Peoples Geography — Reclaiming space

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Antony Loewenstein: Silence is Complicity

Brisbane Writer’s Festival :: 16/9/06

The recent war between Israel and Hizbollah revealed deep-seated denial within the Australian Jewish community. The Australian Jewish News editorialised on August 17:

“One can take some comfort in the virtual unanimity that the Australian Jewish community has displayed for Israel’s case throughout this conflict: supporting the Jewish State both financially and morally, through thick and thin recognising the Iranian-Hezbollah threat for the evil that it is, enduring often-prejudiced media coverage and periodic outbreaks of anti-Semitism and maintaining a solid Jewish front in times of great peril.”

It was a revealing slice of parochialism. The message was clear; any deviation from the official line – namely Israel’s right to indiscriminately bomb southern Lebanon – was deemed inappropriate and blind acceptance was a virtue to be celebrated. Was the Jewish community truly so insecure that it couldn’t handle robust criticism of the Jewish state?

Monash University academic and supposed left-winger Philip Mendes recently expressed similarly uncritical thinking. He told the Jewish News that, “my own view is that all Jews should engage in unconditional solidarity with the state of Israel and its people.” And then this: “But this is not the same as supporting particular Israeli policies or governments. I would like to see a more robust Jewish debate about Israel and the moral and political legitimacy of some of its actions.”

This inherent contradiction neatly encapsulates the modern Zionist condition.

On the one hand, Zionists like Mendes tell Jews and the wider community that they believe in critiquing the Jewish state but there are boundaries for doing so. Being an anti-Zionist – not believing in the concept of a state that deliberately discriminates against non-Jews, like Israel – is deemed unacceptable and “unbalanced.” Being blindly pro-Israel is, of course, “balanced.” Being pro-Palestinian is “biased.” As an anti-Zionist Jew, I find this position intellectually unsustainable. After all, one can be equally pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian.

On the other hand, unapologetic Zionists seem determined to project solidarity around Israel and its actions. The nearly 40-year Israeli occupation of Palestinian land continues and yet Jewish commentators barely condemn it. Leading Israeli commentator Gideon Levy recently wrote:

“In large parts of Gaza nowadays, there is no electricity. Israel bombed the only power station in Gaza, and more than half the electricity supply will be cut off for at least another year. There’s hardly any water. Since there is no electricity, supplying homes with water is nearly impossible. Gaza is filthier and smellier than ever. Because of the embargo Israel and the world have imposed on the elected authority, no salaries are being paid and the street cleaners have been on strike for the past few weeks. Piles of garbage and obnoxious clouds of stink strangle the coastal strip, turning it into Calcutta.”

And yet the established Jewish community refuses to discuss the corruption of Israel’s soul due to the occupation. The Jewish left, of which Mendes allegedly belongs, has failed miserably in even getting their position on the public agenda. Where are the voices that demand an end to the occupation, with no ifs, buts or questions? They’ve had years to work on strategy and yet the only mainstream Jewish voices in the wider community are hardline Zionists. Silence is complicity.

The UK Independent last week featured the following story on page one:

“Gaza is dying. The Israeli siege of the Palestinian enclaves is so tight that its people are on the edge of starvation. Here on the shores of the Mediterranean a great tragedy is taking place that is being ignored because the world’s attention has been diverted by wars in Lebanon and Iraq.

“A whole society is being destroyed. There are 1.5 million Palestinians imprisoned in the most heavily populated area in the world. Israel has stopped all trade. It has even forbidden fisherman to go far from the shore so they wade into the surf to try vainly to catch fish with hand-thrown nets.

“Many people are being killed by Israeli incursions that occur every day by land and air. A total of 262 people have been killed and 1,200 wounded, of whom 60 had arms or legs amputated, since 25 June, says Dr Juma al-Saqa, the director of the al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City which is fast running out of medicine. Of these, 64 were children and 26 women. The bloody conflict in Gaza has so far received only a fraction of the attention by the international media to the war in Lebanon.”

Israel’s supporters claim it is the only democracy in the Middle East. This is a lie. Israel’s behaviour in the West Bank and Gaza are the tactics of a rogue, terror state. Furthermore, being a non-Jew in Israel proper or the occupied territories guarantees discrimination. Not unlike other religious states, Israel’s racism is deemed acceptable because Jews are the main beneficiaries.

And yet even the brutal facts of the occupation are not enough for the Jewish establishment to agitate Israel to behave like a respectable nation. They prefer ranting about supposed bias in the media, and whether Fairfax journalists are “anti-Semitic.” Such is the refined abilities of denial within the Jewish community. Thankfully, the debate is leaving them behind in their neurosis, destined to spend their lives donating money for trees in Israel.

I wrote My Israel Question to challenge the dominant narrative around the Israel/Palestine conflict. In many ways, the history of Israel is remarkably similar to our own in Australia. A colonial, settler nation set out to systematically destroy the indigenous people of the land, disregarded their interests and caused untold trauma with the Palestinian people. White Australia did likewise to the Aboriginal people here. In both countries, there is still widespread unwillingness to acknowledge history and right past wrongs.

