Paul Duffill: BDS promoter who masquerades as a “peacebuilding” expert

Paul Duffill addresses an Australians For Palestine symposium on BDS and Free Speech in 2016

The Sydney Morning Herald recently published an op-ed by Paul Duffill, calling for the recognition of a Palestinian state, as well as a detailed response by AIJAC’s Ahron Shapiro. Duffill’s bio described him as “a former visiting scholar and honorary research fellow at the University of Sydney [who] has been awarded the Isaac Roet Prize for his research on peace-building in Israel-Palestine.”

He might also have described himself, accurately, as a pro-Palestinian activist, advocate for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, and long-time associate of Sydney University’s controversial Department of (formerly Centre for) Peace and Conflict Studies (DPACS), of which he is a graduate – an academic body which spends a great deal of its intellectual effort and time in promoting BDS.

The term “peacebuilding” has a positive and constructive ring to it, which Duffill seems keen to appropriate. He manages to employ it an astonishing number of times when describing his research and teaching, which  “focuses on peacebuilding, human rights, Israel-Palestine, and peacebuilding and development education through active learning. Specifically… the Israel-Palestine conflict; peacebuilding; conflict resolution and interactive Conflict Resolution; human rights; peacebuilding and development evaluation; peace journalism and communication; peacebuilding and development education through simulations, active learning and project studies; and how rights-based and relationship-based approaches to peacebuilding can be integrated within peacebuilding and development.” The prize-winning essay referred to ( “A Meta-Intervention for The Israel-Palestine Conflict Incorporating Economic and Social Justice Issues”) is described as research on peacebuilding. Sadly it does not seem to be available online.

A reasonable conclusion would be that in his academic work and beyond, Duffill is fixated on the Israel-Palestine conflict. An additional focus to “peacebuilding” claimed by Duffill is “International Relations and Peace and Conflict”, with subfields including “international peace and security, the international peace, security and political economy of the Israel-Palestine conflict; Western foreign policy regarding Israel-Palestine, public education on international security and peace through the media…”.

Then there are the titles of his talks such as: “Evidence-Based Policy for Building Peace in Protracted Conflicts: a Case Study of Israel-Palestine”, “Peace Driving Health: Peacebuilding and Human Rights Theory and Practice as a Bridge to Improved Public Health Outcomes, with Palestine as a Case Study”, and “Examining How Indigenous Pacifist traditions Might Support Conditions for Effective Peacebuilding in the Context of Israel-Palestine”, and so on. If there is a talk or publication of Duffill’s focusing on a region anywhere in the world other than Israel/Palestine, we have yet to find it (other than one presentation on Japan where he now teaches). In a list comprising 28 articles and interviews by him, all but one or two concern Israel-Palestine.

That includes Duffill’s recent SMH article, ostensibly concerned with Australia’s role in helping to address threats to international peace and security. Surprisingly it seems only this one conflict in a region rife with disputes excites the interest of this “peacebuilding” specialist.

Perhaps necessitated by the limited range of topics he deals with, repetition seems a hallmark of his work. If his references to Israel-Palestine and peacebuilding regularly recur, so too do his themes. For example, here he states “an imbalance of power (and associated human rights abuses) is a critical block to achieving peace through negotiations”. Elsewhere he writes “an imbalance of power and associated human rights abuses are major blocks to achieving peace through dialogue” and “a critical block to successful peace negotiations and dialogue is an imbalance of power between the parties”.

Duffill repeatedly claims an evidence-based pedigree for this assertion, which he chooses to apply, naturally, to the Israel-Palestine context, where Israel is undoubtedly the more powerful side. This lends a veneer of academic respectability to what amounts to anti-Israel activism – whatever the context, he demands Israel be sanctioned and punished, and the Palestinians encouraged and supported.

His (oft repeated) prescription for “peacebuilding” is the carrot and stick approach: a carrot for the Palestinians and a stick for the Israelis. Recognise a Palestinian state forthwith, without any demands or pre-conditions; pressure Israel through boycott and vilification. This, according to Duffill, will lessen the imbalance between the parties and hasten peace through negotiation. Duffill fails to justify how this will bring about negotiations, let alone peace.

Furthermore, as Ahron Shapiro pointed out in his response to Duffill, this “imbalance of power” theory far from represents the dominant theoretical idea in conflict resolution studies:

“Probably the most important concept in conflict resolution studies is ‘ripeness theory’, developed mainly by American academic I. William Zartman. According to this theory, ‘Parties resolve their conflict only when they are ready to do so – when alternative, usually unilateral, means of achieving a satisfactory result are blocked and the parties find themselves in an uncomfortable and costly predicament.’”

