It is hard to imagine a less appropriate context in which to read Gerard Henderson’s latest opinion piece. At a time when we’re being inundated by grim reports of escalating carnage in Lebanon and Israel, Henderson has launched an extraordinary attack on the notion that a pro-Israel lobby influences US or Australian foreign policy towards the Middle East. Washington and Canberra support Israel, he argues, because it is in their strategic interests to do so. To suggest anything else is a “conspiracy theory”.
Martin Indyk, former US ambassador to Israel, recently begged to differ. On ABC TV’s Lateline last week he noted that the US Zionist lobby wields significant influence, threatening congressmen should they dare to cast an “anti-Israel vote.” Similar tactics are directed at journalists, editors and their boards in many Western nations, including Australia, in an attempt to stifle dissenting views on Israel and the US.
Henderson conveniently ignores the primary source of much anti-Israel disquiet: the continued occupation of Palestinian territory. In what ways are Australia’s strategic interests served by supporting a state that occupies land internationally recognised as Palestinian? John Howard incorrectly claimed this week that, “Israel doesn’t want more territory.” How are Australia’s interests served by the uncritical support for a state that builds roads only Israelis are allowed to use and which isolates Palestinians inside walls, military cordons and their own towns. Any visitor to the West Bank will confirm this experience. As a Jew, it is shocking to see fellow Jews treat Palestinians with the contempt historically reserved for Jews.
Precisely because both Israelis and Palestinians deserve to live in peace, it is vital to discuss the complex relationship between Israel and the US in an open and frank manner. How the pro-Israel lobby influences the political process and the consequences of that influence are important questions in any democracy.
Last year Labor MP Michael Danby, the only Jewish member of Federal parliament, proclaimed that my publisher, Melbourne University Publishing (MUP), should drop my book on Israel and urged the Australian Jewish community to “treat it with dignified silence. That is our best response. If, God forbid, it is published, don’t give them a dollar. Don’t buy the book.” Danby hadn’t read the book. Indeed, I hadn’t finished writing it.
His defence? In an email he has since circulated widely and addressed to host Tony Jones the day after my recent appearance on Lateline, Danby claimed he “didn’t need to read Mr Loewenstein’s book to know what it would contain” and suggested MUP’s decision to commission my book was “like commissioning Pauline Hanson to write a book about multicultural Australia.” So much for an elected parliamentarian’s respect for the concept of democratic dialogue. Never mind the profound philistinism of condemning a book one hasn’t read.
I am proud to be Jewish and particularly proud of our ancient tradition of debate, dissent and inquiry. Jews have always questioned and challenged the status quo. Israel’s conduct should be an issue on which we are all entitled to be heard, whether as partisan advocates or sceptical critics. It is heartening that vibrant debate exists within Israel itself. Surely the Jewish community in Australia can handle robust discussion about Israel’s policies. A sustainable Israel and Palestine requires nothing less.
Antony Loewenstein is author of My Israel Question, published by Melbourne University Publishing
The following article appears in today’s Daily Telegraph newspaper:
Atone for remarks, leaders demand – MEL’S DRUNKEN MELTDOWN
Australian Jewish groups are furious at Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic outburst, with calls for him to show his remorse by making a donation to a Jewish charity.
Jewish leaders from around the country condemned the actor’s drunken rant about “f…g Jews” and his absurd claim they started every war in history.
They have also branded as ludicrous reported claims by senior Los Angeles police officers the comments should be struck from police records because they were “too inflammatory”.
Australian Union of Jewish Students president Greg Weinstein said it was ludicrous to suggest anti-Semitism should be covered up because of the situation in the Middle East.
“If anyone has something like that to say I think the opposite should be done,” he said. “It should never be tolerated or sanitised in any circumstances.”
Jewish author and commentator Anthony Lowenstein said it beggared belief someone who had worked in a Jew-dominated industry like Hollywood for so long could be so anti-Semitic.
He said Gibson’s apology did not atone for his action and he ought to make a donation to a Jewish charity as a gesture of regret.
NSW Jewish Board of Deputies chief David Knoll said it needed to be examined whether Gibson had breached any US racial vilification laws and if so he should be punished accordingly.
“If a person in NSW calls for violence or humiliation against other people by reason of their race or ethnicity that’s a criminal offence and should be prosecuted,” he said.
Despite the outrage, many were not surprised at the outburst given the charges of anti-Semitism levelled at Gibson over his 2004 film The Passion of the Christ.
Gibson’s father, an extreme Catholic whose religion his son shares, has also been accused of being an anti-Semite.
“Regrettably it’s not surprising,” Australia Israel and Jewish Affairs Council executive director Colin Rubenstein said. “There’s a whole history with regard to him.”
(For more on Gibson’s behaviour, see here.)
