Undermining the Jewish Left

April 6, 2009


Philip Mendes’ Reflections on Jewish-Arab Dialogue & the Australasian Middle East Studies Association’ (Mendes 2009)[1], which featured as a cover story in the Australian Jewish News (29/3/2009) deserves special analysis, because the viewpoint it presents is one increasingly commonly used to discredit critics in many countries, including Jewish critics of current Israeli policy. While the online version of the report is not available, the full version of the report is available from the Bnai Brith and should become available on their website.

As demonstrated in this blog post, the quality of his report is highly questionable. Additionally such work, despite its dubious standard, is used as ‘authoritative commentary’ though its publication by a community body (in this case, the Bnai Brith) in a propaganda war against not just the sectarian left or Palestinian critics, but more mainline Jewish critics of Israeli policy. The blog post below closely examines the thread of argument and evidence trail in the report to show how faulty it is. The research method and choice of language and sources used by the author also contributes to an erosion of the voice of the ‘other’ in his argument, particularly Palestinians.

Through undermining the credibility of Jewish critics, or not citing Palestinians themselves, discourse power is only provided to the narrative about his own choices, and not the voice of the ‘other’, which is the proper way to construct a nuanced and intellectually representative argument. The fact that the AJN still presents the story as a ‘report’ with a link on its front page appears to indicate the importance attached to such polemic by the monopoly Jewish media in this country. To its credit, however, the AJN has run criticisms of Mendes by both the Bnai Brith, which published his report, and the Australian Jewish Democratic Society, though these criticisms are not available on line. It also needs to be pointed out that a version of his report appeared online on the Australian Broadcasting Commission Unleashed website (12 March 2009).

Without a doubt, this had many thousands of readers. At last count (29 March), there were over 220 responses. The AJN article has now also been picked up on internet chat groups, for example the alt.revisionism and soc.culture.israel google groups. There is no doubt that the Jewish press internationally will also make use of the article. Mendes’ capacity though this and numerous other publications to be widely known as a public polemicist should not be underestimated, particularly because he promotes himself of the left. However, he now appears to have entered into a stage of not just taking on what he characterizes as ‘anti-Zionist fundamentalists’ of the sectarian left, but the Australian Jewish Democratic Society (AJDS), and his work is also now reproduced by the Jewish right[2]. His turning on the AJDS is remarkable, given the fact that he wrote about the intimidation of Jewish progressives by the sectarian left with its wild application of terms such as ‘oppressor’ in the AJDS Newletter in 2003. Regrettably, it confirms how far Mendes’ journey has been from a member of a progressive Jewish organisation committed to supporting peace in the Middle East despite his claims to still supporting a two-state solution[3].

Misleading representation of AJDS.

In his report, Mendes says that in his observations about the AJDS’ approach to dialogue (at least in the 1990s), “Other less benign motivations may also have been present. At least some AJDS members may have wanted to be recognized as “good Jews” in the Arab community, and to be applauded for their “bravery” in speaking out against the allegedly oppressive Israeli Government and its censorious apologists in Australia”. Mendes has used the term ‘good Jews’ (something like an ‘Uncle Tom’) at least once before in discussing people of Jewish background involved with the sectarian left[4]. Questioning a person’s Jewish affiliation and actions is familiar as a tactic of the right in discrediting a person’s legitimacy to engage in debate over Israel/Palestine.

He presents no evidence for the assertion concerning ‘less benign motives’ for ‘some AJDS members’, and the desire to be recognised as ‘good Jews’. But the assertion has been made by him and the damage done.

