Profits_of_doom_cover_350Vulture capitalism has seen the corporation become more powerful than the state, and yet its work is often done by stealth, supported by political and media elites. The result is privatised wars and outsourced detention centres, mining companies pillaging precious land in developing countries and struggling nations invaded by NGOs and the corporate dollar. Best-selling journalist Antony Loewenstein travels to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea and across Australia to witness the reality of this largely hidden world of privatised detention centres, outsourced aid, destructive resource wars and militarized private security. Who is involved and why? Can it be stopped? What are the alternatives in a globalised world? Profits of Doom, published in 2013 and released in an updated edition in 2014, challenges the fundamentals of our unsustainable way of life and the money-making imperatives driving it. It is released in an updated edition in 2014.
forgodssakecover Four Australian thinkers come together to ask and answer the big questions, such as: What is the nature of the universe? Doesn't religion cause most of the conflict in the world? And Where do we find hope?   We are introduced to different belief systems – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – and to the argument that atheism, like organised religion, has its own compelling logic. And we gain insight into the life events that led each author to their current position.   Jane Caro flirted briefly with spiritual belief, inspired by 19th century literary heroines such as Elizabeth Gaskell and the Bronte sisters. Antony Loewenstein is proudly culturally, yet unconventionally, Jewish. Simon Smart is firmly and resolutely a Christian, but one who has had some of his most profound spiritual moments while surfing. Rachel Woodlock grew up in the alternative embrace of Baha'i belief but became entranced by its older parent religion, Islam.   Provocative, informative and passionately argued, For God's Sakepublished in 2013, encourages us to accept religious differences, but to also challenge more vigorously the beliefs that create discord.  
After Zionism, published in 2012 and 2013 with co-editor Ahmed Moor, brings together some of the world s leading thinkers on the Middle East question to dissect the century-long conflict between Zionism and the Palestinians, and to explore possible forms of a one-state solution. Time has run out for the two-state solution because of the unending and permanent Jewish colonization of Palestinian land. Although deep mistrust exists on both sides of the conflict, growing numbers of Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Arabs are working together to forge a different, unified future. Progressive and realist ideas are at last gaining a foothold in the discourse, while those influenced by the colonial era have been discredited or abandoned. Whatever the political solution may be, Palestinian and Israeli lives are intertwined, enmeshed, irrevocably. This daring and timely collection includes essays by Omar Barghouti, Jonathan Cook, Joseph Dana, Jeremiah Haber, Jeff Halper, Ghada Karmi, Antony Loewenstein, Saree Makdisi, John Mearsheimer, Ahmed Moor, Ilan Pappe, Sara Roy and Phil Weiss.
The 2008 financial crisis opened the door for a bold, progressive social movement. But despite widespread revulsion at economic inequity and political opportunism, after the crash very little has changed. Has the Left failed? What agenda should progressives pursue? And what alternatives do they dare to imagine? Left Turn, published by Melbourne University Press in 2012 and co-edited with Jeff Sparrow, is aimed at the many Australians disillusioned with the political process. It includes passionate and challenging contributions by a diverse range of writers, thinkers and politicians, from Larissa Berendht and Christos Tsiolkas to Guy Rundle and Lee Rhiannon. These essays offer perspectives largely excluded from the mainstream. They offer possibilities for resistance and for a renewed struggle for change.
The Blogging Revolution, released by Melbourne University Press in 2008, is a colourful and revelatory account of bloggers around the globe why live and write under repressive regimes - many of them risking their lives in doing so. Antony Loewenstein's travels take him to private parties in Iran and Egypt, internet cafes in Saudi Arabia and Damascus, to the homes of Cuban dissidents and into newspaper offices in Beijing, where he discovers the ways in which the internet is threatening the ruld of governments. Through first-hand investigations, he reveals the complicity of Western multinationals in assisting the restriction of information in these countries and how bloggers are leading the charge for change. The blogging revolution is a superb examination about the nature of repression in the twenty-first century and the power of brave individuals to overcome it. It was released in an updated edition in 2011, post the Arab revolutions, and an updated Indian print version in 2011.
The best-selling book on the Israel/Palestine conflict, My Israel Question - on Jewish identity, the Zionist lobby, reporting from Palestine and future Middle East directions - was released by Melbourne University Press in 2006. A new, updated edition was released in 2007 (and reprinted again in 2008). The book was short-listed for the 2007 NSW Premier's Literary Award. Another fully updated, third edition was published in 2009. It was released in all e-book formats in 2011. An updated and translated edition was published in Arabic in 2012.

