Why Russia apologists are often also the main pushers of anti-Israeli BDS

Mar 9, 2023 | Justin Amler

Screenshot of John Menadue's blog
Screenshot of John Menadue's blog

The major conflict that dominates our news headlines these days is the Russian-Ukrainian war – while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is perennially in the news to a surprising degree. And although they are wholly unrelated to each other, there is a strange anomaly that seems to connect the two – supporters or sympathisers with Russia and Putin are frequently often also backers of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, an international lobby that aims to isolate and destroy Israel.

It may seem a strange combination – support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and demands for Israel’s isolation and destruction, especially since, unlike the old Soviet Union, post-Cold War Russia has had a reasonable relationship with the Jewish state. Yet there is some logic to it from one particular viewpoint – the viewpoint, once encouraged by the old Soviet Union, which sees the world as dominated by evil “Western imperialism” and in which Israel’s very existence is represented as the height of “colonialism and imperialism.”

This bizarre juxtaposition is very much present in Australian public debate – including especially in an influential online “public policy journal” Pearls and Irritations, run by John Menadue, the former Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet under Gough Whitlam.


Abulhawa and the Adelaide Writers Week controversy

Take, for instance, the current Australian controversy over the invitation of alleged racist extremists to Adelaide Writers Week – particularly around Palestinian author Susan Abulhawa – a partisan for both Russia and BDS. Abulhawa described Ukrainian President Zelensky as “a depraved Zionist trying to ignite World War III.” She has also tweeted, “DeNazify Ukraine”, parroting the Kremlin’s line about its reasons for the invasion invade Ukraine.

She is also a virulent and vicious critic of Israel and Zionists – calling Israelis “worse than Nazis”; saying Israel is “demonic… spawned by devils” and its inhabitants a “nation of degenerates” in social media posts – and is also a vocal supporter of BDS.

And in Australia, it was Pearls and Irritations, which is quite popular in segments of ALP and in left-leaning circles – that gave her an additional platform to spew this hatred, first in an interview published on Feb. 25, then in a further piece on March 9. This is perhaps not too surprising given that Pearls and Irritations is probably Australia’s most prominent source of both pro-Putin and pro-BDS writing of the sort Abulhawa espouses.

In the Feb. 25 interview, she appeared in the journal answering a series of questions regarding foreign influence, Israel, the war in Ukraine and even a question about the recent earthquake in Syria and Turkey.

Answering the first question, when asked if Australia was a nation free from foreign influence, she immediately pivoted to Israel remarking, “how quickly your politicians and ministers fell in lock step with pro-Israel forces trying to sabotage the Adelaide Festival” and how they [the politicians] don’t know the “full extent of Israel’s barbarity and apartheid or they do and support it.”

She continued this theme into the next answer saying, “It’s a pity that Australia has chosen to back an Apartheid settler colonial state engaged in some of the most heinous and systematic contemporary human rights abuses.”

Her catchphrase of “colonialism” is clearly meant to be an attack on “Western imperialism” mentioned earlier, as she sees Israel as a product of that.

Her revealing tweet about Ukrainian President Zelensky as a “depraved Zionist” amplifies this further, as to her, Zionism is a colonial project, and President Zelensky is a product of that colonialism. In her world view, Russia is fighting against that. It is also telling that although the invasion of Ukraine has nothing to do with Zionism, by finding a way to insert it in her criticism of Zelensky, it clearly demonstrates her disdain is for Jews – not simply Israelis and Zionists – as President Zelensky is indeed Jewish.

Her hatred is demonstrated even further when she accuses Israel of taking “the opportunity to bomb Syria” even as they were “trying desperately to dig survivors out of the rubble” after the recent earthquake.

Referring to the controversy over her Writers’ Week invitation, she insists that “Australians should have the right to hear different narratives and viewpoints.” This may sound innocuous but is actually completely hypocritical – given that she is an advocate of BDS, which insists that all Israeli academics, artists, writers and officials should be boycotted, prevented from appearing and silenced.


Roger Waters at the UN

Abulhawa’s pro-Putin, pro-BDS stand is part of a larger international trend that extends to famous musicians and other celebrities, as well as authors.

When Russia asked ageing rock star Roger Waters to speak about Ukrainian weapons at the United Nations late last year, it seemed like a bizarre choice.

Waters, after all, is not an elected official, has never held office and has no recognised expertise in international relations or diplomacy. He was the co-founder of the very successful rock group Pink Floyd decades ago but is more known these days for far-left political rants.

So why would Russia, or the UN, care what he has to say on the matter?

Amidst an almost universal condemnation of its illegal invasion of Ukraine, Moscow was apparently desperate to seek out support from any quarters.

And in Roger Waters, a well-known international celebrity, it found its useful idiot.

Perhaps surprisingly for the Russians, Waters did actually condemn the Russian invasion as illegal, yet at the same time he also condemned what he called the “provocateurs” for causing Russia to invade in the first place. In an October 2022 article in Rolling Stone magazine, he even bizarrely claimed he was on a Ukrainian government kill list!

However, in his rambling 14-minute speech, in which he talked of the “neo-liberal capitalist ship we call life,” he couldn’t help but include a dig at Israel, comparing Ukrainians and Palestinians and saying, “where the people live under military occupation, there is no recourse to the law, there are no human rights.”

