The real significance of Bob Carr’s comments on Israel lobby

Much of the media has dismissed former Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr’s diaries as being obsessed with irrelevance, diets and exercise. In fact, the diaries are fascinating and focus on a range of international events (see my Guardian column this week on the Zionist lobby sections).

I saw Carr last night at Sydney University and although he’s a confident speaker there’s a level of defensiveness when talking about Israel. He still calls Israel a democracy (conveniently ignoring the nearly 50 year occupation of Palestinian land and people).

Australian academic Scott Burchill has further thoughts:

Carr’s remarks about the Israel lobby in Australia are not revelatory. Serious students of Australian foreign policy know how domestic lobbyists for the US, China, Indonesia, Israel and other states work to co-opt decision-makers and manage public opinion in ways favourable to their political masters. Money buys influence.
 
Nor is it surprising that Julia Gillard’s office was specifically targeted. It wasn’t because the Prime Minister was thought to be insufficiently pro-Israel – she could hardly be more faithful to the Zionist cause. Carr on the other was considered wobbly and had to be controlled where possible by Gillard’s ministerial seniority. And here lies Israel’s current dilemma.
 
The most important aspect of the diaries imbroglio is what Carr’s growing scepticism illustrates – the collapse of support amongst Western social democrats for Israel’s narrative about the “peace process”. They are just not buying it like they used to. The days of uncritical support for Israel’s position and unqualified blame of the Palestinians for the conflict, are over. No amount of residual Holocaust guilt or demonisation of the BDS campaign will bring them back. 
 
European social democrats, and even Democrats in Washington (like Secretary of State John Kerry who is now publicly blaming Israel for the collapse of his “peace mission”) have been its staunchest supporters, but are now fed up with Israeli obstructionism – especially newly invented conditions like the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Some feel duped. They see that as each Palestinian concession is made, a new obstacle to peace mysteriously surfaces from the Israeli side. Increasingly they think Israel is refusing to take yes for an answer, preferring incremental colonisation under the cover of a futile, never-ending “peace process”. Norman Finkelstein has looked closely at this phenomenon in the US, where only the fully owned Congress still ritually incants the old script.
 
This should be the lobby’s biggest worry. If they are losing the support of people like Carr who have shown nothing but fidelity to their narrative up to this point, they are in deep trouble. 
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Why we need to discuss unhealthy power of Zionist lobby part 44225

My weekly Guardian column:

To have a prominent political figure challenging the power and message of the Israel lobby is almost unheard of in most western nations – which is precisely what makes the just released diaries of former Australian foreign minister Bob Carr all the more remarkable.

Across 500 pages, Carr catalogues his intense exercise regime, friendships with Hillary Clinton and Henry Kissinger and hectic schedule of meetings and first-class travel. Carr’s more eccentric quotes certainly makes it tempting to dismiss the book, but to do so would be missing the vital importance of his remarks on the Israel/Palestine conflict and Zionism’s most aggressive advocates.

Carr explains, in compelling detail, how Melbourne’s Zionist lobby pressures, romances, bullies and cajoles politicians to tow the most fundamentalist position over illegal Israeli colonies, Palestinian recognition at the UN, and even the language used to describe Israeli actions. He also claims that Israel lobby financing impacted the positions of elected politicians on foreign policy. Carr reports former Kevin Rudd telling him that about one-fifth of the money he had raised in the 2007 election campaign had come from the Jewish community, and criticises Julia Gillard’s unfailing pro-Israel stance (see, for example, her effusive praise of the Jewish state after she received the Jerusalem Prize), pointing out that she would not even let him criticise Israeli West Bank settlements.

“It’s an appalling situation if Australia allows a group of [Jewish] businessmen [in Melbourne] to veto policy on the Middle East”, Carr summarises in frustration (unsurprisingly, local Zionist groups have responded with fury and defensiveness to the attack).

