Promoting Dissent and Debate

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Andrew West’s article in New Matilda (issue 101) about Antony Loewenstein, constructs a series of binary opposites regarding the Australian Jewish community and Israel.

On the one hand, Jewish supporters of Israel are described as a group of unthinking sheep who obtusely endorse each and every Israeli policy. Even worse, they actively seek to bully and silence Jews who have the temerity to break ranks. And this narrow tribal solidarity is motivated solely by a belief in Jews as ‘the chosen people.’

In contrast, Antony Loewenstein and other prominent Jewish opponents of Israel are portrayed as brave Jewish dissenters defying vicious harassment and name calling. Their idealistic concern is to break down the walls that separate those exclusivist Jews from the rest of society.

The best that can be said about the above description is that West (and by extension Loewenstein), might have the well intentioned aim of promoting more debate in the Australian Jewish community. Even then, I would say that the aggressive means they have used is most likely to polarise opinion, and hence provide a convenient wedge for Jewish hardliners to discredit all Left-wing opinions.

It would also appear that their definition of debate on this issue is not a range of views on an ordinary political spectrum, but rather the prominent presentation of radical anti-Zionist views that mirror their own. In short, they are paternalists who want to socially engineer the Jewish community to match their ideal.

But let’s try to judge their claims about the alleged silencing of dissent on their merits.

Firstly, some facts about Australian Jewry. As even Loewenstein acknowledges in his new book ( My Israel Question ) , identification with Israel plays a fundamental role in Australian Jewish life and identity. The reasons for this are both historical and current. One factor is that Australia has a comparatively high number of Holocaust survivors or children of survivors. The establishment of Israel is regarded by Jews as both atonement by the international community for failing to prevent the Holocaust, and as an ongoing insurance policy that ensures Jews will always have a sanctuary from anti-Semitism.

Another factor is the ongoing Arab and Palestinian campaign to de-legitimise Israel. Given the historical Jewish experience of powerlessness and genocide, many Jews genuinely fear that Israel is threatened by destruction. This may sound far-fetched given that Israel is by far the strongest military power in the Middle East, and safely allied with the world’s only superpower. But when regional countries and satellites such as Iran and the Hezbollah threaten to destroy the Jewish State, analogies reasonable or otherwise are quickly drawn with the behaviour of the Nazis in the 1930s.

This is not to say that all Australian Jews support everything Israel says or does. On the contrary, the substantial political divisions within Israel, particularly around policies towards the Palestinians, are duplicated locally. Some Australian Jews support the Parties on the Israeli Right such as Likud, others support groups on the Left such as Meretz, and probably the majority favour the centrist views of Kadima, which is currently the ruling Party in Israel.

So how do these divisions play out in the public arena? I have been an advocate of a two-State solution, and a stringent critic of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip for 25 years. When I voiced opinions critical of the Lebanon War in 1982 and, later, of Israel’s response to the first Intifada in 1987 “88, I was aggressively marginalised by some communal leaders, and even called (partly in jest) the ‘enfant terrible’ of the community by the then editor of the Australian Jewish News (AJN). So I can sympathise with Loewenstein on feeling like a pariah.

But the community has changed substantially for the better since the signing of the Oslo Peace Accord in 1993. Over the past decade, diverse views for and against ‘land for peace,’ a Palestinian State and the withdrawal from Gaza have been vigorously debated. Nothing is sacrosanct anymore. These discussions have taken place within the AJN, and within various other communal forums and organisations.

For example, in early 2005 I co-organised an international conference, ‘Antisemitism in the Contemporary World,’ with the Centre fo Jewish Civilization, at Monash University . The conference featured keynote speakers ranging from Bundist historian Jack Jacobs on the Left, to Daniel Pipes on the Right, and speakers in concurrent sessions ranging from the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) on the Right to representatives of Jews Against the Occupation and even the International Socialists on the Left.

One well-known Jewish Right-winger was so disappointed by this diversity that he later sent out a group email complaining that well known critics of Israel had been allowed to speak at the conference.

Ditto the annual Limmud Oz conference of Jewish learning and culture. This year’s program at Monash University featured a wide diversity of speakers on Israel, the Middle East and related issues including a number of prominent representatives of the Islamic community.

Of course, none of this amounts to the large-scale public denunciation of Israel by Jews that West and Loewenstein would apparently like to see. This is because most Left-wing Jews, including myself, don’t view the conflict in such simplistic and moralistic terms. We are happy to acknowledge that there are moderates and extremists on both sides, that both sides have committed horrific acts, and that a mutual compromise must be found between Israeli security needs and Palestinian national aspirations.

But we don’t accept the naïve anti-Zionist version of the conflict which constructs all Israelis as powerful oppressors, and all Palestinians as powerless and defenceless victims.

Now, let’s compare Australian Jewry to other ethnic communities in Australia. The reality is that Jewish support for Israel largely mirrors the support that many Australian ethnic groups offer to their ancestral homeland. This solidarity is reflected in both nationalist politics (for example, Australian Greeks holding rallies on the issue of Macedonia, or Australian Serbs and Croats respectively voicing their opinions on the Balkans conflict), and sporting loyalties (Australian Pakistanis or Sri Lankans cheering visiting cricket teams).

West complains that the AJN commissioned four scholars to critique Loewenstein’s book and none to support it. I can’t speak for the editor, but I would guess that 98 per cent of readers of the paper would agree with the views published, and it would be hard to find a representative Jewish academic in Australia who is sympathetic to the book. At least the AJN published an extract from the book. Can we imagine an Australian Muslim or Arab paper, for example, publishing a denunciation of HAMAS and suicide bombers? Or would they feel obliged to publish arguments supportive of Zionism and Israel? I doubt it. West seems unable to distinguish here between the role and responsibilities of an ethnic/religious community newspaper and those of the general press.

Finally, is there some way that so-called dissenters could effectively promote more debate in the Jewish community? I have some practical suggestions:

Get to know the Jewish community, and seriously understand its political, ideological, and organisational frameworks.

Use the internal structures and frameworks to articulate your views, rather than ineffectively denouncing the community from outside.

Do not allow yourself to be used by sections of the Left as an unrepresentative ‘good Jew’ denouncing all the other ‘bad Jews.’ This will simply bring back memories of the Stalinist period when some Jewish communists (now regarded as ‘Uncle Toms’) defended the brutality of Soviet anti-Semitism.

Recognise and respect the emotional attachment that most Jews feel towards Israel and their concerns about threats to Israel’s existence even if you don’t agree with their political interpretations.

Acknowledge that some forms of anti-Zionism do contain anti-Semitic stereotypes, and need to be unequivocally denounced.

Don’t use religious terms such as ‘the chosen people’ to depict a community in which at least half of the members are completely secular and non-religious.

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