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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“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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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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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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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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A truly free society would support and not silence BDS

Me at ABC’s The Drum today:

The BDS movement is a logical and non-violent response to human rights abuses in Palestine, so why is it being threatened in a country like America that prides itself on free speech, asks Antony Loewenstein.

It seems barely a week passes without a student union or corporation somewhere in the world taking a public stand against Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Many now state that they’re following the dictates of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement as a way to protest ongoing colonisation of the West Bank and Gaza which remains in breach of international law. In America, where free speech is a long-held tradition, BDS faces multiple attacks against its legitimacy and legal right to be heard, as well as allegations of anti-Semitism.

Today it’s clear that the US political system and, in my view, the sham “peace process” is little more than cover for ongoing and illegal settlement expansion; BDS is rising globally in popularity and coverage partly due to this fact. Even The Australian’s Middle East reporter John Lyons in his paper, the most pro-Israel publication in the country, last weekend accused Australian Zionist leaders of ignoring the human cost of the occupation. For some citizens BDS is seen as a logical, humane and non-violent response to these abuses in Palestine (abuses which countries like the US, UK, and Australia only denounce through lip service). This right, to condemn Israeli actions, should be a fundamental tenet of any democracy.

The only official answer, offered by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters, is falsely accusing BDS of anti-Semitism. At the recent Israel lobby AIPAC conference in Washington, Netanyahu mentioned BDS many times - so much for it being irrelevant and ineffectual as Zionists often claim - and said its adherents were just the latest believers in anti-Semitism. It’s a slur that many people dismiss, hence the gradual rise in BDS support.

Concerned Israeli businesspeople are already feeling the strain and Israeli commentators are worrying that Israel is not winning the war over narrative.

Just this week the National University of Galway passed a motion in support of BDS and therefore became Ireland’s first student union to get on-board. The reason for this move was made clear in the public statement: “Institutional collusion between NUI Galway and Israeli oppression, such as NUI Galway’s use of G4S, the international security company notorious for its provision of security and incarceration ‘services’ to Israel’s inhumane prison regime.”

Last month the student union at the University of Kent decided to sever its ties with G4S and find another provider for assisting the union with a cash handling role. The complicity of G4S in breaching human rights is global, from Australian-run detention centres to poorly run British immigration houses, and cutting ties with the English multinational is gathering steam. The message is clear; hit a company and its shareholders where it hurts, the bottom line.

In the US, politicians and conservative commentators are arguing for the criminalisation of BDS. This would have a chilling effect on free speech in a nation that likes to pride itself on the sanctity of the First Amendment. Perhaps surprisingly, given the American press insulates Americans from the brutal, daily reality of Israeli actions, opposition has been encouragingly strong.

Back in December the American Studies Association (ASA) endorsed BDS and the Palestinian call to boycott Israeli universities due to their complicity in the Israeli infrastructure of occupation. Individual Israeli academics would not be targeted but any official association with the Israeli state would end until “Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law”.

As a result of this strong and principled stance, echoing the campaign against apartheid South Africa, other state legislatures pledged to help Israel. New York politicians wanted to pass a bill that would have blocked the state from funding academic groups that supported the idea. I wonder if this political enthusiasm was more about securing funding for future political campaigns than an actual belief in Israel. Whatever the case, free speech was threatened and many politicians are still pledging to take action.

The New York Times editorialised (before the bill failed) and wrote that it “would trample on academic freedoms and chill free speech and dissent. Academics are rightly concerned that it will impose a political test on faculty members seeking university support for research meetings and travel”.

The Maryland General Assembly also recently moved to insulate Israel from criticism with a similar bill and even the Washington Post, a strident backer of Israel, condemned it. Maryland may well still back this bill – it has not been quashed.

There are countless other moves to silence free speech over legitimate criticism of Israel, including members of Northeastern University’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) being told in early March that their chapter had been suspended for at least a year. The reason that university administrators said the students needed to undergo training was principally due to the group distributing notices across campus that parodied similar eviction notices placed on Palestinian homes targeted for Israeli demolition. Astoundingly, the police were called in to investigate. And this all for just distributing brochures.