Carr is right, of course, but I would also have liked to see him discussing in depth the countless numbers of politician and journalists taken on free trips to Israel by the Zionist lobby, where they are often given a selective tour of the region. Tim Wilson, to take just one example, described an introduction to Israel which included a visit to a refugee camp in Bethlehem and a tour of the old city of Jerusalem, along with “meetings with politicians, academics and journalists” (organisers insist guests are “not controlled” and allowed open access).

Part of the softening of politicians to be receptive to the most extreme views on Israel and Palestine comes from those sponsored trips, coupled with relatively weak Palestinian advocacy and a post 9/11 context which paints Arabs with a discriminatory brush. These trips are not, as The Australian claimed last week, “to better understand its strategic fragilities from the ground” – that’s just lobby language. No, those trips – such as AIJAC’s Rambam Israel fellowship – are in essence programs engineered to show journalists, human rights commissioners, advisors, student leaders and politicians the Israeli government perspective. More than a fair share of them return to Australia singing the praises of Israel, issuing caution over any end to the occupation in the process.

Be astounded with this list, provided by the essential blog chronicler of the lobby, Middle East reality check, of all the media and politicians who have taken these trips over the last few years. This hand-holding can be perceived as one way to propagandise the elites against growing public support for Palestine, especially since few of these visitors seem to use their own initiative and visit Gaza or the West Bank for more than a few hours.

The lobby has to acknowledge its power and access to senior politicians. AIJAC head Mark Leibler didn’t realise or care during his ABC TV Lateline interview last week that boasting about such encounters, when most of his meetings with prime ministers and senior ministers aren’t on the public record, reinforces the public perception that they too often operate in the dark, without accountability. Let’s not forget: this is a lobby which often pushes Australia to take a hardline view on settlements on occupied territories only shared by a handful of other nations, such as the Marshall Islands, Palau and Nauru at the UN.

We are that isolated, and Australians deserve to know what goes on behind the scenes. In the meantime, it’s considered perfectly normal for our political class to proudly tweet a photo with Moshe Feiglin, one of the most hardline Israeli politicians (as Australia’s ambassador to Israel did last week), or to welcome a pro-occupation Israeli leader such as Naftali Bennett to Australia.

This is the political environment in which Carr’s diaries and observations must be seen. Australia, and most western countries, continue to indulge Israeli occupation. But cracks are appearing in this strategy, and Carr should be congratulated for slamming the groups and power centres that aim to continue this dysfunctional alliance.

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The Australian review of “Prisoner X”

My following review appears in yesterday’s Weekend Australian newspaper:

Understanding the insular and tribal Melbourne Jewish community has fascinated sociologists for decades. With one of the largest concentrations of Holocaust survivors outside of Israel, proudly Zionist and with strong Jewish day schools, it’s a world that created Ben Zygier, the Australian Mossad agent who committed suicide in a high-security Israeli prison in 2010.

When ABC television’s Foreign Correspondent broke the explosive revelations of so-called Prisoner X last year, defying the Israeli media’s deferential position towards government secrecy, there was intense scrutiny of the role of Mossad in Australia and globally.

ABC investigative reporter Rafael Epstein attempts to unravel the secrets of Zygier’s life as somebody who shares a similar background: this book includes a photograph of the author as a young man in the Galilee, holding a borrowed AR-15 rifle during a visit to the Jewish state.

Epstein details Zygier’s transformation from a boy “brought up on stories of the exploits of Israel’s soldiers and spies” into an individual who decided to dedicate his life to what he viewed as protecting Israel from harm. What creates this fervour is Zionism — Epstein writes of his own experiences that “Zionist youth movements were part of the beginning of the Jewish brand of nationalism” — and the idolisation of Israel (“each session [at the youth group] began with the singing of the Israeli nation­al anthem”). There were times when Epstein and his Jewish friends were “high on Zionism” and he has “vivid, emotional memories of animated late-night conversations about the precise path to a life lived to its potential, preferably in Israel”.

