Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution. Green Left Weekly’s Simon Butler asked Loewenstein about recent attempts to intimidate supporters of the boycott, sanctions and divestment (BDS) campaign against Israel.
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Nineteen activists in Melbourne were arrested at a BDS protest in July outside a Max Brenner store and four of those 19 were later arrested again in dawn raids. Are there any comparable cases in other countries where there have been arrests of BDS activists, or is this particular to Australia?
This is pretty rare. I wouldn’t be confident to say there have been no other arrests of BDS supporters anywhere in the world. But what I can say is that many of the BDS leaders and activists in Palestine itself are pretty shocked.
They have released statements about the behaviour of the Victorian government and, indeed, many Australian political leaders and trade union leaders, such as [the Australian Workers’ Union’s (AWU)] Paul Howes, on this issue.
One of the things I find most disturbing is that these heavy-handed tactics by the police essentially tries to put very clear boundaries around acceptable debate on this question. Only certain frames of questioning are acceptable. Only certain arguments are okay.
One of the things that is very worrying is that Israel’s behaviour itself is becoming even more egregious, more brutal and more criminal — through the occupation and through legislation that makes supporting BDS illegal.
I have Israeli Jewish colleagues that have to now watch their language. They have to be careful what they write, what they tweet and what they say because there is now the serious possibility of being prosecuted by groups that claim a good friend’s tweet is affecting Israeli businesses in the West Bank.
The law says clearly that for the Knesset (Israeli parliament) in 2011, there is no difference between the occupied territories and Israel proper — they are one and the same thing.
So as all this is happening in Israel and Palestine, you have this situation in Australia where we are constantly being told that Israel is a robust democracy and there is a peace process and what the BDS protesters are doing here is reminiscent of 1930s Germany, where, of course, Jewish people — including some of my own family — were targetted and firebombed.
I find this — and I say this as someone who is Jewish — unbelievably disgraceful and offensive that the public is being sold this line by people like Paul Howes, Warren Mundine and Jana Wendt, and the Labor and Liberal parties.
In fact, there is really nobody who is a public figure in this country that is coming out and saying that if you choose to claim that what is happening in Sydney or Melbourne with protests outside a chocolate shop is reminiscent of Nazi crimes in Europe in the 1930s you are cheapening anti-semitism to the point of irrelevance.
In Nazi Germany there was real anti-semitism and that’s undeniable. Here, it’s the opposite.
And secondly, it is very disturbing for me how the mainstream Jewish establishment is more than happy to not just support that line, but to in fact encourage it by saying it themselves, with consultation with the Israeli government, which has been acknowledged in the Israeli press.
So there is an attempt to criminalise debate and set boundaries around that debate. And I think it should be fought in the strongest possible way.
One of the criticisms made against the BDS protests is about Max Brenner. Critics say why pick on Max Brenner, it’s just a chocolate shop and has nothing to do with apartheid. So is Max Brenner a legitimate target for the BDS campaign?
Absolutely, yes. It’s a very legitimate target.
I don’t think Max Brenner is the only legitimate target in the country. But it is very clear — it has been very widely documented — that Max Brenner publicly and privately fully supports elements in the Israeli Defence Force, some of which have been accused of very serious war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza, including during Operation Cast Lead in 2008/09.
It seems very legitimate to say that as consumers in a democratic society, we have a choice on how we spend our money, and ask do we want to spend money in a shop that actively supports elements of a criminal army of a strong ally of Australia? My view is that we should certainly say that.
Of course, there are other examples: cosmetic products by Ahava among others. And there have been protests against them in Australia, in London and in other places around the world.
In April, there was an Ahava shop in London that was shut down because of intense public pressure and protest.
Now the argument against that campaign in London was similar to what you see here: Max Brenner has a right to operate, Max Brenner has a legitimate business, it hasn’t committed any crimes here in Australia and so why do activists have the right to protest a shop that is simply doing its business?
I can’t speak for the activists who were protesting, but my view is that as we saw on numerous occasions during apartheid South Africa, where companies complicit in that occupation (which is what it really was in many ways) were targeted, certain companies complicit in Israel’s occupation are legitimate targets [for BDS].
I completely oppose any use of violence against any shops, but a civil, non-violent protest against a company that proudly supports an army with serious human rights and war crime allegations against them make it an unbelievably legitimate target.
