I was recently interviewed by Lily Jovic for Vice magazine:
Last month, Israel struck a 1.2 million dollar deal with the parents of Melbourne-born Mossad agent Ben Zygier, as compensation for his death in prison 3 years ago. The payout seemingly marks the end of the Prisoner X case, a case which despite having serious national security implications, did little to capture the attention of Australia’s government or the people it protects.
We had a chat with Antony Loewenstein, author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution, to help us understand why an Australian man turned Israeli spy, jailed without trial and eventually found hanging in a cell while under 24-hour watch, didn’t become the news story of the year.
VICE: Hi Antony. What did you think of the payout?
Anthony Loewenstein: The payout is unsurprising; it’s something governments do pretty commonly as a way to bring silence to the family, who in this case are principally based in Melbourne. They’ve pretty much said nothing the whole time, and generally speaking, members of the Zionist community/lobby have remained silent the whole time too. Countless journalists have tried to speak to them and gotten nowhere. Israel investigated itself and they essentially found that they have no responsibility over what happened, but here’s a million dollars to shut up; it’s a payoff to buy silence.
That’s probably what is most peculiar about this case, the absence of any public discourse, particularly from the Jewish community in Melbourne.
What needs to be understood here is that the Zionist lobby works within the shadows. So when a story like this happens, which is rare, about something that has the potential to embarrass them and Israel, their response is either to say nothing or to deny there is a problem in the first place. It’s a “nothing to see here, move it along” situation, and a damage control approach that is very much supported by both sides of Australian politics. In terms of Zygier, the response of most people in power is: bury it, don’t respond, don’t give it oxygen and hopefully it will go away. Israel’s payment to Zygier’s parents is yet another attempt to make that happen.
What are some questions which, in your mind, the Australian government could press Israel with? If not to bring closure to the family then to at least address security concerns.
How many Australian Jews are going to Israel, taking citizenship and working for the Mossad? What are they doing with the Mossad? The enemies that Mossad sees are the enemies Australia sees, because Australia is a client state of America and Israel. That’s how it works, that’s what real politics is about. How does the Australian government feel about Israeli Australian citizens who undertake potentially illegal behaviour? That’s an important question, the Australian government had no interest in finding that out, they didn’t really care and evidently don’t care because they turn a blind eye and support it.
I think we really have to separate between public statements and private realities. The assassination of a Hamas weapons dealer in 2010 obviously got exposure because the Israelis, in a remarkably stupid manner, were caught on CCTV cameras. The Australian government was publicly pissed off with the fact that Australian passports were used, but I understand privately that this sort of thing happens all the time.
So, Australia isn’t privately concerned with what happened to Zygier or Israel’s austere censorship measures?
Well there’s been a remarkable lack of curiosity, in fact a ridiculous lack of curiosity. The report that the Australian government released after the Zygier incident, was complete bullshit, whitewash. Basically saying yes there were some issues with overall security but Israel behaved fine.
Publicly when something of that nature happens, they have to say something. The idea that Australian passports are being forged for the use of assassination and covert operations is a pretty bad look. Privately, that’s not seen as a major problem and I understand the relationship between both countries is largely unaffected by it all.
In the case of Zygier, the relationship between the two governments has certainly worked more in Israel’s favour. In your opinion, is it more mutual than it appears?
Ultimately the relationship with Israel is fundamentally based on a question of intelligence sharing over issues like Iran and Hezbollah. Bob Carr’s comments in past six months expressing that all the Israeli colonies in the West Bank were illegal, has caused apoplexy. The Jewish community was incredibly pissed off with that, and the result was that they would much rather have had an Abbott government, and here we are. Not to say that was because of them of course, but they are much happier with that kind of governance.
One that props up the image of Israel?
Precisely. The Zygier case feeds into that image paranoia the Jewish establishment has. It looks as if Israel essentially abused or assaulted Zygier in some way, and when Israel is already perceived to be under attack for its countless, daily human rights abuses in the West Bank and Gaza, this is merely one more stake in the heart. If there’s a sense somehow that there beloved Israel could end up killing one of us, either through suicide or murder, that’s not a good look. It’s led to the shift of Israel’s image from this wonderfully social, left wing country to an occupier and brute.
There’s a real sense that the Zygier case, for a lot of people, was very clarifying and actually confirmed the belief that Israel is a rogue state that treats its own citizens badly. Zygier was an agent, yes, but with dual citizenship.
That’s all we really know about Zygier, could more information ever emerge?
Obviously a lot has emerged this year, and he was probably involved in some kind of covert action in relation to Hezbollah, and potentially monitoring in Europe what Iran was doing in relation to its nuclear program. It appears that he may well have committed suicide, and it’s far from impossible that he did so, we just don’t know. That information may come out at some point, but not for a long time.
Any information you could divulge from your own research that tells us of Zygier’s involvement in Mossad and his apparent suicide?
