Difference matters

Following this week’s announcement of My Israel Question being short-listed for the 2007 NSW Premier’s Literary Award, the judge’s comments are as follows:

Antony Loewenstein quotes a commentator on contemporary Jewry who says that a diasporic Jew is, by definition, a neurotic. My Israel Question appraises that diagnosis by critically examining the media’s representation, in Australia , the United States and Britain , of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The ”˜neurotic Jew’ is not so much an individual as an institutionalised cultural syndrome.

Starting with the 2003 debate about whether Hanan Ashrawi should be given the Sydney Peace Prize, Lowenstein takes aim, in particular, at Australian Jews whose loyalty to Israel disables, in his opinion, an open-minded debate about how to establish peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Portraying Australia ‘s pro-Israel lobby as fiercely dogmatic and bullying, he points out that the lobby’s work is made easier by the highly professional media relations of the Israeli Defense Force, by the political ineptitude of the Palestinian leadership, and by a lack of empathy, widespread in the West, for the Arab point of view. Of particular interest is his account of the Labor tradition of indulgence towards Israel .

My Israel Question is, at times, a personalised work of political journalism. Loewenstein writes that he has had to overcome a collective sense of shame that would equate a critical view of Israel with disrespect towards the victims of the Holocaust. A Jew’s questioning of Israel is not without emotional cost.

The book is not primarily autobiographical, however. It is a researched guide to the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict and to the political and cultural processes that have assured the Israeli side of a sympathetic hearing in the Anglophone world. At a time when Australia Jewry is publicly fragmenting in its views on Middle Eastern affairs, My Israel Question is a cogent expression of Jewish dissidence.

It’s encouraging to note that a dissenting Jewish perspective on Zionism and the Israel/Palestine conflict is both appreciated and encouraged in the Australian community, far away from the rampant parochialism of the Jewish world. Until more Jews start to understand that there are multiple Jewish understandings of the Middle East, they’ll continue to convince themselves that Israel is hated simply because it’s Jewish (though a racially discriminatory policy hardly helps.)