Only fools deny reality of apartheid in Palestine

After US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent comment about “apartheid” one day potentially appearing in Israeli controlled Palestine, the reality today is that apartheid already exists.

Two pieces from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

An editorial:

At a G-20 conference in Cannes in November 2011, then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy termed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “liar” and said he “can’t stand” the Israeli leader. U.S. President Barack Obama responded, “You’re tired of him; what about me? I have to deal with him every day.” These rare quotes, revealing truths that are usually kept from the public due to the rules of diplomacy and political correctness, came to light only because the two presidents didn’t realize that the microphones were still on.

Now, it is John Kerry’s turn. In contrast to Sarkozy and Obama, the U.S. secretary of state was caught revealing truths not about people, but about fundamental issues. During a meeting of the Trilateral Commission last week, Kerry was recorded as saying, “A two-state solution will be clearly underscored as the only real alternative. Because a unitary state winds up either being an apartheid state with second-class citizens—or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state.” He also warned that a stalemate in the peace process could lead to renewed violence in the territories, while hinting that progress might be possible under a different government: If “there is a change of government or a change of heart, something will happen,” he said.

Kerry’s frank statements weren’t the sort that diplomatic ears are accustomed to hearing, and he was therefore subjected to a wave of political and personal attacks for having made them. He was even forced to publicly express regret for having used the word “apartheid,” saying, “If I could rewind the tape, I would have chosen a different word.”

It’s no accident that Kerry was forced to retract the term “apartheid” in particular. There’s good reason for the sensitivity over comparisons of Israel with apartheid-era South Africa: Aspects of apartheid already exist in Israel, and they are liable to expand if the two-state solution collapses. But instead of working to alter the country’s destructive direction, groups and individuals that call themselves “pro-Israel” are trying to obscure the grim reality by denying the “apartheid” label.

Kerry’s “off-the-record” remarks essentially described reality: Israel cannot remain a Jewish and democratic state without a two-state solution, a unitary state would be an apartheid state, a stalemate in the peace process is liable to lead to another intifada and a change in the composition of Israel’s government, and/or the person heading it, is liable to change the picture. The troubling snapshot of reality that Kerry presented must be altered by implementing a two-state solution. For unlike an audio recording, the tragedy that is gradually taking shape here won’t be possible to rewind or erase.

Gideon Levy:

Is Israel at risk of becoming an apartheid state, as John Kerry said on Friday, or not, as he said on Tuesday? Who knows? Given his feeble performance as U.S. secretary of state and his disgraceful apology, maybe it no longer matters what Kerry thinks or says. Given the aggressiveness of the Jewish lobby and the weakness of the Obama administration, which capitulates to every “pro-Israel” whim, Israel doesn’t need enemies with friends like these. Look what happened to its genuine friend, who was only trying to warn it from itself.

What a miserable secretary of state, up to his neck in denial. And how unfriendly to Israel he is to retract his frank, genuine and friendly warning merely for fear of the lobby. Now millions of ignorant Americans, viewers of Fox News and its ilk, know that Israel is in no risk of becoming an apartheid state. They believe the power of Hamas and the sophistication of Qassam rocket pose an existential danger to Israel .

But Kerry’s vacillations do not change the reality that shrieks from every wall. From every West Bank Palestinian village, from every reservoir and power grid that is for Jews only; apartheid screams from every demolished tent encampment and every verdict of the military court; from every nighttime arrest, every checkpoint, every eviction order and every settlement home. No, Israel is not an apartheid state, but for nearly 50 years an apartheid regime has ruled its occupied territories. Those who want to continue to live a lie, to repress and to deny are invited to visit Hebron. No honest, decent person could return without admitting the existence of apartheid. Those who fear that politically incorrect word have only to walk for a few minutes down Shuhada Street, with its segregated road and sidewalks, and their fear of using the forbidden word will vanish without a trace.

The history of the conflict is filled with forbidden words. Once upon a time, it was forbidden to say “Palestinians” was forbidden, after that came the prohibitions against saying “occupation,” “war crime,” “colonialism” or “binational state.” Now “apartheid” is prohibited.

