Ongoing importance of separating Zionism and Judaism

The following interview by Sam Whiteley appears in today’s West Australian:

Freelance journalist Antony Loewenstein is no stranger to controversy.

“The silence is over,” says Loewenstein, author of My Israel Question which generated a swell of public debate and was shortlisted for the 2007 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award.

Co-founder of Independent Australian Jewish Voices and author of The Blogging Revolution, his book My Israel Question, first published in 2006, has incited a litany of hate mail but for this self-prescribed atheist Jew, (who ironically also lost family during The Holocaust), there has never been a greater need for dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Now in its third edition, the book expands upon the region’s struggle and its myriad complex layers. Beginning with his personal understanding of the conflict whilst growing up in a liberal Jewish family in Melbourne, Lowenstein’s brave tome delves further into the problems of Zionism and anti-Semitism, the disconnect between the Jewish in Israel and Jewish Diaspora, issues of the lobbyists and the problematic language used in media to define the conflict.

“The truth of the matter is that the term ‘anti-Semitism’ has been used and abused so woefully by both the Israel Zionist lobby in the West and Israel itself, the word had lost a lot of its meaning even though anti-Semitism does exist,” says Loewenstein.

“It’s the longest occupation in modern history and it’s getting worse and in my view many Jews are keen to make no separation between Zionism and Judaism. They can’t, therefore, be surprised when anti-Semitism increases because of Israeli actions. It doesn’t justify it but it certainly explains why this happens. If you don’t separate those ideologies, if you say I am Jewish and I’m a Zionist, there is no difference.”

Lowenstein firmly believes the maintaining of an infrastructure of occupation is far more important to Israel than democracy for the vast majority of people in the Arab world.

“The reality of what Israel has become is there are plans to be a driving democracy. In fact, Israel is not a democracy. It’s a democracy if you are Jewish. If you’re Arab or whatever else, you are actively discriminated against. If you live in the West Bank as an Arab as opposed to a Jew, there are different laws and anyone who believes in human rights, equality and decency in this day and age simply won’t accept this.”

It would be an understatement to say Loewenstein has broken free from the expectations of the Jewish Diaspora community.

“The implication is that if you are a Jew, that somehow you have a responsibility to support Israel,” he says. “I’ve been accused of pretty much everything under the sun and there is no doubt the criticism saddens me,” says Loewenstein, who admits that although his parents have supported his book, they themselves have lost friends over its publication.

He recalls his visit to Gaza in mid 2009 and the mood of its occupants.

“The area, the neighbourhood and its buildings remain flattened six months after the war, nothing really has changed,” says Loewenstein. “What I found in Gaza was a sense of people feeling they’ve been forgotten by the world. While people are not starving, there is to some extent a degree of despair as there is virtually no freedom of movement.

“On one hand, parts of Gaza are really beautiful, it’s on the Mediterranean. On the other hand, there is a lot of mass devastation and to live there you have to be resilient. Life is tough, unemployment is high. Hamas, of course, controls Gaza and my thoughts are that little has changed and somehow we have this idea in the West that if we support the people in Gaza or the Palestinians themselves, you’ll somehow also support terrorism when in fact the opposite is true.”

My Israel Question, whilst condemning Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians, recognises a changing narrative and perception of Israel.

“There is no doubt that for the first decade after Israel was formed in the late 40s after the Holocaust there was a certain sympathy for Israel, the Jewish and the Zionist cause which continued up to the Six-Day War in 1967 when Israel took over the West Bank,” Loewenstein says.

“Many Western liberals saw it as a quasi-social experiment. Fast-forward to the 20th century and I think what has fundamentally changed, through the internet and television and 9/11, in an ironic way, is that elements of the Western press are more open to perspectives of both Arabs and Palestinians and indeed dissenting Jews like myself.

“In most Western countries, except for the US, and indeed for most of the world for that matter, they are fundamentally supportive of the Palestinians.

“Israel can only survive in its current form with states like Egypt, Jordon, Saudi Arabia and others as dictatorships which are funded and propped up of course by Washington. Anyone, in my view, who believes in human rights, should welcome that change because there is nothing stable about the majority of Arab people who are living under dictatorships. It may be stable for the leaders but that isn’t really good enough.”

Antony Loewenstein will be a guest of the Perth Writer’s Festival. My Israel Question is published by Melbourne University Press ($32.99)

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

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