My report and analysis for global broadcaster TRT World on the upcoming Israeli election:
Jerusalem—During a recent conference organised by Women in Green, a Zionist, pro-settler group dedicated to applying Israeli sovereignty across the entire, occupied West Bank, Likud politician and Minister of Aliyah and Integration, Yoav Galant, explained what his country had to achieve.
“From the hills of Samaria, I say clearly, ‘No to a Palestinian state’,” he argued. “It’s impossible to establish more than one state west of the Jordan. This is the place of the Jewish, Zionist and democratic State of Israel.”
Other senior politicians at the event agreed including Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, Deputy Minister for Diplomacy (and former Israeli ambassador to the United States) Michael Oren and Welfare Minister Chaim Katz.
Israel’s general election in April sets the scene for ferocious months of campaigning and yet all the major Israeli political parties agree on one thing; no end to the more than 50 years of occupying Palestinian territory in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.
The ruling Likud party, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, voted in a non-binding resolution in late 2017 to apply sovereignty over the West Bank, rendering millions of Palestinians second-class citizens in perpetuity.
The resolution barely caused a ripple because it’s become an increasingly mainstream view across the Israeli, Jewish public.
Netanyahu is embroiled in countless corruption scandals, mainly revolving around the alleged receiving of favours and gifts from wealthy patrons and friends. The Times of Israel asked in late 2018: “Is Israel about to re-elect a corrupt prime minister?”
Netanyahu remains a popular leader despite the controversies and could win the April poll (if he hasn’t resigned before due to a possible indictment in February).
How to make an occupation disappear
The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, Israel’s leading organisation working on refugee rights, migrant workers and human trafficking victims, tells TRT World that the most vulnerable people in Israeli society are completely ignored during the election campaign.
Although an Israeli court recently froze the imminent deportation of 312 Congolese asylum seekers back to the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the founders of Hotline, Public Policy Director, Sigal Rozen, says that “the media shows no interest in the issue and nor do the politicians.”
Rozen says, “we always have hope yet we are not satisfied with only hoping, so we also strive to make sure that all decision makers are aware of the reasonsthat brought the asylum seekers to Israel and their situation here.”
Many Israeli politicians are committed to removing all African refugees from the country.
To the outside world, regularly bombarded with stories about unarmed Palestinians in Gaza being shot dead by Israel or never-ending expansion of illegal, West Bank settlements, understanding the Israeli mindset can be challenging and yet certain facts are clear.
Racist incitement against Arabs and Palestinians is rife in public spaces, the press and social media. A study conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute in 2018 found that the majority of Israeli citizens agreed with the sentiment that, “most Jews are better than most non-Jews because they were born Jews”. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said they were “somewhat disturbed” or “very disturbed” that half the pharmacists in Israel are Arabs.
The study was initiated after a concerning CNN poll that discovered anti-Semitic attitudes across Europe.
The Israeli occupation of Palestine is virtually invisible in the Israeli media except when Arabs are reported as a security threat. There’s only one Israeli journalist based permanently in the West Bank, Amira Hass with Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, and her readers are regularly exposed to the grim realities of life under occupation.
What’s mostly ignored in the international press, at least in the corporate media, is what Israel has allowed festering in Israel and the West Bank for decades; Jewish fanaticism that advocates the ethnic cleansing and murder of Palestinians. This isn’t just a few hundred Zionist settlers but a sizeable movement with strong political support. Leading Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard recently explained the phenomenon:
“We have to face reality. We are witnessing the flourishing of a Jewish Ku Klux Klan movement. Like its American counterpart, the Jewish version also drinks from the polluted springs of religious fanaticism and separatism, only replacing the Christian iconography with its Jewish equivalent. Like white racism’s modus operandi, this Jewish racism is also based on fearmongering and violence against its equivalent of Blacks — the Palestinians.”
How is this connected to the April election? It explains the social and political milieu in which the Israeli public lives on a daily basis. Settlers are routinely treated respectfully in the Israeli media instead of as illegal occupiers. It’s therefore unsurprising that no major political party has any interest or desire to end the occupation. Over decades, this perspective has found innumerable advocates to defend, ignore or support Israeli, settler actions.
Yes, there are many Israeli Jews who are appalled by the violence, but they have little or no political power. Instead, the international community has largely turned a blind eye to Israel’s descent into a proud ethnostate.