The forbidden words paralyze debate. Did you let the word “apartheid” slip out? The truth is no longer important. But no political correctness or bowdlerization, however sanctimonious, can conceal reality forever. And the reality is an occupation regime of apartheid.

The naysayers can find countless differences between the apartheid of Pretoria and that of Jerusalem. Pretoria’s was openly racist and anchored in law; Jerusalem’s is denied and repressed, hidden beneath a heavy cloak of propaganda and messianic religious faith. But the result is the same. Some South Africans who lived under the system of segregation say that their apartheid was worse. I know South Africans who say that the version in the territories is worse. But neither group can find a significant difference at the root: When two nations share the same piece of land and one has full rights while the other has no rights, that is apartheid. If it looks like apartheid, walks like apartheid and quacks like apartheid, it’s apartheid.

Israel is an incipient apartheid state, just as Kerry I said on Friday. Kerry II, on Tuesday, merely tried to blur and hide the truth for fear of the lobby. But apartheid is in our future. If there won’t be two states, there will be only one. If there won’t be a democratic, egalitarian state, a state of all its citizens, then there will be an apartheid state. There is no other option. With its actions, Israel is saying a firm “no” to the two-state solution. With its fear of a non-Jewish state, Israel is saying no to a democratic, binational state. Where does that leave us? With an apartheid state. As Naomi Shemer said in her optimistic song “Mahar” (“Tomorrow”): If not today, then tomorrow, and if not tomorrow, then the day after.

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Thank you Zionist lobby for helping grow BDS profile

Interesting article in yesterday’s Australian explaining how typically ham-fisted, bullying and clueless media attacks by the Israel lobby is helping to draw public attention to the rise of boycotts against Israel. No kidding:

A Jewish association has branded the racial discrimination case against University of Sydney’s Jake Lynch counter-productive, saying it has only raised the profile of his support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign against Israel.

Since the Israeli legal activist group Shurat HaDin launched the lawsuit in the Federal Court, Professor Lynch’s stand has become a cause celebre in sections of the academic community, claiming the right to freedom of speech and academic expression is under attack.

In the Federal Court in Sydney on Thursday, judge Alan Robertson rejected allegations Professor Lynch was a leader of the global boycott campaign in Australia.

Two new groups have been established to support him and the global BDS movement, including one among university staff. One of the organisers of the Sydney Staff for BDS group, lecturer Nick Riemer, said he and other staff decided to create it “because of what’s happened to Jake’’.

The groups have helped raise about $20,000 towards Professor Lynch’s legal defence, he has been invited to address BDS public meetings around the country, and one recent BDS event in Sydney in his support drew about 200 people.

One of the pro-Lynch speakers at the Sydney fundraiser, Jewish Israeli academic Marcelo Svirsky who is a lecturer at the University of Wollongong, says he will walk from Sydney to Canberra later this year to raise awareness of the BDS campaign.

Dr Svirsky said he would stop in towns along the way to deliver public addresses and then lodge a submission in parliament calling on the government to back BDS.

Executive Council of Australian Jewry executive director Peter Wertheim said Shurat HaDin’s legal action against Professor Lynch was “the wrong way to oppose BDS”.

“Regardless of the outcome, the Shurat HaDin court case would give a very marginal BDS campaign in Australia undeserved exposure and a shot in the arm,” Mr Wertheim said. “Our organisation’s strategy has been to expose the aims and methods of the BDS campaign in the marketplace of ideas.”

Shurat HaDin launched the lawsuit against Professor Lynch after he declined to support an application from Israeli academic Dan Avnon for a visiting fellowship at the university.

It claims his action and BDS generally breach the Racial Discrimination Act and the Human Rights Act because they discriminate against a class of people — Jewish Israelis.

Dr Svirsky, a political scientist who grew up in Argentina but moved to Israel after being conscripted during the Falklands War, said “there is increasing support for Lynch because of this particular case in court”.

“For me the BDS is about not just ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, but also the rules of the apartheid in Israel,” he said.

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How to solve the Middle East crisis in eight minutes

Rap News have been producing sensational political videos for years. Their latest, on Israel/Palestine, is a cracker:

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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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Personally supporting BDS against Israel

Last night in Sydney there was a successful event to highlight the growing global movement of BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) against Israel and the legal case against proponent and Sydney University academic Dr Jake Lynch.

Around 140 people came to hear various speakers detailing the many reasons BDS is one just way to apply pressure on occupying Israel.

