Book review: Boycotting Israel is wrong by Philip Mendes and Nick Dyrenfurth
There’s an apocryphal story about one-time Israeli politician Moshe Sneh who wrote in the margin on a speech: “weak point; raise your voice”. It is difficult to raise one’s voice in a book, so Associate Professor Philip Mendes and Dr Nick Dyrenfurth have opted for the next best thing: impress us with footnotes. 149 pages of text are accompanied by no less than 29 pages of footnotes and 19 pages of bibliography. This is quite impressive for something which is no more than a long polemic essay.
The authors seem to have made a conscious decision not to engage with the actual case for BDS. They often quote what the BDS supporters are saying and tell us that it is wrong but on only one or two occasion they actually tell us why they think it’s the case.
One problem with the book is their methodology. To me this reflects their own methodology of digging into newspapers, books and journals rather than talking to people who could actually identify a local activist if they see one. The likes of Paul Norton, Larry Stillman, Andrew Casey, Sivan Barak, David Spratt, and even the present writer, could have provided them with far better examples.
Of course when the going gets tough, when the BDS movement is on stronger grounds, Mendes and Dyrenfurth duck right out of the picture. On page 42 they quote the first Palestinian imitative for a boycott of Israel:
“The Israeli academy has contributed, either directly or indirectly, to maintaining, defending or otherwise justifying the military occupation and colonization of the West Bank and Gaza, the entrenched system of racial discrimination and segregation against the Palestinian citizens of Israel, which resembles the defunct apartheid system in South Africa, and the denial of the fundamental rights of Palestinian refugees in contravention of international law.”
Is any of this true? Do the Palestinians have a case? The authors don’t tell us. Critical or not, the analysis is missing altogether.
If you are going to remain mum, you need to make your case some other way. Mendes and Dyrenfurth appeared to have picked language as a key tool for this purpose. The two self-described progressive writers love to declare that that they are the ones in the middle. They contrast their position to Netanyahu and the settlers on one side and the BDS supporters on the other. But when it comes to their choice of words they actually outdo Netanyahu. Israel didn’t attack Gaza – it attacked Hamas and the latter invariably comes with a description of the “racist, religious fundamentalist Hamas” (p5) or “the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas” (p32) or “Hamas, which demands the violent destruction of Israel” (p61). You only get to see Hamas’s name on its own when it’s a page or two after the last allusion to it. Contrast this for example with the language used by Israeli Defence Forces itself and you can only conclude that the authors’ motto must be: ”we cannot be more Catholic than the Pope, but we can be more patriotic than the IDF”.
The next cab off the rank is to turn BDS supporters’ factual criticism of Israel into mere allegations. My favourite is this: Israeli cosmetics company Ahava, according to its critics, is located on the Palestinian side of the Green Line… And according to them? Has anybody ever disputed the location of the plant? Don’t the writers have access to any maps to determine the whereabouts of the settlement of Mitzpe Shalem?
A similar sleight of hand is used in relation to the better known SodaStream. Mendes and Dyrenfurth refer to Scarlett Johansson, “who reaffirmed her promotional role with the Israeli company SodaStream even though ONE of its factories was based in the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim.” (Emphasis added). One of its factories? Like it had 25 as claimed by Michael Danby? The entire manufacturing of its home carbonation products is concentrated in a single plant which is in the Mishor Adumim industrial zone.
The Language Booby Prize has to go to this: “The apparent infiltration by the BDS movement of American academia, evidenced by a number of bodies recently passing boycott motions (p44). Did they think what it means? What do they mean by “infiltration”? Are they suggesting that the movement is sending students into courses so they can graduate, become academics and pass anti-Israel resolutions? I suspect they find it inconceivable that ordinary US academics will take up such a stance, but it tells you a lot about their mindset. It reminds me of US activist Peter Camejo’s comment about the Vietnam War era’s Communists who infiltrated that country so well, they had their agents born there.