Now, with Donald Trump as US President, the European Union mostly toothless when facing the Israeli state and the Arab world increasingly turning towards Israel to form an anti-Iran alliance, the Jewish state has no limits on what it can achieve in its territory.
Netanyahu has expanded the defence, and intelligence industries and the country now sells equipment and weapons to some of the most brutal regimes on the planet.
The elephant in the room
Consider the leading Israeli political candidates in the April poll. Yair Lapid is a former journalist who proudly talks about building a high wall between Israelis and Palestinians to “get them [Palestinians] out of our sight.”
Former IDF chief of staff, Benny Gantz, wants to keep some illegal settlements in any peace agreement. Labour leader Avi Gabbay has told supporters that the “Arabs have to be afraid of us”. Pro-settler politician Naftali Bennett has spent years explaining his satisfaction in killing Palestinians.
Any Israeli politician expressing a desire for a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank has no chance of electoral success (and the party popular with Arabs, the Joint List, has an uncertain future).
This leaves the forthcoming election dealing with many other issues except the one that arguably affects Israelis and Palestinians more than any other; the occupation.
The Jerusalem-based, Israeli writer and activist Jeff Halper, head of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), tells TRT World that, “what people abroad associate with the big issue here, occupation and the peace process, is a non-issue to the Israeli electorate, who feel no need, urgency or pressure from any quarter to do anything. ‘Security’ remains an issue but it is boiled down to Hamas, and Iran and there is no real difference among parties – Labour leader Avi Gabbay says Netanyahu isn’t strong enough on Gaza – or public interest that would make that an electoral issue.”
The only alternative, Halper argues, is an “extra-parliamentary one, to work on establishing a single democratic state between the River and the Sea to replace the single apartheid regime we have today.”
Halper is involved in building a coalition with Palestinians and critical, Israeli Jews to establish a Palestinian-Israeli movement called The One Democratic State Campaign (ODSC).
This plan, Halper tells TRT World, would lead to a “democracy offering equal rights to everyone, in which the country becomes genuinely whole – people live wherever they want, one common citizenship and parliament, the return of the [Palestinian] refugees, individual, equal rights, collective rights protecting all the country’s groups and peoples and the building of a new, shared civil society.”
This vision is necessary, but it’s still a long way off. In the meantime, the April election will feature a cast of Israeli characters who will try to outdo each other in expressing contempt for the Palestinians.
The Palestinians are mostly invisible in the Israeli election campaign coverage, their plight and future deemed unimportant by the Israeli mainstream media.
Nonetheless, Palestinian voices are speaking out, some calling for a massive civil rights movement and demand for the right of return, but the Israeli elites don’t want to hear it.
The Trump administration’s long-delayed “deal of the century” between Israel and the Palestinians is destined to continue Washington’s role as Israel’s lawyerrather than an honest broker between the two sides.
What the Israeli election reveals most of all is what decades of occupation can achieve with global acquiesce, rendering powerless the invisible millions of Palestinians over whom you have complete control.
My first essay for The New York Review of Books:
Speaking recently to an audience in Tel Aviv via satellite from Moscow soon after the of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden alleged that Saudi Arabia had Israeli-made spyware to track Khashoggi’s movements before his death. Snowden said that the Israeli cyber-intelligence company NSO Group Technologies had developed software known as Pegasus that was sold to the Saudis and allowed Khashoggi to be monitored by the smartphone of one of his contacts, another Saudi critic, based in Canada.
This dissident, Omar Abdulaziz, in Israel in late 2018 alleging that the NSO Group had broken international law by selling its technology to oppressive regimes. “NSO should be held accountable in order to protect the lives of political dissidents, journalists, and human rights activists,” said his Jerusalem-based lawyer, Alaa Mahajna. The NSO Group is by an American company, Francisco Partners, and both Goldman Sachs and Blackstone are invested in it. The Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, a longtime of the Saudis, has Snowden’s allegations about the Israeli company’s dealings with the Kingdom.
This is just one of the more sinister examples of a lucrative business. , Israel recently Saudi Arabia $250 million-worth of sophisticated spying equipment, and Ha’aretz also reported that the Kingdom was offered the NSO Group’s phone-hacking software shortly Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began purging opponents in 2017. Israel and Saudi Arabia both view Iran as a unique threat that justifies their cooperation.
