In a recent essay published by the American Jewish Committee, reflecting widely shared attitudes, Jews who criticised Israel and its policies were accused of stirring anti-Semitism. The executive director of the committee said “those who oppose Israel’s basic right to exist, whether Jew or gentile, must be confronted”.
It is clear, however, that a growing number of concerned Jews in the United States and Britain are no longer staying silent in the face of Israeli policies in Palestine and Lebanon.
A new organisation has just been launched in Britain giving voice to such Jews, for example. Independent Jewish Voices includes prominent British figures such as the historian Eric Hobsbawm and the Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter. Hobsbawn told the Independent: “It is important for non-Jews to know that there are Jews who do not agree with the apparent consensus within the Jewish community that the only good Jew is one who supports Israel.”
For too long, Jews in many Western nations have shunned and intimidated fellow Jews who speak out against the illegal settlements or the cruelty of the 40-year occupation. However, uncritical allegiance to Israel by its “supporters” is arguably a greater cause of anti-Semitism than the dissent they seek to suppress.
The recent release of a book by the former US president Jimmy Carter, Palestine: Peace not Apartheid, has ignited similar debates in the US. He says occupied Palestine is comparable to apartheid South Africa. Carter told Newsweek “the plight of the Palestinians – the confiscation of their land, that they’re being suppressed against voicing their disapproval of what’s happening, the building of the wall that intrudes deep within their territory, and the complete separation of Israelis from the Palestinians” – is a guarantee of further bloodshed between Israel and the Palestinians.
His book, a bestseller, generated fierce discussion in the US. Carter wrote in the Los Angeles Times that for the past 30 years “I have witnessed and experienced the severe restraints of any free and balanced discussion of the facts”. He blamed the Zionist lobby for its success in bullying politicians and the media into obedience.
Since the book’s release, David Horowitz has called Carter a “Jew-hater, genocide-enabler and liar”. Alan Dershowitz calls the book “biased” and “indecent”. Deborah Lipstadt says Carter is giving comfort to anti-Semites. Some Jewish members of the Carter Centre’s advisory board have resigned and rabbis of America’s largest synagogue cancelled a scheduled appearance at the centre.
More measured responses have appeared from Israelis, such as the Knesset member Yossi Beilin who wrote in the newspaper Forward that Carter’s words “are simply not as jarring to Israeli ears, which have grown used to such language, especially in respect to the occupation”. Although he rejects Carter’s claims of racism against the occupation – it is “rather a nationalist drive for the acquisition of land” – Beilin says Israel’s path almost guarantees turning the Jewish state into an international “pariah”. Indeed, soon after the conclusion of the recent Lebanon war, Ha’aretz admitted the existence of an “apartheid regime” in the territories.
Despite Israel’s denials of expansionist policy, the Israeli peace group Peace Now says about 40 per cent of settlements have been built on private Palestinian land. Such moves are illegal and do not provide more security as claimed. Furthermore, in towns such as Hebron, hundreds of fundamentalist Jews are allowed to live freely while tens of thousands of Palestinians suffer daily indignities.
The controversy surrounding Carter’s book is designed to avoid discussion of such matters. The smears against Carter are similar to the reception of two US academics, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, who released a paper, The Israel Lobby, which was critical of that lobby in the US. It sparked a furore. The Zionist lobby has not realised playing the man no longer works.
While the settlements continue to expand, the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert – who recently praised the Iraq war as bringing “stability” to the Middle East – has appointed a far-right extremist as deputy prime minister. Avigdor Lieberman has called for the bombing of Iran and Egypt and the murder of Arab Knesset members who talk to Hamas.
How can a democracy in the heart of the Middle East support a man who campaigns for the forced separation of Jews and Arab in Israel proper and the occupied territories?
Now that a growing number of concerned Jews are raising their voices publicly despite their community’s pressure, there is a hopeful sign for more dialogue and thereby wider public understanding.
Antony Loewenstein is the author of My Israel Question, published by Melbourne University Publishing.