Self-defence or brutal occupation?

The following article, co-written with a colleague, appears in today’s Age newspaper:

On the world stage, Israel has been traditionally cast as David in a battle against Goliath. But this is too simplistic, for Israel is not without its sins, write Peter Slezak and Antony Loewenstein.

Speaking honestly about Israel and Palestine has always been fraught. Contrary to popular perception, the official public voice of the Australian Jewish community is not without dissent among Jews around the country. Indeed, there is a belief among some that the mainstream view is becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile with the facts, and that Israel and its supporters can no longer justifiably portray the Jewish state as victim, acting only in self-defence.

In their controversial book The Israel Lobby, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt point out that the popular image of David confronted by Goliath, cultivated to maintain Jewish support, is the reverse of the truth. Even from the 1948 War of Independence, well before large-scale US aid, Israeli military power was always superior to that of its neighbours.

Notwithstanding Israel’s military strength, the recent Lebanon war was not just the military disaster to which the Winograd report confined its attention, but a disproportionate response to supposed provocation and involved large-scale war crimes.

While rockets from Hezbollah or Hamas fired on civilians are undeniably crimes, the excesses of Israeli military action, collective punishment and targeted assassinations may be condemned in the same terms and are harder to see as self-defence.

Even more difficult to justify as self-defence is a brutal 40-year military occupation and nearly half a million Israeli settlers on Palestinian land in violation of international law. Despite pious rhetoric from Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd that echoes that of US leaders, the very possibility of a just two-state solution appears remote.

The discrepancy between popular image and tragic reality is not new. For example, conveniently forgotten amid the rhetoric of “existential threat” and Israeli virtue is the 1982 invasion of Lebanon that caused around 20,000 civilian deaths that cannot conceivably be characterised as unintended “collateral damage”. These do not include thousands of victims at Sabra and Shatila for which then defence minister Ariel Sharon was found personally culpable. Such ugly truths have become difficult for Jews to condone in silence.

Despite the efforts of the local Israel lobby, such uncomfortable facts have been highlighted by the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, Israel’s press and academia. For all its faults, Israel has a vigorous and more open intellectual culture and media where the myths sustaining Diaspora communities have been overturned.

For example, a poll conducted by the daily newspaper Haaretz and Tel-Aviv University revealed that nearly two-thirds of the Israeli population wants to negotiate directly with Hamas, contrary to typical media representations of the so-called “peace process”. In reality, the “peace process” is a US-driven policy — in this case subverting the elected Palestinian Government through funding and arming Fatah proxies and their attempted coup in Gaza.

Despite outrage in the Jewish community at the common description of Israel as a racist state responsible for “ethnic cleansing”, the evidence to warrant such confronting language is undeniable. Israel is not the state of its citizens but only of the Jewish people, thereby officially discriminating against a fifth of its population, quite apart from the many administrative, financial and other systematic ways in which Israeli Arabs are disadvantaged.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel recently found that half of Israelis would not live in the same building as Arabs, would not let them into their homes and would not allow their children to befriend them.

The systematic, planned dispossession of Palestinians since 1948, and accompanying atrocities such as the massacre at Deir Yassin in 1948 are rarely discussed in the West, even though they have been extensively documented by Israeli historians such as Ilan Pappe in his recent book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.

The Zionist myth of “a land without a people for a people without a land” continues to be propagated despite being exposed by several Jewish historians as a fraud that has hidden the real tragedy of Palestinian dispossession. The founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, privately wrote that “We must expropriate gently” and Arab expulsion must be discreet.

Leading Israeli historian Benny Morris wrote that the country’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and defence minister, Moshe Dayan, “repeatedly voiced the hope that Israel could complete its historic mission and round out its borders (as well as expel its own, inconvenient Arab minority)”. Ben-Gurion had said as early as 1938: “I support compulsory transfer (of Palestinian Arabs). I do not see in it anything immoral.”

Facing these facts in the Jewish community is discouraged by those who, in American broadcaster Ed Murrow’s familiar words, confuse dissent with disloyalty. Those who voice them are denounced as anti-Semitic or ostracised as “self-hating” Jews. It is revealing that the intense debate about the role of the Israel lobby in the US has not featured in the Australian Jewish community — a symptom of the local lobby’s success in discouraging dissent from the official line.

However, the true friends of Israel are not those who serve as propagandists for official myths but those who stand with the many Israelis to condemn not only the crimes of Palestinians, but also those of the state of Israel. Independent Australian Jewish voices who speak out against crimes committed in their name recognise a responsibility to the wider community, especially Australian Palestinians, to participate in a more balanced dialogue.

Dr Peter Slezak lectures in philosophy at the University of NSW. Antony Loewenstein is a journalist and author of My Israel Question (MUP 2007).

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

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