Jews are getting the image of being afraid of debate

My following article appears on the leading US blog Mondoweiss:

Jeff Halper, Israeli/American peace activist, retired anthropologist and head of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), writes in his recent book, An Israeli in Palestine, of the moment he became a “critical Israeli”:

“I first became aware of being an ”˜Israeli in Palestine’ on July 9, 1998, the day my friend Salim Shawamreh calls ”˜the black day in my life and in the life of my family’. On that day the bulldozers of Israel’s Civil Administration, its military government in the West Bank, demolished his home for the first time. It was an act so unjust, so brutal, so at odds with the ethos of the benign, democratic, Jewish Israel fighting for its survival I had absorbed on ”˜my side’ of the Green Line that it was inexplicable in any terms I could fathom. It had nothing to do with terrorism or security. It was not an act of defence or even keeping Palestinians away from Israeli settlements or roads. It was purely unjust and brutal. As the bulldozer pushed through the walls of Salim’s home, it pushed me through all the ideological rationalisations, the pretexts, the lies and the bullshit that my country had erected to prevent us from seeing the truth: that oppression must accompany an attempt to deny the existence and claims of another people in order to establish an ethnically pure state for yourself.”

Many Jews have a similar moment. For me, it was the Sydney visit in 2003 of Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi. The smears told by the Zionist lobby against this moderate woman – explained by Robert Fisk – forced me to publicly challenge what it meant to be Jewish. After all, we should be human beings first and foremost and not exclusive members of an ethnically-based tribe.

The fall of global Jewish solidarity over the Middle East is something I celebrate, though many in the Zionist lobby, such as the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman, rightly fear that disunity is death when trying to convince the political and media elite.

The recent Australian visit of Halper was a massive success – the group I co-founded, Independent Australian Jewish Voices, was involved, along with Australians for Palestine and Coalition for Justice and Peace in Palestine – not least because the Zionist lobby and its media courtiers remembered nothing from history. They told lies about this mild man and accused him of extremism. Watching Halper’s talk at Sydney University proves this accusation to be false.

One leading lobbyist wrote in the Australian Jewish News (AJN) that, “Jeff Halper has come to Australia making little attempt to disguise his intention to demonise and delegitimise Israel”. His major crime was daring to argue against the two-state equation, “the only solution that has received endorsement from the international community, from Israel and, since 1993, from large sections of the Palestinian people.”

Halper told me while in Sydney that he had rarely experienced a more parochial Jewish community anywhere in the world, except Canada (whose conservative government recently blocked a tour by British MP George Galloway after pressure from a fundamentalist Zionist organization.)

His comments were echoed by American professor Sara Roy, Senior Research Scholar at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, who visited Australia in late 2008 and said that the kinds of questions she received from conservative Jews were reminiscent of many American Jews five to ten years ago.

They speak in slogans, phrases heard from friends or in the media – “a war on terror”, “there is no partner for peace”, “Israel’s moral army” etc – but have little knowledge of the facts themselves. The occupation is rarely mentioned because a) it’s not regarded as an occupation (“disputed territories”) or b) a belief that the 500,000 illegal settlers on Palestinian land could easily be removed when there was a Palestinian partner who spoke the language of peace. The infiltration of religious Jewish bigots into the political and military elite is ignored. The steadily increasing colonies in the West Bank are forgotten. The futility of the Gaza blockade is shunned. The failure of the recent Gaza war is internalised (Hamas is both still standing and emboldened politically by the attack). The demographic “time-bomb” – whereby there will soon be more Arabs than Jews in the land of Palestine – is not considered.

To an outsider, mainstream Jewry is seen as eternally defensive, fixed in a paranoid crouch that defies the powerful position of Jews in Western society. The recent Jewish “fury” in Melbourne, Australia over the visit of former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami merely reinforced this image of Jews as afraid of debate.

The implication was clear; unless a non-Jew passed an unspoken loyalty test to Israel and the Zionist community, they were unwelcome. The Zionist gate-keepers failed to understand how their attitude played to the wider, non-Jewish community. Why are Jews afraid of open discussion, an average citizen will think?

The fact that Khatami – I met his Vice-President, Mohammed Ali Abtahi, in Tehran in 2007 and found an Islamist with conservative but pragmatic views – was happy to meet Jewish leaders should have been enough for them to be present. Of course, the fact the Jewish establishment believes that 2009 is 1938 and that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is Hitler, hardly helps matters. Victimhood is seen as good for business.

A victim of Jewish pressure, Charles Freeman, recently said in views that translate perfectly well to Australia: “I’d call this little [Zionist] group the ”˜Lieberman lobby,” in reference to Israel’s new Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman. Australia’s unrepresentative Jewish leaders profess to speak for all Jews, but in fact only mouth the latest positions from the Israeli Foreign Ministry. As Israel turns further right-ward and racist, their utterances will surely follow suit.

It was amusing to hear Halper recount an interview with a local ethnic radio station conducted by a Jewish woman. They argued passionately for an hour and at the end he said that she even acknowledged how little she knew about house demolitions in Palestine, the apartheid wall and daily life for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel was a noble concept, not rooted in reality. An Israel of the mind. This is something Halper wrote himself in an opinion piece the Australian Jewish News refused to run upon his return to Israel.

