Boycotting Israel: neither Murdoch, nor Stalin!

Submitted by martin on 25 April, 2011 - 2:21
The Australian, 2 April

Over the weeks since the New South Wales election on 26 March, Rupert Murdoch's paper The Australian has run a big campaign against sections of Australia's Green Party over their policy of boycotting Israel.

Several front-page stories have targeted Fiona Byrne, Green mayor of the Sydney suburb of Marrickville and narrowly-unsuccessful Green candidate for the Marrickville electorate in the NSW election, and Lee Rhiannon, elected as a NSW Senator to the federal Parliament in 2010 and due to take her seat in the Senate in July 2011.

The Australian strongly supports Australia's conservative parties, and the campaign seems motivated by a desire to embarrass and cause strife for the federal Labor government, which is de facto dependent on Green support. But The Australian is Australia's only nationally-distributed daily, and the campaign has had effect.

On 18 April Fiona Byrne said that Marrickville council would not carry out its boycott policy (adopted, with little publicity at the time and the support of Labor councillors, in December 2010), though she still thought a boycott right "in principle". Both Green and Labor councillors in Marrickville had already said that they no longer backed a boycott.

Federal Greens leader Bob Brown has denounced the boycott. Lee Rhiannon's website has carried no response on the issue.

The campaign by The Australian has centred round claims that the boycott policy is "radical" and "left-wing". At a meeting in Sydney on 3 April on solidarity with workers in the Middle East and North Africa, called by the AusIraq group and organised mainly by members of Workers' Liberty Australia, people from the SWP offshoot in Australia, Solidarity, moved a motion to "defend Lee Rhiannon", and won a big majority among the 40 people present on the basis of understandable outrage against the Murdoch press.

But this is a case like many in the Cold War years, where consistent socialists had to oppose right-wing press campaigns without being boxed by them into positive support for Stalinist actions or policies which the right-wing press was attacking.

The coverage in The Australian offered no account of the arguments that make people favour boycotting Israel: the word "Palestinian" scarcely appeared. It also failed to explain the most important arguments against the boycott policy.

If a boycott gained any momentum, it would unavoidably become also a campaign of shunning and demonisation against all "Zionists", that is, against Jews worldwide who (while often critical of Israeli governments) identify with Israel.

Experience bears that out. Practical "boycott" actions have been of the sort of excluding Israeli academics from editorial boards of academic journals in Britain; banning Israeli-made films from film festivals in France; excluding Israeli lesbian and gay contingents from Pride marches in Spain; running pickets on Britain's high streets outside Marks and Spencer, which sells no large amount of Israeli-made goods but is the business in the country most commonly identified as Jewish-owned; banning student Jewish societies at universities on the grounds that they refuse to disavow all connections with Israel.

Rather than helping the Palestinians, boycotts cut against links with Israeli supporters of Palestinian rights. The Israeli right thrives on the "embattled fortress" mood.

The boycott policy is modelled on the boycott of South Africa organised by the African National Congress between 1959 and the fall of apartheid. Some parts of that boycott were unobjectionable. Others were not: the "boycott" was used by the Communist Party of South Africa to claim control over the residual links which had to be exempted from the boycott, and so, for example, to block direct links between independent black workers' unions in South Africa, as they developed in the 1980s, and workers in other countries. And there is no evidence that the boycott speeded the fall of apartheid.

The boycott of Israel has all the downsides of the boycott of South Africa, and more; and none of the upsides.

Before joining the Greens Lee Rhiannon was a member of the Socialist Party of Australia (the Stalinist faction which split from the Communist Party of Australia in 1971 in protest at the CPA's opposition to the USSR's invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968).

The discourse which she will have learned in the SPA, demonising "Zionism", outside of history, context, and nuance, as an epitome of imperialism, racism, and fascism, was first devised and popularised, for their own purposes, by Stalinist governments and the Communist Parties in the early 1950s. It is "left wing" only if Stalinism is reckoned left-wing.