The attempt to try to make Max Brenner the victim here, which is what many are trying to do, is a dishonest attempt to ignore the direct complicity of this company.
There is an attempt here to say that, somehow, activists are behaving badly by not regularly speaking in the terms accepted and dictated by the Zionist lobby or the Labor party or parts of the union movement, such as the AWU, and we should reject that completely.
An example: there has been consistent pressure from the AWU, elements of the Labor party and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), to censor, challenge or at least stop the [ACTU’s humanitarian aid agency] APHEDA from being “pro-Palestinian”.
It fits into the same mould as what is happening here against BDS. It’s almost as though they are saying: “We, the powers that be, have decided how this debate works and you guys in APHEDA or BDS activists in Melbourne or Sydney, how dare you claim to have a different narrative.”
And that’s a move based on fear, not strength. Fear that if anyone spent anytime looking at the poll numbers of how people in virtually every Western country viewed Israel’s policies towards Palestine, the numbers are pretty dismal for Israel.
There needs, therefore, to be civil disobedience — which is what BDS clearly is — to highlight that point, over and over again.
Max Brenner should not be the only company targeted, not at all. But it is a legitimate target.
Victorian government minister Michael O’Brien has called for the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission to investigate five groups, including Green Left Weekly, alleging these groups are anti-Semitic and have broken industrial laws banning secondary boycotts. Coalition senator Ron Boswell has since repeated the allegation in parliament. How do you interpret the move to pursue these groups, most of which were not part of the recent Max Brenner protests?
I think it is clearly a heating-up of pressure. It’s an attempt to bully organisations such as Green Left Weekly, Australians for Palestine and others. Many, as you rightly say, had nothing to do with the Max Brenner protests.
Australians for Palestine support BDS, but they weren’t at the protest. They weren’t there: it’s really quite simple.
The idea is that if you target certain activist groups or certain left-wing unions or whatever, other people will see it and they will pull their heads in.
My hope is that it will have the opposite effect. The reality is that the Victorian government and elements of the political establishment are debasing the concept of anti-Semitism in an attempt to silence political discussion they don’t like or find challenging.
The comments from the Victorian government make it very clear: the real issue here is that they are trying to stop, in their view, living neo-Nazis running around Melbourne. That is essentially what they are saying.
And apart from the fact that its incredibly defamatory, I think there is a real question to be asked of elements of the political mainstream — Labor and Liberal, and for that matter the Jewish community — for allowing, encouraging and supporting individuals in government positions to cheapen the memory of the Holocaust.
I agree that we should never forget the Holocaust. But you don’t remember the Holocaust and the callous killing of Jews and gays and so many others in that horrible event by claiming that any legitimate discussion against Israeli crimes is tantamount to Nazi Germany.
It really does concern me that there has been absolute silence on this question. It ties in with how the Zionist lobby releases, as it does every year, reports of when anti-Semitic attacks or comments are made in Australia.
Some of [the cases reported] are undoubtedly anti-Semitic, such as someone daubing a synagogue. But so much of what is claimed to be anti-Semitism — and you see this in the US and Britain as well — is blatantly the opposite. It’s an attempt to frame criticism of Israel as illegitimate political speech to the point where, in some countries, there is a desire to criminalise it.
Israel has been rocked by weeks of ongoing protests against high house prices and the cost of living. To avoid being painted as “extremists”, the organisers have avoided the obvious ― the cost of the occupation of Palestinian territory and protecting the illegal Jewish settlers has directly contributed to the Israeli state’s neoliberal austerity policies.
The August 18 attack in southern Israel, in which eight Israelis died and no one has claimed responsibility for, provided the Israeli state with a golden opportunity for a fresh war drive to undermine the protests. In the aftermath of the attack, Israeli bombings in Gaza killed at least 22 people ― including children ― by August 26, Xinhuanet.com said.
At least three Egyptian border guards on Egypt’s border with Gaza were also killed by Israeli fire on August 18 ― sparking huge protests outside Israel’s embassy in Cairo.
A protester, Ahmed al-Shehat, became a hero across the world when on August 21 he climbed to the top of the 22-floor building housing the embassy and ― to the cheers of the crowd, took down the Israeli flag and replace it with an Egyptian one.
Protesters burned the Israeli flag.
