Philip Mendes
About Philip Mendes

Associate Professor Philip Mendes is the Director of the Social Inclusion and Social Policy Research Unit in the Department of Social Work at Monash University, and the author or co-author of 10 books including most recently Jews and the Left: The rise and fall of a political alliance (Palgrave Macmillan), and Boycotting Israel is Wrong co-authored with Nick Dyrenfurth (New South Press).

Steven Levitsky, professor of government at Harvard University, and Glen Weyl, assistant professor of economics and law at the University of Chicago, recently co-authored an essay in The Washington Post titled We are lifelong Zionists. Here’s why we’ve chosen to boycott Israel. – see that essay here . Philip Mendes, co-author with Nick Dryenfurth of Boycotting Israel is Wrong (New South Press), responds.

Over the past three decades, neo-conservative tough love arguments have become prevalent in welfare policy debates. According to this line of argument, persons reliant on income security should be coerced and bullied into paid work and/or Work for the Dole schemes irrespective of whether such outcomes actually improve their current living standards and/or longer term life chances. This is because work rather than welfare is argued to be in their best interests even if they don’t know it. Tough love advocates take no responsibility for addressing the additional poverty or disadvantage that may result from such harsh policies.

Jewish BDS advocates seem to adopt a similar position. They claim to know what is best for Israel, and they propose harsh tough love measures to bully and pressure Israel into accepting their directives. As with neo-conservatives, they take no responsibility for addressing any social or political disasters (e.g. ethnic cleansing of the Israeli Jewish population or worse) that may result from a BDS victory.

Levitsky and Weyl (“We are lifelong Zionists. Here’s why we’ve chosen to boycott Israel”) typify this ‘punish Israel to help Israel’ approach. They are universalistic Western progressives based in an American university who naively assume that most people in the Middle East think the same way they do, and share their values in favour of human rights, ethnic and religious tolerance, gay rights and gender equality. Yet this is little more than cultural bias and ignorance as reflected in the fact that virtually no Jews and few other ethnic and religious minorities remain in the Arab world.

L and W proclaim themselves to be “lifelong Zionists” and supporters of Israel as if this gives them some moral high ground when it comes to demonising Israeli actions. Yet any global survey of lifelong Zionists would almost certainly find that the great majority unconditionally oppose the BDS movement. And so do many non-Zionist but pro-Israel Jews, including this author, who feel their first priority has to be solidarity with the long-term well-being of Israeli Jews, rather than the pursuit of some vague culturally-specific principles that will never attract support in the Middle East.

L and W argue simplistically that Israel’s West Bank occupation is the only cause of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as if Palestinian religious incitement and ongoing zero-sum hostility to any form of Jewish national self-determination dating back to the 1920s does not exist. Oddly, this binary argument is a mirror image of that offered by unreconstructed right-wing Jews, who bizarrely argue the conflict is solely about Palestinian actions and nothing to do with the occupation. Try telling that to the many Palestinian civilians who are bullied, intimidated and subjected to verbal and even physical abuse and assault by West Bank settlers on a daily basis.

As with many intellectually lazy BDS advocates, L and W predictably lapse into the Israel-apartheid analogy. Nick Dyrenfurth and I have rebutted this spurious argument elsewhere.

Suffice to say, there are many other current and past conflicts (e.g. Indonesia in Papua or formerly East Timor, China in Tibet, Russia in Chechnya, Northern Ireland etc.) that do bear some similarities to the Israeli occupation. But there also major differences which any serious comparative scholarly work would uncover.

L and W make some astounding statements in relation to Israel’s Jewish population. For example, they oddly equate Israeli settlers and Israel’s ultra-orthodox population, and suggest that the two groups are “stoking Jewish chauvinism”. In fact, most settlers are not ultra-orthodox, and most ultra-orthodox are not hawks or even Zionists. L and W almost seem to be implying that we should be drowning ultra-orthodox babies to prevent any further population growth.

L and W suggest that if only Israel dismantled the settlements and ended the occupation there would inevitably be a “durable peace” with the Palestinians. But, there is significant evidence to suggest that while a Palestinian state may be a prerequisite for peace, it is also possible to have a Palestinian state and a continuing state of war. The ongoing problem is that all two-state proposals, whether at Camp David or at Taba in January 2001 or the unofficial 2003 Geneva Accord, are based on the assumption that the Palestinians both want to make a final compromise deal with Israel, and will honour such a deal. But the absolutist nature of Palestinian political culture may preclude any such deal. Even if Israel did offer a full withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders (which was implicitly presented at Taba), there is a fair chance that the Palestinians would reject the offer because they cannot reconcile themselves to the continued existence of Israel or, if they accepted it, would not do so as a final end to the conflict.

So, faced with this complex stalemate, L and W choose to avoid the difficult task of identifying strategies that might be effective to persuade both Israeli and Palestinian leaders to progress a two-states-for-two-peoples solution. Instead, they oddly proceed to endorse the extremist BDS movement that unilaterally blames the actions of one side alone (Israel) for the continuing conflict. They argue that they do so out of (tough) love for Israel, and concern for the country’s long-term survival. Yet they have chosen to endorse a fanatical movement which favours the elimination of Israel, and its replacement by an exclusivist Arab state of Greater Palestine. The effective driver of the BDS movement is hate rather than love of any kind.

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Philip Mendes
Posted by Philip Mendes 2 years ago