Besides spyware and cyber tools, Israel has developed a growing industry based around surveillance including espionage, psychological operations, and disinformation. One of these corporations, Black Cube, a private intelligence agency with links to the Israeli government (two former heads of the Mossad have sat on its international advisory board), has recently gained notoriety—most notably for spying on women who’d accused Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault. News reports have also identified the firm’s work on behalf of ’s authoritarian government, as well as an alleged “” campaigns against tied to the Iran nuclear deal, and against an anti-corruption investigator in . Black Cube and other agencies like it have close ties to the Israeli state because they hire many former intelligence personnel.
Over more than half a century of occupation, Israel has mastered the arts of monitoring and surveilling millions of Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel itself. Israel is now this knowledge to governments that admire the country’s ability to suppress and manage resistance. Israel’s occupation has thus gone global. The country’s defense exports a record $9.2 billion in 2017, 40 percent higher than in 2016 (in a global arms market that recorded its in 2017 at $398.2 billion). The majority of these sales were in Asia and the Pacific region. Military hardware, such as missiles and aerial defenses, was the largest sector at 31 percent, while intel, cyber, and information systems comprised 5 percent. Israel’s industry is supported by lavish domestic spending: in 2016, defense expenditure represented 5.8 percent of the . By comparison, in 2017, the American defense sector absorbed .
Despite their occasional diplomatic gestures opposing Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, many nations have become willing customers of Israeli cyber-weapons and intelligence know-how. The Mexican government has also used NSO Group tools, in at least one case, according to , to attempt to track colleagues of an investigative reporter who was murdered; human rights lawyers and anti-corruption activists have also been targeted. Amnesty International has accused the NSO Group of on one of its employees. A Canadian research group, the Citizen Lab, that infected phones have shown up in Bahrain, Brazil, Egypt, Palestine, Turkey, the UAE, the UK, the US, and elsewhere.
During the recent Gaza protests, a former chief executive of the company that built the fence surrounding parts of the Gaza Strip, Saar Korush of Magal Security Systems, told that Gaza was a showroom for his “smart fence” because customers liked that it was battle-tested and proven to keep Palestinians out of Israel. Magal is among the companies to build President Trump’s border wall with Mexico (along with anIsraeli company) and has built an international business based on its ability to stop “,” a word commonly used in Israel for refugees. Another new weapon that was used on the Israel/Gaza fence was the “Sea of Tears,” a drone that tear-gas canisters on protesters. According to the Israeli website Ynet, its maker soon received of orders for these drones. Germany is already Israeli drones, while the EU agency Frontex is testing similar drones to surveil European borders in an effort to prevent the entry of migrants and refugees.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has helped to transform his country during his nearly ten years in power into a technological powerhouse that proudly promotes its tools of occupation to a global and market. to fellow lawmakers in Israel in November, Netanyahu said that “power is the most important [component] of foreign policy. ‘Occupation’ is bull. There are countries that have conquered and replaced entire populations and the world keeps silent. Strength is the key, it makes all the difference in our policy toward the Arab world.” He concluded that any peace deal with the Palestinians could only come with “common interests which are based on technological strength.”
In 2017, Israel for granting export licenses to a range of intelligence, surveillance, and weapons manufacturers, though it claims to consider the human rights implications when doing so. But this stretches credibility when Israel has sold weapons just in the last years to countries that commit grievous abuses such as the , , and . Netanyahu has with Chadian dictator Idriss Déby, and may be the Bahraini regime and Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted on charges of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court.
The Israeli Defense Ministry releases barely any information about how or why its exports are granted. Ha’aretz that espionage equipment had been sold to numerous undemocratic regimes, including Bangladesh, Angola, Bahrain, Nigeria, UAE, Vietnam, and others. In some cases, these governments and others have used the systems to target dissidents and LGBTQ citizens, and even to concoct false charges of blasphemy. In early 2019, Ha’aretz also revealed the existence of another Israeli cybersecurity firm, named Candiru, which markets hacking tools and relies heavily on recruiting military veterans from the elite signals intelligence Unit 8200.