Here’s my statement of support that I read last night:

South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a key successful fighter against apartheid in South Africa, recently wrote a letter condemning US lawmakers for their increasingly crude attempts to curb free speech over BDS. Tutu argued why he long backed BDS:

“I have supported this movement because it exerts pressure without violence on the State of Israel to create lasting peace for the citizens of Israel and Palestine, peace which most citizens crave. I have witnessed the systematic violence against and humiliation of Palestinian men, women and children by members of the Israeli security forces. Their humiliation and pain is all too familiar to us South Africans.”

I support BDS as a human being first and a Jew second. Don’t believe the false rhetoric from the corporate press, some politicians and media as well as the Zionist lobby that BDS is anti-Semitic or discriminatory. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking at the leading US Israel lobby conference this year, slammed BDS backers as “bigots”. It was a desperate move from a leader and movement, Zionism, that is increasingly known globally as occupiers and brutes. 

BDS is working, removing the legitimacy of a nation that claims to be a democracy but oppresses millions of Palestinians every day. I have seen this with my own eyes in Israel proper, the West Bank and Gaza. 

BDS has moved mainstream, from leading European pension funds divesting from Israeli banks and corporations operating illegally in the occupied territories to Sydney University Professor Jake Lynch refusing to partner with an Israeli academic whose institution colludes with the Israeli state and enforces the occupation. I am proud to call Jake a friend, colleague and partner. 

Believe me when I say that growing numbers of Jews worldwide are uncomfortable with blind support for Israel. Ferocious debates within the Jewish community in the US are a weekly affair. It bodes well for a future when justice for all Jews and Palestinians is possible and both peoples can live free from racism in the name of Zionism. 

When the US-led “peace process” is a sham designed to benefit Israel and the Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop refuses to condemn Israeli colonies in the West Bank, BDS is one answer. It challenges the occupier and the forces that support it, demanding equality and punishing the individuals and groups, such as Sodastream, that aim to financially benefit.  

BDS is growing and I’m proud to be part of a global movement that’s led by the Palestinians most directly affected. 

UPDATE: Green Left Weekly has covered the event.

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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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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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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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Latest news on My Israel Question Arabic

In 2013 my first book My Israel Question was translated and published in Arabic by the Lebanese-based publisher All Prints. The name was changed to Cases Against Israel.

Here are some of the positive reviews (just Google Translate here, here and the most recent from late 2013 is here.) You can buy it here so please tell all your friends in the Arab world.

I’m told the book is available in most Arab countries.

I’m happy that this title continues to generate debate in the Arab world where a dissident Jewish, atheist voice isn’t too often heard.

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On anti-Semitism, BDS, Palestine and justice

My essay in New Matilda is here:

As the BDS campaign starts to gain traction, accusations of anti-semitism should be treated gravely – whether from pro-Palestine advocates or Israel’s defenders, writes Antony Loewenstein

The charges of racism were serious. University orientation weeks, reported Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper, The Australian, in early March, “have been marred by a series of alleged anti-semitic incidents”.

Socialist Alternative stood accused, according to the Australian Union of Jewish Students, of expressing hateful comments towards Jewish students, praising Hamas and calling for “death to the Zionist entity” at the Australian National University and the University of New South Wales.

The reliability of the allegations of anti-semitism has not yet been assessed but, if they are found to be true, those responsible must be opposed. A spokesperson from Socialist Alternative tells me that his organisation categorically denies all of the allegations.

Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne, a man who never misses an opportunity to fight a culture war he can’t win, accused backers of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel of making anti-semitism “a fashionability among highly ignorant sections of the far Left”. He wanted universities to “step in and take a very firm line” against racism on campus. “Free speech does not extend to ugly threats and physical harassment,” he argued.

It’s time to call this co-ordinated campaign of the local Zionist lobby and the Murdoch press for what it is; a cheapening of real anti-semitism and a clear attempt to brand all critics of Israel as Jew haters. It’s a tactic imported from America and Europe, articulated from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu down, that aims to neuter opponents of the Jewish state’s brutal, military occupation as deluded and anti-semitic.

The rhetoric is increasing as BDS scores impressive wins globally — countless European firms are changing their business practices towards Israel in rejecting the occupation — and has entered the mainstream as a legitimate tool to oppose Israeli policies.