Shapiro went on to note that “Machiavellian manipulations of the kind proposed” by people like Duffill “are very damaging to promoting ‘ripeness’ on the Palestinian side – the side which does not even want to negotiate.”

The details in the description of Duffill that accompany the SMH article were selected to deliberately depict him as a scholarly lover of peace. However, this sits uncomfortably alongside his open membership of “Sydney Staff for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” where his media appearances are repeatedly cited as achievements for the group. He was also quoted in Green Left Weekly in 2015 supporting an Australia Palestine Advocacy Network (APAN) resolution for BDS against Israel, saying the decision was “a call to address this dangerous double standard and special treatment towards Israel.”

Duffill’s other pro-BDS and extremist activities include the following:

  • Disingenuously, given the dubious selection criteria, he has attempted to justify the rejection of a fellowship application by Hebrew University academic Dan Avnon by claiming that the academic boycott targets selected “organisations and not individuals”. Professor Avnon has spent much of his academic career working towards co-existence between Jewish and Arab Israelis, including setting up a high school program for religious and secular Jews to study with Arabs. As a person who has engaged in more active peacebuilding than Duffill ever will, Avnon is just the sort of individual who should have been welcomed by the “peaceniks” of DPACS, yet Duffill insists he must be boycotted because he is affiliated with an Israeli university.

  • The twisted logic of the academic boycott campaign furthermore “upholds the universal right to academic freedom”, yet Duffill has supported the disruption of a talk if the speaker voices opinions contrary to those of a few noisy students (and himself).

  • Meanwhile, he helped organise the visit in 2016 by Ali Abunimah, co-founder of notorious website The Electronic Intifada, and whose controversial views both support terrorist violence and favour the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state.

  • At the Australians for Palestine Symposium in 2016, he made a pitch for BDS, insisting that Israel’s existence as a “Jewish state” is “fundamentally non-democratic” and said that unless Australian sanctions were imposed on Israel “Australia is actually supporting Israeli violence, Israeli human rights abuses and the seizure of Palestinian land through settlements”. He also demanded the “right of Palestinian refugees to return” to pre-1967 Israel be imposed, even though this legally-baseless ‘right’ is simply a demand for the demographic destruction of Israel.

  • More recently Duffill has attempted to pressure Australia’s entrant, Kate Miller-Heidke, into withdrawing from the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest. “Hi Kate”, he tweeted, “I’m sure you’re getting pressure from various corners to play or not play #Eurovision2019 in #Israel. Unfort [sic] the reality is Israel has a heavily-documented strategy of trying 2 use music and art 2 try cover up it’s [sic] brutal #humanrights abuses.” Well, no. Israel, like every Eurovision winner, gets to host the following year’s competition. Every country that hosts Eurovision uses the opportunity to proudly showcase themselves and their culture in what are ordinarily regarded as tourism campaigns. Yet when Israel does it it’s a cover-up and a conspiracy. The unsupported reference to a “heavily-documented strategy” pretends, yet again, to academic heft for conspiratorial claims that there is something deeply sinister when Israel does something every other country in the world does.

In line with his BDS activism, Duffill’s true goal is supporting Palestinian demands, not encouraging either peace or coexistence with Israel. He presents himself as a lover of peace and human rights but is often evasive when it comes to declaring a position on the continuing existence of a Jewish state. Thus near the end of his SMH article, he said: “Recognition of Palestine does not lock the parties into pursuing only the elusive ‘two-state solution’”. The leaders of the BDS movement are less coy regarding their goal of a “one-state solution.” Co-founder Omar Barghouti has declared “the two-state solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is really dead. Good riddance!”. Barghouti also says, “A Jewish state in Palestine in any shape or form cannot but contravene the basic rights of the indigenous Palestinian population and perpetuate a system of racial discrimination…. Definitely, most definitely we oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine”.

While Duffill often professes a concern for achieving peace and security for both Israelis and Palestinians, his advocacy and actions suggest that he is only paying lip service to these notions. Meanwhile, his corpus of academic work seems to consist largely of papers and talks reiterating over and over that Israel must be punished and the Palestinians supported in the name of rectifying the “imbalance of power,” while marketing this as the consensus of conflict resolution theory.

Both editors and readers need to understand who he is and where he is really coming from.