Since the tech bubble burst in 2000, the Israeli government has pushed local companies to invest in the security and intelligence industries. The result, according to a Privacy International report in 2016, was that of the 528 companies worldwide that worked in this field, twenty-seven were based in Israel—making it the country with by far the highest per capita rate of surveillance and intelligence firms in the world. And in 2016, Ha’aretz reported, a full 20 percent of global investments in the sector were in Israeli start-ups.
That same year, human rights lawyer Eitay Mack, one of the few prominent Israelis Israel’s arms export policy, and Tamar Zandberg, chairwoman of the left-wing Meretz party, went to Israel’s High Court of Justice in an effort to win a suspension of NSO Group’s export license. The government demanded that the process was held in camera and the court’s ruling was not released to the public. Supreme Court President Justice Esther Hayut explained that “our economy, as it happens, rests not a little on that export.”
Indeed, in 2017, Israel was to the US in raising close to $1 billion in venture capital and private equity for cybersecurity companies. Information released last year by the New York-based data firm CB Insights showed that Israel was the of cybersecurity deals in the world after the US. Although the US led by a large margin, with a 69 percent of global market share, Israel’s 7 percent placed it ahead of the UK.
The occupation has thus fueled Israel’s industrial and defense policy-making through an that has benefited companies that build, operate, and manage the settlement enterprise. But for , author of The Privatization of Israeli Security (2017) and a world expert on the Israeli arms trade, the occupation is becoming less an asset than a liability. Many Israeli arms sellers, he told me, are “expressing their frustration that customers are not excited about Israeli products because they fail at stopping Palestinian resistance. Russia held an arms fair selling ‘’ gear from the Syria war and has managed to increase sales to Turkey and India, both very important markets for Israeli companies. So why should arms importers consider Israeli arms special?”
Hever acknowledges that “authoritarian regimes definitely still want to learn how Israel manages and controls the Palestinians, but the more they learn, the more they realize that Israel does not actually control the Palestinians very effectively. Support for Israel from right-wing groups and politicians around the world is still strong—Brazil’s new president, , being a particularly depressing example—but I think there is more focus on the racism, racial profiling and nationalism and less and less admiration for the ‘strongest military in the world.’” He even questions the Israeli government narrative about the success of the weapons and intelligence sector and argues that the industry is in decline because it is so dependent on short-term, ad-hoc alliances.
Apartheid South Africa and its decline are a warning from history that Israel would be unwise to ignore. At its height, South Africa was one of the world’s biggest arms dealers, behind Brazil and Israel, and this was achieved through enormous state subsidies. Despite a UN arms embargo, the South African regime spent 28 percent of the state’s budget on its defense industry in the late 1980s, according to a recent book, Apartheid Guns and Money: A Tale of Profit, by Hennie van Vuuren, the director of the South African nonprofit watchdog organization Open Secrets. An economy built on military know-how and expertise in techniques of internal repression might seem a source of indomitable strength, but Apartheid was finished less than five years later.
Today, growing numbers of American Jews are distancing themselves from Israel, rejecting its government’s embrace of ethno-nationalism and instead a one-state solution. For the time being, Israel looks set to remain a major global player in the manufacture and sales of weapons systems and surveillance equipment and expertise—that is now one of the main ways the country defines itself internationally. But international opposition is , thanks largely to calls by the (BDS) movement for a on Israel and its defense industry. Already, one of the country’s biggest defense companies, Elbit Systems, has over its activities around the world. Just days ago, the banking giant HSBC announced it was divesting from Elbit Systems. High-profile campaigns like this will surely begin to change the calculus about the economic and moral costs of the occupation—all the more so if Israel continues on its present political path toward the de facto annexation of Palestine.
Last weekend I was invited to speak at a big Palestine conference in Istanbul, Turkey. Palestine Addressing the World brought speakers from over 60 countries across the world – one of the keynote speakers was going to be Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, murdered by the Saudi government in Istanbul – and nearly 1000 participants. It was an interesting two days on covering Israel/Palestine in the global media.
I gave a talk on a panel titled, “Strategies to confront the discriminatory discourse of Israel”. A key focus was the rise of Jewish dissent opposed to Israel’s permanent occupation of Palestine.
