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Why have many Australian progressives abandoned Israel and the Jews?

The position known as ‘Progressive Except for Jews’ is being driven by three theoretical influences.
Philip Mendes
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Syd Uni Palestine students Nick Riemer x

Pro-Palestine banners at the University of Sydney (Nick Riemer/X)

Published: 15 April 2024

Last updated: 16 April 2024

For more than 40 years, I have argued that both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs have legitimate rights to national self-determination, and so any realistic conflict resolution strategy has to advance and protect the national rights of both peoples. Unfortunately, that moderate two-state perspective is no longer the dominant view on the Australian Left and has probably not been since September 2000 when the outbreak of the Second Palestinian Intifada induced many progressives to retreat to a binary view of the conflict.

Instead of seeking a win-win solution that involved saying “Yes to Israel and Yes to Palestine”, many regressed to a zero-sum approach based on chanting “Yes to Palestine and no to Israel”.

In essence, the new pro-Palestinian orthodoxy assumed that national and human rights for Palestinians could only be advanced by harming Israelis and denying their national and human rights. That binary perspective was informed and reinforced by a number of political and ideological factors and events:

  • The emergence of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement from May 2002, which framed all Israeli Jews as an evil oppressor people, and conversely infantilised Palestinians as oppressed victims without any agency;
  • The rise of the ultra-right racist Hamas group as the most dynamic group within Palestinian politics;
  • The associated collapse of the mainstream Israeli Zionist Left, which has fallen from 56 seats for Labor and Meretz combined in 1992 to four seats in the current 120-person Knesset;
  • A general end to any realistic hopes that moderates on both sides could forge a peacefully negotiated compromise settlement.

Since October 7, that unqualified endorsement of the hardline Palestinian nationalist agenda seems to have become the new norm, not only in segments of the fringe Marxist Left where it was always prevalent, but in far wider sections of the Australian community.

It has been accompanied by a widespread intolerance for any alternate, non-binary view, resulting in an active hostility directed at many Australians – mostly but not exclusively Jews – who reject its privileging of one national group over another. In my opinion, many progressives have espoused what can only be called a “Progressive except for Jews: PES” position: approximating what the 19th century German Socialist leader August Bebel famously labelled the “Socialism of Fools”.

There are three theoretical influences that appear to have informed this transition to a PEP position. One is settler-colonial theory which equates Israel with other states such as Australia, New Zealand and North America that were formed by colonial powers sending residents from their home countries to displace the Indigenous population.

This theory is then used to imply that Israeli Jews are not Indigenous to the region, and hence the state is not legitimate. However, the theory does not fit the facts. The vast majority of Jews who settled in Palestine during the British mandate period from 1917-1948 were not settlers from Britain but rather refugees from antisemitic fascist regimes across Europe.

Equally, the majority of those who immigrated to the new State of Israel from 1948-67 were not colonial settlers, but rather refugees from institutional and popular anti-Semitism in the Arab states and North Africa..

Uqualified endorsement of the hardline Palestinian nationalist agenda seems to have become the new norm.

The second is critical race theory, which holds that only black or coloured people can be victims of racism, but white people cannot, because they hold structural power. Hence, this theory implies that coloured Palestinians are the victims of widespread racism by white Israeli Jews, and no Jews can be oppressed, only oppressors. Again, the theory does not fit the facts, given that at least half the Israeli Jewish population are Misrahim, who arrived mostly as refugees from Arab and North African countries.

It also allows local Palestinian ultra-nationalists to make xenophobic attacks on Australian Jews, and then absurdly, avoid responsibility for their prejudice on the grounds that it is not possible for a so-called structurally oppressed people to be racist.

In fact, Jews are the exemplar of an historically oppressed people. Violent and genocidal antisemitism over the past 150 years in both Europe and the Middle East has been perpetrated against both white/Ashkenazi Jews and black/Misrahi Jews. For example, there are obvious similarities between the well-known Kristallnacht in Germany 1938 and the lesser known Farhud in Baghdad 1941.

The third and perhaps most important influence is intersectionality – recognition of the impact of multiple forms of disadvantage to inform social justice responses. For example, my principal research area is examining the adult lives of young people who have transitioned from forms of out-of-home care (known as care leavers or care experienced youth).

Many care leavers have experienced multiple manifestations of disadvantage including childhood abuse and neglect, poor quality placements, and lack of support from responsible adults on transitioning from state care to independent adulthood. An intersectional understanding of how multiple systems and structures limit their life chances and opportunities is essential for planning a holistic social justice-based intervention framework.

But intersectionality has never meant condoning bad behaviour by disadvantaged groups which harms or traumatises other people. That is what may be called reactionary, rather than progressive responses to disadvantage.

Social justice advocates do not argue that family violence is okay because some perpetrators were themselves victims of violence or oppression; racist behaviour is acceptable because some perpetrators experienced childhood trauma; institutional child sexual abuse is alright because some perpetrators were themselves abused as children.

Similarly, the October 7 Hamas death squad massacre and equally, the long history of suicide bombings and other indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations by Hamas, cannot be justified by referring to the general oppression of Palestinians by Israel.

Evidence-based education can influence Australians who are not wedded to a one-sided Palestinian viewpoint.

Yet many Palestine solidarity supporters on the Left do just that. For example, the American radical feminist and professor of philosophy, Judith Butler, has stated that the Hamas massacre was “an act of resistance” and not “terrorist”, and denied it should be described as “antisemitic”.