In terms of the actual details of what he was doing and how he died, I don’t know. That is far too difficult to discover from here. What I have investigated is the constipation of the Zionist establishment towards this kind of case. They’re embarrassed that it will be seen that an Australian citizen has essentially become a traitor to his own country and undertaken activities by a foreign country, which in Australian law could well be illegal, that is the fundamental point.
My recent book, For God’s Sake, continues to generate interest in debates over the ethics and actions of daily life.
Here’s an extract published in ABC Religion and Ethics:
Jane Caro, Antony Loewenstein, Simon Smart and Rachel Woodlock wrestle with their own traditions and each other over the question of how to determine what is morally right and how we, in turn, should live.
She stared at me with big brown eyes. Both her and the small child on her hip looked wispy, their clothes threadbare, both living on the margins of existence. That’s how I’ll always remember them, be haunted by them. Maria, a fellow language student, and I were wandering through local Yemeni markets searching for gifts for friends back in Australia.
She followed us waiting for an opportunity to ask if we might bestow some generosity on her. Finally, she came close and gingerly put out her hand. Maria shook her head firmly, and steered me away commenting, “You should never give to beggars. It just encourages them.” I was too embarrassed to challenge Maria, feeling foolish to seem so gullible. I’ll never forget the look on her face – a mixture of sadness, disgust, hopelessness and curiosity that with all our money to fritter away, we had no heart to give her even a few token riyals. From time to time I remember to pray for her.
These situations seem designed to test a person’s flaws, like water to a clay pot, revealing where each otherwise unobservable crack is hidden. Often it’s not intellectual consistency with a moral philosophy that’s revealed, but some startlingly base behaviour: submission to authority, self-interest and weakness to peer pressure. This is what Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram found in his now infamous experiment where people were ordered to administer (fake) electric shocks to a person in distress. Milgram and his team set up a scenario where unwitting subjects were asked to “teach” a simple language task to a learner who was really an actor in a different room. Whenever the learner apparently made a mistake, the subject was instructed to shock the learner. The experimenters were actually playing pre-recorded distress noises, and the levels were increased to the point where the subjects were made to believe something dire had happened to the learner in the other room. Milgram wished to observe how bad things would have to get before ordinary people would buck against orders and do the right thing.
It turns out most of us will obey authority even when it so obviously conflicts basic ethics. This is why, taught Prophet Muhammad, the jihad (struggle) to live a moral life is greater than fighting in any military war. Battling to choose the good over self-interest takes a lifetime of training, according to the spiritual adepts.
While to the vast majority of us, acts of great evil – Nazis committing genocide against the Jews, Soviets starving political prisoners in communist gulags, paedophile priests assaulting children, Al-Qaeda suicide bombers targeting innocents – are clearly wrong, more ambiguous moral conundrums require some introspection. Is it wrong to tell your friend she looks fabulous when she proudly shows off her mullet dress?
Historically, Muslim theologians and philosophers debated morality, questioning whether acts are intrinsically good or bad, or whether they are arbitrarily named so by God. Some argued that good and bad exist objectively – for instance, that killing and lying are inherently and under every circumstance wrong. Others pointed out, no, in some extremely rare cases it is right to kill and to lie.
Take the case of the Muslims during the 1994 Rwandan genocide who saved many Tutsi lives based on a lie. In 2009, Jason Klocek interviewed the head mufti of Rwanda, Sheikh Saleh Habimana, asking him how Muslims were able to shelter Tutsis, given the danger to their own lives, to which the Sheikh replied:
“[W]e Muslims had an advantage. You see, for many years Hutus had been taught to fear Muslims. They were scared of our mosques, so we could hide Tutsis there without fear of Hutus entering. Hutus had been taught that our mosques were houses of the devil. They were taught that the devil lived in Muslim homes, too. “From one perspective, the lie that mosques are full of devils was harmful, yet the same lie proved so useful in saving many innocent lives.
There’s a postscript to my opening story. When an old Yemeni friend reached out and asked for help, I knew immediately what the right thing to do was. The 2012 food crisis had hit him and his family hard, with the lack of work due to political turmoil affecting soaring food prices. With some generous and compassionate friends, including a number of Twitter mates, I got together enough funds to help his family repay some food debts and buy enough stocks for several months. I hope it makes up for my shame just a little.
I was standing in a refugee camp in Port au Prince, the capital of Haiti. It was September 2012, more than two and a half years after the devastating earthquake that ravaged the impoverished country and killed up to 250,000 people. It was a steamy hot day and a sea of human beings – men, women and children – were living in squalor. Many had been there for years, failed by the UN, NGOs, the United States government and other foreign powers. The smell of faeces filled the air as the day came to a close. The sun shone on the men playing dominos while many women stood around chastising their dirty children.