These are important insights into the milieu in which Zygier thrived. One notable absence in Prisoner X, however, is any real discussion about how these realities have created generations of Jews with a mindset that backs hardline Israeli nationalism and West Bank colonies. It’s surely vital to deconstruct why many Jews across the Diaspora have these perspectives. Epstein’s book could have examined them in more detail because Zygier would not have been as committed to the Jewish state if successive Zionist leaders and their followers hadn’t wanted young Jews to almost ignore Palestinians.

Piecing together Zygier’s life is a tough ask. His parents are not talking publicly, so Epstein tries to explain how the Melbourne man became a committed Likudnik (backer of right-wing Israeli policies), fell in with Mossad (he was approached by a partner at the Israeli law firm where he was employed) and worked his way up the intelligence food chain.

Discovering how Mossad recruits young Jews is challenging and Epstein shows the opaque process by which the agency finds willing recruits who have the requisite political acumen.

In fact, as the author details, “many of the people I knew [in Melbourne] could have enlisted and gone on to join the Mossad”. The normality of such a mission, to fight for a nation on the other side of the world, is the key to understanding Zygier and others like him.

Zygier’s career remains murky and Epstein uncovers much new material, including details about work targeting Iran in Europe and the personal cost of Mossad work such as suicide attempts in 2008 and 2009. Zygier, who was married with two young children, became an emotionally fractured man.

Writing recently in The Guardian, Epstein questioned the willingness of Australian politicians to ask hard questions of Israel because of Canberra’s relationship with Tel Aviv. He damned the lack of curiosity among the political elites over Zygier’s work and death.

Epstein feels a responsibility to show respect for the Zygier family — The Australian Jewish News praised the book and author as showing appropriate understanding of the Zionist community — and acknowledges gaps in his knowledge of the story. Still, he demands answers. Prisoner X is a book about prying open a tight world of secrets and betrayal. The supply of young Jews to Israel could be affected by the Zygier case, leaving an uneasy taste in the mouths of many wondering how Israel treats one of its own.

Prisoner X

By Rafael Epstein

MUP, 194pp, $29.99

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist. His most recent book is Profits of Doom.

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“After Zionism” review surfaces

Back in 2012 I co-edited a book, After Zionism, with Ahmed Moor (it was released in an updated edition in 2013).

Now the magazine at the University of Technology Sydney has published a review (yes, just a little late and on page 17):

Israel is a stark anomaly. There are few states in the world that are explicitly designated as the homeland of a single ethnicity. Founded by Zionists as an ethnocracy for the Jewish people, Israel continues to violate liberal principles of statehood. In recent years, with the evident failure of the ‘two-state solution’, Israel and Palestine have been thrown into a carnival of reaction, a downward spiral of ethnic mobilisation. This edited collection asks how to construct an alternative statehood in Israel/Palestine, ‘after’ Zionist ethnonationalism. The intent of breaking from the partitioned two-state model forces questions of bi-nationalism, secularity and diversity onto the table. Such questions are repressed by the border – manifested now as a security wall drawn between Israel and the Occupied Territories. The status quo, where the Israeli state disenfranchises the majority of people under its control, clearly cannot persist. The importance of this book rests within the debate about a single state for Israel and Palestine. With these tensions being reignited in earnest, the perspectives in this book, from a wide range of contributors, are testament to this important development.

James Goodman
Social and Political Change Group, FASS

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FBI Radio interview feature on privatised immigration detention

The issue of privatised immigration detention in Australia and globally is one subject of my book Profits of Doom.

Sydney’s FBI Radio Backchat program produced a strong feature on the issue last weekend and interviewed me about it:

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On racism, how to tackle it and why the state often worsens it

My weekly Guardian column:

As an atheist Jew, I find it distinctly uncomfortable to defend the free speech rights of Holocaust deniers. I utterly oppose the inaccuracy, hatred and intolerance that goes with refuting the reality of Nazi crimes against Jews, gay people, Gypsies and many others.