In war as in war: Israel is sinking into a strident, nationalistic atmosphere and darkness is beginning to cover everything. The brakes we still had are eroding, the insensitivity and blindness that characterized Israeli society in recent years is intensifying. The home front is cut in half: the north suffers and the centre is serene. But both have been taken over by tones of jingoism, ruthlessness and vengeance, and the voices of extremism that previously characterized the camp’s margins are now expressing its heart. The left has once again lost its way, wrapped in silence or “admitting mistakes.” Israel is exposing a unified, nationalistic face.
The devastation we are sowing in Lebanon doesn’t touch anyone here and most of it is not even shown to Israelis. Those who want to know what Tyre looks like now have to turn to foreign channels – the BBC reporter brings chilling images from there, the likes of which won’t be seen here. How can one not be shocked by the suffering of the other, at our hands, even when our north suffers? The death we are sowing at the same time, right now in Gaza, with close to 120 dead since the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, 27 last Wednesday alone, touches us even less. The hospitals in Gaza are full of burned children, but who cares? The darkness of the war in the north covers them, too.
Lebanon, which has never fought Israel and has 40 daily newspapers, 42 colleges and universities and hundreds of different banks, is being destroyed by our planes and cannon and nobody is taking into account the amount of hatred we are sowing. In international public opinion, Israel has been turned into a monster, and that still hasn’t been calculated into the debit column of this war. Israel is badly stained, a moral stain that can’t be easily and quickly removed. And only we don’t want to see it.
Read the whole piece. Levy’s essay is one of the finest I’ve read in weeks.
While Israel fights Hezbollah with tanks and aircraft, its supporters are campaigning on the internet.
Israel’s Government has thrown its weight behind efforts by supporters to counter what it believes to be negative bias and a tide of pro-Arab propaganda. The Foreign Ministry has ordered trainee diplomats to track websites and chatrooms so that networks of US and European groups with hundreds of thousands of Jewish activists can place supportive messages.
In the past week nearly 5,000 members of the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) have downloaded special “megaphone” software that alerts them to anti-Israeli chatrooms or internet polls to enable them to post contrary viewpoints. A student team in Jerusalem combs the web in a host of different languages to flag the sites so that those who have signed up can influence an opinion survey or the course of a debate.
Israel and its supporters need more than better PR. They need to support a nation that doesn’t celebrate the death of innocents. A country that understands how military strength alone never brings security and safety. And a homeland, formed after the Holocaust, that cannot continue to act like it’s 1949. The days of Jewish absolutism and blind US-support are coming to a close.
And for those of us who see a vicious, egotistical and criminal Zionism, that day is never close enough.
A court in Istanbul yesterday acquitted Turkish author and journalist Perihan Magden of charges of turning people against military service by defending the rights of a conscientious objector in a weekly magazine column.
The judge ruled that Magden’s article amounted to “heavy criticism conveyed within the scope of freedom of expression” and did not constitute a crime.
Magden was among a string of writers and journalists to stand trial for expressing opinions, despite pressure from the European Union – which Turkey hopes to join – to scrap repressive laws and improve freedoms.
Famed author Orhan Pamuk faced similar charges last year but was acquitted.
The ferocity of Israel’s onslaught in southern Lebanon and Hizbullah’s stubborn battles against Israeli ground forces may be working in the militant group’s favour.
“They want to shatter the myth of Israeli invincibility,” says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a leading Lebanese expert on Hizbullah. “Being victorious means not allowing Israel to achieve their aims, and so far that is the case.”
Still, the intensity of the Israeli bombing campaign appears to have taken Hizbullah aback. Mahmoud Komati, the deputy head of Hizbullah’s politburo told the Associated Press, “the truth is – let me say this clearly – we didn’t even expect [this] response … that [Israel] would exploit this operation for this big war against us.”
The stakes are high for Hizbullah, but it seems it can count on an unprecedented swell of public support that cuts across sectarian lines.According to a poll released by the Beirut Center for Research and Information, 87 percent of Lebanese support Hizbullah’s fight with Israel, a rise of 29 percent on a similar poll conducted in February. More striking, however, is the level of support for Hizbullah’s resistance from non-Shiite communities. Eighty percent of Christians polled supported Hizbullah along with 80 percent of Druze and 89 percent of Sunnis.
Lebanese no longer blame Hizbullah for sparking the war by kidnapping the Israeli soldiers, but Israel and the US instead.
The latest poll by the Beirut Center found that 8 percent of Lebanese feel the US supports Lebanon, down from 38 percent in January.
Of course, if you’re an Israeli/Australian dual national and you fight for the Jewish state, you’re a patriot. If you’re a Lebanese/Australia and you fight for Hizbollah, you’re a terrorist. It’s good to see the Howard government supporting the good guys in the struggle.
Scrutinising the conduct of the modern Israeli state raises uncomfortable but necessary questions, writes Peter Rodgers
There is no better illustration of the cancerous nature of much discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than federal Labor MP Michael Danby’s advice to Melbourne University Press in mid-2005 that it “should drop this whole disgusting project”. Not that Danby had read a word of the book at the time and if he makes good his promise he won’t.
