Speaking in Tongues

Following my appearance on SBS TV this week [now available online, select “Episode 11: Monday 16th January” and here], it’s worth offering some reflections (for further background reading, check here.)

I was moderately happy with my performance. I remained calm throughout, explained why Jews shouldn’t be Zionists due to its racially exclusionary doctrine and that present-day Israel is on a path to oblivion unless it undergoes a fundamental shift. As Israeli historian Ilan Pappe said in 2002: “I think the de-Zionization of Israel is a condition for peace.”

My debating opponent, “comedian” Austen Tayshus, preferred the tactics of bullying and arrogance. Tayshus served a useful purpose in exemplifying the ugly bigotry of the mainstream Jewish community. On the other hand, sadly, it reinforced very unfavourable opinions that have been created in the wider community – through the 2003 Hanan Ashrawi affair – of the intolerance of many Jews towards dissenting opinions and Palestinian voices of reason. Jews are often their own worst enemies. It also might help if Tayshus didn’t look so much like those awful caricatures we know from the 1930s!

After the screening, a friend reminded me of a passage by Marc Ellis, University Professor of American and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for American and Jewish Studies at Baylor University. In his book, “Out of the Ashes“, he describes his participation in a panel on Israel/Palestine in Christchurch, New Zealand. He was up against Yossi Olmert, brother of Ehud [current Israeli Prime Minister]. He writes, parroting Olmert’s paranoid style:

“After all, isn’t every violation of order and decency in the Middle East a violation by Arabs who, if they had the power, would drive the Jews into the sea? Isn’t that the aim of every Arab on the street and every Arab government from now until the end of time? Aren’t moral arguments made on behalf of the Palestinians actually hypocritical, veiled attacks that carry the ominous prospects of another Holocaust? Am I, with others who criticise the Jewish state, contributing to a gathering storm of violence and retribution that might result in a catastrophe for Jews approaching or even surpassing the mass death of Jews in the twentieth century?

“As it turned out, my fears for the integrity of the panel discussion were unfortunately realized. Olmert dominated the discussion as if it were a solo lecture. Not only did he speak far longer than his allotted time, he resisted any attempt to stop him. As his orations grew longer, his vehemence increased.

“Olmert seemed obsessed with the era before the 1967 Israeli-Arab War when Jordan occupied east Jerusalem…With the evening ended, I returned to the home where I was staying. I reflected on the discussion and felt almost as if I had been physically violated…In the morning I had another sense of the previous evening. Rather than by debating skills or truth telling, Olmert had dominated me and the audience with bully tactics. This understanding of Olmert as a bully, remembering that bullies, absent their entourage or, in the case of Israel, an overwhelming arms advantage, are essentially cowards, forced me to a deeper level of sadness with regard to Israel and its future…I view this encounter with the ‘bully of Christchurch’ as a window into the Jewish world as it has evolved over the last decades. With the evolution and expansion of state power in Israel and the accelerated empowerment and achievement of elite influence in the United States, Jewish life around the world has been mobilized and militarised.”

Tayshus tried to steer the conversation away from the Middle East and highlighted the shameful subjugation of the Aboriginal people in Australia. He asked whether I felt ashamed living on occupied land and whether I was campaigning for the country’s rightful owners. I have spoken out on such matters and indeed used to work for a Victorian state government unit dedicated to increasing understanding between white and indigenous Australia.

Zionist adversaries will talk about everything other than Israel’s illegal behaviour and human rights record: Aborigines, Native Americans, Rwanda, life on Mars even. It is a telling tactic. Israel’s behaviour is so indefensible that even in a debate about the Middle East, Zionists prefer to talk about other matters. Indeed, his point was actually in my favour. Tayshus was acknowledging the problems created by an occupied state and showing what happens when that occupation continues unabated – genocide.

Within minutes of the program going to air, I received many emails from complete strangers, keen to learn more about the true situation in Israel and Palestine and engage on a rational level. A small selection of these messages follow:

“I’m sure you will get plenty of emails re: tonight’s show. Just a quick message to say that I thought you came across as sensible, intelligent and balanced. You kept your cool and were not an irrational bully – unlike Austen Tayshus. He embodied the aggressive intolerance that is present on a larger scale that make peace in the middle east so difficult to achieve. Keep up the good work.”

“Watched SBS tonight (Monday) and wondered whether Gutman realises that he does his cause more harm than good by his attitude and approach. It really was an appalling display of ignorance and prejudice. He didn’t give you much opportunity to say a word, and I know it was cut from its original half hour or whatever, but if it was all rant and rave, it is just as well it was cut.”

“You behaved with great restraint and dignity in the presence of a right bully. Whoever edited the piece, though, should be whipped.”

Edward Mariyani-Squire, a regular commentator on this blog, wrote:

“Gutman gave the impression of being a mannerless ranter due to his constant talking over the top of both A.L. and Safran. (I’d hate to say Gutman was living the stereotype of a dogmatic apologist for the occupation, but I think I just did.) Loewenstein, on the other hand, came across as fairly polite and reasonable. Of course, weaker minds who are not across the issues, think yelling over the top of people constitutes civilised debate, and mistake dissembling apologetics for solid arguments, are bound to be impressed by Gutman.”

It never ceases to amaze me that many vocal supporters of Israel are incapable of arguing with anything other than venom, and as my profile increases (and the release of my forthcoming book, speaking engagements and the like), so does the personal abuse. Perhaps it’s because they realise that Zionism’s sheen has been rightly blackened in the last two decades. Or maybe it’s due to the fact that Israeli supporters would rather a brutal occupation remains hidden to the world. Either way, it’s a damning indictment on the desperation of a people long known for suffering degradation and isolation.

Ami Eden, national editor of the leading Jewish publication Forward, challenged this Jewish establishment view in the New York Times in early 2005. “It is time Jews recognise that the old strategies no longer work”, he wrote. “Jewish organisation and advocates fail to grasp that they are no longer viewed as the voice of the disenfranchised. Rather, they are seen as the global Goliath, close to the seats of power and capable of influencing policies and damaging reputations. As such, their efforts to raise the alarm increasingly appear as bullying.”

It is still far too politically and morally convenient for Zionists to portray Israel as “disenfranchised” rather than a global power.

I am a Jew who believes in the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians. And as a Jew, I believe it is my responsibility to speak out when abuse occurs, especially when perpetrated by fellow Jews.

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

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