But a truly free society is one that tolerates and encourages strong exchanges of ideas. This includes the most abominable of them, such as those expressed by German born, Australian-citizen, Holocaust denying Frederick Tobin, a regular bogeyman wheeled out to justify laws against offensive thoughts.

I fundamentally share the view expressed by Noam Chomsky that “acceptable speech” should never be decided by the state, because we “don’t want them to have any right to make any decision about what anybody says.” As a result, “a lot of people are going to say things that you think are rotten, and you’re going to say things that a lot of other people think are rotten.”

Australian academic Clinton Fernandes furthers this argument:

“One of the most important points in any discussion about the right of free speech is this: the defence of a person’s right to express certain views is independent of the views actually expressed. Thus, one might defend Salman Rushdie’s freedom to write The Satanic Verses without agreeing with the content of that book – or even needing to read it.”

These issues have all been thrust back into the public spotlight with the Australian government’s desire to amend the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) to, in their view, expand free and often inflammatory speech. Attorney general George Brandis said last week that, “it is not, in the government’s view, the role of the state to ban conduct merely because it might hurt the feelings of others.”

Tellingly, Brandis has also arguably given the green light for intolerance when he said that people “do have a right to be bigots“. Surely the role of any responsible government is to condemn and fight hatred, rather than encourage it.

The response from the vast bulk of the left to the RDA alterations has been horror and opposition. Minority groups are outraged. The Labor party doesn’t support the changes and leader Bill Shorten has urged the Jewish community to lobby hard against the amendments (a request he would probably not make to other, equally affected communities because of the power of Australian groups backing Israel in influencing both major sides of local politics).

The Zionist establishment, long-time backers of the RDA, have written thousands of words in opposition to the government’s proposed changes, but the irony shouldn’t be lost on us. This is coming from individuals and organisations that routinely petition politicians and media organisations to erect tightly controlled limits on so-called acceptable talk around Israel and Palestine, illegal West Bank colonies and the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. They rarely have any complaints when anti-Muslim or anti-Palestinian sentiment is floated in the press.

Unlike those groups, I welcome a robust discussion over the limits, intent and interest of the state in trying to restrict the most offensive speech imaginable – although I do have some misgivings.

I share some of the concerns of learned law experts, such as Andrew Lynch, a director at the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law at the University of NSW, who writes in the Melbourne Age that the government has a wilful blindness to the profound power disparity between those individuals or groups who may be offended or hurt by hate speech and those most likely to be using them (such as media personalities or politicians). It’s a position utterly lost on cocooned editorial writers and also on columnist Andrew Bolt, who this week praised his ability to receive an apology for hurt feelings, forgetting that his requests come with the power of the massive corporation behind him. Bolt is neither a fair arbiter of how the law should work in relation to hateful speech, nor in a position to understand the awful effect that verbal abuse can have on an Aboriginal, refugee, Jew, Muslim, or Greek.

In supporting some changes to the RDA – principally supporting the removal of laws against “offensive” speech – I acknowledge that I’m writing this as a privileged white man who has rarely experienced racial abuse or hatred because of my religion (except my public, journalistic frankness over Israel/Palestine and the “war on terror” has brought constant hate mail and even death threats).

And at this stage, I also have to underline the fact that the vast bulk of commentators pushing for changes to the RDA are also white and male. It’s impossible to ignore the lack of female, Indigenous and non-Anglo perspectives (there are some exceptions, such as Aboriginal advisorWesley Aird and Sue Gordon, who both back the government’s moves).

As a result, much of the discussion about the RDA is expressed by a political and media class that indulges racism on a daily basis, from theNorthern Territory intervention against Indigenous citizens to our treatment of asylum seekers, racial profiling, or our backing of wars in the Middle East. These groups and individuals don’t really care about tackling everyday racism, preferring to distract the public from their own shocking records instead.