This example and many others are why a number of US academics, including Judith Butler and Rashid Khalidi, signed a recent statement that read in part:

“It is important to recognise that boycotts are internationally affirmed and constitutionally protected forms of political expression … We are now witnessing accelerating efforts to curtail speech, to exercise censorship, and to carry out retaliatory action against individuals on the basis of their political views or associations, notably support for BDS. We ask cultural and educational institutions to have the courage and the principle to stand for, and safeguard, the very principles of free expression and the free exchange of ideas that make those institutions possible.”

This message must be the core of any reasonable public debate over BDS. Disagreeing with its aim is a legitimate position, of course, but a free society, in America or beyond, is defined by the ability to both tolerate and encourage speech and views that some may find repugnant. American Jewish leaders are waking up to the BDS “threat” and aiming to counter with a pro-Israel message. It’s unlikely that slicker PR will be enough.

The strength of BDS, explained by Jewish Voice for Peace head Rebecca Vilkomerson this month, is that it’s forcing self-described liberals to struggle with the once accepted idea that Israel can be both Jewish and democratic when all the evidence is proving its impossibility. “As a people who have experienced over and over the trauma of refugee-hood and longing for homeland,” she argues, “how can we possibly deny the validity of the right of return for Palestinians? And which do we value more: our fears or our respect for the universality of rights for all people?”

The building debate over Israel/Palestine, with Jews and Arabs, is increasingly about enlarging the tent of public discussion and articulating why virtually all points of view (except for Holocaust denial) must be integral to mature contemporary debate.

A society that believes in free speech would welcome a multitude of views over the Middle East. Trying to intimidate or silence critics of Israel, and its ongoing occupation, is not the way to engender support for the Jewish state.

Antony Loewenstein is a freelance journalist, author, photographer and blogger. His latest book is Profits Of Doom. View his full profile here.

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Why Zionism is incompatible with democracy

Great discussion on Al Jazeera English on the (in?) ability of the Jewish state to be a truly democratic nation for all its citizens. Mehdi Hasan debates with former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami:

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How Israel brutally imposes regional order (yet fails to get respect)

A strong piece by Larry Derfner in +972 magazine:

Most people in the West, I’d say, think that if Israel gives up the occupation, it will be healed. It will no longer be a danger to others and itself. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and additional proof of this came Monday night when Israeli jet bombers again struck Hezbollah in Lebanon. The attack was another reminder that even if Israel were to get out of the West Bank and adopt a hands-off policy toward Gaza, it still believes it has the right to bomb neighboring countries to retard their military develoIpment, all the while Israel itself, of course, goes on building its arsenal to the heavens.

That won’t change if Israel signs a peace treaty with the Palestinians. Hezbollah will still be arming itself across the border, Muslim countries will sooner or later try to build nuclear weapons. And Israel won’t tolerate that; Israel will keep sending out the jet bombers (unless, as in the case with Iran, America puts its foot down).

Israel’s regional military policy – bombing Iraq’s embryonic nuclear reactor (which marked not the end of Saddam’s nuclear program, but really its beginning), bombing Syria’s embryonic nuclear reactor, killing Iranian nuclear scientists, killing Hezbollah’s military chief, bombing Hamas-bound arms convoys in Sudan, and, the latest obsession, bombing Hezbollah-bound arms convoys along the Lebanese-Syrian border – is more dangerous, at least in the short term, than the occupation. Any of these attacks could start a war, and eventually one of them is likely to do just that, unless you believe that Israel can go on hitting its neighbors indefinitely without them ever hitting back. (Since the 2006 war in Lebanon, the blowback has been limited to a Hezbollah terror attack that killed five Israelis on a tourist bus in Burgas, Bulgaria, and an Iranian attack on the Israeli embassy in New Delhi that injured the wife of a diplomat.)

