By Andra Jackson
A breakaway group from Australia’s mainstream Jewish organisations aims to encourage “open debate” within the Jewish community on the Middle East.
Sydney-based Jewish commentator Antony Loewenstein said yesterday that the group would challenge the pro-Israel stranglehold over local debate on the Middle East.
Many prominent British Jews, including actor Stephen Fry and playwright Harold Pinter, have broken away from Britain’s Jewish establishment, accusing it of putting support for Israel above the human rights of Palestinians.
Mr Loewenstein said the new Australian group would convey the message that “there is not just one Jewish position on Israel, Zionism and Palestine”.
Australia’s main Jewish community organisations displayed “a singular unwelcomeness or resentment” of Jews who spoke against Israel, he said.
Mr Loewenstein said that since his book, My Israel Question, which deals with the Jewish lobby in Australia, was published last year, he had received hundreds of emails from Australian Jews saying “we have not felt that we have been able to have this discussion in the community, in our families, with our partners, because if you are seen to criticise the occupation or a particular policy, you are seen to be disloyal and causing anti-Semitism”.
Mr Loewenstein, who has received death threats since his book’s publication, said that liberal Jews in the United States and Britain who spoke against Israel were being accused of assisting Israel’s enemies.
Harold Zwier, an executive member of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society, said Australian Jewish youth groups such as Hashomer and Habonim held frank political discussions.
But within the Australian Jewish community, debate on Israel tended to take place behind closed doors, he said.
A range of views existed but the mainstream organisations displayed “a fair bit of solidarity with Israel”.
La Trobe University politics professor Dennis Altman said Australia’s Jews had historically been “fairly uncritically pro-Israeli”. Professor Altman said there were many Australian Jews who “do not feel in any way represented by the Jewish News or the Jewish Board of Deputies”.
He said it would be to Australia’s benefit to have a more informed and intelligent debate on the Middle East “given that we have a Government that seems to think we have roles in the Middle East”.
Anton Block, president of the Jewish Community Council in Victoria, said the criticism represented “fringe community views”.
“The reality is that there are diverse views in the community on different approaches to how Israel ought to defend itself within the underlying view that Israel has a right to defend itself,” he said.
The organisation’s policy was: “we stand by our Israeli brothers and sisters”.