None of this means, though, that those of us who have spent years fighting discrimination against minorities can’t feel uncomfortable with current laws that seek to restrict free speech. The RDA has not reduced tangible racism in Australia (if anything we’re becoming less friendly to migrants, according to a new study) and we shouldn’t look to a state that entrenches racism to legislate against it.

After thinking about this issue for many years, and growing up in the Jewish community I was constantly warned about rampant anti-Semitism, I support this comment by the 20th century American journalist H L Mencken:

“The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.”

It may make our hearts sink, but we owe it to our democracy to defend the rights of the most offensive people in our community.

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ABCTV Big Ideas on Profits of Doom and vulture capitalism

The following was broadcast today on ABCTV1:

Can vulture capitalism be stopped?

That’s the question put up by Antony Loewenstein in his last book ‘Profits of Doom: How vulture capitalism is swallowing the world’.

He’s a writer, photographer, blogger, doco-maker and always a provocateur. He’s in conversation here with Chip Rolley, editor of the ABC’s The Drum.

The focus of this exchange is the implications of privatising prisons, detention centres, aid and security in this country and on a global scale.

To put this conversation in context, it took place at the Perth Writers Festival right after the riot on Manus Island and the death of refugee inmate Reza Barati.

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ABCTV News24′s on racial discrimination, politics and Murdoch empire

I appeared on ABCTV News’s24′s The Drum last Thursday talking about changes in the Murdoch empire, the ethics and politics of changing the racial discrimination laws and why unions are in such dire trouble in Australia:

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The ethics of the US alliance

The job of US State Department favourites (journalists, commentators and politicians who routinely rehash US government talking points over war, peace and the Middle East) must be exhausting. Defending the indefensible while still being on the information drip-feed.

Welcome to the US embassy, the free champagne, caviar and PR tips are in the boardroom.

I was recently attacked, with about as much credibility as Israel when talking about Palestinian rights, by Lowy Institute flak Michael Fullilove over my recent Guardian comments on Russia and Ukraine.

Australian academic Scott Burchill is one of the country’s most astute observers of this pernicious trend. This latest piece by him is spot-on:

Reflexive support for state power and violence by America’s cheerleaders in Australia takes many forms. There are ad hominem attacks on those who disclose Washington’s nefarious secrets, such as its slaughter of journalists in Iraq or its illegal surveillance apparatus directed by the NSA. There is a conspicuous silence when US drones murder civilians in Yemen, Pakistan and  Afghanistan.

Currently there is confected outrage when a rival state cedes territory it considers to be a legitimate strategic asset, but convenient amnesia when questions about invasions and occupations by friends and allies are raised.

Compare the reaction to President Putin’s annexation of Crimea, which has so far resulted in one fatality, with Saudi Arabia’s incursion into Bahrain in 2011 which killed many innocent Shi’ites but which Washington refused to even call an “invasion”. Coincidently, just as Crimea houses the Russian Navy’s Black Sea fleet, Bahrain plays host to the US Fifth Fleet.

Consider Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank, which has killed thousands of Palestinians since 1948, and dispossessed many more, but would not have been possible without Washington’s connivance.

Perhaps there is a closer parallel. We are approaching the 40th anniversary of Turkey’s illegal invasion and occupation of northern Cyprus. Mass expulsions of Greek Cypriots, property theft and egregious human violations including killings and unexplained disappearances, followed the initial attack in July 1974. But Ankara remains a valued NATO ally and there are no suggestions in Washington or Canberra that economic sanctions be imposed on Prime Minister Erdoğan, his business cronies or predecessors. Some invasions and land grabs, such as Indonesia’s 24 year occupation of East Timor which Canberra and Washington enabled, are just fine with us.