Another way in which Israel’s regional military policy is a worse problem than the occupation is the complete acceptance of it by the country’s Jewish majority, and the apathy toward it from the Western world. That these attacks are acts of military aggression by a regional superpower using bombs to maintain its “qualitative edge” doesn’t seem to matter to anyone; Hezbollah is bad, Iran is bad, Syria is bad, they’re all bad, and Israel is good, or at least relatively good, so anything goes. (As long as it doesn’t backfire.) These enemies are “pledged to Israel’s destruction,” they’re “militant Islamists,” so Israel can attack them to its heart’s content. They don’t have to fire any missiles at Israel, they just have to possess those missiles (which are a pittance compared to Israel’s), and any Israeli bombing run on their territory automatically becomes “self-defense.”

It goes without saying that if any of the neighbors bombed Israel’s advanced weapons or killed its nuclear scientists or even tried to fly a spy plane through its airspace, which Israel does about every other day in Lebanon, it would be treated as an act of war, an attempt to destroy this country.

You would think that a nation which is so much stronger than its enemies, which attacks them time after time without getting hit back, would one day say: “What do you know – they’re afraid of me. That means I don’t have to attack them – I just have to sit on my military superiority and I’ll be safe. There’s a name for this, isn’t there? Oh yeah – deterrence.” Israel’s deterrence, as seen again in Monday night’s lethal, unanswered attack on Hezbollah, is absolutely incredible. Hezbollah, Syria, Iran – as much as they loathe Israel, as much as they’d love to attack it, not only don’t they attack, they very rarely lift a finger when Israel attacks them! Yet this country goes on doing it because it believes that if these enemies ever get even a fraction of the sophisticated weaponry Israel has, they will go for the kill.

The problem with this theory is it assumes that Iraq, Syria, Iran and Hezbollah (not to mention the Palestinians, who have been under attack 24/7 for nearly half a century) are willing to destroy themselves for the sake of destroying this country. Because no matter how strong they get, they will never be able to carry out a crushing, life-threatening attack on Israel, even with nuclear weapons, without ending up in smoking ruins themselves.

But Israeli policy is based on the assumption that its enemies are willing – no, eager – to pay that price. They are willing to die en masse for the privilege of annihilating the Jewish state. And there’s no deterrence against that, there’s only, as Prime Minister Netanyahu likes to call it, “vigilance.”

Yet what does this assumption say about Israel’s view of its enemies? That they’re not exactly human. They’re willing to sacrifice their entire country, their entire society, for the sake of destroying this one. What human society has ever been willing to do that? What species of animal has ever been homicidal to the point of collective suicide? Yet this is what Israel believes about its enemies, which is why it can’t stop bombing them. We’re up against a “culture of death.” As Golda Meir said, in one of the most beloved aphorisms of Zionist history, “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.”

This is what we believe: that the Arabs hate us more than they love their children.

There is a term for an attitude such as ours: “dehumanization.”

It is dehumanization of Arabs, of Muslims, that causes Israel to go on bombing its enemies even when those enemies don’t retaliate, even when they are incomparably weaker than Israel, even when it’s self-evident to Israel that those enemies know how weak they are and how strong Israel is. We bomb them because we know that if they ever stop being weak, they will kill us, even though they know we will kill them, too, because they don’t care. They hate us more than they love their own children.

They’re not human. There’s no deterrence against them. Only vigilance.

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Dangers of corporate sponsorship for cultural and artistic events

My weekly Guardian column is below:

The 19th Biennale of Sydney opens on 21 March. There will be a range of artists displaying all manners of artistic endeavour. So far, so good.

But a major sponsor is Transfield, a company used by the Australian Federal Government to handle refugee services and which therefore profits from the asylum seeker industry on Nauru and Manus Island. This association has caused refugee activists to call for a boycott of the Biennale.