Independent journalist and author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution, Antony Loewenstein, spoke to Green Left Weekly‘s Simon Butler
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Israeli warplanes have bombarded Gaza for days straight, which Israel’s government says is in retaliation for an attack on August 18. The Israeli government has also been under increasing domestic pressure from a large movement for housing rights. Do you think this domestic situation influenced Israel’s decision to bomb the Gazan population?
Quite possibly ― this has been said quite clearly by Jewish columnists in Haaretz. I don’t think it’s really a secret.
[Israeli PM Benjamin] Netanyahu was looking for a gift, and a terrorist act or act of aggression against the Israeli Defence Force or Israeli civilians is a glorious gift for the Israeli government.
All the discussion that has been going on in Israel about housing rights and all these other issues, which are legitimate questions, have been totally replaced by armchair generals and real generals and politicians saying, basically, that we need to bomb Gaza back into the stone age.
We realise how totally deformed the Israeli political debate is when Kadima, the main opposition party headed by Tzipi Livni (which is supposedly the mainstream quasi-centre-left) is saying we encourage the government to bomb Gaza and root these terrorists out.
So there really is no mainstream political party in Israel that is against the occupation.
A future potential Israeli Labor Party prime minister gave an interview to Haaretz recently and also said: “I support the occupation.”
This is Labor, which liberal Zionists claim is the great hope of Israel’s political system.
One of the things that really clarifies things, and you can feel this fear in Israel, is that the relationship between Israel and Egypt is changing.
The so-called peace deal that has existed for 30 years between Israel and [former Egyptian dictator] Hosni Mubarak didn’t really help the average Egyptian at all.
I’m not at all encouraging for a second the notion that there should be a beginning of war, but what I’m saying is that there is a profound hatred within Egypt itself towards that peace treaty.
This is because it hasn’t helped the Palestinians at all. It essentially allowed Gaza to be sealed in a ghetto for the past five years, supported by Israel and Egypt.
This recent attack on Gaza puts that question back to the forefront, to the point where many of the more sensible voices in the Israeli press are saying: “We need to recognise the Middle East is changing.”
They are saying it’s changing and it’s changed, that they cannot simply rely anymore on dictatorships that do their bidding.
That’s the way Israel has survived until now. And as I’ve been saying for the past nine months since the uprising in Tunisia, the only way Israel can survive as an occupying state ― which is essentially what it proudly wants to be ― is with dictatorships nearby supporting it.
That’s the only way.
In Egypt, which is still run by a dictatorship, there nonetheless are cracks and questions appearing. There was a guy a few days ago in Cairo ― now dubbed the “Flagman” ― protesting outside the Israeli embassy.
He scaled the embassy, with a huge crowd below, and replaced the Israeli flag with the Egyptian flag. It was very symbolic and has caused a lot of Twitter conversation and press in the Arab world.
Something is changing and Israel has always known to never miss a good opportunity to distract the world from what they are actually doing by talking about terrorism ― and therefore either bombing Gaza or running new operations in the West Bank.
On August 21, as an example, there were the greatest number of Palestinian civilians arrested in Hebron in the West Bank since 2004.
This sort of thing is happening at a time when the world is looking away.
Although the recent huge protests in Israel give an indication that many people are dissatisfied with the status quo, one of the things that is not being talked about is the elephant in the room: the occupation.
You can’t win social justice in Israel unless you address the fact that there are billions spent every year on the occupation. You just can’t.
The organisers [of the housing movement] argue that as soon as we mention Arabs or the occupation, we are going to divide the crowd.
Well, I think that is very tragic if that is the case.
They make legitimate points about the need for cheaper housing ― Israel has implemented neoliberal policies for the past 30 years ― but ignore the fact that there are Arabs who aren’t worrying about housing rights, they’re worrying about have they got a home.
I think again that this comes back to the profound disconnect that happens when you have the debate about the boycott, divestments and sanctions (BDS) campaign here in Australia.
I think there is a danger that major politicians and unions are trying to put pressure on the one major NGO ― APHEDA ― that is trying to actually send people over to Palestine to see what is happening in our name.
And they are trying to shut that down, because most people who go over there on trips funded by the Israel lobby come back with only one message.
So they don’t want a situation where union leaders are coming back and saying: “You know what, I support BDS. You know what, our policy here is insane.”
And that is what has been happening, and makes it a threat that has to be shut down.