Israel supporters have long believed that better PR will solve its problems, as if, for example, there’s any way to positively spin dozens of Israeli teens announcing their refusal to serve in the IDF due to its deleterious effect on Israeli society and Palestinian lives.

It’s a small but deeply courageous step in a society that still idolises a human rights abusing army (Amnesty’s new report details countless examples of the IDF killing Palestinian civilians in cold blood).

None of these profound shifts should escape the debate in Australian, where the Federal Government refuses to condemn illegal Israeli colonies in the West Bank.

The establishment Zionist lobby has tried for decades, with a degree of success, to insulate the Jewish community from the realities of occupying Palestine.

The advent of the internet and social media, along with a more critical young population who won’t be easily bullied into support for Israel because of the Holocaust, are changing the landscape. Hence the need to use old, tired tactics. Parroting Netanyahu’s fear-mongering over Iran and Arabs is increasingly treated worldwide with the contempt it deserves.

The old men who run the Jewish community may catch on one day that it isn’t enough to run an hackneyed style enemies list against opponents; countless journalists and editors will tell you of the bullying calls, letters and emails employed by the Zionist community against critical coverage. It only sometimes now works.

It’s a failing style even called out by The Australian’s Middle East correspondent John Lyons in a recent, robust defence of his stunning ABC TV 4 Corners story on Palestine, accusing distant, self-appointed Zionist leaders of being little more than blind defenders of Israeli government policy. Pundits take note: whenever quoting such people remember to whom they pledge partial allegiance and ask about their funding sources.

Any form of racism must be completely condemned, whether it’s directed at Jews, Muslims, Christians or other minorities. But the way in which a state and community deals with racism is a more pressing the question. After years of falsely accusing critics of Israel of anti-semitism — Sydney University’s Jake Lynch is the latest person to face the predictable and costly wrath of an Israeli-government endorsed legal case against his ethically justified backing of BDS — the organised Zionist establishment lacks credibility in crying about opposing racism, when it so flagrantly encourages demonisation of Israel’s critics along racial lines.

They have a morally compromised voice by being occupation backers themselves. How dare they claim to cry over an alleged rise in real anti-semitism (mostly online) while at the same time shedding crocodile tears against the growing BDS movement? Perhaps they should learn some humility and recognise what their beloved state has become known for globally: repressing Palestinians.

Politically, the Abbott government has pledged to remove section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act in an attempt, in their words, to increase free speech (a position loudly backed by The Australian).

Federal Attorney George Brandis said on ABC TV’s Q&A this week, defending his administration’s proposed changes that are opposed by the Jewish community and many other ethnic groups, that the current drafting in section 18C restricts the rights of all peoples to speak and be offensive. Now that there are signs that Brandis may be back-tracking on a complete repeal of the section, it’s really only the Murdoch press that bangs on about “free speech” while denying the same rights to many of its critics.

Despite all this, I’ve argued elsewhere, in opposition to many on the Left who believe the legislation should remain unchanged, that although all speech has limits, a robust democracy should legally tolerate insults over race. But the vast bulk of “discussion” over 18C has been at a desultory level.

Take the recent Australian Jewish News article by Fergal Davis, a senior lecturer in law at the University of NSW. He backed maintaining the current 18C legislation and then wistfully argued that the Abbott government could be the champions of human rights because “we must convince Australians that human rights are not ‘left wing’; they are at the heart of the fair go.” Nice sentiments, but utterly removed from reality. Davis ignores the new government’s shocking treatment of asylum seekers and refusal to seriously condemn abuses at the UN by allies Sri Lanka, Israel and Egypt.

The real questions for the Murdoch press, Zionist establishment, Abbott ministers and other supposed defenders of open speech are as follows: will you follow the path of many politicians in the US, both Democrat and Republican, who are increasingly trying to criminalise civilian backing for BDS? How serious is your commitment to free speech? How willing are you to preach tolerance and acceptance while believing that certain issues, such as legitimate criticisms of Israel (defined by whom will always be the question?) are beyond the pale and anti-semitic?

Away from the huffing and puffing of self-described friends of Israel lies the real limits of insulating Israel from criticism. Trying to stop BDS, through the courts, laws, parliament or defamatory attacks, will change nothing on the ground for Palestinians, and countless people around the world now know it. Israel and its dwindling band of Zionist backers in Australia and worldwide are desperately hanging onto 20th century tactics to fight modern opposition to a racially based state.

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