Missed chance to deal fairly with an intractable issue
Reviewed by Philip Mendes
Antony Loewenstein is a highly controversial figure in Australia’s Jewish community due to his aggressive public criticisms of the state of Israel. His reputation as a militant anti-Zionist dissenter will only be reinforced by this overwhelmingly pro-Palestinian text.
Loewenstein’s basic argument is that Israel is primarily, if not solely, responsible for the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. Israel is described as a rapacious, intransigent and aggressive apartheid state pursuing colonial and murderous policies, while Israelis are stereotyped as intolerant, racist and callous.
In contrast, he depicts the Palestinians are largely defenceless and innocent victims and provides only limited discussion of the long history of Palestinian hatred for and violence towards Israel. He also fails to mention the significant wholesale expulsion of Jews from Arab countries following the establishment of Israel and the history of virulent anti-Zionist campaigns in Australia.
His discussion of key historical events such as the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the failing of the July 2000 Camp David Summit leans heavily towards the Palestinian narrative.
Loewenstein attributes Western support for Israeli policies to the pressures of the “Zionist lobby”, which he constructs as a unified and omnipotent cabal. He refers particularly to the key role played respectively by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council. According to Loewenstein, these groups attack any critics of Israel with threats, abuse, intimidation and harassment. He also implies donations by powerful Jewish businessmen disproportionately shape political views towards Israel. Some of the language used in this discussion seems reminiscent of historical stereotypes of Jews as wielding secret financial power and influence.
To be sure, Loewenstein accumulates an impressive amount of academic and popular research data in support of his arguments. And in parts he also seems to be searching for balance, particularly where he recognises the increasing use of anti-Semitic stereotypes by left critics of Israel. Some of his criticisms of the ultra-aggressive strategies of AIJAC are also shared by many mainstream Australian Jews. But the majority of his discourse is a simplistic and superficial analysis of interest group politics.
The major omission here is a detailed comparative discussion of the role played by Arab lobby groups. Loewenstein dismisses them as poorly organised and less influential, yet the Arab vote is much larger than the Jewish vote, and the pro-Palestinian lobby has succeeded into capturing key academic centres at ANU and Macquarie. Loewenstein himself was even appointed to the board of the Macquarie Centre for Middle East Studies.
There are also numerous serious political and historical clangers in the book. The former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin was the leader of the Irgun not the Stern Gang; the Australian Jewish News actively promotes diversity and does not suppress Jewish views critical of Israel; former Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam lost popularity in the Jewish community because of the open hostility he expressed towards Jews as well as Israel; the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission is an inclusive and moderate rather than hardline lobby group; and Noam Chomsky did provide a political character reference for French Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson.
This book is a missed opportunity. It will no doubt appeal to those who simplistically view the Israelis as evil oppressors, and the Palestinians as oppressed victims. But those hoping for a serious and nuanced examination of the complexity of the Middle East conflict will be disappointed.
Philip Mendes is senior lecturer in social policy at Monash University and co-editor of Jews and Australian Politics (Sussex Academic Press)