My following essay appears in the Israel/Palestine news outlet +972 magazine:
There’s a moment near the end of the four-part, Al Jazeera documentary on the U.S. Israel lobby — censored by its own network due to pressure from the U.S. government and incensed U.S.-based, pro-Israel lobbyists — where the show’s undercover reporter, “Tony,” films a key Israel advocate in Washington. Eric Gallagher was a senior manager at The Israel Project and admits that the dominant pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC, faces an existential crisis.
“People at AIPAC know that something has changed,” Gallagher says. “They know something is wrong. They are not as effective as they used to be.” He worries that the day is coming soon when AIPAC wouldn’t be able to deeply influence the Israel lobby crafted in the U.S. Congress, as it does today, and that the pro-Israel lobby will have to operate without AIPAC’s power. “There’s this big bowling ball that’s being hurled towards them [AIPAC] and the response is to run faster,” Gallagher continues. “They need to get on the bowling ball and start dancing.”
Gallagher doesn’t explain why so many Americans are turning against Israel in public opinion polls. The latest figures from The Economist and YouGov, an online data analytics firm, find that U.S. liberals, millennials, and women have turned against the Jewish state in large numbers. The 50-plus year occupation of Palestinians and their lands, constant killings of civilians in Gaza, and the Trump administration’s obsessive embrace of Israel’s hard-right are all factors.
Republicans and conservatives still back Israel in large numbers, as do many in the evangelical Christian community (though younger members are more skeptical). For the foreseeable future, however, Israel will likely receive unprecedented financial, military, and diplomatic support from the United States.
Tony films Gallagher in a Washington D.C. café explaining that “the foundation that AIPAC sat on is rotting. There used to be widespread public support for Israel in the United States…I don’t think that AIPAC is the tip of the spear anymore, which is worrisome, because who is?”
It’s a telling admission in a documentary that’s full of them. Following Al Jazeera’s 2017 examination of Britain’s Israel lobby — a film that uncovered extensive Israeli government interference in the British political system, along with Labour Party operatives who aimed to silence critics of Israel with false charges of anti-Semitism — expectations were high for the U.S. version. They planted a convincing young, British, Jewish man, James Anthony Kleinfeld, within the American Zionist establishment, who filmed undercover for months to reveal pro-Israel lobbyists and Israeli government affiliates talking tactics and spewing racism against Muslims and Palestinians. Al Jazeera even admitted to planting an undercover reporter inside U.S. pro-Israel lobby groups in 2017, but the channel never broadcast the final product.
Director and founder of Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit, Clayton Swisher, has detailed the political reasons for this decision: a combination of Qatari government capitulation, pro-Israel lobbyists in Washington threatening to convince Congress to register the network as “foreign agents,” and false accusations of anti-Semitism against the producers of the documentary. A source told me that U.S. President Donald Trump’s first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, had even lobbied the Qataris not to screen the film. Whatever exactly Israeli, American, and pro-Zionist lobbyists did, it worked, though clips of the film started leaking in the last months. The full film can’t be far behind [it leaked a few days after this piece was published].
The leaks prove that the Israeli embassy, often working with pro-Israel groups, spies on pro-Palestinian students and attempts to disrupt the growth of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement across the U.S. Other Zionist lobbyists want students who support Palestinian rights to be criminally prosecuted. Fake Facebook accounts are created by Israel lobby groups that only occasionally mention Israel, because the Israel brand has become so toxic. The notorious Canary Mission website, used by the Israel government to target pro-Palestinian supporters on arrival in its country, is exposed as being funded by major pro-Israel donors in the U.S.
These are all important revelations, and an international audience deserves to see them. There’s nothing remotely anti-Semitic in the film. It’s a sober and detailed exposé of a lobby that functions despite the demographic gravity pushing against it. It’s not just young Americans losing support for Israel, but American Jews who increasingly can’t abide by a foreign country that advocateschauvinism, occupation, and racism. The horrific Pittsburgh synagogue massacre has only deepened this divide between Israel and its vast Jewish Diaspora.
Banning the film shows the weakness of the Zionist lobby, not its strength, because it acknowledges that any criticism that shatters the illusion of how the lobby operates secretly cannot survive sunlight or public scrutiny. Nonetheless, it’s worrying that Al Jazeera continues to stonewall about the real reasons it has not scheduled the film.
