Driven to mute voice of dissent

The following article appears in today’s edition of the Australian newspaper:

Louise Adler… 

Almost 10 years ago, the then Israeli ambassador to Australia Gaby Levy requested a meeting to discuss my views on the Middle East. Levy had read a review I had written on Edward Said’s recently published memoirs.

In that review I described my youthful disenchantment with Israel, a state I imagined to be a utopian oasis, only to discover in the early 1970s a society deeply divided on race, class and religious lines.

We spent an hour together in which Levy argued vehemently that my views should not be aired in the nation’s broadsheets and that dissenting Jews should not air the community’s dirty linen in public. I was advised to refocus my attention on condemning terrorism.

That the ambassador felt it necessary to devote time to apply pressure over commentary in a book review indicates the high degree of sensitivity at play.

Two years ago, while with Princeton University Press, I proudly published a lecture series, titled The Question of Zion, by eminent scholar Jacqueline Rose.

The announcement of a public debate to be hosted by Melbourne University Publishing at the Melbourne Writers Festival was met by hostility and abuse.

Subsequently, the prospect of a book by journalist Antony Loewenstein, My Israel Question, produced further acrimony.

One Labor MP, to shore up his own waning political fortunes, declared: “MUP should drop this whole disgusting project.” He exhorted the Jewish community: “If, god forbid, it is published, don’t give them a dollar. Don’t buy the book.”

It is not necessary to dwell on the ludicrous proposition that a book should be prejudged and condemned before it is published.

When Loewenstein’s book did finally appear last July a concerted campaign to discredit the author and MUP was launched. Booksellers were urged not to stock the book, protests were made to the vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, and journalists were pressured in an effort to control debate about the issues the book raised.

In my experience, this campaign has been relentless, abusive and defamatory. In more than one instance, Loewenstein has been equated with Helen Demidenko-Darville-Dale. As his publisher, I have been equated with Leonie Kramer in her public support for an anti-Semitic tract. According to this logic, I am the publisher of a fraudster and the purveyor of anti-Semitism.

In this context, rational and respectful debate are jettisoned in favour of tactics designed to silence criticism. For anyone concerned with probity in literary matters, the suggestion is laughable. With Pamela Bone’s prescient support, I helped initiate a discussion about a book on the Demidenko charade.

Leaving the personal insults to one side, the important issue is that critics of Israel’s policies are reflexively characterised as anti-Semitic.

The vigorous attempt to silence critics is not unique to Australia. In the US and Britain the publication of similar material has been met with a torrent of abuse.

When American academics John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt published their research on the Zionist lobby, not one American media outlet would accept their paper. It took more than a year before literary publisher Farrar Strauss Giroux offered the scholars a book contract.

Of course, this is a propaganda war. The argument, put simply, is that Israel is the Jewish homeland, a refuge for all Jews against incipient, ever-present anti-Semitism of both the Orient and the Occident.

Today the duty of diaspora Jews is to support Israel against the Arab world’s desire to drive the Jews into the sea and to reclaim Jerusalem. This political position is clearly the product of anxiety, predicated on the notion of Jews as victims. Critics of Israel are deemed to be both anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic.

Debate has to be suppressed because Israel is forever on the precipice of annihilation and diaspora Jews should support the state, whether its position is right or wrong. Independent Australian Jewish Voices is a loose coalition of Jews who resist this view. They share an urgent concern for a just peace in Israel and Palestine and the desire for civil public debate in the diaspora. The necessity for such a declaration is evident from the community leadership’s response to this modest initiative. Signatories have been labelled the usual suspects, as liars and anti-Semites.

The term “Jewish-born individuals” is used pejoratively. The language is instructive.

It implies that critics of Israel are traitors, not proper members of the Jewish community, and therefore without legitimacy. People were last identified as “Jewish-born” under the Third Reich. I know I am not alone in finding such terminology offensive. My grandfather died in Auschwitz precisely because of his Jewish identity.

In the murky realm of the internet more than one hooligan has resorted to signing our letter as Adolf Hitler. Another contributor signs on as Chaim Rumkowski, the head of the Lodz ghetto who could be seen on high holidays travelling through the ghetto in a white carriage.

He is also remembered for his speech, “Give me your children”, in which he asked families to give up their children for deportation. He collaborated with the Nazis until his deportation in 1944. The implicit suggestion is that sincere signatories are collaborators, like Rumkowski. It is sickening.

Criticism of Israel is not the same as disputing Israel’s right to exist. It is only a threat to all Jews if you believe that Israel alone represents the Jewish people. For some individuals this is the case.

But there are others of equal sincerity who do not see their identity and future to be bound up with the fate of Israel. Crude simplifications have to be resisted. It is surely possible to believe that both Palestinians and Israelis have a right to statehood. It is equally reasonable to condemn both Palestinian suicide bombings and Israel military brutality in the occupied territories.

Some years ago the Australian Jewish News proudly devoted its front page to the single triumphant line “One people, one voice”. It was a calculated exhortation, a strategy to inflame fear and reignite a tragically familiar sense of embattlement. To argue that all Jews agree on Israel or that Israel represents all Jews is to conflate Jews with Israel. This is an impoverished and dangerously reductive notion inadequate to the complexity of the times.

Louise Adler is the chief executive and publisher of Melbourne University Publishing.