The controversy with Australasian Middle East Studies Association

In the report, Mendes uses his personal account of a severe contretemps with the governance of Australasian Middle East Studies Association as a case study for in his analysis of the possibilities of dialogue. This is then used to dismiss the possibility of dialogue with Palestinians. Why what is referred to as a case study should be used as a generalisable example for dialogue with Palestinians and particularly Australian Palestinians is nowhere explained. The broader contest is that there has been a long-standing academic contretemps between John Docker and Ned Curthoys (Docker’s son), the two Jewish-identified protagonists in AMESA. However, this is not revealed in his report. In fact, John Docker reposted his account of the fight in response to Mendes’ article reposted on the ABC website, using materials from the AMEA newsletter : “It’s because I believe that the purpose of AMESA should be wholly devoted to being academic and intellectual, that I find Philip Mendes’ proposals, in his letter “AMESA and the Jewish Community: Towards New Directions” (AMESA Newsletter no.10, 1998), so dissatisfying. In Mendes’ view, “the Jewish community” requires “evidence of formal structural changes within AMESA”, for example, the invited participation of “the Executive Council of Australian Jewry”, “the Israeli Ambassador”, “a Jewish supporter of Israel”, and “a mainstream Israeli writer or academic”. In my view, the presence in AMESA bodies and events of “the Israeli ambassador” and representatives of the “local Jewish community” are just as undesirable as the presence of Middle Eastern community or ambassadorial representatives. Such would lead to an intensified politicisation of AMESA, along with the spectre of surveillance.[5]” Docker continued in his response, about the power of the organized Jewish community to censor debate etc. and this has not been included here. Mendes on the ABC website, in the comments section, is still asking Docker for what he sees as a personal apology, 11 years after the event. Their mutual dislike has continued over the years in many debates in Arena magazine, and the Mendes article about Docker’s anti-Zionism, which also engages in a quite detailed analysis of the personal failings in Docker’s Jewish identity(Mendes 2003). Mendes has also criticized the views of Docker and Curthoys in another report for the Anti-Defamation Commission[6].While I agree with Mendes about Docker’s vituperative anti-Zionism and crude historicizing which only the foolish or sectarian could take seriously [7], one suspects that Mendes’ personalized analysis only caused more bad blood between them.

The failure of Palestinian intellectual self-criticism.

Mendes has chosen not to give the opportunity to Palestinians intellectuals to explain their behaviour, and in fact, by not even seeking out their own publications, he has committed his own internal silencing by not giving them a voice in his own discourse.

Thus, the Orientalist treats his objects of study as not worthy of having a voice within his discourse framework[8]. Mendes concludes his report with the following observation using not a Palestinian, but the words of an Israeli scholar: ‘[As] Shlomo Avineri has noted: that Palestinian intellectuals are simply not interested in critiquing their own policies or narrative’. This is used to back up criticism of dialogue with Palestinians, because somehow, they refuse to confront their own demons in a way that Israeli society confronts its own. He refers to a 2003 essay by Avineri to criticize the self-silencing of Palestinian intellectuals, in contrast to the fact that “Australian Jewish community was a far more tolerant, diverse and engaging community than I may have previously perceived it to be”.

What the connection with Australian Jews is I do not know, but it is drawing a very long bow to craft such an analogy. However, his use of Avineri is problematic. To quote the section of Avineri’s article that he refers to: “It is difficult to accept the claim that as long as Palestinians are under occupation they cannot appear to be “disloyal” to their national narrative: Arab countries are not under occupation, and the lack of critical intellectuals in all of them is glaring–compared, for example, to the courageous appearance of many critical intellectuals in contemporary Iran. And in the Israeli case, critical intellectuals appeared in the pre-1948 Jewish community, in the excruciating debate about whether to use terrorist methods against the British.” (Avineri 2003) Mendes has been very selective here, because Avineri, an eminent political commentator, concludes the article in the very next sentence: Will this discrepancy between the disparate self-declared roles of intellectuals in these two societies change? I don’t know. Yet the appearance of the UNDP Arab Human Development Report, written mostly by Arab intellectuals, is a meaningful and hopeful harbinger of the possibilities of a fundamental change.

