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Les Robenblatt on the boycott, divestment and sanction of Israel (Discussant 4 of 5)

Preamble by NAJ Taylor: Following the reaction to my blog post on the application of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) of Israel campaign in October, I decided to approach five members of the Middle East diaspora and community in Australia to each discuss, in their own words, the following proposition:

“To what extent is the BDS effective at balancing competing “harms” – the use of ”non-violent” harm to injure Israel economically, politically, reputationally and militarily and the relief of the “violent harm” endured by Palestinians under Israeli occupation? How useful is a campaign that “balances competing harms” for the Israeli and Palestinian, as well as Jewish and Muslim, diaspora – and wider Middle Eastern community – in Australia?”

Discussant 4 of 5 (below): Les Rosenblatt is a Melbourne writer and political activist with a strong interest in Middle-Eastern politics and history. He has written several book reviews and articles on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict for Arena magazine and elsewhere. Les also promotes the science of climate change and is seeking to understand how best to respond to the GFC Mark 2. Les was active in the Australian Jewish Democratic society over many years and participated in a Middle East Dialogue project organised by La Trobe University’s Centre for Dialogue a couple of years ago.


Harm’s way?

by Les Rosenblatt

Melbourne, AUSTRALIA: Logically, if logic, as I understand it,  matters here, the concept of unbalanced ‘competing harms’, implying a prospective balancing device to achieve equivalence, would look something like this: A+a = B, where A = the use of ‘non-violent’ (and non-BDS) harm to injure Israel economically, politically, reputationally (including perhaps the harm that Israel does to its own reputation) and militarily, B = the ‘violent harm’ endured by Palestinians under Israeli occupation, and ‘a’ = BDS.

Even if one accepts that regardless of how they are defined, there is a significant non-quantifiable disproportionality between A and B such that B is greater in magnitude than A, the undecideability of the necessary magnitude of ‘a’ to achieve an effective balance between A+a and B becomes, in my view, an insurmountable impediment to the objective of equivalence, however desirable such an equivalence might be in principle.

Writing as an ethnically – or perhaps more accurately, culturally or historically – Jewish-Australian atheist critic of Zionism (which puts me somewhere in the spectrum of non-Zionist to anti-Zionist thinking and identification) I do not see myself as a member of a Jewish ‘diaspora’, nor do I see myself as belonging to any ‘wider Middle-East community’ however conceived.

Nonetheless, in my adult life, which has now spanned all the years since the 1967 Israel-Arab war and the 44.5 year old occupation by Israel of Palestinian territory and people beyond the 1967 Israeli borders, I have increasingly empathised with the enormity of the plight of the Palestinian people and their unrelieved and worsening suffering resultant upon that occupation. I also hasten to add that my sympathies and empathy extend as well to Israelis and any others killed, injured, and traumatised physically and psychologically by terrorist attacks on civilians in Israeli society. I am also sympathetic to and supportive of the would-be peacemakers, activists, and negotiators attempting to communicate across the spatial and temporal dimensions of this long and distressing conflict.

I accept that proportionality is an important notion in assessing levels of criminal culpability and victimisation where conflict is conducted using strategies and means of inflicting harm, and particularly where arms and violence are resorted to by either military or para-military contenders. This concept of ‘proportionality’ has significant meaning in current international law jurisdictions where an assessment of its ‘symmetry’ can determine the legality or otherwise of violence in war contexts, particularly where civilian populations are grievously effected. It presents enough challenges of complexity in its determination without further eroding its utility through expansion of its coverage to include an ahistorical concept of ‘harm’ which attempts to equilibrate violence with non-violence, while apparently ignoring long-established distinctions between civilian suffering and armed conflict.

Which brings me to the BDS campaign and its cost-benefit parameters. Let me be clear in saying that where this campaign non-violently alerts the world and the Israeli government and military to the unacceptability of most Israeli policies and practices directed against internationally lawful Palestinian claims, I accept its legitimacy. I do require however that it is as scrupulous as is reasonably possible in targeting the forces of occupation and repression and not those individuals, Jews and non-Jews, Israelis and non-Israelis,  who are working towards a just peace with internationally acceptable historically-linked compensations to the primarily, but not only, Palestinian victims of the conflict.