Words failed me. I asked questions of men who were keen to express their frustration to a Western journalist, but I felt impotent, an imposter, useless. All my questions seemed trivial. “Why has the world forgotten us?” was a constant refrain. Giving a response seemed worse than saying nothing at all, so I simply expressed sympathy and solidarity with their plight, promising to report fairly what I saw. I’d rarely felt more aware of the inadequacy of journalism as a tool for positive change.
What I witnessed was wrong and cruel. It’s hard to imagine anybody challenging that assessment. I didn’t need God, spirituality, my Judaism or faith to understand that claiming to assist a place such as Haiti, and pledging billions of dollars to do so, is radically different from ensuring the money actually reaches the people who most desperately need it.
Talking about doing good is irrelevant when people are still suffering. It’s a Western indulgence to think we’re helping to bring any sense of true dignity to the Haitian people just by donating money to a favoured charity or believing our governments when they say they’re doing all they can. We make a moral call, as I did when seeing the reality up close in all its grimness, that it’s right to do more than simply express hurt and impotence. It’s called being human.
Like every conscious human being, I have lied and cheated. I have wished ill on people. I have done wrong many times and will inevitably do so again for as long as I live. The older I become the less sure I am about the certainties of my youth. I don’t believe my values have fundamentally shifted but I’ve become sometimes more tolerant of intolerance. Or maybe a better way to put it is that I’m far more interested in understanding where somebody who’s acting correctly has come from, what in their past has made them do right.
I’m very much in the “nurture not nature” school of thought. You aren’t born good nor are you born a Nazi. The values we inherit from family, friends, media, religion, travelling or partners develop over a lifetime. But these values aren’t universally shared. Sadly, in some Muslim communities, rape is defended and even encouraged. In some Jewish circles, the killing of Palestinians is classed as an unavoidable reality. In many Catholic communities, abortions are denied even in cases of incest.
Faith can be distorted. Faith can bring renewal. Faith can be life-affirming. Faith can make people do good and give a moral framework within which to build a life. I don’t think I’m being equivocal by arguing against the demonisation of religious faith in an age of reason. There are untold millions of people globally who give their time and money to various causes principally because they believe they’re doing good in the eyes of Muhammad or Jesus. None of this means it’s necessarily unthinking charity or pressure from an imam.
When there’s no one definition of goodness and evil in the world – things that were seen as an abomination by the vast majority of citizens in the West a few decades ago, such as gay sex, are now popularised through mainstream Hollywood, situated in one of the most conservative Christian nations on earth – it’s inevitable that most of us will be able to agree only on the bare minimum of what’s wrong in our society.
We exaggerate allegedly noble Judaeo-Christian “values” when many of them are inherently racist, homophobic and intolerant. Building a just society requires progressing beyond the tired arguments of past decades, when believers would instruct non-believers they would go to hell because they didn’t feel the love of an omnipotent being. We learn what’s right and wrong from experience and these can and should change throughout our lives.
It’s incumbent on us all to remember that nobody has a monopoly on goodness or evil, right or wrong. We’re all capable, no matter our background, of being a bit of both, and liking it.
I do not believe that children are born in sin, or born sinners. I do not believe that people can only be good if they’re bribed with promises of heavenly reward or threatened with eternal damnation. I believe that people are likely to do the right thing unless they’ve been warped and damaged – particularly in childhood – and so have lost that innate capacity to treat others as they’d like to be treated.
My own moral compass is fundamentally based on the Golden Rule. If I wouldn’t like something done to me, then I assume other people wouldn’t like it done to them. Such a simple ethical framework, and yet it covers murder, torture, stealing, cheating, lying, hitting, hurting, kidnapping, threatening, bullying, intimidation, slavery and a thousand and one other crimes both great and small. It also means I cannot countenance racism, sexism or homophobia.
I use another moral philosophy to help me decide right and wrong, and that’s the right of everyone to live as they wish, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. My greatest desire is for the liberty and freedom to do what I freely choose to do without answering to others. To be granted the respect that I am capable of making my own decisions and strong enough to live with the consequences, be they good or bad, is how I wish to be “done by.” And I try to grant that same respect to others.
I’m simply not interested in other people’s sex lives. As long as all the activities involved are between consenting adults, I have no moral problem with multiple sex partners, use of any or all orifices, positions, combinations or even fetish behaviour, including freely consented-to sadomasochism. How other people give and receive physical pleasure is not for me to judge, and I actively object to attempts to restrict them. I have many more moral qualms about old-fashioned marriage – particularly when it included conjugal rights – than I have about the honest, transparent, economic transactions involved in legal, well-regulated prostitution.
Which brings me to moral dilemmas such as the right to safe, legal abortion. I am a firm believer in a woman’s right to choose and have had an abortion myself. I don’t intend to go into my personal decision here, but my own morality demands that I also do not act the hypocrite. In cases like abortion, I’m guided by a pragmatic belief in choosing what I regard as the lesser of two evils. Because I don’t believe in a soul, I have no hesitation in putting the rights, hopes and liberty of the sentient human being (the woman) ahead of the potential human being (her foetus). As a mother, I’m very much aware of the commitment and effort required to bring up children well. I believe that such a demanding relationship should always be entered into voluntarily. I would also argue that this is an entirely moral decision. I’m perfectly willing to respect that others make a different moral decision about abortion based on their own deeply held beliefs.