Sydney design academic, Matthew Kiem, recently penned an open letter to visual arts teachers to send a strong, public message to the Biennale that association with a company like Transfield was ethically unacceptable. He wrote in part:

The most appropriate response to this situation is to boycott the Biennale. While this may feel as though we are giving something up, it is in fact one of the best opportunities we have to make a material impact on the supply chains that permit the detention industry to work. We are in a particularly strong position here given that our decisions could have the effect of redirecting a significant number of students, income, and kudos away from [this event] and towards other kinds of experiences and discussions … A strong response this year is the best way to ensure that future Biennales are not funded through [companies associated with asylum seeker detention].

Kiem told artsHub that “we can and should be putting pressure on the Biennale organisers to find other ways of funding art.”

In the last week I’ve seen countless high profile refugee activists writing on Twitter that they intend to boycott the event and will encourage supporters and the public to follow suit.

Thus far the Biennale has stayed relatively quiet on the matter, though last Friday tweeted:

RE: comments on BOS sponsors: BOS brings attn 2 the ideas & issues of our times – objectors only deny the legitimate voice of BOS artists

— Biennale of Sydney (@biennalesydney) February 6, 2014

Naming and shaming corporate sponsors of cultural events and products has a long and noble history. London’s Tate Modern is backed by BP, causing British activists to stress the corporation’s questionable environmental practices. This year in Australia the Minerals Council, in an attempt to sex up and soften its image, is sponsoring a popular commercial radio program. Online protest was guaranteed.

Actor Scarlett Johansson recently found herself in the crosshairs of pro-Palestine advocates because she backed Sodastream, a company with a factory in an illegal settlement in the West Bank. Her reputation has taken a hit and the role of Palestinian workers under occupation received global attention. Other firms operating in the West Bank, while brazenly saying they don’t fear future boycotts, are naive if they don’t think similar actions will soon affect them.

In America recently the gender equality organisation Catalyst awarded weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin for “supporting women’s advancement”. I know there were a number of employees at Catalyst who expressed dismay at the tragic irony of praising a corporation that sells technology to some of the worst abusers of women in the world, such as Saudi Arabia. Separating politics from ethics is impossible.

Meanwhile, back in Australia, a critical social media campaign against the Biennale, currently developing organically, has the potential to embarrass the event and highlight the often vexed question of corporate sponsorship of artistic and cultural events. If the boycott grows, it won’t be the first time that these tactics have been employed in Australia over funding.

Tasmania’s Ten Days on the Island festival faced outrage in 2002 when it was announced that Forestry Tasmania would be a sponsor in 2003.Artists boycotted, including novelist Peter Carey, and the move caused a vital debate about the ways in which organisations, often with a problematic public image, aim to alter perceptions by backing arts events. Principled participants have a potential choice; be involved and risk being seen as complicit or remove themselves and remain pure. In the real world, such decisions, especially for artists who need and crave exposure, are not easy matters.

Although it’s true that Transfield has a long history of backing various artistic forms, the last years have seen a conscious choice to enter the world of asylum detention. Both Serco and G4S know how financially beneficial this is.

The exact nature of Transfield’s work is mired in mystery - a press release on 29 January merely referred to Garrison Support Services and Welfare at both Manus Island and Nauru – but it’s clear that management sees further opportunities with Tony Abbott’s government; Canberra has a bottomless pit of money to “stop the boats” and punish refugees.

The links between the Biennale and Transfield are not hidden – the chairman of the Biennale, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, is also an executive director at Transfield.

Is this really the kind of corporation to which a leading arts event wants to be associated? What message does this send to the wider community? Should it be acceptable to earn money from the grubby business of imprisoning asylum seekers while at the same time backing glittering artistic works?

I’ve asked the Biennale to address these contradictions. “Our understanding”, they write, “is that the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru are run by the Serco Group, which is not a Biennale sponsor.” This is incorrect; Serco has no known involvement.

“If any sponsor were found to be directly involved in the abuse of refugees, or anyone else for that matter, we would naturally reconsider our relationship.”

The statement continues: “Transfield Services has been a long time supporter of the Biennale. They supply food, clothing and other provisions to a number of industries and government projects. They are a listed company with high ethical standards and a publicly stated code of conduct.”

