For a person who gets hate mail and death threats on a regular basis, Antony Loewenstein remains surprisingly cheerful.
The Jewish-Australian journalist, activist, blogger and author, who is based in Sydney, has stirred up plenty of controversy with his book “My Israel Question.” First published in 2006 and reprinted in a third edition several weeks ago, the book takes a critical look at the conflict between Israel and Palestine. As a self-proclaimed anti-Zionist and a supporter of the Palestinian cause, Loewenstein has been accused of anti-Semitism by many fellow Jews.
Ben Cubby of the Sydney Morning Herald wrote in a July review of “My Israel Question”: “To his critics, he is a ‘pro-Hezbollah cheerleader’ and ‘smouldering teen idol’ who is ‘working for the destruction of Israel’ through his ‘rabidly anti-Zionist agenda.’ ” He continued, “For a young writer whose first book has barely hit the shelves, Antony Loewenstein is quickly honing a reputation for getting under people’s skin.”
“I don’t want to suggest that I feel that my life is in jeopardy, I don’t want to exaggerate, but unfortunately, yes, I get a lot of attacks from Jewish people,” Loewenstein said during a phone interview last week, shortly before he set off for Bali and the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, which kicks off on Wednesday. It is his second visit to Bali. Loewenstein’s first time on the island was for a vacation.
“I was in Bali in March for a couple of weeks, but it was for a holiday,” Loewenstein said. “I loved it, and I am glad I am coming back and have the chance to see a bit more of the country.”
After the festival, he will visit several other cities, including Yogyakarta and Aceh, as part of a book tour. He plans to talk about the Middle East, the role of the United States in the region, Jewish identity and Palestinian nationalism.
“One of the interesting things for me about coming to the Ubud festival is to try to bridge the profound gap that exists between the English-speaking and the non-English speaking world,” he said.
He said he didn’t have much knowledge of Indonesian writers, not because he wasn’t interested, but mainly because of the language barrier.
“In the Western world, the literature of the non-English speaking countries is maybe not ignored, but certainly not highlighted as much as it should be,” he said. “I hope that in time this will change, especially with the help of a multilingual Internet.”
Loewenstein also published “The Blogging Revolution” in 2008.
“The main reason behind the book was a dissatisfaction with how the Western media reported on the rest of the world,” he said. “It started during and right after the Iraq war in 2003. It seemed to me extraordinary that in Australia and many parts of the West, there were very few Iraqi voices talking about the war.”
Internet blogs were one way for Loewenstein to get inside Iraq. He then decided to visit Cuba, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia and China — countries that he said are repressive but still have a vibrant and diverse Internet culture.
“There’s a great deal of online dissent in these countries,” Loewenstein said. “One of the things I wanted to talk about in the book was that the Internet on its own does not bring democracy, but what it does do in many countries, for example in Egypt, Iraq and China, is to bring issues to public attention.”
He talked to a number of people about why and how they were blogging, and especially about how they dealt with the censorship that exists in some of those countries.
“In places like China, for example, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo actually help the government to censor the Internet,” Loewenstein said. “To me, that is something profoundly disturbing that needed to be examined, while overall, I was trying to show how in the West we are willfully ignoring many voices that we could be listening to.”
He recently traveled to Israel and Palestine.
“I am very critical of the way Israel treats Palestinians, and I guess I just wanted to go there again and see it with my own eyes,” he said.
“It was despairing. The situation in Israel itself [is that] the country has moved very much to the right. In Palestine there is not much optimism despite Barack Obama coming in and talking about peace. Nothing has changed, nothing has been rebuilt.”
As someone who is Jewish, Loewenstein said, he felt profound shame about what his people were doing. This is one of the things he wants to speak about at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival.
“For many people, especially in the Muslim world, there is a need to hear Jews speaking critically of Israel,” Loewenstein said. “What Israel does in Palestine is unconscionable and has to be condemned.”
Antony Loewenstein will be speaking at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival this week.
Antony Loewenstein at the festival
October 9 2:15 – 3:30 p.m. Writing in the New World: Obama and Dissent, with Fatima Bhutto, Antony Loewenstein and Jamal Mahjoub Chair: Michael Vatikiotis
October 11 9 – 10 a.m. In Conversation: Antony Loewenstein Chair: Dominique Schwartz 4 – 5:30 p.m. A New Frontier: Blogging, Dissent and Solidarity, with Doel CP Allisah, Dian Hartati, Antony Loewenstein and Ng Yi-Sheng Chair: Angela Meyer