Keynote speech at Queensland History Teacher’s Association on Middle East

I spent the weekend in Brisbane, Queensland giving the keynote address at the annual… Queensland History Teacher’s Association conference. I was honoured to be asked to deliver an address on the Middle East and speaking honestly about Israel/Palestine. Over 220 teachers came from across Queensland, young and old, males but mostly females. I was warmly welcomed. I admit to being pleasantly surprised by the frank honesty expressed by countless teachers (though I think I upset the conservative politician who opened the event) about how they talk to high school students regarding the Middle East, remain unafraid to correctly explain the similarities between apartheid South Africa and today’s Israel and discuss the civil disobedience movement known as BDS.… 

What encouraged me were the number of teachers who knew the reality of Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestine and weren’t shy about saying it. Here’s hoping for a new generation who remain less cowed by the charges of anti-Semitism to speak frankly about the Middle East.

Here’s my speech:

Keynote speech at the Queensland History Teacher’s Association

Brisbane, 22 June 2013

Thank you for the honour of keynoting this conference. Thank you Sandra and Adrian for inviting me and organising my visit. I’m rapt to be here.


Be brave. Don’t be intimidated. Stand up to the bullies. History is a battlefield but facts are sacred.

I’ve been writing about the Middle East for over 10 years. I’ve visited Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Palestine and Iran. Every country presented its own challenges. Language, culture, political persuasion, gender and religion. I’m an atheist Jew traveling in a region that many outsiders presume to be unfriendly, even hostile. To be sure, I’ve faced threats and challenges but mostly I’ve found warmth. This is not to ignore or romanticise the hatred, racism and violence that’s become endemic across the region, especially since 9/11. Much of this instability is fueled by Western meddling, arming the worst brutes and enabling the Mubarak’s, Qaddafi’s and Saddam’s.

We ignore our own complicity through willful ignorance. In 2013 alone, Washington signed arms deals with Israel, UAE and Saudi Arabia worth $10 billion. The only result of such agreements is to allow despotic regimes to oppress their own people. Who can forget the empty words of US President Barack Obama about supporting the Arab Spring while allowing ally Bahrain to brutally suppress a democratic uprising? Israel, the highest recipient of US aid annually, ironic for a nation that claims to be independent, uses these weapons to occupy, imprison and torture millions of Palestinians. However, none of this power translates to global public opinion, to the constant frustration of Zionist officials and their craven spokespeople in the West. A BBC World poll in 2013 once again placed Israel as one of the most unpopular nations on the planet, alongside Iran, Pakistan and North Korea.

One of the key issues when discussing Israel/Palestine is acknowledging the reality of the situation on the ground in Palestine itself and how history has brought us to this moment. Anybody who spends time involved in this environment will know how fraught it can be. What really happened in 1948, the year of Israel’s birth but also the Palestinian catastrophe, the Nakba? Israel, like many other colonial-settler states, such as New Zealand, America and Canada, is yet to fully accept, let alone apologise, for the ethnic cleansing that took place at its inception. The spoils of victory were too sweet, merely a few years after the greatest tragedy to befall the Jewish people, the Holocaust, an event that affected virtually every Jew on the planet including my family, most of whom were unable to leave Germany and were murdered in the death camps at Auschwitz.

It’s a quirk of history that I recently became a German citizen. Because my grandparents, escaping Germany in 1939 and arriving in a culturally background Australia in the same year, were made stateless by the Nazi regime, Germany today wants to atone for its genocidal period by helping Jews who can prove their ancestry to once again become valued members of Europe. I remember receiving my passport from the German consulate in Sydney a few years ago and being asked by an official how I felt. I told him I was moved, nearly to tears, to think that only a relatively short time after my people had been massacred in unprecedented numbers I was being welcomed back into the German fold. I wonder how my now deceased family members would feel about this, perhaps uncomfortable that anybody could forgive but not forget the past. For me, it was like the ultimate victory against Hitler. You tried to kill us all and wipe us from the face of the Earth. Well, we’re still standing. And German.

But I digress. None of this should distract us from the vital task of teaching Israel/Palestine and the Middle East to a new generation that is more connected and informed than any before it. But ignorance about the reasons for the conflict are constant. A classic study of the trend features in a book called Bad News from Israel by Greg Philo and Mike Berry from the Glasgow Media Group. The 2004 book outlined the ways in which the mainstream media distorted and often lied and this contributed to viewer inertia and frustration. The authors write:

“The study suggests that television news on the Israel/Palestinian conflict confuses viewers and substantially features Israeli government views. Israelis are quoted and speak in interviews over twice as much as Palestinians and there are major differences in the language used to describe the two sides. This operates in favour of the Israelis and influences how viewers understand the conflict. The study focused on BBC One and ITV News from the start of the current Palestinian intifada, the Glasgow researchers examined around 200 news programmes and interviewed and questioned over 800 people.

