Who’s Choosing Who


When Antony Loewenstein was in his late teens, this good Jewish boy began dating an Australian-born Polish girl. Even his liberal-minded parents were apoplectic. ‘They hit the roof,’ he recalls. ‘Based on nothing, they said who knows where her parents were during the War, and that Poles were anti-Semites.’

Loewenstein, 31, says his parents have ‘changed radically’ but their angst all those years ago prompted him to begin questioning the sometimes sacrosanct notion that Jews are different and, therefore, necessarily clannish. ‘To challenge the uniqueness of the Jewish community is important; as important as challenging the uniqueness of any group,’ he says. ‘We are all as unique, and as ordinary, as each other.’

Loewenstein has become a classic Jewish dissenter, and to the blind fury of the mainstream Jewish organisations he has published a book that challenges the right of the unwavering pro-Israel lobby to speak for all Australian Jews. My Israel Question (MUP) will be launched next week in Sydney by journalist David Marr.

Former Israeli military officer Ted Lapkin, now at the Australia-Israel Jewish Affairs Council, has labelled the book a ‘far Left’ critique. But My Israel Question actually evinces great affection for Israel and Judaism. It’s just that Loewenstein wants Israel to live up to the highest ideals of Judaism of generosity and openness to strangers rather than being a colonial power, motivated increasingly by an exclusivist and militaristic streak. ‘You can love Israel and still oppose the nationalist and militarist fervour,’ he says. ‘But a Jewish State cannot, by definition, be a democracy, just like an Islamic or Christian State cannot be a democracy.’

The most obvious example, he offers, is the law that prevents a Palestinian who marries an Israeli from enjoying full citizenship rights, while extending those very rights to Jews living everywhere else in the world, even if their descendants have not lived in the Holy Land for centuries.

Loewenstein thus joins a group of Jewish scholars and activists whom the Israel lobby has denounced for bucking the unwritten rule that no matter how vibrant the debate inside Israel about the nature and viability of modern, militant Zionism Jews in the Diaspora must never, ever publicly question Israeli policy or practices towards the Palestinians. You can now add Loewenstein’s name to a distinguished roll-call that includes Tony Judt of New York University, Noam Chomsky of MIT, and Norman Finkelstein of DePaul University. For their trouble indeed, their temerity, as the Jewish Right sees it they are ‘anti-Semites,’ ‘traitors’ and ‘self-hating Jews.’

(For the record, anti-Semitism is racial or ethnic-based hatred of Jews, not criticism of Israeli policy or even of Zionism. The US State Department’s Report on Global Anti-Semitism of January 2005 defines it as ‘hatred toward Jews individually and as a group that can be attributed to the Jewish religion and/or ethnicity.’)

A pro-Howard, pro-Bush website run by Tim Blair, an assistant editor of The Bulletin, has sanctioned some viciously personal attacks on Loewenstein. ‘Stats’ (most of Loewenstein’s critics hide behind pseudonyms) posted on Blair’s website that ‘Lowenstein [sic]is not the only self-hating Jew reporting from traitorous rags posing as newspapers.’ ‘Cuban Bob’, another of Blair’s velvet-tongued interlocutors, called Loewenstein ‘a self hating lefty Jew who thins [sic]that by being a Muslim butt-boy he will be spared. A real POS [piece of shit].’ Meanwhile, ‘Daphne’ accused him of ‘betraying his tribe.’

Such internet bile is a standard occupational hazard for anyone engaged in public debate. Loewenstein’s ‘respectable’ opponents have found more subtle ways to imply that he is an anti-Semite. The Australian Jewish News last week purported to run a symposium on his book quoting only critics. In response to Loewenstein’s impudence in questioning the current condition of Zionism, Danny Ben-Moshe of Victoria University wrote: ‘The racism exists not in the advocates of Jewish Statehood, but in those who deny this right.’ (Ben-Moshe also points out other peoples are entitled to ‘ethno-specific’ States, raising the question of how, in the modern, multicultural world, one can even defend such an entity.)

Peta Jones Pellach, a self-proclaimed ‘religious Zionist’ with ‘Left-of-centre’ political views who runs adult education at the Shalom Institute at the University of NSW, wrote: ‘For those who believe in the end of the nation-state, there can be no defence of Zionism. For those who believe in the end of only one nation-state, there can be no defence of their racism.’

You get the picture.

While Ted Lapkin goes on ABC TV’s Lateline and flails around arguing that he had never called Loewenstein an anti-Semite or self-hating Jew, the principal voice of Australian Jewry licenses two scholars to ventilate the same old canard, but in sugar-coated language. Even Philip Mendes, a Monash University lecturer who has often promoted himself as a member of the Left, answered the call and described My Israel Question as ‘overwhelming simplistic and one-sided.’ Mendes may have let the side down, however, by acknowledging that ‘a fair bit of research has gone into this book.’

Loewenstein is especially frustrated by the progressive Jewish community in Australia. ‘I don’t think we can talk about a œJewish Left at the moment,’ he argues:

It is hopeless beyond belief. Where are they? As a Jew, it pains me that they have this moral blind spot [in relation to Palestinian, and now Lebanese, suffering]. The real test of Jewish belief in human rights is what they think about what is happening over there. You can be pro-refugee and pro-Indigenous rights but if you can justify military occupation or the bombing of civilians, then your morals are askew and should be challenged.

I suspect that what really enrages the largely Right-wing Australian Jewish leadership is not Loewenstein’s attack on Israeli defence policy. For years they have dealt with similar criticism by simply using crib sheets issued by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, joining a chorus of apologists in Washington, London and Ottawa.

No, I suspect their loathing and maybe even fear lies in the fact that My Israel Question challenges the biggest taboo of all. ‘Not being religious, I do not believe that Jews are Chosen People,’ says Loewenstein, ‘But then I do not believe that any people are œchosen. ’

Far from being divisive, his book is, in fact, something of a good, old-fashioned call to recognise the shared humanity of Jew and gentile.

To read an extract from My Israel Question, click here.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.