Last week I spoke at Sydney’s Politics in the Pub about the recent Gaza conflict and implications for global attitudes towards Israel. Thanks to Cathy Vogan for filming the event:
In August I was involved in an IQ2 Squared debate in Sydney (and my side won, for the record, despite the audience starting off backing the other team.) This was broadcast by ABCTV1’s Big Ideas:
Are we becoming enslaved to our technology?
This was a decent Intelligence Squared debate with the audience split between the oldies, some middle aged hipsters and a bunch of law students.
The biggest drawcard was Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton, who turned in a good performance for the negative. That is, we are not enslaved by technology. He was backed by journalist, filmmaker and blogger, Antony Loewenstein, and Asher Wolf, a self-described ‘information activist’.
On the affirmative was Crikey’s Bernard Keane, Alastair McGibbon, an Associate Professor at the University of Canberra and Katina Michael. Michael is an Associate Professor in the School of Information Systems and Technology at the University of Wollongong. Consequently hers is a surprising stand and she does a decent imitation of a rapper in a great big spray on the ‘evils of technology’.
This debate was moderated by Simon Longstaff and recorded at the City Recital Hall in Sydney.
During the recent Byron Bay Writer’s Festival this event, broadcast by ABCTV1’s Big Ideas, was a robust discussion on the rights, responsibilities and pressures of conflict reporting in a post 9/11 world:
In this session writers Abbas El-Zein, Antony Loewenstein and Washington Post journalist David Finkel deliver strikingly different perspectives on the Iraqi and Afghan wars. An intense discussion develops about the nature of reporting and advocacy, with Finkel and Loewenstein very much opposed.
Finkel has covered wars in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, documenting the impact of war on the psyche of the soldiers at the front. Loewenstein explains that whilst he is not without empathy for the plight of the individual soldier, his sympathies lie with the Iraqis and the Afghans.
Finkel drives home the need to tell a story without an agenda “so that readers can feel what war can be.” El-Zein is in agreement and observes “the job of a journalist isn’t to judge” but to deliver to the public the most comprehensive information available.
This session was filmed at the Byron Bay Writers Festival and moderated by Jacqui Park.
For the last years I’ve been working with New York based film-maker Thor Neureiter on a documentary about Disaster Capitalism. We successfully raised money on Kickstarter last year and we’re currently pursuing funding from a range of global sources. Film-making is a long, painful and challenging process.
I’m happy to release the new teaser that shows the progression of the work. Hopefully this whets your appetite:
I’m currently in America, investigating disaster capitalism in privatised immigration detention for my 2015 Verso book.
I’ve been watching a lot of cable TV (lord knows why but I’m a masochist) and it’s been ISIS day and night (apart from mostly awful coverage of the killing of Michael Brown and white blindness on racism). Fox News is desperate for President Obama to bomb Muslims and ISIS is the current target in Syria and Iraq (host Justice Jeanine’s monologue reflects the bloodlust inside Murdoch’s station). The former head of Britain’s MI5 stated that the Iraq war massively increased the terror threat. What do you think attacking Iraq (again) and Syria (presumably with the assistance of the once-reviled and now loved Assad regime) will do? ISIS has grown because the Assad regime allowed it to surge, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Understanding the reality and rise of ISIS is clearly too difficult for many in the mainstream media though journalist Patrick Cockburn’s new book is one of the best primers. How to tackle ISIS extremism, especially in the wake of the shocking beheading of US reporter James Foley, brings clear challenges to the press. What to show, how to show it, what is propaganda?
This VICE News film on ISIS is remarkable, scary, intense and vital. Incredible access:
My weekly Guardian column:
The South African national high school debating team was recently in Bangkok for the world debating championships. During the competition, the team uploaded a picture of themselves at the tournament’s opening ceremony to Facebook, and controversy ensued.
“Team South Africa wearing Palestinian badges and Keffiyehs to show our opposition to the human rights violations carried out against the people of Palestine,” they posted.
The debating team’s captain, Joshua Broomberg, is the deputy head boy of a prestigious Jewish school in Johannesburg. That sent the online commenters into apoplexy. Threats of violence were made against the students.
Although South Africa has long had a strongly pro-Israel Jewish community, despite the African National Congress government increasingly opposing Israeli militarism and occupation, there are growing splits within the tight, Zionist enclave. Over 500 prominent Jews signed a statement a few weeks ago that read:
“Just as we resist antisemitism, we refuse to dehumanise Palestinians in order to make their deaths lighter on our collective conscience. We sign this statement in order to affirm their humanity and our own. We distance ourselves from South African Jewish organizations whose blind support for Israel’s disproportionate actions moves us further from a just resolution to the conflict.”
In the global Jewish diaspora, dissent against Israel of this magnitude is a relatively new phenomenon. Although support for the Jewish state has been an unofficial second religion for Jews for decades – in my own family it was simply expected that Israel would be uncritically backed in times of war and peace, with Palestinians demonised as unreasonable and violent – times are changing.
This doesn’t please some of the loudest Jewish voices. Conservative writer Shmuel Rosner argued in the New York Times in early August that liberal critics of Israel were severing familial ties. “If all Jews are a family”, he wrote, “it would be natural for Israelis to expect the unconditional love of their non-Israeli Jewish kin.”
