Just asking some questions

The following review appears in today’s Australian newspaper:

Scrutinising the conduct of the modern Israeli state raises uncomfortable but necessary questions, writes Peter Rodgers

My Israel Question
By Antony Loewenstein
Melbourne University Press, 340pp, $32.95

There is no better illustration of the cancerous nature of much discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than federal Labor MP Michael Danby’s advice to Melbourne University Press in mid-2005 that it “should drop this whole disgusting project”. Not that Danby had read a word of the book at the time and if he makes good his promise he won’t.

Danby formed his view on the basis of a six-part questionnaire Loewenstein sent him during the book’s research stage. The questions showed an unremarkable if decidedly critical bent towards the policies of Ariel Sharon’s government and the support it received from Australia, both at government and Jewish community level.

Danby’s attack was bizarre, given the vigour of dissent about Israeli policies within the Jewish state. Israel has long dined out on being the Middle East’s only democratic nation. Some of that gloss was taken off last January when the Palestinians freely elected a Hamas government but, that unpalatable fact aside, few countries anywhere can match Israel’s no-holds-barred political life.

The mentality that drove Danby’s outburst is similar to the one that conflates all criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism in a desperate effort to bludgeon non-Jewish critics of Israeli actions into silence. Loewenstein is a harder target as he’s discourteous enough to be Jewish. So he has to be labelled a “self-hating Jew”, whatever that ridiculous term means.

Fortunately, MUP head Louise Adler – also publicly lambasted by Danby – ignored his advice. The result is a highly readable and thought-provoking examination of the nature of the Israeli state and its supporters abroad.

Reared in Melbourne in a liberal Jewish family, Loewenstein supports the right of Israelis “to live in peace and security but not at the expense of the Palestinians”. Those seemingly innocuous words mask a cruel reality. Long before a Hamas Government in the Palestinian territories gave Israel even more reason to dislike its neighbours, Israeli-Palestinian dealings had the mentality of a cockfight: only one party could walk out of the ring alive.

Loewenstein rightly decries the absolutism of such thinking. Among his various targets are the Zionist lobby in Australia and the Australian Government’s “Israel-first doctrine”. The former “patrols the boundaries of public debate, aiming to silence anyone who occasionally strays from the accepted line”. The latter was on display in July 2004, “when Australia became just one of six countries that voted against a UN resolution ordering Israel to destroy the security wall through the West Bank”. The other five nay-sayers were the US and Israel, plus the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau.

Defending Australia’s vote, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said it was reasonable for Israelis to protect themselves from suicide bombers. That fair comment is seriously weakened by the fact that, snaking around illegal Israeli settlements, the security barrier lops off 9per cent of the territory of the West Bank.

It is also not helped by remarks such as that by Isi Leibler, one of Australia’s most prominent Jewish leaders, that Palestinian society was “no less suffused with evil than were the people of Germany under Hitler”. Mutual contempt and dehumanisation clearly should be ranked with terrorism and settlements as one of the great impediments to any resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Loewenstein observes that neither side “has a monopoly on suffering”, arguing that denying Palestinians “their dignity and humanity is one of the great failings of contemporary Judaism and no historical calamity justifies it”.

Loewenstein, who visited Israel for the first time in researching this book, is profoundly disillusioned with the Jewish state. So are some Israelis and others in the Jewish Diaspora. A former member of the Israeli Defence Force recently wrote that anyone who believes that the IDF and the Shin Bet (Israel’s internal intelligence agency) do their best to minimise violations of human rights “is naive, if not brainwashed. One need only read the testimonies of soldiers to be convinced of the depth of the immorality of our actions in the territories.”

How, Loewenstein asks, “could one still have blind faith in a country that enacts citizenship laws to prevent Palestinians who marry Israelis from living in Israel with full rights? How could one idealise a nation with an army that, despite Sharon calling it ‘the most moral in the world’, frequently engages in war crimes in the occupied territories, collectively punishes the Palestinian people, and destroys and steals Arab land for expansion of settlements”?

Towards the end of the book, Loewenstein argues that the creation of an independent Palestinian state is inevitable. Sooner or later, he writes, Israel and the Palestinians will have to meet face-to-face and negotiate with honesty: “Only then – and on the condition that both Israel and the Palestinian states achieve safety and security – will this conflict be resolved.” Unfortunately, the past and the present give no cause for any optimism about the future.

MUP has used as a marketing ploy Danby’s injunction to the Australian Jewish community that if “God forbid” the book is published, don’t buy it. We can only hope – pray may be a better word – that the book-buying public, Jewish and non-Jewish, will treat that demand with the contempt it deserves.

Now that it is out, the book will draw fire from others besides Danby. In a recent television debate with Loewenstein, Ted Lapkin from the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council accused him of falsely describing Israeli-only roads in the West Bank as “Jewish-only” ones. Lapkin pointed out, correctly, that Israeli Arabs also can travel on these roads.

Lapkin also noted that the map early in the book has serious errors.

Despite this, My Israel Question still deserves a strong readership, precisely because it makes us uncomfortable.

* Antony Loewenstein will be a guest at the Melbourne Writers Festival (August 25 – September 3).

* Peter Rodgers is a former ambassador to Israel and author of Herzl’s Nightmare: One Land, Two Peoples.

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

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