Is It Right To Speak Of A ‘Jewish Lobby’?


Many observers of the ongoing debate over Israel and its place in Middle Eastern issues have wondered at the ferocity and influence of those voices promoting what is often called a “pro-Israel” position.

Depending on who you talk to it is a lobby, or definitely NOT a lobby, or a loose coalition of interested parties, or an ethnic interest group. Of late, these voices have stepped up a notch in their intensity, as many observers see the possibility for change in the Middle East, and some of the old inertia seems to be lifting.

With that in mind, it might be useful to take a closer look at this “lobby” to see how it works, to try and understand what motivates it and why it seems so intent on shutting down debate that doesn’t run the way it wants.

As I say, there has been something of an intensification in their activity of late. One key group in this lobby is the Anti-Defamation Commission of Bnai Brith, a long-established Jewish organisation which works against “the harm caused by people and organisations that engage in or encourage discriminatory behaviour in our society”. The ADC, like other Australian Jewish organisations has been a leader in fostering multiculturalism in Australia, but in recent times it has adopted an increasingly intolerant line on criticism of Israel. A recent report for the ADC by the former leftist Philip Mendes, includes a strident, at times ad hominem attack on critics of Israel including the Australian Jewish Democratic Society, to which I have made a detailed response.

Others online, such as Antony Loewenstein (whose arguments I often find crude and unnecessarily provocative) also regularly cop flak for their views on Israel, and even more moderate voices, such as those associated with the Australian Jewish Democratic Society are regularly and harshly criticised in the pages of the Australian Jewish News, or in new online outlets for local Australian Jews such as the Sensible Jew (now transformed into Galus Australis). The attacks have been so harsh and personalised that we have had to bring defamation actions on a number of occasions.

When Jewish people criticise Israel’s actions they are accused of being pathological or self-hating by organisations like the Australia-Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), the various state and federal Jewish Community Councils, Zionist Councils, the Australian Union of Jewish Students and individuals such as Michael Danby, the Federal Member for Melbourne Ports (who has also had a go at Sometimes these attempts to dismiss legitimate criticism take even stranger forms, such as when Mendes argues that Jewish anti-Zionists are in such a special class that they are not even Jews at all. And as anyone familiar with the debate knows, the label “antisemite” is used freely to smear people taking a different view. All of this amounts to a remarkable degradation to the quality of public debate.

That these attacks have significant influence is undeniable. But for several reasons it is difficult to give an accurate title to their source. It is not a unitary bloc of people, and disagreements and competitiveness occur within it — but generally it claims to be the representative lobby of Australian Jewish opinion on Israeli issues, invariably taking a position that justifies Israeli Government policy in the interests of both the State of Israel and the defence of Jewish rights around the world.

This lobby often accuses non-Jews of being naïve and well-meaning but ignorant of the true facts of the situation, and it accuses the sectarian Left (rather than the Right nowadays) of running a particularly hardline, antisemitic and anti-Israel program in a surrogate campaign against US imperial interests. Supporters of such viewpoints are also accused of having a naïve philo-Islamism that chooses to criticise Israel’s insistence on being “Jewish”, but ignores the increased intolerance in Islamic states towards minorities and dissenters. (On this score I would agree, for example, that Green Left Weekly and other left sectarians practice naïve and stupid politics when it comes to the Middle East, but they are not responsible for the more recent excesses of the “pro-Israel” side of the debate, since such people have been around as long as I can remember.)

An exhaustive review of the full extent of the attacks on fair and not-so-fair criticism of Israel would take more room than I have here (see the Jewish Quarterly), but campaigns and pressure have been run not just against critics of the Gaza invasion, but also against the publishers of Antony Loewenstein’s first book, against various artworks, theatre pieces, films, Fairfax print journalists (at least one of whom stupidly engaged in crude stereotyping to support a reasonable political argument), the ABC, academics, Hanan Ashrawi, MPs such as Julie Irwin who are critical of Israel, various church organisations, visiting dissenting Israelis, and most recently, a well-regarded Jewish photographer was banned from taking photographs from synagogues on “security” grounds. Paranoia and a hard line reigns supreme.

Certainly this lobby is not the only one to run vigorous campaigns in this country — the inter-communal disputes between groups from the former Yugoslavia or Greeks and Macedonians have been similar in their intensity. But the way in which this informal coalition exerts its influence, expects compliance, and then turns on other Jews and other Australians who don’t agree with it, is unusual. And it raises serious questions over whether its brand of identity politics and name-calling are ultimately healthy for Australia’s engagement in the Middle East — or healthy for the attitudes that they inspire towards Australian Jews on the basis of their politics.

So what is actually going on here? What is motivating these actors and driving their desire to shut down debate?

The first issue to acknowledge is the way this intensification has been spurred by changes in the media landscape. The rapid growth of online media and opportunities for free comment has highlighted a longstanding problem within the Jewish community’s political elite: intolerance when it comes to strong criticism of Israel. Thus, as Gen X and Yers like Loewenstein or Michael Brull have caught the public eye, it is clear that the lobby wants to discredit this new class of opposition as quickly as possible. It is easy enough for them to discredit my letters or articles in the Australian Jewish News, but the new media has required new, aggressive tactics by the lobby. The same phenomenon has been noticed in the US with a host of blogs that bypass “authoritative” opinion.