My book outlines the role of the Zionist lobby in Australia and much of the Western world, and its bullying tactics towards the media and politicians. I’m not suggesting that Jews don’t have the right to lobby. They do. I know, however, that extremely aggressive tactics by Israel-first lobbyists is instilling dislike of Jews in certain sections of the community, including the media. Militant Zionism is causing anti-Semitism.

There is a sickness within Diaspora Jewish communities. Jewish Age journalist David Bernstein told me that the Melbourne Jewish community, the largest in the country, are still living under the shadow of the Holocaust. “They are very neurotic and should be treated with sympathy”, he said. He went on: “When you actually engage in debate, they’re so paranoid and insecure about Israel and the state of Jews, any media criticism is seen as an attack on their own essence and as displaying anti-Semitism.”

One of the great struggles within modern Judaism is over nationalism and its associated prejudices. This was recently highlighted by an article in the Jerusalem Post that chastised Jews for daring to care equally for all humanity, and urged Jews to think solely of themselves. It said:

“It is time for the Jewish community to realise that the next generations will be what we teach it, and the emphasis on universalistic social justice, while appealing, is no more than junk-food Jewish education: It feels good, the kids love it, and it won’t hurt on occasion – but without the particularism of peoplehood the Jewish community will soon find itself undernourished and unable to survive.”

This ghetto-mentality and racism is alive and well in the Australian Jewish community. Jews are constantly portrayed as giving, generous and open-minded. Many though have internalised anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment. Israel is portrayed as a noble land in a sea of Arab hatred. This interpretation is as skewed as many in the Muslim world see Israel. The more perceptive Jews are finally waking up to the fact that Israeli behaviour in the occupied territories is causing profound hatred around the world. Do Jews really think that Israeli actions won’t have consequences?

US support for Israel is absolute, but again, this will change. Israel and its blind supporters rely on Washington’s open-ended diplomatic, financial and political support. But as the US loses its superpower status – helped, in part, but welcome defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan – and the so-called Muslim vote increases its power in the US body politic, Israel will need to reassess its position. The future of the Jewish state is not remaining inextricably tied to the US, but closer relations with the Arab world. If it can’t achieve this, it will cease to exist within the next 50 years, and it will only have itself to blame.

I am a proud Jew who believes in Israel, but not at the expense of the Palestinians. I believe in an independent Palestinian state. Modern Jewish identity should be able to sustain anti-Zionists, post-Zionists and Zionists. Dissent has always been a part of Jewish intellectual life, so campaigning against Israel’s current form falls well within the religion’s noble history.

During the recent Melbourne Writer’s Festival, leading Jewish barrister Robert Richter QC said that, “Diaspora Jews need to take a stand. It’s not good enough that they have a private audience with the Israeli leader. They ought to be saying some pretty loud things and not just murmuring approval.”

The overwhelming response to my book – now into a 3rd reprint and a best-seller – suggests that a growing number of Jews and non-Jews are dying to have this conversation.  I’ve received hundreds of messages from Australia and overseas – many telling intensely personal stories of their own struggles with the conflict – that prove the Jewish and media establishment have much to fear from a thorough examination of the issues at play.

These people are sick and tired of the accusation of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, lack of patriotism and treason. They want an open and frank dialogue about the role of the Jewish state in the world, and Western support for Arab dictatorships. They desire an examination of the often-insidious role of the Zionist lobby on the body politic. They refuse to accept self-appointed Jewish spokespeople who dare dictate only one reading of the Middle East conflict.

The Australian government’s determination to blindly support Israeli aggression is both short-sighted and dangerous. Why does a nation on the other side of the world bring complete bi-partisan support in Australian political life? It is time for these questions to be asked.

During the recent war in Lebanon, evidence has now emerged that prove Israeli soldiers deliberately targeted Lebanese civilians. Writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in early September, Meron Rapoport featured testimony from many reservists who expressed alarm at the number of shells and cluster bombs fired by Israel on civilian populations. It was confirmed last week by an IDF commander that Israel fired more than a million cluster bombs in Israel and used phosphorous shells, forbidden under international law.

Furthermore,  according to a report by the International Federation of Human Rights, 307 Palestinians were killed by the IDF in the Gaza Strip since the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit by Palestinian gunmen on June 25. 80 percent of the casualties were civilians with no link to terror activity.

Such behaviour is as unacceptable as Hizbollah firing rockets on northern Israel, and yet the Jewish community establishment remains mute, indeed complicit, in such barbarity. And still, they wonder why much of world wants to isolate Israel. I understand their frustration.

It’s time for Jews to stop blaming everybody else for Israeli failures. 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. 

One comment on “Antony Loewenstein: Silence is Complicity

  1. Pingback: The gift that keeps on giving at Antony Loewenstein

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Timely Reminders

"Those who crusade, not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or sometimes perceptibly worse than what it was, before the crusade began. By thinking primarily of evil we tend, however excellent our intentions, to create occasions for evil to manifest itself."
-- Aldous Huxley

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-- Diane DiPrima, "Rant", from Pieces of a Song.

"It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there"
-- William Carlos Williams, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"