However, my moral beliefs about the world are also the reason I fiercely oppose attempts to restrict access to safe, legal terminations. It’s also why I believe in the right of the terminally ill to access voluntary euthanasia, and yet am opposed to capital punishment. To me, there’s nothing contradictory about these beliefs because they are about fundamentally respecting each individual’s right to decide the circumstances of their own life and death. To kill another sentient being – whatever they may have done – is against my moral code. To choose to die or to end a potential life because you don’t believe you can adequately parent the child it will become, may be regrettable – even tragic (just as the suffering person would prefer not to be ill, the woman would have preferred not to fall pregnant) – but not immoral.
I find the use of shame by religions to prevent adults enjoying the full delight of human sexuality morally repugnant. To me, it’s simply wrong to have made so many people feel so miserable and guilty about what is not only entirely natural behaviour, but also the source of so much joy.
I am also suspicious of the sanctimony of much religion. Always putting the other ahead of oneself smacks of masochism and manipulation. The unrealistic expectation of selflessness becomes another stick to beat people with. I don’t understand why seeking pleasure, as long as it doesn’t prevent others from doing the same, is a bad thing. I prefer the brisk, upfront honesty of the negotiation between what I want and what someone else wants, expressed candidly, to the sickly-sweet self-effacement of selflessness. Sometimes it’s generous to take and allow others to give. For me, true morality lies in being self-responsible.
Very often the difference between right and wrong is complex and far from obvious. There are times when the answers to ethical puzzles involve choosing between the lesser of two evils. But from where do we source our wisdom for such choices? In attempting an answer, the West once relied on a worldview that was thoroughly soaked in the Bible and its depiction of what is true and real.
Even as modernity took shape and a strong current of thought came to regard ethics as based on human reason, a massive system of moral values and practices based on Christ’s teaching continued to exert influence in terms of what was considered good and right. Since then, large and relatively sudden cultural shifts have delivered us to the point where the ultimate reference point for establishing right practice in the social realm appears to run no deeper than human desire and will. Simply to desire something is seen as a good enough reason for doing it.
But without an outside influence, ethics becomes about whatever we can construct for ourselves, or whatever stories our society tells itself. That could mean a society that chooses solidarity, kindness and compassion just as easily as one that chooses fascism and the building of death camps. Those who object have no higher authority to appeal to, and so, as atheist philosopher Richard Rorty admits, the “good” under such circumstances becomes whatever those in power decide it to be.
Of course, you don’t necessarily need faith to lead a good life. It’s obvious that plenty of people who have rejected the idea of God or religion can and do make heroic contributions to society and lead thoroughly ethical lives. But having lost the transcendent, the ground on which ethics rests becomes decidedly unsteady. Take human rights. On what basis can we say, along with theUniversal Declaration of Human Rights, that all men and women are equally valuable, possessing an inherent dignity such that we should act towards them in a spirit of brotherhood?
Nicholas Wolterstorff, professor of philosophical theology at Yale University, wrote about this in his book Justice: Rights and Wrongs. According to him, the attempt to find a basis for human rights apart from a theistic framework is bound to fail, whereas the notion of intrinsic worth bestowed by the creator establishes a firm foundation for rights in a way nothing else can. Human rights established on the basis of being merely a social fact of a civilised society are feeble at best and defenceless before powerful opposition. Wolterstorff argues that the “image of God” status of each individual that emerges from the Judaeo-Christian framework provides the only stable basis for the notion of inalienable human rights.
What also emerges from such a framework is Christianity’s key ethic: love for God and neighbour, which includes care for the weak and oppressed.
I suspect that Jane’s resistance to the idea of living self-sacrificially might stem from her fear that women especially are likely to be disadvantaged by such thinking, and fair enough. But in Christianity, what Jane calls “sickly-sweet self-effacement” is in fact not about being a willing subject of manipulation and other people’s selfishness, but being drawn into a vision of reality that offers the mutual cultivation of human life and love. Putting ethical questions before the “test of love” as the measure of how to act is a crucial part of this. It’s the sort of motivation for action that leads so many of the aid and charitable agencies to care for those on the scrapheap of urban poverty and homelessness; to pour resources into the developing world to ease crises and contribute to long-term change for those unlucky enough to have been born in the wrong place; to provide protection and dignity to the aged and people with dementia. It’s what has for centuries impelled people to sacrifice comfort, time and wealth to alleviate suffering and work ceaselessly on behalf of powerless and vulnerable people. Can you get that from “enlightened self-interest”?