Hypocrisy, double standards and selective outrage dominates foreign affairs commentary. Amongst the current avalanche of hysterical Putin bashing in the Western media one fact is always omitted. The US is the most promiscuous interventionary state in the world, with mass slaughters in Afghanistan and Iraq being only the most recent examples of its addiction to military violence. In both these cases Australia was an enthusiastic accomplice.

To those infatuated by power, however, these actions – for which apologies are never issued nor reparations paid – are not crimes, merely “wrong-headed and foolhardy” because Washington’s impact on the world is “benign” (Michael Fullilove) and it remains an “overwhelming force for good in the world” (Greg Sheridan, Kevin Rudd). Just ask the Vietnamese.

Perhaps the strangest claim by American boosters in Australia is that Washington is unfairly singled out for criticism by “the left” and thugs like Putin get off lightly. According to a former Liberal Party staffer, “It’s interesting how little the green-left in Australia has said about Russia’s conquest of Crimea which, under international law, is part of Ukraine. Had the United States done it, I think the green-left would have gone berserk.” (Gerard Henderson ).

Actually, the alleged silence of “the left” is neither interesting nor surprising. Despite its own significant responsibility for what has happened in Ukraine, there is no obsession with Washington’s crimes in the Australian media or across the broader political class. But there should be one.

There is no alliance between Australia and Russia. We don’t have intelligence sharing agreements with Moscow. There are no technology transfers and no Russian troops rotating through Darwin. We don’t play host to “joint facilities” with Russia, have routine ministerial meetings with officials in Moscow or regular bilateral summits between our heads of government. We have no influence on Moscow’s political elite.

We do, however, have limited leverage in Washington. The alliance gives us access to their decision makers, regardless of whether our opinions are welcome. With that opportunity comes a responsibility to exert influence where we can, especially to curb America’s propensity to meet its global political challenges with extreme violence. This does not constitute a disproportionate preoccupation with US foreign policy, as the local Washington lobby would have us believe. As our major ally that is precisely where our focus should be.

It is also our ethical duty. In democratic societies, responsibility for the consequences of our actions extends to the decisions taken by governments on our behalf because we can participate in the process of formulating policy. The US alliance is a policy choice for Australia and there is no evading the moral consequences of that relationship, including the international behaviour of “our great and powerful friend”.

Our leaders closely align themselves with their counterparts in Washington, and claim to share both common values and a similar view of the world. In Iraq and Afghanistan, as in several wars before, we have been willingly complicit in acts of aggression and breaches of international law. Drawing attention to these crimes, as opposed to those committed by others we have no influence upon, does not constitute anti-Americanism. It is our moral and political responsibility. Like charity, analysis and criticism should begin at home.

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Sources and secrets in journalism and state

Essential recent event in New York with Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept, Laura Poitras, filmmaker and Barton Gellman of The Washington Post, talking about Edward Snowden, surveillance, censorship and brave reporting:

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Western hypocrisy over Russia

Brilliantly strong Gideon Levy in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz:

Saddam Hussein has already been executed, and so has Osama bin Laden. But all is not lost for the enlightened West. There is a new devil, and his name is Vladimir Putin. He hates gay people, so the leaders of the enlightenment did not go to Sochi. Now he is occupying land, so sanctions and boycotts will be imposed upon him. The West is screaming bloody murder from wall to wall: How dare he annex territory in Crimea?

The United States is the superpower responsible for the greatest amount of bloodshed since World War II, and the blood of its victims cries out from the soil of Korea and Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. For years, Washington meddled in Latin America’s internal affairs as though those affairs were its own, installing and overthrowing regimes willy-nilly.

Moreover, the number of people in American prisons, and their proportion of the population, is the highest in the world, and that includes China and Russia. Since 1977, 1,246 people, some of whom were innocent of the charges against them, have been executed in the United States. Eight U.S. states limit speech against homosexuality in ways that are remarkably similar to the anti-gay law Putin enacted. It is this superpower that, with its allies and vassal states, is raising an outcry against the new devil.