“If Jews aren’t a family,” he continued, “and their support can be withdrawn, then Israelis have no reason to pay special attention to the complaints of non-Israeli Jews.”
Rosner believes that Israel will survive without liberal Jewish backing but surely even he recognises that Israel isn’t an island, and without strong support from America – diplomatically, financially and militarily – the Jewish state is isolated and increasingly alone. Rosner knows that Jewish diaspora support for Israel is vital if the Jewish state is to perpetuate its nearly 50-year occupation of Palestinian lands.
The standard tools used to silence skeptical Jews, including those in the diaspora – false allegations of self-hatred and antisemitism, accusations of backing Hamas – are less effective today. Israel can’t rely on diaspora support while hardline Zionists criticise diaspora Jewish voices for an apparently insufficient knowledge of Israeli politics or Hebrew, either.
In reality, despite what Israel supporters claim, the conflict isn’t complicated; occupation never is. Critics have been stripped of their power by the sheer scale of the Israeli invasion in Gaza, and the searing images of death and destruction, which are forcing even the most dedicated Israel backers to question the tactic of collective punishment.
In the US, Israel’s chief backer, support for Israel is flagging. The numbers don’t lie; a recent Gallup poll in the US found that Democrat voters and youth were much less likely to endorse Israel’s actions than the general US population, and a key sample of congressional staffers agreed that “Israel attacked Gaza in a wild overreaction”.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee understands the “vulnerability” of progressive support for Israel in the diaspora. Funding for young Jews to embraceIsrael has been ramped up and “birthright” trips are still ongoing, despite the conflict. But as one Rabbi noted, “This is a hard time to go and make that deep connection that we seek to make [on trips to Israel] … you are not going to see the Israel I saw when I was there in June. It really is different. It changed overnight”. Even the free trips are losing their effectiveness, and little wonder: a recent video, filmed at the Western Wall, shows how some young Israelis consider “another war, and another war, and another war” in Gaza to be normal.
The Jewish diaspora has long been relied upon to endorse and fund Israeli actions. Zionist leaders from my home country, Australia, are this month welcoming one of the most senior members of the Israeli government: Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister, who advocates the total separation of Palestinians and Jews inside Israel, and wants “loyalty oaths” for Arab-Israeli citizens. The visit is already being hailed as “a wonderful reflection of the standing of the Australian Jewish community within the leadership of the Israeli government.”
The feeling is mutual. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, wrote a letter to diaspora Jews this month thanking them for “standing by Israel”:
“The support of Jewish communities around the world has been a source of great strength for the people of Israel … Many of you have had to face aggressive protesters, and even violent antisemitism … Israel will, for its part, continue standing at your side, as you deal with hatred and intolerance. Jews everywhere should be able to live with pride, not fear. I have great faith in the Jewish people and in the justice of our cause.”
While Israel doesn’t attract the same degree of support, some blind, it once enjoyed, the extent of dissent shouldn’t be exaggerated. Netanyahu’s message is still overwhelmingly appreciated by the majority of active Jews worldwide. Orthodox and Liberal around the world embrace Israel in their own, often deeply reactionary way – as do plenty of evangelical Christians.
Even some self-described progressive Jews, like the US writer Peter Beinart, still identify as Zionist. They do so to stay connected to family, friends and community. Were they to oppose Israel they would become outsiders. After all, since Israel’s establishment in 1948, and more so since the 1967 Six Day War, communal organisations have been deeply involved in providing the intellectual, emotional and financial backing for the Jewish state.
Who knows how many more Israeli massacres it will take to wean Jews in the diaspora off the Zionist cultural drip-feed? There’s a feeling of belonging, a prestige associated with the Zionist world that makes many Jews feel complete. Losing that means cutting ties with the modern, Jewish ritual of devotion to a foreign country. It’s perhaps hard for an outsider to understand this.
Nevertheless, groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace in America are giving strength to an independent view. While acknowledging the worrying signs of real antisemitism emerging around the world, they argue, as Israeli journalist Amira Hass does, that “If the security of Jews in the Middle East were of real interest … [the west] would not continue subsidising the Israeli occupation”.
Even the prominent Zionist Leon Wieseltier, writing in New Republic, is signalling the surging disquiet. “I have been surprised by the magnitude of the indifference in the Jewish world to the human costs of Israel’s defense against the missiles and the tunnels,” he argued recently.
A “Jewish Bloc against Zionism” marched in the massive protests in London against the Gaza massacre, joining unprecedented outrage from Britain’s political leadership over Israeli behaviour. Jews protested in New York and across America against Israeli actions.
Diaspora Jews should acknowledge the risks that arise from conflating antisemitism with anti-Zionism, a legitimate difference with historical roots. They are increasingly feeling targeted for uncritically backing Israel, and perhaps have the most to lose if this distinction is not made. The alternatives are bleak: a split among Jewish communities along generational lines, or growing disillusionment of the Jewish population.
