Discovering hard truths in Palestine

My interview with Paul Salvatori at global broadcaster TRT World about my upbringing and learning to understand the grim reality in Palestine:

For many, the fear of being ostracised from a group to which they belong is enough for them never to challenge it. They won’t, for example, publicly interrogate certain views or beliefs the group upholds, which may, in turn, cause them to be pushed out of the group.

This arguably speaks to the need we all have to belong to a group, providing us with the comforting and reassuring sense that we are part of something larger than ourselves, such as community, nation or organisation. As such, we avoid loneliness, painfully experienced where we are isolated or unable to connect to others.

This troubling possibility was not enough to prevent Antony Loewenstein, pro-Palestinian journalist and recent author of The Palestine Laboratory: How Israeli Exports Technology of Occupation Around the World, from ultimately defying the Zionist community to which he belonged. TRT World recently spoke with him about how he came to do this, informed by a life-altering visit to Palestine, as well as what he and his family had to endure when others, including “friends”, in the Zionist community learned he was speaking out against Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people.

What was growing up like for you and how was Palestine, given your family’s support for Israel, discussed or regarded?

ANTONY Loewenstein: I was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1974. I grew up in what I would call a fairly typical Jewish Zionist family. However, Israel was not the centre of our lives. I was always told that Israel was not so much a homeland as it is a safe haven for Jews. Palestine, on the other hand, was mostly ignored. If Palestinians were ever talked about they were demonized. Within my family and the larger Zionist Jewish community, they were actually seen as the new Nazis. That sounds extreme. But that’s very much how I was brought up. And I guess when you’re 10 or 12 years-old-you go along with it because you’re a kid. Eventually as a teenager it struck me that there was something not right about what I was being told about Palestinians. It made me very uncomfortable, even though I still hadn’t met or spoken to a Palestinian.

The invisibility of Palestinians in my community was something you weren’t supposed to think about. What mattered is that Israel had to be supported. Israel was our friend, being condemned by the media. And this was not fair. This was antisemitic. These were the sorts of things I was hearing.

I don’t know if I called it racist at the time, but certainly looking back, that’s exactly what it was.

You made it to Palestine in 2005, at which time of course you’re an adult. What kind of impact did that have on you and how was it different from what you were taught in childhood?

AL: I was angry at what I saw, specifically in the West Bank and including East Jerusalem (I wasn’t allowed in Gaza then). I’d read about it for a long time but witnessing something in real life, of course, is never the same thing as viewing it online. And let’s not forget that back then the internet was certainly in its early days. There wasn’t social media, as we have now that routinely exposes what I saw: Israeli soldiers abusing Palestinians, settlement expansion displacing entire Palestinian families, demolition of Palestinian homes.

I was also reporting, as a journalist, on such violations. I got to know a lot of Palestinians but also Jewish Israeli activists who were protecting Palestinians in the West Bank from both Israeli settlers and the military. Groups of those activists are still there, doing their work. They are small in number but I admire them. They put their body on the line – literally – between armed soldiers and Palestinians or between settlers and Palestinians. Often they pay a physical price for that.

In significant part what drew me to Palestine was wanting to learn more about these activists. No question, I was interested in Palestinian-led resistance and learning more about what that looked like on the ground. Still I felt then, as I do know, that it’s important to know what Israeli Jews are doing since it’s their state, Israel, that’s occupying Palestine and repressing Palestinians. What are dissidents who say “I’m Israeli but don’t support my state” doing to stop that? It’s a question I often think about.

What was the response to your bringing greater public attention, through journalism, to how Israel was oppressing the Palestinian people – the “enemy” in their view?

AL: My parents lost a lot of their Jewish friends because of my work. My parents agreed with me about exposing Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians but many of their Jewish friends were outraged. It doesn’t say much about the friendships, does it? The sins of the son – me reporting on actual Israeli criminality – was too much for those so-called “friends”.

Was it around this time that you saw yourself more as an outcast, relative to the social context of your childhood?

AL: I was ostracised by the Jewish community when – even before reporting in the West Bank – I started writing about Palestine in 2003. It shunned me further in 2006 when I published my first book, My Israel Question, where I talk about the brutality of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. That being said, I wasn’t particularly involved in the Jewish community during these years. I wasn’t going to a synagogue regularly. I had Jewish friends, many of whom agreed with my politics that of course are critical of Israel. What stands out though during these years is a comment, often made about me by a prominent Israeli lobbyist: “He’s only Jewish born”. I questioned that. It means somehow I’m not actually “Jewish” and that Jews are hardline Zionists, in support of the occupation.

Perhaps ironically, that seems to be quite antisemitic. It effectively equates being Jewish with having contempt for fundamental human rights, in this case of the Palestinian people. It also flies in the face of the strong tradition of Jewish allyship with oppressed groups, such as during the 1960s American Civil Rights Movement, grounded in a deep respect for these rights. Did this cause you to experience any kind of cognitive dissonance, making your ostracisation more challenging for you?

AL: Most difficult about that is what I was seeing happening to my parents, not so much to me. As I said, I didn’t really have a Jewish community to lose. My parents did. They were involved in certain Jewish groups. They had a lot of Jewish friends. Most of that all fell apart. Some of it literally overnight. It was soon after My Israel Question came out. It was getting a lot of media attention and by extension me. Four Jewish friends of my family wrote separate emails to my parents basically saying we’re very disturbed because of your son. The emails were virtually identical actually. So clearly it had been coordinated.

Could you elaborate?

AL: My dad sent me the emails recently. I’m paraphrasing but they said something like, “We’re very upset about Antony. He’s demonising Israel.”. The problem, in their view, was that my parents had not condemned me. It’s almost like if my parents had publicly said, “Our son is a terrible human being, he’s writing horrible things about Israel. We disassociate from this terrible human being,” maybe those “friends” would still be around. The emails didn’t expressly confirm that but implied, “Unless you condemn Antony, we can’t be friends with you anymore”.

How is your family today?

AL: I guess my parents and I are sometimes upset about how we were treated. My mother particularly still could not understand how people could be so cruel [she died in 2016]. I do. I realized over the years that Israel, for many, is not just a place. It’s a religion to which they, even secular Jews, are wholly devoted. In their view – a distorted one to be sure – Israel is essentially “good” while those who expose or challenge its oppression of the Palestinian people are “bad”. Following the logic, if you will, others close to them are guilty by association. They become outcasts too.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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