I do think that the tactics of the BDS movement need careful calibration according to the demographics, culture, history and politics of the areas in which it seeks to establish its legitimacy.

I am pleased to see that the NSW Greens for example have now tempered their own statements of support for the BDS campaign to remedy  their divisive recent divergence from National and other State Greens.  Their crude and formulaic public statements of partisanship  while demonising Israel in order to champion the BDS were avidly exploited by major party disinformation campaigns against Greens-leaning Jews in electorates such as Melbourne Ports where heroic and hagiographic perceptions of Israel are held as convictions by the vast majority of its well-organised community opinion-leaders.

I trust that when Sydney based activists seek to promote BDS in Melbourne that they will take careful account of the sensitivity of Melbourne’s Jewry to the many living 73 year-old recollections of post-Weimar and  pre-Holocaust boycotts of Jewish (as opposed to Israeli) businesses, circa 1935-1938. Such account needs to consider what is to be gained or lost in Australian political development through the consequences of raising this living population’s post-traumatic anxieties and the reactive propensities of their spokespeople.

Mindful of such reactive propensities, when I served on the Executive of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society between 2009-2011, I drafted a statement for the AJDS which was adopted as its own policy commitment on BDS. It supported ‘selected BDS actions designed to bring about an end to the Israeli occupation, blockade and settlement on Palestinian lands lying outside of the June 1967 Israeli borders’ but agreed to make any decisions  on BDS matters ‘on a case-by-case basis and  exercise its judgement as to the political/social cost-benefits of any such action before granting specific endorsement or approval’.

If the aim of the BDS movement in Australia is to shift Australia’s political and economic expressions of commitment and engagement with the conflict towards a more judicious recognition of Palestinian needs and concerns than has hitherto been in evidence, adroit and sensitive strategic and tactical fidelity will assist it.

NAJ Taylor’s formulation to which I was invited to respond, although it seeks to express a new perspective on BDS legitimacy through the equilibration of commensurate ‘harms’, needs to take more account of the complexity of Australian community and institutional orientations. In my opinion, such a relatively static abstraction will not contribute effectively to Australian convergence of effort to find a pathway towards a just resolution of the conflict until it also incorporates historical and future projective ideation as part of its means/ends and intentions.

Les Rosenblatt is a Melbourne writer and political activist with a strong interest in Middle-Eastern politics and history. He has written several book reviews and articles on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict for Arena magazine and elsewhere. Les also promotes the science of climate change and is seeking to understand how best to respond to the GFC Mark 2. Les was active in the Australian Jewish Democratic society over many years and participated in a Middle East Dialogue project organised by La Trobe University’s Centre for Dialogue a couple of years ago.


The other discussants: 

Discussant 1 of 5: Amin Abbas is a Diaspora Palestinian.

Discussant 2 of 5: Antony Loewenstein is a Sydney-based independent journalist and author who has written for The GuardianHaaretzThe NationSydney Morning Herald and many others. His two best-selling books are My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution. He is currently working on many projects, including a book about vulture capitalism, a book on the Left in contemporary politics and another title on Israel/Palestine.

Discussant 3 of 5: Kim Bullimore is a long-time socialist, political activist and anti-racism campaigner.  Kim is a volunteer with the International Women’s Peace Service (IWPS-Palestine), the only all women international peace team working in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.   She also writes regularly on the Palestine-Israel conflict for the Australian newspaper, Direct Action and blogs at Live from Occupied Palestine.  In 2010, Kim co-organised the first national Australian BDS Conference.

Discussant 5 of 5: Moammar Mashni is the co-founder and manager of Australians for Palestine. He works to articulate the concerns of Australia’s Palestinian communities among politicians, churches, unions, universities and the media and to raise Australian public awareness of the Israel-Palestine conflict’s dynamics. Moammar was born in Australia to a Palestinian refugee family.

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