French Jews are moving to Israel in ever-growing numbers, but few Jews feel safer in Israel than in their own nations. What threatens the Zionist establishment is not antisemitism or migration, but boycotts. A spokesperson for Britain’s Community Security Trust, a group that monitors antisemitism, recently said that the community would “get through” a spike in Jew hatred – “but the boycott stuff is really, really serious”.
I’ve returned from the wonderful Byron Bay Writer’s Festival where I’ve enjoyed the outdoor festival in the sun talking about Gaza, Palestine, politics, war (on a very interesting and sometimes heated panel with Washington Post journalist David Finkel and writer Abbas El-Zein and another one on free speech) and vulture capitalism. My 2013 best-selling book, Profits of Doom, has just been released in an updated edition so I spoke to a packed audience about the issues within it:
My weekly Guardian column:
Libya was sold as a glorious, liberating war. London’s Tory mayor Boris Johnson wrote in March 2011 that the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi was “of course … a good idea”. He was cautiously optimistic that a Western-led military campaign would not be a “disaster” like Iraq in 2003. “What kind of democracy do we hope will bloom in the desert soil, after decades in which political parties have been banned?” he mused.
Johnson was joined by a host of world leaders, journalists and humanitarian interventionists calling for overwhelming firepower to be deployed against the Libyan army. The western-backed Misrata militias killed Gaddafi and optimism about Libya’s future was in the air. The subject of Libya and the left was much-canvassed, including by Australian writer Guy Rundle, who wrote:
“For my money once a request was made for support [from Libyan rebels], and in explicit terms, honouring it was simply delivering on an implicit promise made by the notion of international solidarity.”
Current events prove this sentiment was badly misplaced, if not naïve. Libya is now divided by civil war, armed groups roam the streets and violence is ubiquitous. The United Nations and American ambassador have fled.
The New York Times last weekend explained the failure of the intervention instigators to invest enough time and energy in nation-building. “In the absence of a strong government,” journalist Kareem Fahim wrote, “a monstrous shadow state was emerging, centred on the power of militias made up of men who fought Colonel Gaddafi and never put down their arms.”
The delicate job of constructing an inclusive democracy since the fall of Gaddafi has been complicated by the extremism of Islamist forces, incompetence and corruption in the political class and the shift in global interest to other conflicts. Amnesty International reported just before the 2012 election that democratic institutions were weak, and were struggling to cope with the Misrata militias, who were engaged in ethnic cleansing and conducting arbitrary arrests and torture. This report was barely covered in the global press.
Libya is mostly ignored today because foreign correspondents are busier than ever. Although an army of brave freelancers and citizen journalists are invaluable when it comes to covering war, mainstream resources are dwindling. In a new book by reporter Anjan Sundaram, on his experiences as a stringer in Congo, he explains how the site of one of the worst genocides in modern times was largely ignored by editors in Western capitals.
“The Western news media are in crisis and are turning their back on the world”, he argued recently in the Times. “We hardly ever notice. Where correspondents were once assigned to a place for years or months, reporters now handle 20 countries each. Bureaus are in hub cities, far from many of the countries they cover. And journalists are often lodged in expensive bungalows or five-star hotels. As the news has receded, so have our minds.”
Libya has suffered this fate. After initial fascination with the Arab Spring reaching Tripoli, media interest dwindled and moved onto other places, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Palestine. There was little talk of the pragmatic reason London, Paris and Washington wanted access to Libya: huge oil reserves.
With chaos now descending across the state, and Libyan weapons spreading to Syria, Mali and beyond, the silence from those who backed the 2011 war is deafening. They’ve simply moved onto the next conflict, the next place to advocate intervention, the next editor and journalist guaranteed to completely ignore their record of backing the last disaster. Amnesia and eternal forgiveness are hallmarks of corporate punditry.
One of the leading arguments in favour of bombing Libya and overthrowing Gaddafi was the concept of “responsibility to protect” (R2P). It was constantly cited as a key justification for assisting the beleaguered Libyan population. David Cameron, the British prime minister, and former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, were just two of the prominent advocates of R2P in 2011.
Three years on, the crisis in Libya barely rates a mention, and R2P reeks of selective application. When British journalist Mehdi Hasan asked French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy, a supporter of Western military action against Muslim states, whether he took any responsibility for the troubles in Libya in 2013, he ducked and weaved. He preferred to boast of his desire to bomb Syria. When asked whether a military force should be stationed in Palestine to defend its civilians, he admired Israel’s inherent humanity.
I feel like I’ve been writing this same column for over a decade, reminding politicians, journalists and commentators that the internet is the ultimate record of their advocacy for violence against unarmed peoples in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine or Libya. With a record like this, it’s no wonder humanitarian intervention is associated with creeping colonialism.
We never hear any R2P backers pushing for a military intervention in Gaza to protect the Palestinians from Israeli missiles. Nobody is talking about protecting Egyptian civilians from the brutal, US-backed dictatorship in Egypt. Barely a word is raised to protect the repressed activists in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. Whether it’s dressed up as solidarity, a responsibility to protect, or an intervention to prevent breaches of human rights, from Iraq to Libya these are grotesque experiments on helpless civilians, the conclusions of which are clear for us to see.
A witty and moving look at the privatised US prison system: