Time for new, brave leadership in the Jewish community over Israel/Palestine

My story appears in yesterday’s Melbourne Age in print and online and Sydney Morning Herald online:

After the Albanese government recently announced that it would no longer recognise West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, returning Canberra to the global consensus after Scott Morrison’s 2018 decision to imitate Donald Trump, the Jewish establishment expressed outrage.

The public heard Jewish spokespeople from Zionist organisations condemning the government for its supposed insensitivity and ignorance. Even the Israeli government chastised the decision, saying it hoped that Australia managed “other matters more seriously and professionally”.

These critics hoped that by making enough noise they’d dissuade the Albanese government from recognising Palestinian statehood – a pre-election pledge – or more strongly criticising Israeli government policies.

Australia has long been one of Israel’s strongest backers and for all the recent noise, the Albanese era doesn’t signal a radical shift. The Jerusalem decision was akin to a footnote change. Recognising Palestine would be an equally small step, though it’s important that Australia shows it regards Palestinians as human beings who deserve equal rights.

After all, Israel has been illegally occupying Palestinian territory for more than 55 years. The year 2022 is set to be the deadliest for Palestinians in the West Bank since 2005. Israel is accelerating demolition of Palestinian homes and the Israeli army is openly colluding with Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Settlement building has exploded.

Many in the Australian media initially ignored the Palestinian or Arab communities when covering the Jerusalem story, solely interviewing Jewish voices. It was only a few days later that Palestinians were asked about their attitudes towards Jerusalem.

This is a reflection of political power in Australia over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – who has it and who doesn’t.

Who are the Jewish organisations who claim to speak for the community in Australia? How were they elected and who grants them legitimacy? Many of them opine for themselves only, some are privately funded, and yet almost all talk with the same voice over Israel.

The Israel lobby’s key goal is to be a Praetorian Guard around the Jewish state. Any opposition is deemed as treacherous and must be demonised. I’ve experienced this myself, with hate mail, death threats and attempts to pressure my publisher to pulp my first, bestselling book My Israel Question in 2006.

The so-called mainstream Zionist groups, from the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) to the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, have become ossified, incapable of acknowledging that they’re defending a fantasy Israel, a “democratic” country that exists only in their minds. A nation that brutally occupies 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip – non-citizens subject to military rule who can’t vote in an Israeli election – isn’t a democracy by definition.

Virtually every human rights group in the world, including Human Rights Watchand Amnesty International along with Israel’s top rights bodies, have released reports detailing the apartheid nature of the Israeli state.

Australian Jewish views are changing on these questions, and yet this is rarely reflected by their communal bodies or mainstream media. Many young Jews are voting for the Greens, despite an older generation viewing the party as too supportive of Palestinian rights.

A 2021 study of the Australian public funded by Jewish media outlet Plus61J revealed that 62 per cent of the nearly 3500 respondents equally supported both Israelis and Palestinians, 11 per cent sided more with the Israelis and 19 per cent more with the Palestinians. Support for Palestinians was particularly pronounced among 18 to 24-year-olds.

These figures should worry the local Jewish establishment because they follow a trend similar to that seen in the United States over the last decade, with growing numbers of young Jews there turning against Israel. Former US president Donald Trump accelerated this movement both by uncritically backing Israel’s colonial project during his time in office and recently accusing American Jews of insufficient gratitude for his support of the Jewish state. A 2021 survey of American Jews found that 22 per cent of respondents agreed that “Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians” and 25 per cent that “Israel is an apartheid state”.

This month’s Israeli election – with its surge in support for far-right, anti-liberal, anti-LGBT and anti-Palestinian parties – has caused further headaches for Israel’s hardline backers in Australia and globally. Before the election, Zionist Federation of Australia president Jeremy Leibler said that the elevation of far-right politician Itamar Ben-Gvir’s “racism” was dangerous because he was a politician with an “ideology of hatred”.

Yet this is nothing less than chickens coming home to roost. Israel’s far right has been in de facto power for decades, with Benjamin Netanyahu, now well placed to return to the prime minister’s office, having brokered a number of deals in recent years to bring politicians who openly back ethnic cleansing of Palestinians into the political mainstream and even the heart of government.

Where was the Jewish establishment’s outrage about this reality before last week? Instead, they have spent years endorsing Israel’s colonisation program and weaponising the charge of anti-Semitism against critics of Israeli policy.

At present, there is only one viable alternative to those Jewish groups that are either silent or paralysed in the face of the far right. The New Israel Fund (NIF) is a liberal, Zionist organisation that speaks out against extremism and believes in a “democracy for all its citizens”. Beyond NIF, however, there are no loud, non-Zionist bodies here, comparable to the influential Jewish Voice for Peace in the US, offering a more balanced perspective.

The local Jewish establishment has failed to honestly advocate for the rights of all Jews and minorities for too long, instead prioritising the most extreme forms of Zionism. It’s time for accountability and new, more enlightened voices to improve our multicultural society.

Many diaspora Jews feel their identity is tied to the fate of the Jewish state. But what happens when that nation proudly occupies another people for decades? The Jewish community must open its mind and organise coalitions beyond the narrow Zionist worldview.

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist who lived in East Jerusalem between 2016 and 2020. His forthcoming book is The Palestine Laboratory: How Israel Exports The Technology Of Occupation Around The World.