Swisher’s documentary is a positive development, however, from the myopic discussions around the U.S. Israel lobby that greeted the 2007 book on the subject by academics Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer (who appears in the film). The authors were accused of anti-Semitism and scapegoating Jews. U.S. journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, now editor of The Atlantic, who is notorious for policingsupposedly acceptable boundaries of debate around Israel/Palestine, called Walt, without evidence, a “grubby Jew-baiter.”
Yes, Swisher and his team have been accused of anti-Semitism, more than a decade after the Mearsheimer-Walt book. But the label no longer sticks effectively, apart from the rigid ideologues who won’t tolerate any criticism of Israeli actions. When real anti-Semitism is surging globally, it’s a damning indictment on those who abuse the term for shabby political ends. The Israel lobby does this around the world.
A key theme throughout the film is the perceived need by Israel and its advocates to secretly and publicly smear supporters of Palestinian rights. That’s what being strongly pro-Israel means for the litany of Zionist lobby groups featured in the documentary, from The Israel Project to the Brandeis Center. It looks and feels grubby and desperate. BDS is framed as an existential threat to the continuation of the Jewish state, a severe exaggeration in the current moment, but it has undeniably achieved great psychological damage to the Israeli narrative and justification for indefinitely occupying millions of Palestinians.
One of the early reviews of the film, written by Anshel Pfeffer in Haaretz, argues that the U.S. Israel lobby and Israeli government are “begging a bunch of amateurs for intel [on BDS supporters].” Although he later admits that the film shows a “self-harming campaign” that costs the Israeli government millions of dollars every year, he ignores the wider implications for the many targeted liberal Jews, pro-Palestinian activists and Muslims whose lives and records are smeared by the lobby for daring to defend Palestinian rights. Free speech around Israel/Palestine is now under attack in the U.S. and across the globe. The FBI is using Canary Mission as a reference point to harass pro-Palestinian activists.
This Al Jazeera documentary deserves a wide audience because it exposes the motivations and methods of individuals and groups that will spend the next 50 or 100 years defending Israeli control of Palestinian lives.
Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based, independent journalist, film-maker, author of My Israel Question and Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe and is currently writing a book on the global “war on drugs”, out in 2019. He has been reporting on Israel/Palestine since 2003.
I was interviewed yesterday by US radio station Loud and Clear, the hosts are Brian Becker and former CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou, on Hurricane Florence in North Carolina and the ways in which disaster capitalism affects both the relief effort and long-term trends:
I was recently asked to endorse the new book by Palestinian writer Dr Olfat Mahmoud whose work is called Tears for Tarshiha. Published by Wild Dingo Press, here’s the book’s blurb:
Olfat Mahmoud, a stateless refugee, is a descendant of the ‘forgotten Palestinians’, forced from their homes by the Israeli military in 1948. A former nurse, NGO director and academic, Mahmoud’s confronting autobiography asks when the world will deliver on its promise and allow her people to return home.
Here’s my endorsement:
“For too long, Palestinians have remained largely invisible in our media and demonised as terrorists. It’s therefore wonderfully refreshing to read the history, reflections and passions of Olfat Mahmoud and understand what exile still means for millions of Palestinians around the world, refused access to their former homeland. I commend this book for its humanity and quest for justice. The Middle East will not see peace until these issues are resolved.”
– Antony Loewenstein, independent journalist, film-maker, author of Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe and My Israel Question
I was interviewed by The Wire news radio program yesterday:
The already fragile stability in the Middle East has been further affected in recent weeks, with the US Embassy move to Jerusalem and President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.
Overnight 55 Palestinian protesters were killed by Israeli forces in Gaza, coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish state. This is the highest protest casualty rate in the region since 2014, and has some experts feeling that the US’s increased backing of Israel will lead to a more aggressive stance on neighbours such as Palestine and Syria.
My investigation in the Sydney Morning Herald/Melbourne Age:
The legal pursuit in Israel of alleged sexual predator Malka Leifer took a strange turn this week.
As she fought extradition attempts by Victoria Police over 74 charges of child sexual abuse, the 54-year-old first gained, then lost the support of influential Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman.
Grossman is a highly respected rabbi in Israel. He was awarded the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement in 2004 – Israel’s highest cultural honour – and he’s the founder and head of Migdal Ohr, a major NGO that helps children and underprivileged teens across Israel.
But last week, in a surprise appearance before the Jerusalem district court, he pledged to monitor Leifer under house arrest if the judge agreed to her release from police custody.
