. Mendes

Jake Lynch’s response to my original article predictably attacks the messenger, and fails to address any of the substantive issues I raised. It is evident that he has not yet transitioned from being a journalist who investigates and targets individual personalities, to becoming a serious academic who investigates and analyses broader issues and ideas.

Lynch makes no attempt to refute my substantial documentation of the extremist views that CPACS articulate on Israeli-Palestinian issues. For example, I cited a number of examples from the Centre’s own annual reports whereby they had collaborated with anti-Zionist fundamentalists known to favour the abolition of the State of Israel. Lynch does not deny this, and proudly admits that CPACS has been completely captured by the pro-Palestinian lobby, citing their ongoing collaboration with anti-Zionist fundamentalist groups such as Australians for Palestine, and the Coalition for Justice and Peace in Palestine, which lead the so-called BDS campaign to collectively vilify all Israeli Jews as evil oppressors.

Lynch also argues that I have been unfair in describing journalist John Pilger as an anti-Zionist fundamentalist, and naively cites a brief statement from Pilger’s film Palestine is Still the Issue which implies he is a supporter of a two-state solution. The problem is that I don’t believe Pilger given that everything else he says in all his films and writings reeks of extremist opposition to Israel’s existence. For example, in his 1986 book Heroes, he describes Israel on p.365 as “Occupied Palestine”. Both Jake Lynch and I are old enough to remember that key sections of the Left in both Australia and the UK in the 1970s and 80s described all of Israel including Tel Aviv, Haifa and the other Green Line cities as “Occupied Palestine”, and called for revolutionary violence and struggle to destroy the “Zionist entity” and restore the Arab land of Palestine.

Today in an age of political correctness even far Left journalists tend to be more cautious in their language. But Pilger has regularly attempted to diminish and trivialize the extent of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust by comparing Jews with Nazis. For example in 2006 he claimed that an Israeli attack on Gaza constituted a “final solution to the problem of the Palestinians” similar to the “Nazi strangulation of the Warsaw ghetto”. In a further article published in 2009, he included eight separate equations of Israel’s actions in Gaza with the Nazi Holocaust. I really doubt he has changed his spots.

Last weekend the extremist Mayor of Marrickville, who sought to bring her hateful campaign to boycott all Israeli Jews into the State Parliament, was soundly defeated in the NSW state election. CPACS might want to reflect whether that defeat sends a message to reject their current path of conflict and demonization, and instead return to their stated agenda of promoting conflict resolution and peace.

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