And now for the fibs
Every book contains errors. But they often don’t change the big picture, at most they show that the authors do not know their subject as well as they claim to be. So all said and done, it is of secondary importance. Lee Rhiannon was a member of the (Moscow wing) Socialist Party of Australia rather than the [Trotskyist-like] Socialist Party. Neither Marcelo Svirsky nor the Embassy of Argentina is likely to sue them for saying he was born in Israel.
But not all mistakes are innocuous as the ones above.
Why do the authors say on page 107 that in Sydney the Coalition for Justice and Peace in Palestine is headed by long-time Anti-Zionist campaigners Antony Loewenstein and Peter Manning, when Loewenstein has never been a member, and Manning has not been convenor of CJPP since he left to work overseas in 2009?
Now what about this one: Imagine the BDS movement quoting a very conciliatory media release from say, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh to argue its case. It’s a message for the ages, which really strengthens their case. Then you find out that there was a little sting in the tail. The media release was put out all right, but only in English and only to certain circles. The people of Gaza were nicely kept in the dark. You’d naturally hear every objective observer, not to mention every single supporter of Israel, screaming blue murder at the deception. Well, the boot is on the other foot. The Histadrut (Israeli equivalent of the ACTU) has indeed put out a statement calling for an end to settlement construction and for the lifting of the Gaza Blockade. Surprisingly, or not, there’s no footnote, but I’ve found a version in English. However in Hebrew – Nothing, Nada, Gurnisht.
A great example of the authors’ distortion relates to Australian Jews’ support of Israel and Zionism. The authors’ case is reasonably sound. I have no doubt the majority of Australian Jews do feel strongly about Israel. But it is almost as if they cannot help but trip over their own rhetoric. They cite the very comprehensive Gen 08 survey. According to the survey 80 per cent of Australian Jews defined themselves as Zionists. But they omit something crucial. The definition of Zionism was so broad as to make it meaning less as Jeremy Kenner explained in the September 2009 of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society Newsletter:
“Perhaps most problematic is the question Do you regard yourself as a Zionist? With the accompanying explanation that By the term Zionist we mean that you feel connected to the Jewish people, to Jewish history, culture and beliefs, the Hebrew language and the Jewish homeland, Israel.” (p15 of the survey)
I can vouch that even though I’m a militant post-Zionist, my survey form said that I was a Zionist, although I haven’t applied that term to myself for just under half a century. By the same token, one of Mendes and Dyrenfurth favourite “anti-Zionist Fundamentalists”, Noam Chomsky, would have also been defined as a Zionist.
A crucial argument in relation to any academic boycott of Israel is the behaviour of Israeli universities. Mendes and Dyrenfurth finally engage with the argument in their conclusion. They write:
“That in 2012, the targeted university’s president, Joseph Klafter, had courageously granted approval to students organisations seeking to hold demonstrations on campus commemorating the Nakba, earning him a nationalist inspired backlash…”
The president of Tel Aviv University didn’t think he was courageous, merely obeying the law as he had no choice. In a message to students he wrote (Heb):
“At the request of some students, the university approved activities to commemorate Nakba Day, in accordance with the principles of democracy and the law of the State of Israel. The university acted in accordance with the law, which makes it illegal to prevent expressing any opinion in this regard. At the same time the university made the organisers bear all the costs of carrying out the demonstration [ie security guards presence-tr[ thus maintaining the careful balance mandated by the law.”
So a university president who had no legal means of preventing a demonstration should be given credit for not breaking the law?
Of all the examples in which the authors, shall we say, stretch the truth, none illustrates the case better than the one on pp124-125. Referring to the French company Veolia, which operates the light rail into Occupied East Jerusalem and citing an article in Haaretz from 2012, they write:
“On several occasions when the transport and water management company was not offered a contract or its existing contract was not renewed, BDS activists claimed ‘victory’. Mostly, BDS activists merely inferred the reasons behind each decision and more generally ignored the company’s long-term strategy of withdrawing from the transport business.”