Jesus talked about “losing your life in order to find it,” which, interestingly, is a paradox that all the current “happiness” researchers say we need to understand – the centrality and priority of relationships, the benefit of “other-person-centredness” and the personal satisfaction and benefit that comes from putting your interests aside to serve others.
My point is not that people of faith are the only ones doing this, but that they have a powerful reason for doing it that is grounded in and consistent with their view of the world and all of reality.
Our culture has been so shaped by the Christian story that even in cases where we have rejected or forgotten the story itself, its influence forms much of the ground on which we stand, shaping our view of each other and ourselves. That influence is undoubtedly waning, but what will replace it is hard to see. Perhaps we’ll find ways to live well together and foster a culture of fairness, justice and love, but I suspect it will take something a heck of a lot more profound than polite civility, faith in human goodness and collecting your neighbour’s mail when they’re away on holidays.
Jane Caro, Antony Loewenstein, Simon Smart and Rachel Woodlock are the authors of For God’s Sake: An Atheist, a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim Debate Religion, from which this article is drawn.
A startling and important new study that surely shows a Jewish community evolving into a far more mature entity. Less Zionist. More open. More multicultural. Less keen on maintaining a ghetto. More, please.
The first major survey of American Jews in more than 10 years finds a significant rise in those who are not religious, marry outside the faith and are not raising their children Jewish — resulting in rapid assimilation that is sweeping through every branch of Judaism except the Orthodox.
The intermarriage rate, a bellwether statistic, has reached a high of 58 percent for all Jews, and 71 percent for non-Orthodox Jews — a huge change from before 1970 when only 17 percent of Jews married outside the faith. Two-thirds of Jews do not belong to a synagogue, one-fourth do not believe in God and one-third had a Christmas tree in their home last year.
“It’s a very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population in terms of their Jewish identification,” said Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in New York.
The survey, by the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, found that despite the declines in religious identity and participation, American Jews say they are proud to be Jewish and have a “strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.”
While 69 percent say they feel an emotional attachment to Israel, and 40 percent believe that the land that is now Israel was “given to the Jewish people by God,” only 17 percent think that the continued building of settlements in the West Bank is helpful to Israel’s security.
Jews make up 2.2 percent of the American population, a percentage that has held steady for the past two decades. The survey estimates there are 5.3 million Jewish adults as well as 1.3 million children being raised at least partly Jewish.
The survey uses a wide definition of who is a Jew, a much-debated topic. The researchers included the 22 percent of Jews who describe themselves as having “no religion,” but who identify as Jewish because they have a Jewish parent or were raised Jewish, and feel Jewish by culture or ethnicity.
However, the percentage of “Jews of no religion” has grown with each successive generation, peaking with the millennials (those born after 1980), of whom 32 percent say they have no religion.
“It’s very stark,” Alan Cooperman, deputy director of the Pew religion project, said in an interview. “Older Jews are Jews by religion. Younger Jews are Jews of no religion.”
The trend toward secularism is also happening in the American population in general, with increasing proportions of each generation claiming no religious affiliation.
But Jews without religion tend not to raise their children Jewish, so this secular trend has serious consequences for what Jewish leaders call “Jewish continuity.” Of the “Jews of no religion” who have children at home, two-thirds are not raising their children Jewish in any way. This is in contrast to the “Jews with religion,” of whom 93 percent said they are raising their children to have a Jewish identity.
Reform Judaism remains the largest American Jewish movement, at 35 percent. Conservative Jews are 18 percent, Orthodox 10 percent, and groups such as Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal make up 6 percent combined. Thirty percent of Jews do not identify with any denomination.
In a surprising finding, 34 percent said you could still be Jewish if you believe that Jesus was the Messiah.
Well, that’s one way to see. This supposedly exclusive story in today’s Murdoch Australian outlines the reading habits of Australia’s new Attorney General. And yes, in his collection is the book I co-edited last year with Jeff Sparrow, Left Turn. I dearly hope George Brandis is taking the ideas in there to heart, including backing boycotts, sanctions and divestment against Israel:
When Attorney-General George Brandis travelled to the NSW central coast to attend the wedding of a former radio presenter at taxpayers’ expense, he had plenty of reading material to keep him occupied.
An analysis of the senator’s use of a “publications entitlement” shows he has amassed an extensive book, newspaper and periodicals collection reflecting an eclectic mix of taste – all paid for with taxpayer funds costing almost $13,000 over four years.
Whether it is books of cartoons, volumes of law reports, biographies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, political novels, scholarly accounts of ancient history or George Orwell’s essays, Senator Brandis has billed the cost to taxpayers.
The senator, who this week repaid $1683.06 in taxpayer-funded entitlements he had claimed to attend former 2UE broadcaster Michael Smith’s wedding, did not even put his own hand into his pocket to purchase former prime minister John Howard’s memoir Lazarus Rising or Tony Abbott’s book Battlelines. The taxpayers put those books on Senator Brandis’s bookshelf.