They cry out against the occupation of the Crimean peninsula as if it were the most awful occupation on earth. They will punish Russia for it, perhaps even fight a world war for the liberation of Sebastopol. America can occupy Iraq — the war on terror and the weapons of mass destruction justify that, as everybody knows — but Russia may not invade Crimea. That is a violation of international law. Even a referendum is a violation of that law — which the West observes so meticulously, as everybody knows.

But of course, the truth is as far from the world of this sanctimonious double standard as east is from west. The annexation of Crimea may be problematic, but it is less problematic than the occupation of the Palestinian territories by Israel. It is more democratic than Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s land-swap proposal; at least Russia asked the inhabitants under which sovereign power they wished to live, something it has never occurred to Lieberman to do.

Russia’s reasons for the annexation of Crimea are also more convincing than the de facto annexation of the Israeli occupied territories. The Russians and the Israelis use the same terminology of ancestral rights and historical connection. The Israelis add reasons from the Bible, and mix in issues like sanctity and messianic belief. “Crimea and Sevastopol are returning to … their home shores, to their home port, to Russia!” said Putin; in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks about “the rock of our existence.” But while most of the inhabitants of Crimea are Russian, most inhabitants of the territories are Palestinian — such a minor, insignificant difference.

Russia is also more honest than Israel: It states its intention of annexing the territory. Israel, which for all intents and purposes annexed its territories long ago, has never dared admit it.

The Israeli occupation does not cry out to the world — not for sanctions and certainly not for threats of war — as the occupation of Crimea does. Netanyahu is not the devil, either in the eyes of the Americans or the Europeans, and Israel’s violations of international law are almost never mentioned. The Israeli occupation, which is more cruel than that of Crimea, is not recognized, and the West does not do a thing to truly bring it to a halt. The United States and Europe even provide it with funding and arms.

This is not to say that Russia does not deserve to be criticized. The legacy of the Soviet Union is horrific, and democracy in Russia is far from real, what with Putin declaring war on the media and on free expression and with the disgraceful Pussy Riot affair; there is rising corruption and, with it, the rule of the oligarchs. Putin does not speak as nobly as U.S. President Barack Obama, but then Guantanamo is run by America, not Russia.

For all the pompous Western talk of justice and international law, it’s actually the Western devil who wears Prada, all the while doing far more than Russia to undermine those vaunted values.

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Why progressives must fight and win the culture wars

My weekly Guardian column is published today:

Australia’s reactionary culture warriors are amateurs compared to their British and American counterparts. Sack the ABC Chairman Jim Spigelman, screams News Limited columnist Piers Akerman. Privatise the public broadcaster, shouts the Institute of Public Affairs (a think-tank that refuses to disclose its funders, though the ABC still allows its spokespeople to appear). Former Liberal party employee Chris Kenny demands respect for the military and tweets like a man possessed about #theirABC and its supposed leftist agenda.

In Britain and America, where Australia’s brave keyboard warriors find their ammunition and snarky lines, the daily drumbeat towards a deregulated, privatised and militarised society continues apace. The commercial interests in neutering competition to this agenda is ignored – who can forget James Murdoch railing against the BBC’s “chilling” size and commercial ambitions in 2009, just before his company was engulfed in the phone-hacking scandal? Yet, despite their massive megaphone, I have long believed that these attacks are the cries of a frustrated minority.

In America an extreme version of the culture wars has life and death consequences. The battle for gay equality and marriage, while not won, is well on the way to being achieved. This is why American Christian fundamentalists are looking further afield to fight for the right to discriminate according to their twisted reading of the Bible. Witness the horrific recent anti-gay laws in Uganda and the clear involvement of US evangelicals. This is a culture war on a global scale, the logical outcome of a perverse belief that homosexuals should be punished or killed for their actions. Thankfully, Australia’s prominent culture warriors aren’t promoting such outrages.

