Voices from Australia

My following article appears in today’s Guardian Comment is Free section:

The recent launch of Independent Jewish Voices – a British group dedicated to alternative Jewish perspectives on the Israel/Palestine conflict – caused robust debate around the world.

Prominent public figures such as Nobel prize winner Harold Pinter, comedian Stephen Fry, filmmaker Mike Leigh and historian Eric Hobsbawm, along with hundreds of others, rightly argued that uncritical support for the Jewish state and its brutal occupation policies was endangering the country’s future. They hoped “that individuals and groups within all communities should feel free to express their views on any issue of public concern without incurring accusations of disloyalty”.

This week Independent Australian Jewish Voices launched and I am one of its founding members. Our aims are similar to the British group, and we have attracted more than 370 signatories (and rising very fast), including ethicist Professor Peter Singer, prominent Melbourne barrister Robert Richter QC, Melbourne University Publishing CEO Louise Adler, Monash University’s law dean Professor Arie Freiberg and other Jews from a variety of backgrounds. Many have said they rarely, if ever, have spoken out as Jews before in public, but the situation in the Middle East is now so dire that they feel compelled to end their self-imposed silence.

Our group does not hold any specific position on the Israel/Palestine conflict and nor do we claim to represent all Jews. We came together to argue that alternative Jewish opinions should be heard and respected. A just peace for both Israelis and Palestinians will not be achieved through Israel’s colonial mindset. The result of this consistent belligerence is that Israel has never been more internationally isolated.

The response by the Zionist establishment has been predictable and counter-productive. Local Zionist mouthpiece Colin Rubenstein falsely claimed that we are against Israel’s right to exist, when in fact our statement clearly says “that Israel’s right to exist must be recognised and that Palestinians’ right to a homeland must also be acknowledged.”

Similar untruths have been alleged in the Jerusalem Post and the implication is clear. Jews who don’t subscribe to the Israel “right or wrong” brigade should not express such thoughts in public, as they will assist Israel’s “enemies”. So much for the Australian Jewish community’s often stated claim that open and free debate is common and encouraged. In fact, many Jews and non-Jews have written to us and told their own stories of being accused of anti-semitism and disloyalty and receiving hatemail and death threats for simply stating dissatisfaction with Israeli policies. One of the group’s co-founders, Peter Slezak, received a death threat last week, a few days ahead of the launch.

Encouragingly, the mainstream media has welcomed the chance to hear Jewish voices that do not demonise the Palestinians and defend the 40-year illegal occupation of Palestinian territory. After all, a great number of Jews in Australia have neither association with Jewish organisations nor lobby groups and have never felt comfortable with the bellicose pronouncements by the Zionist hierarchy. As one letter writer expressed in this week’s Australian Jewish News, “I have a sneaking suspicion that many Jews have left the Jewish community because they are not prepared to submit to the unelected ‘mainstream’.”

An increasing number of vocal Jews around the world are no longer prepared to allow self-important Jewish leaders speak on behalf of them on issues that affect us all, including peace in the Middle East.

When innocent Palestinians are murdered by the IDF, we’re always told it was an accident. When the Israeli government continually expands settlements in the West Bank, we’re informed it’s merely “natural growth”. When the entire Gazan population are collectively punished, we’re expected to believe that their election of Hamas warrants such retribution. When Jimmy Carter writes a book that accurately describes the Israeli occupation of Palestine as reminiscent of apartheid South Africa, he is accused of anti-Semitism, evil and enabling genocide.

Independent Australian Jewish Voices has already shown to the wider community that many Jews, who want Israelis and Palestinians to live together in peace, are determined to articulate a more humane vision for the Middle East. Historian Tony Judt has expressed it well: “Israel no longer has any special claim upon international sympathy or indulgence”, and must therefore act accordingly.

Text and images ©2023 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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