And that’s because, besides offering excuses for Russia, he is also perhaps the most famous, as well as one of the most rabid, supporters, of the BDS movement – which has often been accused of flirting with or turning a blind eye to antisemitism. He is so notorious for his anti-Israel venom – often shading into apparent antisemitism, such as flying a giant balloon in the shape of a pig with a Jewish star on it at a concert – that he was recently disinvited from a state-sponsored music festival in Frankfurt.


In Australia

A similar example closer to home of someone who supports both Moscow and BDS is notorious anti-Israel former academic Tim Anderson and his followers – who oversee Iran’s Al-Tajamu propaganda network in Australia and whose vocal support for Russia’s invasion and vicious anti-Israel sentiments have been highlighted by AIJAC’s Ran Porat previously.

Yet in Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations, similar views are given a home which is much more widely read and much more influential than Anderson and company, who are widely recognised as fringe extremists.  Pearls and Irritations seems to have a considerable following in parts of the ALP, among the Greens, and the Australian left more generally, reflected in both readership and contributions from these circles.

And Pearls and Irritations is highly prolific, publishing pieces every day, while pieces with pro-BDS and fervidly anti-Israel messages or messages sympathetic to Russia and Putin appear almost daily.

In the first two and a third months of 2023 alone, there have already been at least 21 articles published attacking Israel in extreme terms (Jan. 4, Jan. 7, Jan. 8, Jan. 9, Jan. 9, Jan. 16, Jan. 16, Jan. 16, Jan. 23, Jan. 25, Feb. 1, Feb. 2, Feb. 5, Feb. 12, Feb. 15, Feb. 22 Feb. 24, Feb. 25, Feb. 25, Mar. 2, Mar. 4), 13 attacking Western imperialism and expressing sympathy with or understanding for Putin and Russia (Jan. 28, Jan. 29, Feb. 1, Feb. 8, Feb. 11. Feb. 18, Feb. 22, Feb. 24, Mar. 1, Mar. 3, Mar. 3, Mar. 4, Mar. 7) and five attacking both Israel and Western imperialism (Feb. 5, Feb. 7., Feb. 14., Feb. 23, Feb. 23.). There has been almost no space dedicated to any counterpoint to either the anti-Israel or pro-Russian themes which are the bread and butter of Pearls and Irritations.

And most of the articles are not exactly nuanced or big on providing context or acknowledging contrasting perspectives.

For example, on March 4 2023, an article was published asserting that the “very essence of Zionism” is “state genocide” and referring to the murderers of two innocent Jews as “Palestinian resistance fighters.”

An article published in November 2022, titled “Israel is not suddenly a more racist state. It is simply growing more confident about admitting its racism to the world,” makes clear the author’s opinion that the recent Israeli election that brought in a more right-wing government makes little difference to the nature of the country anyway, stating, “From the outset, Israel was sponsored as a colonial outpost of the West.”

Just a month earlier, another article appeared, “How Israel practices apartheid”, in which it says, “Israel has built and reinforced a single regime of rule to ensure Jewish Israeli supremacy and domination over the indigenous Palestinian people,” purposely ignoring the Jewish historical and national connection to the land and implying that Jews are foreign interlopers in what it says is the “colonisation of Palestinian land.”

The piece asserted that the BDS movement can bring down Israel in the same way sanctions brought down apartheid South Africa: “The Palestinian civil society call for campaigns of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) for Palestinian freedom, justice, and equality are modelled on similar campaigns that played such a large role in bringing apartheid to an end in South Africa.”

An example on the Russia front is a February 2 article, “2023: a make-or-break year for the global order” by Joseph Camilleri, in which an argument is made that the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is in reality a conflict between Russia and NATO – a key Putin talking point of recent months. In making that point, the article is implicitly saying that Russia is effectively pushing back against expansionist Western imperialism, and Putin should be supported.

It elaborated further, “The carefully orchestrated Zelensky image is as much a creation of Western political propaganda and media coverage as it is of Ukraine’s domestic politics. Ukrainian forces are trained, advised, supplied and funded largely by the United States and key NATO allies. The entire Ukrainian economy is sustained by Western economic aid.”

Several articles since then have strongly argued that China is an innocent party being targeted by Western imperialism for nefarious purposes, as well as expressing sympathy or understanding for Putin’s Ukraine invasion as well.

A look at the articles that appear on the Menadue website makes it very clear that the so-called “public policy journal” has made a decision to be a very vocal voice promoting an “anti-imperialistic agenda”, meaning both that excuses are constantly made for Russia and antisemitic movements like BDS are trumpeted – and no other views are encouraged or allowed.

In the eyes of Abulhawa, Waters, Anderson and the contributors to Pearls and Irritations, Israel is seen as a colonialist outpost created by Western imperialism and the BDS movement is a core part of a virtuous anti-imperialist international together with Russia and China (even though neither of those countries supports BDS) collectively resisting completely unprovoked aggression.

While this bizarre belief is not a new phenomenon – it was quite common on the left during the Cold War (which is where the 88-year-old John Menadue likely gets it from) – it is surprising how much traction and audience this extreme ideology still gets in the wake of Russia’s blatantly aggressive attack on Ukraine, and the increasingly open belligerence and egregious human rights violations of Xi’s China.


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Image: Shutterstock

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AIJAC expresses appreciation to PM, Leader of the Opposition, for bipartisan stance against extremism and antisemitism