Visiting Israeli professor Jeff Halper conducted a speaking tour of Australia in March. His tour attracted strong criticism from some within the local Jewish community, with the Australian Jewish News describing him as a "hardline detractor of Israel" and refusing to run advertisements of his tour, and one Sydney synagogue withdrawing its invitation for him to speak. Here Halper responds to his critics.
The uproar in the organised Jewish community over the prospect of my speaking in Australia is truly startling to an Israeli like me.
Granted, I am very critical of Israel’s policies of occupation and doubt whether a two-state solution is still possible given the extent of Israel’s settlements, but this hardly warrants the kind of demonisation I received in the pages of the Australian Jewish News. Opinions similar to mine are readily available in the mainstream Israeli media. Indeed, I myself write frequently for the Israeli press and appear regularly on Israeli TV and radio.
Why, then, the hysteria? Why was I banned from Temple Emmanuel in Sydney, a self-proclaimed "progressive" synagogue? Why did I, an Israeli, have to address the Jewish community from a church? Why was I invited to speak in every university in eastern Australia yet, at Monash University, I was forced to hold a secret meeting with Jewish staff in a darkened room far from the halls of intellectual discourse? Why, when the "leaders" of the Jewish community were excoriating me and my positions, did the Israelis who attended my talks express such appreciation that "real" Israeli views were finally getting aired in Australia, even if they did not all agree with me?
Given the support for my right to speak that was evident in many of the letters published in the AJN, this all raises disturbing questions over the right of Australian Jews to hear divergent views on Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians held by Israelis themselves.
It raises an even deeper issue, however. What should be the relationship of Diaspora Jewry to Israel? Whatever threat I represented to the organised Jewish community of Australia had less to do with Israel, I suspect, than with some damage I might to do to the idealised "Leon Uris" image of Israel that they hold onto so dearly. This might seem like a strange thing to say, but I do not believe that those in the Diaspora have internalised the fact that Israel is a foreign country that is as far from their idealised version of it as Australia is far from its image as kangaroo-land.
Countries change, they evolve. What would Australia’s European founders think — even those who until very recently pursued a "white Australia" policy — if they were to see the multicultural country you have become? Well, almost 30 per cent of Israeli citizens are not Jews; we may very well have permanently incorporated another four million Palestinians — the residents of the Occupied Territories — into our country; and, to top it off, it’s clear by now that the vast majority of the world’s Jews are not going to emigrate to Israel. Those facts, plus the urgent need for Israel to make peace with its neighbours, mean something. They mean that Israel must change in ways Ben Gurion, Leon Uris and Mark Leibler never envisioned — even if that’s hard for the Jewish Diaspora to accept.
Yet I see this as a positive thing, a sign of a healthy country coming to grips with reality, some of it of its own creation, even if it means that Israel will evolve from a Jewish state into a state of all its citizens — a bi-national or democratic state. Rather than "eliminating" Israel, this challenge is in fact a natural and probably inevitable development. It will not be easy, but if Australia can become multicultural, so can we.
But that’s our problem as Israelis. So what’s the Jewish Diaspora’s problem? Why should discussing such important issues for Israel be the cause of such distress for them? Because, I venture to say, they have a stake in preserving Israel’s idealised image. In my view, Israel is being used as the lynchpin of their ethnic identity in Australia; mobilising around a beleaguered Israel is essential for keeping their kids Jewish.
I would even go so far as to accuse them of needing an Israel in conflict, which is why they seem so threatened by an Israel at peace, why they deny that peace is even possible, why a peaceful Israel that is neither threatened nor "Jewish" cannot fulfill the role they have cast for it, and thus why they characterise my message as "vile lies".
This, to be honest, is the threat I represent. Only this can explain why rabbis, community "leaders" and Jewish professors choose to meet me secretly rather than have me, a critical Israeli, in their synagogues or classrooms.
This is all understandable. The Jewish Diaspora does need a lynchpin if they are to preserve their identity as a prosperous community in a tolerant multicultural society. I would just question whether the real country of Israel can fulfill that role, or even if it’s fair to Israel to expect it to.
We are different peoples. Israel can no more define Diaspora Jewish life than they can define Israel. Rather than knee-jerk defense of an imaginary place, they need to develop a respect for Israel and Israeli voices, a respect that will come only when they start regarding Israel as a real country. And they have to get a life of their own. They have to develop alternative Diaspora Jewish cultures and identities. Ironically, after all I have said, the Israeli Government will resist that, for it uses them as agents to support its policies, often extreme right-wing and militaristic policies that contradict the Jewish Diaspora’s very values of cultural pluralism and human rights. Remember: Israel does what it does in the name of the world’s Jews. Unless they take an independent position, they are complicit.
What befell me in Australia is just a tiny piece of a sad story of mutual exploitation: the Jewish Diaspora using Israel to keep their community together; and Israel using them to defend its indefensible policies.
Perhaps something good can emerge from all this: robust discussion on the nature of Israeli-Diaspora relations. I’m going home to Jerusalem. The Australian Jewish community needs to let Israel go and get a (Jewish) life.
Read our interview with Jeff Halper here.