There’s an irony in the last clause. You see Veolia didn’t quite withdraw from transport, it went into partnership setting up Transdev, which now manages the light rail operation. And Transdev has not only not moved away from public transport it has expanded its PT operations. And the irony? Both authors live in Melbourne. In August 2013, a year and half after the Haaretz article, Transdev took over 30 per cent of Melbourne bus services. Transdev operate 52 routes across metropolitan Melbourne with a fleet of around 500 buses from four depots. It’s just about impossible to travel through Melbourne without seeing their buses. Yep, they are withdrawing from the transport business.
Simply Wrong arguments
Language is one thing, distortion is another, but Mendes’ and Dyrenfurth’s arguments are simply wrong.
Here’s an egregious example: BDS singles only Israel for boycott, ignoring far worse human rights abuses and bitter ethnic-religious conflicts. If anything, Israeli actions are far less brutal than the behaviour of China in Tibet, the United States during Vietnam, Indonesia in Aceh and formerly East Timor and Russia in Chechnya.
Check out the claim: find out the death toll provided by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch or even Wikipedia for Tibet, Aceh and even Chechnya during the BDS period of 2005-2015. They are all far lower than the figures for the Palestinian people.
Then there’s the Jewish victimhood angle. Chants of “Max Brenner there’s blood on your chocolates” were silly. There were far too many degrees of separation between the target and the Israeli military. But blood libel? I remember chants about blood and dead kids going back to 1968 and the Vietnam War. It’s a common English expression with equivalents in German, French, Russian Yiddish and other languages as noted by pre-eminent Israeli linguist Ruvik Rosenthal (Heb).
In this recent article Rosenthal writes:
“The phrase ‘blood on their hands’ is a phrase which has a fascinating historical trail. It arrived in Hebrew from both Jewish and European cultural sources. It’s the moral-legal definition of someone who killed or was involved in the killing of innocent people.”
The expression has Biblical roots. The prophet Isaiah says “your hands are full of blood” (Isaiah 1:15) and “For your hands were defiled with blood” (Isaiah 59:3). Whatever you think of the Max Brenner protesters, they were using the ancient expression correctly. And it carries none of the connotation which the authors attribute to them.
The whole worldview promoted by the authors has got it back to front. BDS is not similar to the Nazi boycott of Jews. It is similar to the Jewish counter-boycott of the Nazis and the whole of Germany.
Impossible to achieve
To my mind, the problem with this book is not so much the clumsy execution. It is not that it is merely wrong. This book set out to achieve the impossible. You cannot convince those who have moved or are moving to support the boycott movement from the authors’ vantage point. The authors share the Israeli government (and Loyal Opposition’s!) view on virtually every single major aspect of the conflict: They think of Gaza in the same way as Netanyahu and Herzog; they view Israel’s wars in the same way. Given a choice between the continuing Occupation and its immediate removal, they’d opt for the former. They’ll find excuses to back up a military officer who shot a Palestinian teenager in the back, and if they have protested Israel’s citizenship law I’d be most surprised.
On the other hand those who are opting for the boycott movement are on the whole motivated by high ideals. People like the authors, who show absolutely no empathy to Palestinians, aren’t going to make the army of boycotters change their mind. So it’s their starting point that leads them astray.
Twenty years of negotiations have come and gone. For the Palestinians, there’s nothing positive to show for it. As Noam Sheizaf has pointed out, Israelis are happy with the status quo. No change is their preferred option. In other words a perfect example of the application of Newton’s first law of motion to politics: An object will remain unless compelled to change its state by the action of an external force. The Boycott/BDS movement is one such potential force. There may be stronger potential forces. There may be a better way of applying that force (or there may not be). But I daresay that if someone does come with a better alternative it would be someone with a different paradigm to Mendes and Dyrenfurth.
A longer version of this review can be read here.