According to parliamentary guidelines, senators are entitled to $4948 a year to meet “the costs of purchasing publications” provided they are related to “parliamentary, electorate or official business”. The guidelines indicate that newspapers and magazines are the types of publications that are expected to be claimed back.
Political blogger Stephen Murray, who has analysed Senator Brandis’s book purchases, says the Attorney-General has spent $12,808.35 on publications between 2009 and last year. More than half of this amount was spent on books. This has been verified by The Australian.
Senator Brandis’s book collection includes Christopher Hitchens’s memoir Hitch-22, Simon Schama’s Scribble, Scribble, Scribble: Writing on Politics, Ice Cream, Churchill, and My Mother and David Plouffe’s The Audacity to Win, about Barack Obama’s run to the presidency. There are books on World War II, the Spanish Civil War, MI6, Byzantinism, modern China and Russia, the Cold War and the Cuban missile crisis.
Some biographies bought include HW Brands’s biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Traitor to His Class, US vice-president Dick Cheney’s memoir In My Time and former British prime minister Edward Heath’s autobiography. Also bought were books on Pitt the Elder, Pitt the Younger, the popes, the Tudors, Stalin and Trotsky.
Australian political tomes include Barrie Cassidy’s The Party Thieves, Maxine McKew’s Tales from the Political Trenches, Peter van Onselen’s Liberals and Power and David Marr’s controversial Quarterly Essay on Tony Abbott, Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott.
A thesaurus and a dictionary were bought along with The Art of Great Speeches and Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon on the politicisation of literature. Other purchases include John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and The Subjection of Women, Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations and a book of radical left essays, Left Turn. The Best Australian Political Cartoons was bought in 2011 as well as several novels on politics.
Senator Brandis is also a regular purchaser of magazines, including The Spectator, Time, Quadrant, Prospect and The Economist.
The media is once again filled with Middle East “experts” pontificating about the prospects of Obama-led “peace talks” in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine. There’s zero chance of a just outcome. The occupation deepens by the day.
I was interviewed by the current affairs show The Wire to discuss the reality on the ground:
I recently appeared on Eagle Waves Radio – a small outlet in the heart of Sydney – alongside my co-writers Jane Caro and Simon Smart. We were interviewed by Kerry Chikarovski, a former NSW Liberal leader, commentator and businesswoman.
This was enjoyable. On Sunday an extended interview with John Safran and Father Bob, hosts of Triple J’s Sunday Night Safran, was aired and we discussed detention centres, Serco, Palestine, Haiti, Afghanistan, private war, BDS, democracy and human rights:
It was hard to forgive the Nazis. The “1,000 year Reich” lasted a mere 12 years, and the German state was crushed under the weight of bloody streets, genocidal concentration camps and despotism. For this to happen in the heart of apparently civilised Europe was unimaginable – especially for Jews who had often been fully included, and very often assimilated, members of society.
One of my relations fought on Germany’s side in the first world war. I’ve seen his grave in a Dresden cemetery, a city fire-bombed with spite by the allies in 1945. I was the first Loewenstein family member to visit the place after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I remember finding the street where my family had lived, unrecognisable in a sea of Soviet-inspired concrete. I used a pay phone and called my parents in Melbourne. We all cried, a silent recognition that our tragic Jewish story, sadly too common for words, began in a quiet and plain street in a deceptively normal German setting.
American writer Erik Larson’s stunning book In the Garden of Beasts, which profiles William E Dodd, the first US ambassador to Hitler’s Germany, gives a chilling taste of the seductive nature of German fascism. One of Dodd’s daughters, Martha, had her hand kissed by Hitler in 1933, and her father acknowledged “that Hitler was not an unattractive man personally.” This was the illusionary calm before the onslaught.
As a Jew born in Australia in 1974, I never imagined that Germany’s long shadow would envelop my adult life. In 2011, I became a German citizen while maintaining my Australian passport, due to a 1954 German law that allowed Jews to re-instate citizenship removed by the Nazis during their reign. I wanted citizenship for a few reasons, not least to honour my family that Germany once rejected, and to have the option of working freely across the European Union.
Article 116 par 2 of Germany’s Basic Law reads:
“Former German citizens who between January 30, 1933 and May 8, 1945 were deprived of their citizenship on political, racial, or religious grounds, and their descendants, shall on application have their citizenship restored. They shall be deemed never to have been deprived of their citizenship if they have established their domicile in Germany after May 8, 1945 and have not expressed a contrary intention.”
The vast bulk of my European family were murdered during the war, and those who escaped were made stateless before they fled. The vibrant global Jewish diaspora that exists today is largely due to the rupture of Jewish life in the 1930s across a world that was far from keen to accept them. My grandparents left Europe in 1939 and arrived in an Australia that viewed Jews with suspicion. They said that Perth, where the ship first docked, was “primitive and without rye bread”.