It was “humiliating”, he claimed, for Leifer to remain incarcerated, and bad for her mental health.
The court apparently agreed and authorised her release.
Leifer is a former teacher and principal at Melbourne’s ultra-orthodox Adass Israel girls’ school, who fled Australia with the aid of the Adass community after her alleged offending was revealed.
One of Leifer’s alleged victims, Melbourne-based Dassi Erlich, was gutted at the court’s decision.
“We are trying so desperately to hold onto hope and trying to desperately see justice. We want to hold onto the fact that we will see her back in Australia one day,” she said.
However, early this week, Grossman reversed his position and withdrew support for Leifer, citing the perception that his backing had been “interpreted as supporting an attempt to avoid trial”.
There are many confounding aspects of this case including the role of Rabbi Grossman.
Grossman has assisted accused sexual predators before, including Breslov Rabbi Eliezer Berland who fought extradition to Israel from South Africa. Grossman went to South Africa twice and argued for Berland to be given bail.
Ultimately, Berland was sentenced in the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court in 2016 after admitting to one assault and two counts of indecent acts.
So why did Grossman back away from Leifer?
Multiple sources in both Australia and Israel said the backlash against the rabbi’s decision to support Leifer was immediate. Donors, staff and some board members of his Migdal Ohr organisation objected to his move on social media, and directly to the organisation.
One source said that he personally knew people who had contacted board members to complain, only to be told they were sullying the reputation of a fine man.
However a social media campaign involving Australian and American activists and a number of Australian rabbis put moral pressure on the rabbi. An open letter addressed to Grossman said Leifer’s alleged crimes had “caused untold pain and suffering”.
“Your conduct in this matter raises many serious questions … By involving yourself in legal proceedings which have nothing to do with you for the purpose of supporting an alleged multiple rapist and child sexual abuser and in showing no regard for the pain and suffering of her alleged victims, you are guilty of not only gross Rabbinic overreach but have also committed a huge Chillul Hashem (desecration of G-d’s name), which has brought the entire Jewish community into disrepute,” the letter read.
More than that, sources say, was the threat to the funding of Migdal Ohr.
Rabbi Grossman’s group claims to endorse child protection, and sources have told Fairfax Media many key funders, particularly in the United States, demanded that Grossman retract his support for Leifer.
About half the funding for Grossman’s organisation comes from the Israeli government, and the rest from Jewish communities from across the world including Canada, Brazil and Britain and 10 percent from the Jewish Agency for Israel. The United Israel Appeal Australia (UIA) donates money to the Jewish Agency but a representative from the UIA in Melbourne told Fairfax Media that “we’re transparent about where our money goes” and none had ever been sent to Migdal Ohr.
“Rabbi Grossman didn’t have a moral realisation”, the source said. “He didn’t issue an apology for the hurt caused [to Leifer’s victims.]”
One source told Fairfax Media that Grossman knew about the allegations against Leifer as far back as 2012 and supported her.
Fairfax approached Rabbi Grossman Enterprises for a response, but was referred to his earlier statement.
Leifer has been fighting extradition to Australia for four years. She fled from Australia to Israel soon after the allegations were aired in 2008, living there while alleging she was mentally unfit to stand trial.
But police were forced to act after an Israeli private investigator filmed more than 200 hours of footage of Leifer in an occupied West Bank settlement and found her to be a “normal, healthy person”.
She remains in custody while an Israeli judge assesses an appeal to deny her access to house arrest.
There are growing calls from the Jewish community within Australia for the Israeli legal system to facilitate Leifer’s extradition to Australia and face justice. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has raised the matter with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and in 2017 said that, “justice demands that she be brought back to Australia to answer the charges.”
In 2015, Victorian Supreme Court judge Jack Rush ordered the Adass Israel girls’ school to pay $1,024,428 in damages to Ms Erlich.
Leifer’s fate remains in the balance. Well connected in the secretive Hassidic community, along with her husband Jacob, she’ll undoubtedly fight to stay in Israel and never return to Australia. If the Israeli court finds that she cannot remain in a psychiatric ward and with Rabbi Grossman’s offer now void, she may be released back into the Israeli community. Her victims demand that she faces court in Australia.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, author of “Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe”, and was based in Jerusalem in 2016/2017.