Addressing the call to boycott the event, “we believe that the campaign is well intentioned but misguided.” I ask about the potential social media campaign against them. “Many of us at the Biennale hold strong views on the refugee issue,” they argue. “We would not knowingly associate with the abuse of a disadvantaged group like the refugees. We believe that any action to hinder the Biennale would damage the ability of 94 artists to exhibit their work and gain exposure for their talent. That would be regrettable.”

How the Biennale and related events are funded should be key public questions, especially in an age where far too many companies want to mask their dirty profit-making with shiny, artistic treats. It is our responsibility to demand better.

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Israeli government wants to unleash war against BDS backers

Welcome to the smell of futility. The last months have seen an avalanche of Zionists, liberal Zionists, columnists and fear-mongers claiming that boycotts against Israel are dangerous, yet offering nothing to end the occupation.

The latest, via Haaretz, is the Netanyahu government potentially spending huge dollars on attacking BDS backers. There’s one small problem (as usual): it’s about spin and does nothing to end daily violence against Palestinians:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened a meeting Sunday evening to discuss how to cope with the growing threat of the economic boycott on Israel in light of continued occupation and settlement construction in the West Bank.

Senior Israeli officials said prior to the meeting that the plan was to try to decide on a strategy and determine whether to launch an aggressive public campaign or operate through quieter, diplomatic channels.

The discussion had been scheduled to take place last week, but canceled at the last minute due to the political row between Netanyahu and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett. Sunday’s meeting will take place amid a different confron
tation – this time between Bennett and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

The previous discussion was supposed to include a broad forum of ministers. The Science Ministry asked to separate the discussion on the economic boycott threat from a discussion on the academic boycott threat, since there is already a strategy for the latter, while the former has yet to be dealt with.

The discussion, scheduled to begin at 5:30 P.M., will only include Lieberman, Bennett and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, who is expected to present a plan his ministry has been working on.

According to plan, Israel should be proactive in its opposition to organizations who promote boycotts against Israel. The plan proposes to invest substantial resources in organizing a public campaign.

Minister Steinitz is demanding a budget of 100 million shekels for implementation of the plan, which would include PR materials and aggressive legal and media campaigns against pro-boycott organizations.

The Foreign Ministry has a different approach. Diplomats think the non-governmental organizations pushing for a wide-ranging boycott against Israel and not strictly against the settlements are relatively marginal and that a public campaign against them will only play into their hands, bolstering them.

The Foreign Ministry thinks the public response to organizations promoting a boycott against Israel should be constricted. It wants to focus on less public diplomatic activity to combat such initiatives and believes advancing the peace process with the Palestinians will stave off a large portion of the boycott threats.

One of the issues to be discussed at the meeting is whether to file legal suits in European and North American courts against organizations that are proponents of the boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Ministers will also consider whether to take legal action against financial institutions that boycott settlements, or boycott Israeli companies that are somehow operating in or connected to the settlements.

Another consideration is whether to activate the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S., specifically AIPAC, in order to promote legislation in Congress against the economic boycott of Israel, akin to the legislation that was passed in the 1970′s against the Arab boycott.

One of the issues that will be raised during the discussion is that there is a lack of knowledge and inefficient tracking by Israeli intelligence of pro-BDS organizations.

The Strategic Affairs Ministry has provided the Israel Defense Forces’ intelligence department a budget of several million shekels for the purpose of bolstering military surveillance of such organizations. However, the need for the prime minister to instruct the Shin Bet Security Service and the Mossad on the efforts is likely to come up.

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The day Scarlett Johansson fell in love with Zionist occupation

During the SuperBowl last night, a game I watched here in New York with a mixture of confusion and amazement during the litany of mundane celebrity-endorsed advertisements, the questions over SodaStream were strong. This pro Israeli-occupation company, now supported by actress Scarlett Johansson, found itself in a storm of controversy. Deservedly so. Al Jazeera America reports:

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