The process of acquiring German citizenship has been a long journey that reveals the often tortuous relationships that continue to define Jewish identity in the 21st century. My father’s father, Fred, died before I recall having any serious conversations with him about becoming a German citizen. His attitude towards his birth country evolved to a point where I sensed he didn’t hate Germany, loved his adopted nation, Australia, but would not have even remotely considered re-acquiring his German citizenship.
My uncle, Herbert, also born in Dresden, is 93 and still alive in Toronto. For him too, re-acquiring his German citizenship was out of the question. He wasn’t even prepared to visit Germany until a few years ago – and then, it was because he was invited by the city of Dresden. After all, Germany had rejected our family, killed the youngest and oldest and changed the fate of our lives irrevocably.
My father, Jeffrey, was different. When I first mentioned the idea of obtaining a German passport many years ago, he dismissed the whole idea out of hand. It was not an unusual Jewish response, a visceral rejection of ever seeing Germany as a nation worth respecting and viewing us as Jews and equals. I protested his intransigence but it was futile (he had to obtain citizenship first before I was able to do so).
Over the years I would occasionally ask if his position had changed, and it took a long time for his opposition to relent. I continued reminding him that Germany had shifted, and was no longer a haven for Jew-hatred (though Neo-Nazis and the far-right remains a growing problem).
Finally, my father gave in and realised that becoming a German citizen was in no way endorsing the policies of former German governments, but a way to rightfully re-claim our birthright. My father had meticulously kept all the documents that the German consulate required. A process that officials said would take a few months took two years.
On 14 January 2011, I arrived at the German consulate in Sydney and waited until a senior official appeared. He congratulated me on becoming a German citizen and asked how I felt. I had tears in my eyes, unsure what to say, but I mumbled something about never imagining that Germany was again so keen to welcome me, as a Jew and atheist, into its heart. I also felt, but didn’t verbalise, that it was a personal victory against Nazism.
Today I feel neither German nor Australian. I hope my murdered ancestors would understand why I wanted to once again assume a German identity, or at least attachment to my pedigree as a fully-fledged member of German’s Jewish community. And yet I’m a non-practicing Jewish atheist currently based in Sydney.
Uncritical nationalism towards my birth country is impossible. I share human rights lawyer Julian Burnside’s despair at the Australian elite’s ability to unleash cruelty against asylum seekers and the dispossessed, and I question whether our settler-colonial state has ever really felt comfortable fully accepting the strange, the new, the remote, the other. Multiculturalism exists but its implementation can never be complete while politicians and media commentators divide a population by warning Australians that [insert minority group here] are a threat to our harmony.
My ostracism from mainstream Judaism is directly linked to Israel’s brutal treatment of the Palestinians. For too many Jews, Zionism has become their main religion, and a God of intolerance is praised on a regular basis. When then Israeli finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a conference in 2003 that Israeli Arabs were a threat to the Jewish nature of his country (he said “If there is a demographic problem, and there is, it is with the Israeli Arabs who will remain Israeli citizens”) it should have been condemned as outright racism.
Instead, such comments are routinely expressed by senior Israeli officials and the world shrugs though. As leading American human rights professor and United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories professor Richard Falk said last week in Sydney, the Jewish state will increasingly face boycotts, sanctions and divestment so long as it oppresses the Palestinians.
A former head of Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, says in the Israeli film The Gatekeepers that “[We’ve become] a brutal occupation force similar to the Germans in World War II”.
This is what my people are known for around the globe.
According to new Israeli government released figures, Jews are now outnumbered by Arabs under Israeli sovereignty by over 50,000 people. That’s segregation by definition. Israel learns nothing from history except how to brutalise the marginalised. Germany struggles to understand how it allowed itself to be overcome by 12 years of madness. Australia is a free nation that locks up refugees in remote and privatised detention camps, making a mockery of our “fair go” claim.
My identity is a conflicted and messy mix that incorporates Judaism, atheism, anti-Zionism, Germanic traditions and Anglo-Saxon-Australian beliefs. And yet I both routinely reject and embrace them all. It sounds exhausting but it’s actually invigorating. I never feel I belong anywhere. I can’t be a Jew, atheist, German or Australian without a bundle of caveats.
Perhaps that just makes me human.
Surely a healthy sign of the mainstreaming of Palestine. US chef Anthony Bourdain takes his TV show to Israel and Palestine (including the West Bank and Gaza) and shows humanity in Palestine and crass extremism of Zionist settlers:
Welcome to “democratic” Israel.
Last night here in Sydney distinguished international lawyer and UN expert Richard Falk explained how growing numbers of people globally are recognising the justice of the Palestinian cause and Israel’s continued belligerence. But we still a way away from holding the Jewish state to account.
Here are two stories that highlight the moral bankruptcy of maintaining the status-quo.