The second issue is more about continuity: the continuing insecurity felt by many in the Jewish community in the wake of historical vulnerability. When speaking of the ghettoised Jews of the early 19th century of Europe the philosopher Isaiah Berlin characterised their world view as one of strong cultural pride coupled with continuing suspicion of outsiders, based on historical experience. He wrote these words just before World War II. Unfortunately, the Holocaust, and Israel’s wars have reinforced the deepest of historical insecurities. The fear of attack has been played upon (some would say preyed upon) by Israeli propaganda and its supporters abroad to shore up support for Israel. The desire to defend Israel as the ultimate protector of all Jews has resulted in severe criticism of Jews and others who hold critical views of Israel’s behaviour.

The third matter is over the strong defensiveness in the community about questioning the “Jewish” character of the state, and its “homeland status”. This is contrasted to what some in the community see as the failure of Israel’s critics to point out problems with increasingly monocultural, intolerant Islamic regimes, or to acknowledge the role of the church establishment in many countries such as the UK. However, if Israel is to be characterised as a multicultural democracy, the debate is justified, since Arabs continue to live as second-class citizens despite formal legal equality.

The fourth issue in play here is about another deep insecurity: an internalised and vociferous Zionist “denialism” which will not countenance that the war of 1948 resulted in the deracination of Palestinians, or even a denial that there are such people as Palestinians. It includes the unwillingness to see that the occupation is a cancer; and that a culture of militarism has replaced one of healthy Israeli democracy. But I must add because I will be attacked for not mentioning this: there is a mirror image that makes the situation even more complex; there is an equally offensive position denying the history of Jewish connections in the disputed land by many who support the Palestinian cause.

The last matter I want to raise here is a local one specific to the Australian Jewish community. Australia has never had the degree of cultural and religious diversity that helps make US Jewry a confident, informed and independent group (although cracks are now appearing in the walls of Australian Jewish public conformity). Connections with Israel on a personal and now instant electronic basis are strong, and this contributes to a sense that although far away from Israel, Jewish people here can join in Israel’s wars, whether in the press, cultural industries, or academia.

Under these conditions, and reflecting the current retreat of Australians of all backgrounds into the private sphere, with decreasing levels of public engagement by individuals, we have seen the emergence of a relatively small but strong “Israel right or wrong” lobby that is self-reinforcing. They are extraordinarily skilled at punching way above their weight, and they consider it their inherent duty to mute criticism of Israeli actions, and to cultivate the support of the leaders of both major parties, on behalf of all Australian Jews. But to what degree their aims and methods actually represent Australian Jews is a key point of contention.

The most severe objection to such a political stance guiding Australian Jews, as Paul Usiskin of Peace Now in the UK has pointed out, is that the lobby “is guilty of perpetuating a misleading and misrepresentative image of Israel which ignores the complex problems eroding Israel’s social fabric,” even though Israel has entered into what he calls (with apologies to all Italophiles, including myself), a state of “Sicilianization” — adopting the rules of Middle Eastern “gangsters”, ie other, non-democratic authoritarian and repressive regimes.

I could engage in an analysis of many aspects of Israeli policy, but for me, the most important current issue is the endemic oppression of Palestinians. For critics, the occupation is in fact a massive land grab that has corrupted Israel and its diaspora supporters. The lobby represents the occupation as a self-inflicted problem of the Palestinians. Its denial that a 40-year occupation has been a prime cause of violence and extremism is a sign of just how corrupted the lobby’s thinking has become. This is particularly evident when you consider also its increasing association with all sorts of Jewish religious and racist craziness and its adoption of increasingly brutal military policy, such as in Gaza. This tears at the hearts of people like myself whose lives have been entwined with a vision of a progressive Israel at peace.

In the interim, as long as the lobby holds this line which can’t admit that Israel’s hardline politics and wars have failed to secure peace, or even a democratic future for all of Israel’s population — Jewish or not — then it is going to be constantly having a go at others. Designing what a real democratic future might look like is another challenge. It might be as a “Jewish state”, or as a transformed, historically Jewish state, perhaps as part of a federation with a democratic Palestine. Whatever form it takes it will require cool and rational discussion between Jews, Palestinians and other parties.

But the new directions evident in Obama’s Cairo statement, as well as more critical statements emerging from the White House, will make it increasingly hard for the lobby to sound rational and reasonable. And meanwhile they won’t stop blaming others. I can guarantee that.

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Larry Stillman has a PhD from Monash University in the sociology of technology. He is a member of the Executive of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society, an organization which has long advocated a two state solution. He has studied Arabic and Hebrew and too many other languages & social theory. Depth experience in international development. Larry also has degrees from the University of Melbourne, Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Harvard, specializing, until he gave up, as an Assyriologist – a specialist in ancient Mesopotamia. He lived in Israel for 4 years in the 70s, studied and worked in the US during the Reagan years, and had a long interest-standing interest in the politics of Israel and its relationship to Palestinians and Arabic neighbours and to the US. One side of Larry’s family comes from the long-established Jewish community of Ottoman Palestine. Another side migrated to Australia in the 1920s. He is currently involved in a new partnership between Oxfam Australia and Monash University to improve international development capacity. He previously worked for Vicnet, at the State Library. His work in the field has taken him to India and South Africa. In his spare time he blogs for Galus Australis, an online Jewish magazine, and occasionally for New Matilda. Until recently, he was on the Committee of Liberty Victoria. Views expressed by Larry reflect his personal position, and should not be seen as endorsed by Monash University or the AJDS.