Danby formed his view on the basis of a six-part questionnaire Loewenstein sent him during the book’s research stage. The questions showed an unremarkable if decidedly critical bent towards the policies of Ariel Sharon’s government and the support it received from Australia, both at government and Jewish community level.
Danby’s attack was bizarre, given the vigour of dissent about Israeli policies within the Jewish state. Israel has long dined out on being the Middle East’s only democratic nation. Some of that gloss was taken off last January when the Palestinians freely elected a Hamas government but, that unpalatable fact aside, few countries anywhere can match Israel’s no-holds-barred political life.
The mentality that drove Danby’s outburst is similar to the one that conflates all criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism in a desperate effort to bludgeon non-Jewish critics of Israeli actions into silence. Loewenstein is a harder target as he’s discourteous enough to be Jewish. So he has to be labelled a “self-hating Jew”, whatever that ridiculous term means.
Fortunately, MUP head Louise Adler – also publicly lambasted by Danby – ignored his advice. The result is a highly readable and thought-provoking examination of the nature of the Israeli state and its supporters abroad.
Reared in Melbourne in a liberal Jewish family, Loewenstein supports the right of Israelis “to live in peace and security but not at the expense of the Palestinians”. Those seemingly innocuous words mask a cruel reality. Long before a Hamas Government in the Palestinian territories gave Israel even more reason to dislike its neighbours, Israeli-Palestinian dealings had the mentality of a cockfight: only one party could walk out of the ring alive.
Loewenstein rightly decries the absolutism of such thinking. Among his various targets are the Zionist lobby in Australia and the Australian Government’s “Israel-first doctrine”. The former “patrols the boundaries of public debate, aiming to silence anyone who occasionally strays from the accepted line”. The latter was on display in July 2004, “when Australia became just one of six countries that voted against a UN resolution ordering Israel to destroy the security wall through the West Bank”. The other five nay-sayers were the US and Israel, plus the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau.
Defending Australia’s vote, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said it was reasonable for Israelis to protect themselves from suicide bombers. That fair comment is seriously weakened by the fact that, snaking around illegal Israeli settlements, the security barrier lops off 9per cent of the territory of the West Bank.
It is also not helped by remarks such as that by Isi Leibler, one of Australia’s most prominent Jewish leaders, that Palestinian society was “no less suffused with evil than were the people of Germany under Hitler”. Mutual contempt and dehumanisation clearly should be ranked with terrorism and settlements as one of the great impediments to any resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Loewenstein observes that neither side “has a monopoly on suffering”, arguing that denying Palestinians “their dignity and humanity is one of the great failings of contemporary Judaism and no historical calamity justifies it”.
Loewenstein, who visited Israel for the first time in researching this book, is profoundly disillusioned with the Jewish state. So are some Israelis and others in the Jewish Diaspora. A former member of the Israeli Defence Force recently wrote that anyone who believes that the IDF and the Shin Bet (Israel’s internal intelligence agency) do their best to minimise violations of human rights “is naive, if not brainwashed. One need only read the testimonies of soldiers to be convinced of the depth of the immorality of our actions in the territories.”
How, Loewenstein asks, “could one still have blind faith in a country that enacts citizenship laws to prevent Palestinians who marry Israelis from living in Israel with full rights? How could one idealise a nation with an army that, despite Sharon calling it ‘the most moral in the world’, frequently engages in war crimes in the occupied territories, collectively punishes the Palestinian people, and destroys and steals Arab land for expansion of settlements”?
Towards the end of the book, Loewenstein argues that the creation of an independent Palestinian state is inevitable. Sooner or later, he writes, Israel and the Palestinians will have to meet face-to-face and negotiate with honesty: “Only then – and on the condition that both Israel and the Palestinian states achieve safety and security – will this conflict be resolved.” Unfortunately, the past and the present give no cause for any optimism about the future.
MUP has used as a marketing ploy Danby’s injunction to the Australian Jewish community that if “God forbid” the book is published, don’t buy it. We can only hope – pray may be a better word – that the book-buying public, Jewish and non-Jewish, will treat that demand with the contempt it deserves.
Now that it is out, the book will draw fire from others besides Danby. In a recent television debate with Loewenstein, Ted Lapkin from the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council accused him of falsely describing Israeli-only roads in the West Bank as “Jewish-only” ones. Lapkin pointed out, correctly, that Israeli Arabs also can travel on these roads.
Lapkin also noted that the map early in the book has serious errors.
Despite this, My Israel Question still deserves a strong readership, precisely because it makes us uncomfortable.
* Antony Loewenstein will be a guest at the Melbourne Writers Festival (August 25 – September 3).
* Peter Rodgers is a former ambassador to Israel and author of Herzl’s Nightmare: One Land, Two Peoples.