Locally, leading BDS advocate Dr Nick Riemer, from the University of Sydney, tweeted: “No progressive should feel the need to publicly condemn any choices by the Palestinian resistance. Doing so just adds to the perception that their cause is unjust. Condemnation is the speech-act you perform when breaking contact off with someone, not when standing in solidarity.”

It should be obvious that such distorted framings confuse nationalism and universalism, imply a racist stereotyping of all Israelis (whatever their diverse class identity, family background or political beliefs) as evil, and obtusely conflate the impact of structural oppression with the methods chosen to attack it.

So what can be done by moderate Jews on the Left to counter or ideally reverse these distorted and inflammatory one-sided framings of the conflict that are intended to exclude many Jews from participation in progressive debates?

I would recommend evidence-based educational packages as an effective means of influencing the majority of Australians who are not wedded to a one-sided Palestinian nationalist viewpoint. That material would aim to shift the framing of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a simplistic clash of good and evil to instead being understood as the result of a complex historical, political and cultural context.

Educational packages should emphasise that:

  • The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a clash between two legitimate national rights. Both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs have a right to national self-determination.
  • Conflict resolution will only be advanced by dialogue and negotiations that encourage both sides to compromise on their national narratives, not by racist boycotts.
  • Moderate voices on both sides should be approved, whilst extremist voices on both sides should be rejected.

This is an edited version of the paper presented by Philip Mendes to a Kehilat Nitzan Panel in Melbourne, October 7: Jews and the Left, held on April 7, 2024

About the author

Philip Mendes

Professor Philip Mendes is teaches Social Policy and the Welfare State at Monash University. He is the author or co-author of 13 books, including Jews and the Left: The rise and fall of a political alliance, and Boycotting Israel is Wrong, co-authored with Nick Dyrenfurth.


  • Avatar of Kevin Judah White

    Kevin Judah White18 April at 01:42 pm

    Fair comments, though asserting in point 4 that it’s ‘nonsense to say that most [sic] left-liberal Jews are indifferent to Palestinian suffering or their legitimate national claims’, would be true if I actually made that bold claim – I used the word ‘many’. In my (admittedly anecdotal) experience, I am dismayed by those left-liberal Jews who I encountered that are dismissive of Palestinian grievances and suffering, particularly in relation to the current conflict in Israel/Gaza.

  • Avatar of Ann

    Ann18 April at 01:50 am

    Yes to your article. Thanks for articulating the views that acknowledge and make space for the rights of Arabs and Jews. You advocate for the rights of Palestians and Israelis, rather than this simplified binary analysis that dominates, of anti Israel and pro Palestine. This entrenched polarisation cannot deliver peace.

  • Avatar of philip mendes

    philip mendes17 April at 09:46 am

    Firstly, the dodgy PEP concept has been well and truly debunked, see here:
    Secondly, I am not arguing that the wider Australian community endorse the ultra-nationalist Palestinian view. I am talking only about committed progressives. All the surveys suggest most ordinary Australians totally reject this extreme view.
    Thirdly, most of the people that endorse that hardline “From the River to the Sea” view seem to have jumped on that bandwagon a long time ago well before current events. My article was an attempt to explain why.
    Fourthly, it is nonsense to say that most left-liberal Jews are indifferent to Palestinian suffering or their legitimate national claims. Where is your empirical evidence for that? That cohort overwhelmingly favour compromise and reconciliation between the two equally legitimate Israeli Jewish and Palestinian Arab national movements.

    Please read what I say carefully. I don’t say that at all. My article is not a discussion of current events in the Middle East, it is an explanation of how and why those events have influenced a major outbreak of xenophobic Pauline-Hanson style blaming the victim anti-Semitism in Australia. Anti-Zionism means different things to different people. There is no reason why anti-Zionists cannot stand in anti-racist solidarity with the Jewish community here, and condemn without qualification the perpetrators of that racism.

  • Avatar of Kevin Judah White

    Kevin Judah White16 April at 09:32 am

    Some good points raised here by Prof Mendes, but I’m not convinced that there’s now an ‘unqualified endorsement of the hardline Palestinian nationalist agenda’ in the wider, Australian community. In any case, he seems to ignore the most obvious reason why there has been an uptick in support for the Palestinians and corresponding condemnation of the Israeli Government’s war in Gaza, viz. the horrendous death toll of Gaza civilians, most of whom had nothing to do with the massacres on 7 October.
    And if we want to invent acronyms, I propose that PEP should stand for ‘Progressive Except Palestinian’ – the puzzling tendency of many left-liberal Jews to be progressive on a range of issues such as climate change, same-sex marriage, an Australian republic, AUKUS, the Voice, etc. but be indifferent to Palestinian suffering and dismissive of their legitimate grievances. Go figure …

  • Avatar of Milton David Fisher

    Milton David Fisher16 April at 09:05 am

    Any state established based on self-determination is a state ruled by only a part of the population and is not democratic. A two-state solution means two undemocratic states. A democratic state is one state based on neither religion nor ethnicity with equal rights for all its citizens.

  • Avatar of Jo Thomson

    Jo Thomson16 April at 07:40 am

    None of those alternatives apply to me, and I note the writer equates rejection of Zionism with anti-Jewish sentiment, also inaccurate in the case of every progressive pwrson I know, including Jews.
    My conversion to anti-Zionism started when I witnessed the treatment of Palestinians first hand in Israel. I have only really abandoned hope of a 2 state solution because of the expansion of Israel into land ‘meant’ to give Palestine a state.
    As an old lefty progressive and feminist I am sad to see what Israel’s supporters have made of Ben Gurion’s vision.

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