Jews on Jews

My following article appears in Online Opinion:

The 60th anniversary of Israel’s birth saw a flurry of praise by the worldwide Zionist community.

The Australian Jewish News editorialised that “Jews all over the world feel Israel is the most special place on earth”. Furthermore, “the Israeli Defence Forces are the envy of the world ”¦ and [has] stood tall in every war it has engaged in”. It was embarrassing in its enthusiasm for a country that remains desperately short of global friends.

Writers Bernard Avishai and Sidra DeKovan Ezrahi recently wrote in US newspaper the Forward that, “Diaspora Jews ”¦ advance the only version of Israel they can really understand: a garrison state for world Jewry. They feel useful, even heroic, warning against ”˜existential’ threats: global anti-Semitism or Iranian jihadism.” This is just one expression of modern Jewry, and undoubtedly the most belligerent, but alternatives are growing in strength and being heard; not all Jews view criticism of Israel as illegitimate or traitors to the cause.

Some non-Jewish Australians and Muslims are unaware that many Jews don’t support Israeli policies. It is a welcome development that these Jews, in initiatives such as Independent Australian Jewish Voices (IAJV), articulate to the wider public that the Jewish community does not speak with one voice on Israel and Palestine.

Although IAJV, like Independent Jewish Voices in Britain, cannot claim to represent a majority of Jews, they are beginning to engage with the media and political elite and presenting alternatives to the official Zionist narrative. Moreover, demonising and smearing Israel’s critics is a futile path adopted by prominent members of the global, Jewish Diaspora. It doesn’t defend Jews and merely reinforces anti-Semitic stereotypes. As Israel Lobby co-author Stephen Walt recently told an audience at Hebrew University: “I don’t think it is my words that harm Israel, but rather Israel’s actions.”

When US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told an American Jewish audience in early May that, “increasingly the Palestinians who talk about a two-state solution are my age”, she was speaking an undeniable truth about the growing difficulty of achieving this goal. In other words, years of futile peace talks have convinced many Jews and Palestinians – including close associates of Palestinian President Abu Mazen – that a bi-national state is the only answer.

Israel’s ongoing colonisation of the West Bank has made a contiguous and independent Palestinian impossible. Moreover, the active discrimination of Israeli Arabs leaves 20 per cent of the country’s population disenfranchised. Why should they believe in the sentiments of the national anthem, Hatikva?

Veterans of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle visited the West Bank in early July and were shocked by what they saw. “Even with the system of permits, even with the limits of movement to South Africa, we never had as much restriction of movement as I see for the people here”, said ANC parliamentarian Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge.

Fatima Hassan, a leading human rights lawyer, said that the situation in Palestine is “worse than we experienced during apartheid”. These facts are uncontroversial, and yet the vast majority of the Jewish Diaspora remain silent over the crimes, implicitly endorsing them.

Two other recent stories should have generated outrage in the Jewish community. Liberal group Sikkuy, backed by the European Union, found that Jews live longer in Israel than Arabs. A spokesman for the group explained why. “Although Israeli governments declare they are committed to promoting equality among all citizens, Jews and Arabs alike, the reality in Israel shows equality is only in theory.” Furthermore, prominent Israeli human rights group, Yesh Din, is taking the state to court over its illegal West Bank settlements and blatantly stealing Palestinian land in the process. Both cases should illicit shame and profound embarrassment for those Jews who claim to believe in Jewish “democracy”, but solidarity and gutlessness combine to create impotence.

May’s 60th anniversary saw a host of leading articles in the Western media outlining one-state plans, something unimaginable a few years ago. American-Palestinian Ali Abunimah argued in the Sydney Morning Herald that he was involved in the “One State Declaration”, “principles for a common future in a single democratic state”. Such ideas, including the ethnic cleansing of 1948, are moving into the mainstream at a time when endlessly repeating the mantra of “two states for two peoples” is heard in the halls of Washington, London and Canberra.

Hundreds of Jews signed a letter in the London Guardian in late April that explicitly rejected this idea of treating Israel, the occupier, as the victim. “We cannot celebrate the birthday of a state founded on terrorism, massacres and the dispossession of another people ”¦ We will celebrate when Arab and Jews live as equals in a peaceful Middle East.”

A similar letter was published in Australia in March when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd celebrated Israel’s anniversary but pointedly ignored Palestinian suffering (though former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser has endorsed a motion in parliament to readdress this imbalance and launch immediate negotiations with Hamas.) The support of many groups across the community spectrum, including the peace movement and unions, indicated a deep sympathy for a different narrative.

What then is the role of Jews who believe in a safe and secure homeland for both peoples?

The explosion of alternative lobby groups around the Western world, including the new US-based J-Street, is a realisation that being “pro-Israel” means more than supporting aggression against Iraq and Iran and isolating Gaza. J-Street’s co-founder Jeremy Ben-Ami told Salon that many American Jews are upset that Jewish neo-conservatives are “driving us towards wars and policies that I don’t want to be responsible for”.

Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama, the supposed “liberal” hope, recently told America’s leading Zionist lobby AIPAC that he vowed to protect an “undivided” Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Obama should be seen for what he is”, says Mouin Rabbani, contributing editor to the Washington-based Middle East Report, “a thoroughly conventional American politician who has every intention of becoming a thoroughly mainstream American president.” The idea that America’s massive annual aid to Israel be conditional on the Jewish state’s good behaviour – cease settlement building and use of cluster bombs – is an idea that should be seriously considered.

However, successive polls by the American Jewish Committee prove that Jews are far more moderate than their spokespeople suggest. One synagogue in the US holds lectures under the heading, Israel, warts and all, recognising that many younger American Jews are growing increasingly disillusioned with the Jewish state.

A recent documentary about American/Israeli Diaspora relations, Eyes Wide Open, highlights that a growing number of young Jews have “a fear to commit to Israel”. The challenge is wresting control of the community from men who only want to support an Israel portrayed as under threat. Peace doesn’t suit their agenda.

The AIPAC conference in Washington DC in early June revealed why. Writer Philip Weiss explained in the American Conservative what is at stake and how the vast majority of Zionist Jews have “passed on their full powers of judgment to the Israeli government. In that sense, the Zionists in that hall might best be compared to Communists of the ’30s and ’40s, who also abandoned their judgment to a far off authority even as they argued this and that subclause codicil in intense councils.” Indoctrination has found its natural home. Weiss went on:

“If the AIPAC legions were somehow convinced that Jews will only be safe in the Middle East if the Arabs among them were also safe – without checkpoints, without a siege, with the dignity and freedom that Jews have had in the West – all these arrayed powers might then be directed to a larger idea of family and produce a miracle at last.”

Equally, a growing number of Australian Jews began to realise, during previous Prime Minister John Howard’s government, that the community leadership was endorsing policies that merely acted as Israel’s amen choir. More importantly, eight years of the Bush administration has caused incalculable damage to the Middle East. Where are the prominent Jews speaking these obvious facts?’s senior editor Tony Karon wrote on Israel’s 60th anniversary that “the Zionist ideology that spurred Israel’s creation and shaped its identity and sense of national purpose has collapsed – not under pressure from without, but having rotted from within”. It is the responsibility of Jews everywhere to craft a Jewish identity that doesn’t define itself through occupation, colonisation and war.

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

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