Turning the other cheek

I recently attended the Brisbane’s Writer’s Festival and one of my papers discussed Israel and Zionism (Brisbane Writer’s Festival discussion paper – Loewenstein). I debated Melbourne academic and “left-winger” Philip Mendes (more on Mendes here), a man seemingly torn between critiquing Israeli occupation yet incapable of truly condemning it. His heart and head are hopelessly conflicted.

Unsurprisingly, the Australian Jewish News (AJN) reported proceedings:

Cultural differences in the definition of peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, not Israel’s actions in isolation, pose an obstacle to resolving the enduring conflict, a Melbourne-based Jewish academic said in Brisbane.

“Israel has always viewed peace in highly western terms as the cessation of war and violence following negotiations and mutual compromise. In contrast, Palestinians seem to define peace not as the absence of war per se, but rather as the restoration of their national, territorial, and political rights,” Monash University social work lecturer Dr Philip Mendes told an audience of around 150 people at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival on Saturday.

Dr Mendes was responding to strident Israel critic and rookie author Antony Loewenstein in a debate on “The Israel question”, a take on the title of Loewenstein’s controversial debut book My Israel Question.

Loewenstein, 31, argued that the claim by its supporters that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East is a “lie”.

“Israel’s behaviour in the West Bank and Gaza are the tactics of a rogue, terror state,” he argued. “Enough with the Holocaust, alleged Palestinian ‘terror’ and victimhood. Take some responsibility for the parlous State of Israel in the international community. For all of us who want a safer Middle East, today’s Israel is currently the problem, not the cure.”

Defending his criticism of Israel, Loewenstein said he was a “proud Jew who believes in Israel, but not at the expense of the Palestinians. I believe in an independent Palestinian state.”

Dr Mendes, who is the author of Jews and Australian Politics, said another prerequisite to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the cessation of the Arab world’s 58-year-old military, political, trade and intellectual siege of Israel.

“If this change in attitude occurred among both fundamentalist and secular Arabs, I believe we would then see a similar change in attitude within Israel leading to a far greater Israeli willingness to seek non-military solutions to political problems,” Dr Mendes said.

Among the audience members was Australasian Union of Jewish Students Queensland president Ariel Radzinski, who said Loewenstein needed a “serious reality check”.

“He needs to witness what it is like to live in Israel and be under constant threat of a suicide bomber … Then let him come back to Australia and try to make comments like Israel has caused untold trauma with the Palestinian people.”

The debate was chaired by La Trobe University’s Professor Dennis Altman.

Last month, Loewenstein made several appearances at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, including a session on whether or not the West should negotiate with terrorists.

The AJN clearly decided some time ago to cover my book in a cynical and dishonest way. Calling me a “rookie author” is just the beginning (after all, how many AJN reporters have ever written anything longer than a 500 word article?) If I need a “reality check” for daring to highlight Israel’s occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, I’m more than comfortable leaving the young Zionist to his delusions. The newspaper’s journalism is best described as rehashing talking points from the Israeli foreign ministry. Independent thought must cost a premium.

The AJN’s coverage reminds me of a recent conversation with a senior Australian columnist. He recently spoke to a leading group of Australian Jews and told them that their overly aggressive tactics towards media players was leading to antagonism of Jews and Israel, opposite of the desired effect. I suspect this group of Zionists had no concept of approaching individuals any other way.

Keeping one’s head in the sand is far preferable, it seems, to actually wondering why Israel is increasingly hated around the world.

My Israel Question is now moving into a 3rd reprint and remains on the best-seller list (the latest review is here.) I’m being invited around the country to speak to various groups on the issues of Diaspora Jewry, Israel, Zionism and the Middle East. The response has been overwhelming.

The AJN and its fellow-travellers want to believe that victimhood is the preferred state of the Jewish community and robust debate about Israel is best done in private, if at all. Here’s a wake-up call: they’re being left behind in the debate by refusing to acknowledge legitimate criticisms of the Jewish state. Remaining silent in the face of ongoing Israeli barbarity in Gaza and the West Bank makes them complicit. But, of course, it’s only Palestinian suffering.