Phil Weiss from Mondoweiss visits a West Bank settlement:
There was already a Palestinian state, the settler said, past that mountain where Moses died, on the Moab. Jordan. Palestinians should have citizenship in that state. Even Palestinians inside Israel should have citizenship in that state. You could not have two Palestinian states on the Jordan River. That was a death warrant for Israel.
Really he did not see why anything should change. Palestinian workers came into the settlements to build houses at better wages than they could get in the villages. Palestinians had moved into this area as the settlers developed it. Let’s build together, he declared. I want them to do well too. The Palestinians had had the opportunity to build a state under Oslo, but they hadn’t. Look at Gaza. Look– if they joined with him to build a common future, everyone would do well.
The only problem was their not having any political rights, he conceded. Of course that was a concern. It got a lot of attention from leftwingers– like yourself. But if you lived out here, what was wrong with the status quo? It had worked for decades. It was better than the alternative: the Arab dictatorships and civil wars. The Palestinians here accepted the status quo, most of them. Yes, they should have greater freedom of movement. But Israelis had to go through checkpoints too. It slowed down their lives too.
It got cool and we went inside and sat on the overstuffed lumpy furniture. His children came in from working the sukkot and had some of the bottled ice tea and paid me no mind. The famous Israeli informality.
What if this settlement ended up being in a Palestinian state? he asked. Well, if the Palestinians let him stay, he would stay. So long as he had equal rights as a minority.
I felt I had caught him out. “Why isn’t that a model for the whole of Israel and Palestine? Everyone has equal rights, minority or not.”
He shook his head confidently. The Jewish people need a state. We have demonstrated that, with out incredible achievements. This is the Jewish state. We have one sliver of land. There are 350 million Arabs around us and we are just 7 million.
His view is what you always get to in Israel: This is Jewish land. All the liberal talk is just a charade, a Mizrahi friend has said to me; to be Israeli is to be rightwing.
In Haaretz a report that outlines the inherent racism of the Jewish state. Can you imagine a Western leader proudly talking about needing to maintain a Christian majority because the threat of non-Jesus loving babies is too great?
Israel’s growing demographic problem is not because of Palestinians, but of Israeli Arabs, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday.
Speaking at the Herzliya Conference on security, Netanyahu said Israel had already freed itself from control of almost all Palestinian Arabs. He said he could not foresee a future in which “any sane Israeli” could try to make Palestinians either Israeli citizens or “enslaved subjects.” The Palestinians would under all circumstances rule themselves and administer their own affairs, he said.
“If there is a demographic problem, and there is, it is with the Israeli Arabs who will remain Israeli citizens,” he said. The Declaration of Independence said Israel should be a Jewish and democratic state, but to ensure the Jewish character was not engulfed by demography, it was necessary to ensure a Jewish majority, he said.
If Israel’s Arabs become well integrated and reach 35-40 percent of the population, there will no longer be a Jewish state but a bi-national one, he said. If Arabs remain at 20 percent but relations are tense and violent, this will also harm the state’s democratic fabric. “Therefore a policy is needed that will balance the two.”
The economy is the single most important factor that will lead to Jews immigrating to Israel, he said. “I go mad when I see that because of low taxation in Moscow, there is now a capital flow there. If we want Jews to come here, we need a flourishing and dynamic economy. If we want Israeli Arabs to integrate, we need a flourishing and dynamic economy.”
He said it was necessary to improve education standards, especially for Arab citizens. Netanyahu said that the “separation fence” would also help to prevent a “demographic spillover” of Palestinians from the territories.
Reactions to the speech were not slow in coming from Arab Knesset members and others. “Netnayahu’s demographic time bomb is a stink bomb and a racist one,” said Ahmed Tibi (Hadash). “The day is not far off when Netnayahu and his followers will set up roadblocks at the entrance to Arab villages to tie Arab women’s tubes and spray them with anti-spermicide.”
Azmi Bishara, of Balad (National Democratic Alliance) said: “Describing the original residents of this land as a demographic problem would be considered racism in any normal, or even abnormal, country.”
Makhoul Issam Makhoul (Hadash) said: “A leader who considers 20 percent of the population of Israel to be a demographic threat and treats them as an existential problem, is himself a racist threat to democracy, sanity, and the rule of law – and he should be disposed of immediately for the good of both peoples.”
Talab a-Sana (United Arab List) said: “How would Netanyahu react if someone in the West or the U.S. said that the reproduction rate of Haredi Jews was a demographic problem? Netnayahu has double standards.”
Labor whip Dalia Itzik described Netanyahu as “a serial pyromaniac.” She said: “He has already lit the flames between rich and poor, and now he is trying to do the same between Jews and Arabs.”
Yossi Sarid, MK (Meretz), said: “It is amazing to see how great leaders can instantly be revealed as small racists. The Palestinian problem has not yet been solved in the territories and they are already trying to create another problem with Israeli Arabs… A thousand firemen will not be enough to put out the flames one frivolous man set alight.”