So listen closely. Don’t confuse a loud voice with strength or an aggressive tone with confidence. Insecurity is the mainstay of ideological culture warriors (see the hilarious lead opinion article in the Australian this week about the evil of tattoos, as if a “civilisation collapsing” is occurring because countless men and women enjoy body art. Seriously).

There is no doubt that globalisation has negatively affected the economic well-being of the lower and middle classes, just one explanation for the success of the Tea Party movement. Now Fox News amplifies these grievances, offering a steady diet of stories that leads to many American whites claiming they’re suffering from racism.

The predictability of the attacks, the co-ordinated nature of countless shock-jocks just happening to all agree every week that the ABC, climate change, indigenous rights, gay marriage, asylum seekers or Islam must be abolished, imprisoned, ignored or silenced should be treated with contempt. Tribalism is the language of the hour, mates stick with mates, though it was little different under the previous Labor regime. Our media class prefers an insider culture that rewards favouritism.

And yet the left can’t ignore it, and must find far better strategies to deal with the onslaught. Far too often progressive voices are on the defensive, arguing on the terms set by the opposition, guaranteeing a loss. The culture war isn’t just about point scoring or winning an argument but how a society is taught, ordered, shared, viewed and expanded. We have the right to want a country and community that believes in truly equality and free speech for all, whether we’re Muslim, black, white, anti-Zionist, conservative, green or radical.

The hypocrisy of the right’s position – beautifully articulated by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show last week when he unsurprisingly found Fox News more concerned with some poor people abusing the welfare system than corporate government subsidies – must be exposed and a new, more enlightened framing introduced. The Australian government and its ideological soulmates across the world like to attack the culture of entitlement of the general population while still happily enriching their mates in business with overly generous tax breaks. It’s good to be rich.

A recent case study shows the effectiveness of lo-fi campaigning to address an injustice. Take the controversy over the Sydney Biennale and the apoplectic, elite response to artists and asylum seeker activists campaigning against the sponsorship of Transfield, a company running offshore detention centres. Most media ran countless articles all in furious agreement with the idea that the boycott was misguided. Attorney General George Brandis joined the party and communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull railed against the boycott (thankfully some in the general public showed more sense and Transfield remains in the sights of ethical campaigners).

This was a classic misfire from the critics and an unqualified success by the boycotters. Culture warriors, of the faux-left and right, damned the campaign for not achieving the abolition of offshore processing. That was never the goal, but rather to highlight the supply chain complicity of companies, such as Transfield (and across the arts by Santos and Crown Resorts Foundation, amongst others) who claim to be good corporate citizens and then bleat when challenged on their role in prolonging refugee (plus gambling or climate change) misery. The boycott is the start of a conversation, not the end of it. Moral practices matter and apparently it takes non-politicians and non-journalists to point this out.

The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel is growing globally for precisely the same reason, despite false accusations of anti-Semitism, because citizens are refusing to accept a brutal and illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine and BDS is a legitimate and non-violent to resist. Likewise the Biennale boycott. Two campaigns that refuse to cave to cultural gatekeepers who prefer to operate within the system rather than acting to challenge the toxic nexus between culture, corporatism and human rights.

The culture wars aren’t solely about intellectual issues, fought between competing elites, but the effect of business and government policy on people’s lives. This is why most culture warriors prefer pontificating from the safety of their embedded, well paid bubbles. People are suffering, in Afghanistan, on Manus Island or under the Northern Territory Intervention, while shock-jocks express outrage over the latest confected scandal.

It’s necessary to include a wide variety of voices in public discussions – the BBC news presenter John Humphrys recently accused his broadcaster of ignoring more skeptical views on the EU and immigration though the BBC’s pro-government stances are clear – and the ABC could undoubtedly have far more challenging perspectives across the political spectrum.

We have to fight the tendency to ignore these battles because they’re too hard or tiresome; a more just and transparent world depends on us engaged in these arguments and gaining support from ordinary people because without them we’re merely arguing with each other.

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