The truth about the pro-Israel lobby’s influence

My following article appears in today’s edition of Crikey:

It is hard to imagine a less appropriate context in which to read Gerard Henderson’s latest opinion piece. At a time when we’re being inundated by grim reports of escalating carnage in Lebanon and Israel, Henderson has launched an extraordinary attack on the notion that a pro-Israel lobby influences US or Australian foreign policy towards the Middle East. Washington and Canberra support Israel, he argues, because it is in their strategic interests to do so. To suggest anything else is a “conspiracy theory”.

Martin Indyk, former US ambassador to Israel, recently begged to differ. On ABC TV’s Lateline last week he noted that the US Zionist lobby wields significant influence, threatening congressmen should they dare to cast an “anti-Israel vote.” Similar tactics are directed at journalists, editors and their boards in many Western nations, including Australia, in an attempt to stifle dissenting views on Israel and the US.

Henderson conveniently ignores the primary source of much anti-Israel disquiet: the continued occupation of Palestinian territory. In what ways are Australia’s strategic interests served by supporting a state that occupies land internationally recognised as Palestinian? John Howard incorrectly claimed this week that, “Israel doesn’t want more territory.” How are Australia’s interests served by the uncritical support for a state that builds roads only Israelis are allowed to use and which isolates Palestinians inside walls, military cordons and their own towns. Any visitor to the West Bank will confirm this experience. As a Jew, it is shocking to see fellow Jews treat Palestinians with the contempt historically reserved for Jews.

Precisely because both Israelis and Palestinians deserve to live in peace, it is vital to discuss the complex relationship between Israel and the US in an open and frank manner. How the pro-Israel lobby influences the political process and the consequences of that influence are important questions in any democracy.

Last year Labor MP Michael Danby, the only Jewish member of Federal parliament, proclaimed that my publisher, Melbourne University Publishing (MUP), should drop my book on Israel and urged the Australian Jewish community to “treat it with dignified silence. That is our best response. If, God forbid, it is published, don’t give them a dollar. Don’t buy the book.” Danby hadn’t read the book. Indeed, I hadn’t finished writing it.

His defence? In an email he has since circulated widely and addressed to host Tony Jones the day after my recent appearance on Lateline, Danby claimed he “didn’t need to read Mr Loewenstein’s book to know what it would contain” and suggested MUP’s decision to commission my book was “like commissioning Pauline Hanson to write a book about multicultural Australia.” So much for an elected parliamentarian’s respect for the concept of democratic dialogue. Never mind the profound philistinism of condemning a book one hasn’t read.

I am proud to be Jewish and particularly proud of our ancient tradition of debate, dissent and inquiry. Jews have always questioned and challenged the status quo. Israel’s conduct should be an issue on which we are all entitled to be heard, whether as partisan advocates or sceptical critics. It is heartening that vibrant debate exists within Israel itself. Surely the Jewish community in Australia can handle robust discussion about Israel’s policies. A sustainable Israel and Palestine requires nothing less.

Antony Loewenstein is author of My Israel Question, published by Melbourne University Publishing