There is no way of concluding other than despite Avineri’s critical remarks, he is hopeful. From a scholarly point of view, this is a questionable use of another scholar’s work. Yet Mendes has used this article to argue the opposite and delegitimize Palestinian intellectuals (and using a source that is at least 6 years old, when much more recently work by Palestinians themselves is available). But additionally, Mendes failure to ask a bigger question: why is it that there is an absence of strong internal criticism (at least published in English)? Somehow, the core reason for the problem has disappeared in his argumentation.  Not once does he mention the fact that perhaps Palestinians have other priorities than engaging in internal self-criticism. Palestinians are suffering under a terrible occupation which, over the years, has factionalized a traditional and politically underdeveloped society. Mendes seems unaware that for Australian Palestinians, many of whom are recent migrants (including refugees), with immediate experience of the occupation, higher-level intellectual debate of the type he seems to require, may not be a core priority. In fact, the only allusion to the occupation is oblique, when he discusses the ‘allegedly oppressive Israeli Government’ in the context of his critiques of what he appears to allege is the AJDS willingness to be show Jews to Palestinians. If he was meaning to use ‘allegedly oppressive Israeli Government’ in a sarcastic way, it is completely missing in his intention, and in fact, the opposite view emerges on his part. He should have made it clear in his article that in the eyes of many Palestinians—or at least those who get published in the west, or Australia, their national aspirations have been completely betrayed by past peace proposals. Yet there are some recent resources available to refer to, explaining the Palestinian predicament. Thus, Omar Bargouti writes: [I]n contexts of colonial oppression, intellectuals that advocate and work for justice cannot be just intellectuals, in the abstract sense; they cannot but be immersed in some form or another of activism, to learn from fellow activists through real-life experiences, to widen the horizons of their sources of inspiration, and to organically engage in effective, collective emancipatory processes, without the self-indulgence, complacency, or ivory-towerness that may blur their moral vision. In short, to be just intellectual[9]

This is not to say that there is no awareness of an internal moral crisis which leads to questioning of the path taken by Palestinian leadership of the type apparently required by Mendes. Very recently (25 March 2009), a call went out from nine major Palestine Human Rights Organisations to stop and account for human rights violations, in the face of a lack of respect for law and rights.[10] But Mendes chooses not to even search for such Palestinian voices, thus denying them a presence in his argument.

‘Structural’ analysis as a failed approach to intellectual and social engagement.

In articles I have read by Mendes dealing with both the Middle East question and as well, in his studies of social policy, he uses the important sociological descriptor ‘structural’, but I have never seen it carefully discussed by him[11]. In the report under review here, he also refers to ‘in-built structural bias against Jewish representation within AMESA’. Given the frequent use of this term in his work, and the apparent absence of other theoretical frameworks to explain questions of how societies and institutions exist, this use helps explain his world view and his binary (us and them) way of thinking. According to the Penguin Dictionary of Sociology, structuralism (that is, the noun): “ at its most general level, it simply refers to a sociological perspective based on the concept of social structure and the view that society is prior to individuals. However, the label has also been used in a more specific sense for those theorists who hold there is a set of social structures that are observable but which generate observable social phenomena” This is view often associated with a crude sort of deterministic Marxism, in which the relations of production have a prime role in developing hegemony over members of society[12]

Thus, in his view, the powers controlling AMESA had a structural bias against Jewish representation (even though there were a number of Jews involved in the organisation, other than those he was in dispute with). But structuralism has been frequently criticized as an exclusionary theory because it is can be applied in an overly deterministic and positivistic way, treating the study of human action as if it is akin to a form of natural science experiment in which ‘facts’ are collected, assessed, and judgments made. This is clearly dangerously inadequate for the study of the human condition, and is an approach that has now been abandoned. In particular, it is now well recognized, under the influence of philosophers such as Wittgenstein[13] that writing and research is never neutral, but is an intrinsically political exercise for which a variety of truths may be derived[14]. The strength of a truth comes through the force of the argument and evidence. Because writers come with their assumptions and prejudices, and as Anthony Giddens, one of the most influential sociologists of the past quarter century has put it, social research ‘has a necessarily cultural, “ethnographic” or “anthropological” aspect to it’ [15]. The key implication of this statement is that the researcher needs to be thoroughly aware of his or her role as a player in the social movement or process which they are studying. However, in the case of Mendes approach to the study of the AJDS as a living organism, he has taken a traditional positivist approach, assembling a mass of data from magazines, articles, and letters to the editor. This allows him to present the data in a somewhat ‘objective’ way without appearing to be engaged in the actual selection and necessary manipulation of the data itself, as any researcher does in a research task. For someone who shares a concern for social change, as demonstrated through his numerous writings on social policy, it is remarkable that he appears to be uninfluenced by non-positivistic perspectives on action, research, and social change[16].