“There is a preponderance of official ”˜Israeli perspectives’, particularly on BBC 1, where Israelis were interviewed or reported over twice as much as Palestinians. On top of this, US politicians who support Israel were very strongly featured. They appeared more than politicians from any other country and twice as much as those from… Britain.

“TV news says almost nothing about the history or origins of the conflict. The great majority on viewers depended on this news as their main source of information. The gaps in their knowledge closely paralleled the ”˜gaps’ in the news. Most did not know that the Palestinians had been forced from their homes and land when Israel was established in 1948. In 1967 Israel occupied by force the territories to which the Palestinian refugees had moved. Most viewers did not know that the Palestinians subsequently lived under Israeli military rule or that the Israelis took control of key resources such as water, and the damage this did to the Palestinian economy. Without explanations being given on the news, there was great confusion amongst viewers even about who was ”˜occupying’ the occupied territories. Some understood ”˜occupied’ to mean that someone was on the land (as in a bathroom being occupied) so they thought that the Palestinians were the occupiers. Many saw the conflict as a sort of border dispute between two countries fighting over land between them. As one viewer put it:

”˜The impression I got (from news) was that the Palestinians had lived around about that area and now they were trying to come back and get some more some more land for themselves – I didn’t realise they had been driven out of places in wars previously.;”

Having been a professional journalist for over ten years, I regularly hear about fellow reporters and editors, in most media organisations, reluctant to criticise Israel without equal time given to damning the Palestinians. This form of self-censorship, arguably the most pernicious kind, is because of Zionist lobby pressure and ingrained bias towards a supposedly Western nation and US ally. Just think how often on the supposedly leftist ABC appears Israeli government spokespeople spouting propaganda. Isn’t it ridiculous that a media group constantly invites Israeli PR hacks when they know they’ll be do little more than issue talking points? Never under-estimate the fear inside the establishment press of the belligerence of Israel advocates. Bravery amongst journalists is a rare commodity.

The facts are important and despite appearances remain largely uncontested. Israel was born in sin with the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and the killing of countless unarmed Arabs. After the 1967 Six Day War, Israel almost immediately began occupying the West Bank and Gaza and messianic Zionism was re-born. This occupation isn’t on disputed land. It’s Palestinian land. Virtually every country in the world, according to innumerable UN votes, agrees with this view. It’s not an accident that the occupation has lasted for more than 45 years. It’s a plan, constantly evolving with circumstances, but determined to settle what was claimed to be empty land. Today there are over 600,000 Jewish colonists on occupied territory, all of whom are there illegally. This status-quo is backed by America and essentially endorsed by Europe and Australia. It doesn’t matter if Labor or Liberal is in power in Canberra, this love affair with radical Zionism is bi-partisan.

Teaching these facts to students requires explaining what occupation means. How Israeli and Jewish soldiers, often no older than 18 years old, humiliate and beat Palestinians waiting in checkpoints for hours. Raid homes in the middle of the night and kidnap children for interrogation. Use Palestinian kids as human shields, confirmed by yet another UN report this week. Defend Jewish settlers when burning Palestinian fields and destroying their crops. This is apartheid in all its grimy ugliness. There’s one military law for Palestinians in the West Bank and a different set of rules for Jews. Israeli soldiers are rarely chastised for abusing Palestinians. The Israeli group Breaking the Silence regularly publishes testimonies from current and former IDF forces detailing the ways in which assaulting Palestinians, physically and psychologically, is vital to survive in the IDF. Dehumanising the enemy is the only way most soldiers are able to justify a never-ending occupation.

The Israeli education system routinely denies the Palestinian connection to the land and demonises any resistance as terrorism. This is partly why racism inside Israel is rampant as Palestinians have been largely segregated from Israeli Jews. This is like apartheid South Africa with the Western world’s blessing and acquiecense. How can you humanise the other when you never see or speak to them? Palestinians often tell me that their only contact with Israelis is seeing soldiers occupying their cities and towns.