The story around Halper’s Australian visit was almost a text-book case of Zionist short-sightedness. I had organised a number of prominent media interviews to give him the opportunity to speak his mind (here) and here). A number of dissident Jewish groups had wanted to run an advertisement about Halper’s Sydney dates in the Australian Jewish News but at the last minute this was pulled by the publisher. One of the events was at a progressive synagogue.

Why? The editor told me it was because the ad would “offend significant members of the community, especially subscribers.” I queried why the paper seemed happy to run irregular ads from the fundamentalist, West Bank settler movement.

“Nobody has ever complained about those ads,” he replied.

The publisher gave the Sydney Morning Herald an even more revealing response. He didn’t “like the crowd who are bringing him out. I am familiar with them. They use their Judaism to bash other Jews and issues associated with the Jewish community.”

This story by now had moved into the mainstream. The synagogue refused to host Halper after getting cold feet due to the publicity. The Sydney Morning Herald ran an almost unprecedented editorial that slammed the Jewish community’s fear of open debate:

“Here in Australia, we’ve just learnt that the respected Australian Jewish News has rejected advertisements that promote a speaking tour by Israeli professor Jeffrey Halper, who campaigns against the bulldozing of Palestinian homes. Sydney’s progressive Emanuel Synagogue has also cancelled a talk by the professor, because some people objected to what he would have said.
“The newspaper’s publisher, Robert Magid, said he pulled the ads because he “doesn’t like” the promoters, three local groups called Jews Against the Occupation, Independent Australian Jewish Voices, and the Coalition for Justice and Peace in Palestine. According to Mr Magid, they “use their Judaism to bash other Jews and issues associated with the Jewish community”. Maybe it’s because criticism that can’t be easily shrugged off as ill-informed or even as anti-Semitic is harder to answer.”

Magid responded some days later, accused me of speaking at a massive Gaza rally in January where a number of swastikas had appeared (which supposedly proved I was a descendant of Hitler) and asserted his right to refuse an advertisement (a position echoed by the paper’s editorial). Let me be clear: I found the inclusion of swastikas disturbing. In a rally of over 6000 people, comparing Israel to Nazi Germany is not a view I share, but the anger was understandable.

There were countless letters to the editor in the pages of the Sydney Morning Herald and Australian Jewish News (which still continues), including this one:

“Emanuel Synagogue rolled out the red carpet to a propagandist whose visit was sponsored by groups dedicated to Israel’s disappearance. Subsequently, upon realising it was a bad idea and cancelling, Emanuel handed a free throw to our enemies, who are now getting even better mileage out of this story. It’s Hanan Ashrawi all over again.”

Maybe self-awareness in the Jewish community isn’t entirely dead, after all.

I heard Halper speak on his last engagement in Australia at the University of New South Wales. He was passionate, convincing and tireless in explaining his love for Israel, the Jewish people and human rights. There was no hatred in his language. Outside the lecture theatre a small number of Jewish students handed out a double-sided “response” to Halper. One side was headlined, “Halper says Israelis do not want peace” and included “facts” about Israel’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza and Ehud Barak’s 2000 “offer” at Camp David. This was Hasbara faxed directly from the bowels of the Israeli state. Slogans, slogans, slogans.

A former Yesha Council chairman recently wrote in Yediot Ahronoth that Israel needed a PR ministry. It “would not be able to change the images of destruction from Gaza, yet should the PR apparatus be given proper budget, and headed by a PR minister with the ability to effectively coordinate and manage our efforts, it may counter-balance the venomous propaganda with other images.”

A constant theme in the Jewish media in Australia and elsewhere is the fear that the community’s “dirty linen” is being shown to the wider world (therefore implying that there is something untoward in the first place.) It’s as if the enemy is at the doorstep about to invade a peaceful, benign home. How else to explain placing this story on page one of the Australian Jewish News in early February:

“Jewish leaders have slammed the recent establishment of the Committee to Dismantle Zionism by two Jewish Australian academics, which accuses Israel of genocide. Academics John Docker and Ned Curthoys, from the Australian National University in Canberra, said they established the committee last month to ”˜repudiate Israel’s claim that it acts in the name of Jews the world over’.”

Two men publicising a statement is clearly more important than conflict in the Middle East or the Israeli elections.

I was struck recently by a comment by a leading British, Jewish journalist based in Sydney. I was giving a talk to the Foreign Correspondents’ Association last week on the Western media’s distortions over Israel/Palestine. This older man told me that many in the Jewish community would no longer listen to anything I said and I should moderate my message. After my speech, he said that the assembled reporters, none of whom were Jewish, would not “understand” the nuances in my talk and would only hear my challenges to Jewish power. If Israel and the West did what I proposed, he said, “they would not spare you because of what you’re saying.” “They” were Muslim terrorists.

Jews are always only one step away from annihilation.

Jeff Halper’s visit was an important event because it allowed the wider community to hear the perspectives of a Jew who used to be a Zionist “believer” until he opened his eyes to what was being done in his name.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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