Additionally, by not providing ‘agency’, as noted above to Palestinians in the creation of his discourse, and allowing their voices to speak, he is silencing a challenge to the argument he presents. Another observation is that if Mendes sees ‘structural forces’ at work by which means Palestinians and particularly ‘good Jews’ have the agency to somehow conspire against Jewish interests, the traditional idea of the Jew as victim of circumstances, rather than individuals with agency and collectively, with different forms of power, is reinforced[17] At least on the part of the AJDS much more fruitful and ethical approach would be to have directly engaged with AJDS members in discussing degrees of Jewish identity. However, by treating ‘AJDS’ as a ‘structured, inert’ object, this form of research has been avoided. And by seeking out Palestinian voices, weak as they may be, he would have been able to improve (or disprove his argument).

[1] Text without notes at http://www.ajn.com.au/news/news.asp?pgID=7261, or (Mendes, 2009).

[2] A major critique of Docker is reproduced at http://www.paulbogdanor.com/antisemitism/docker.html.

[3] For example, http://meretzusa.blogspot.com/2008/04/mendes-one-state-solution-means-no.html.

[4] http://www.icjs-online.org/indarch.php?article=725

[5] Newsletter of the Australasian Middle East Studies Association, no.10, November 1998, pp.9, 12 (cited on the ABC Unleashed website).

[6] (Mendes 2003) [7] One academic review of Docker’s 1492: The Poetics of Diaspora, while praising as a work of postcolonial and theoretical scholarship, notes that its strident anti-Zionism leads to a tendentious argument based on a narrow and misinformed view of Jewish history (Omer-Sherman 2003).

[8] (Said 1978)

[9] http://palestinethinktank.com/2008/07/08/just-intellectuals-oppression-resistance-and-the-public-role-of-intellectuals/ [10] http://www.alternativenews.org/content/view/1657/381/. Letter from Palestinian Human Rights Organisations to the Palestinian Political Parties and Factions Involved In the Cairo Diplomatic Talks. “e, the undersigned Palestinian human rights organisations, hereby and articulate our demands of the Palestinian political authorities for measures to be taken in order to overcome the pains and agonies of the crisis generated by internal fragmentation and conflict”

[11] I am at fault here for not having copies of all his articles, including those on AJDS, but they are not available on line, and working through library stacks will take too long. I apologize.

[12] (Heydebrand 2001).

[13] (Winch 1958),

[14] (Bhaskar 1975; Barker 2000)

[15] (Giddens 1984: 284)

[16] (Stoecker 2005)

[17] (Biale 1986).

[17] (Williamson and DeSouza 2007)

Avineri, S. (2003). “Critical and organic intellectuals: Israelis and Palestinians ” Bitter Lemons (online) Edition 26 (26).

Barker, C. (2000). Cultural studies : theory and practice. London, Sage.

Bhaskar, R. (1975). “A realist theory of science.” Retrieved 24 June, 2003, from http://www.raggedclaws.com/criticalrealism/archive/rts/index.html.
Biale, D. (1986). Power & powerlessness in Jewish history. New York, Schocken Books.
Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society : outline of the theory of structuration. Berkeley, University of California Press.
Heydebrand, W. V. (2001). Theories of Structuralism. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences,: 15230-15233.
Mendes, P. (2003). The Australian Left and Anti-Semitism ADC Special Report. 15.
— (2003). “Denying the Jewish Experience of Oppression: The Jewish Anti-Zionism of John Docker.” Australian Journal of Jewish Studies, Vol. 17 .
— (2009). Failed bridges.Reflections on Jewish-Arab Dialogue & the Australasian Middle East Studies Association, Bnai Brith Anti Defamation Commission.
Omer-Sherman, R. (2003). “1492: The Poetics of Diaspora, by John Docker. New York: Continuum, 1998. ” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 21 (3): 171-173.
Said, E. W. (1978). Orientalism. New York, Pantheon Books.
Stoecker, R. (2005). Research methods for community change : a project-based approach. Thousand Oaks, Sage Publications.
United States General Accounting Office (1990). Case Study Evaluations. Washington, DC, GAO.
Winch, P. (1958). The idea of a social science and its relation to philosophy. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul.

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