Every conflict has competing narratives but not all stories are equal. When examining Nazi Germany, it’s essential to understand the ways in which Hitler transfixed a nation for 12 years. Why were so many Germans able to commit such horrific crimes? But our focus must be on the victims of these outrages; Jews, homosexuals, the people of Europe, gypsies and a range of other peoples. Likewise in Israel and Palestine, deconstructing the Israeli and Zionist ideology is essential to see how the eternal victim has become the proud brute. Many Jews feel, especially after the Holocaust, that Jews will never again be marched like lambs to the slaughter. Israel has one of the most powerful militaries in the world, nuclear weapons and endless backing from Washington. And yet despite all this, paranoia, often created to justify victimhood, is a constant theme in this debate. What we should be doing far more often is listening to Palestinians tell their own stories and how a proud people has suffered for the crimes of Nazism.

As a journalist and commentator on this issue, as well as being Jewish, we need to remember that the deliberate conflation of Judaism and Zionism is a modern invention. It is not natural. I am Jewish. I am not a Zionist. I am anti-Zionist. I do not believe that Jews have a right to live in a country where the rights of another people are subjugated. Jews have the right to safety anywhere in the world but not if they colonise land that belongs to somebody else.

The media, commentators and many allegedly serious people talk about the two-state solution as being the only answer to the conflict. But partition will never happen, not least because it’s now practically impossible when successive Israeli governments have pledged to expand Jewish colonies, making a Palestinian state little more than a possible rump. But morally and historically, a one-state equation is the best way, with all the inevitable challenges, to allow all peoples of all religions to live and thrive in a modern nation state. Nationalism and Holocaust trauma, the former fueled by politicians and media while the latter is used to insulate Israel from legitimate criticism, has turned Israel into a constipated country, claiming to want peace but acting in the very opposite way.

So where does this leave educators? Don’t be afraid of teaching students that colonial history is ugly. There are few, if any heroes. That denialism is a constant, as we still see in Australia today with the refusal by many to acknowledge that our policies infantilise and demonise minorities for crude, political gain. Resist parents or principals who demand “balance” when discussing the Middle East. Are there two equal sides during ethnic cleansing? During attempted genocide? Hardly. There are competing voices, and they must be heard, but there are rights and wrongs. This isn’t to say that many facts are contested and history, usually written by the victors, is selective. For example, we no longer have any excuse to not access texts translated from Arabic. Only teaching the mainstream, and therefore widely accepted narrative, is the easy option and should be resisted. In my experience, students relish a world that is beyond goodies and baddies.

However, far too often, supporters of Israel claim the conflict is difficult to explain and there are no easy solutions. We shouldn’t shy away from explaining what decades of occupation does to a country, how it corrupts and coarsens hearts and minds. Read dissident Israeli historian Ilan Pappe to understand this better. He’s been forced into exile in Britain due to ongoing threats against him and his family in Israel for daring to challenge 1948 myths that remain politically useful to this day. Here’s Pappe writing this year in The Electronic Intifada:

“The perpetrators of the 1948 ethnic cleansing were the Zionist settlers who came to Palestine, like Polish-born Shimon Peres, before the Second World War. They denied the existence of the native people they encountered, who lived there for hundreds of years, if not more. The Zionists did not possess the power at the time to settle the cognitive dissonance they experienced: their conviction that the land was people-less despite the presence of so many native people there.

“They almost solved the dissonance when they expelled as many Palestinians as they could in 1948 — and were left with only a small minority of Palestinians within the Jewish state.

“But the Zionist greed for territory and ideological conviction that much more of Palestine was needed in order to have a viable Jewish state led to constant contemplations and eventually operations to enlarge the state.

“With the creation of “Greater Israel” following the conquest of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, the dissonance returned. The solution however could not easily be resolved this time by the force of ethnic cleansing. The number of Palestinians was larger, their assertiveness and liberation movement were forcefully present on the ground, and even the most cynical and traditionally pro-Israel actors on the international scene recognized their existence.

“The dissonance was resolved in a different way. The land without people was any part of the greater Israel the state wished to Judaize in the pre-1967 boundaries or annex from the territories occupied in 1967. The land with people was in the Gaza Strip and some enclaves in the West Bank as well as inside Israel. The land without people is destined to expand incrementally in the future, causing the number of people to shrink as a direct consequence of this encroachment.”

You won’t hear these facts in mainstream text books or the media. They are truths whispered by growing numbers of people globally, sick of being silenced by charges of anti-Semitism for daring to raise them. It is why the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, so effective against apartheid South Africa, is thriving. Ignore the allegations by the Murdoch empire and Zionist lobbyists that BDS is akin to Nazism. When the political process fails, citizens have a moral responsibility to non-violently resist. The history of civil disobedience will one day soon prominently feature BDS. Students will learn that we all have the power to make ethical decisions when we witness crimes being committed in our name.

Be brave. History isn’t always on the side of justice but we have a chance to correct that in our work and play.

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

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