Posted: April 15, 2007
Antony Loewenstein - His Israel Question
This week's guest is Antony Lowenstein. I speak with him about his book, "My Israel Question", the Arab-Israeli conflict and the relations between Jewish Diaspora and Israel. Readers can send questions
Loewenstein is a Sydney based journalist and the author of the new book My Israel Question, dealing mainly with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The controversial book of this "young Australian Jew, Antony Loewenstein, asks how much Zionism--the ideology of Jewish nationalism--is to blame for this intractable conflict. He fearlessly investigates the ways in which the Jewish diaspora in Australia and elsewhere have campaigned on Israel's behalf, in the media and in political and business spheres. He also considers the historical rationale for Zionism--including the centuries of virulent European antisemitism from which it grew--and asks how relevant and sustainable twentieth-century Zionism is today." (full bio here).
Readers can send questions to email@example.com.
Here's a big challenge: For the benefit of my readers who haven't read your book - can you please present the abridged version of your main complaints regarding Israel, and a solution that would make Israel more acceptable to you?
My book aims to articulate an alternative Jewish perspective on the Israel/Palestine conflict. In my view, the separation of Zionism and Judaism is one of the key challenges for 21st century Judaism. For too long, they have been inextricably linked. It is the duty of Jews, and all global citizens, to speak out against injustice, not just misbehavior against Jews.
I believe that Israel can no longer be a Jewish state, a nation that actively discriminates against anybody who isn't born Jewish. Whether Arab or Palestinian, a modern country that wants international recognition and respect, cannot continue to institute policies that are racially based. For the record, I am equally against an Islamic or Christian nation or any other religiously-sanctioned country. Israel must recognize that a progressive state doesn't continue to find legal ways to bar Jews marrying non-Jews or Palestinians living with Jewish partners. Apartheid South Africa instituted similar policies and the world finally reacted appropriately to such outrages. Jimmy Carter's recent book, "Palestine: Peace not Apartheid", succeeded in mainstreaming the realities of the occupied territories and detailed the day-to-day realities of life for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel must grant equal rights to all its citizens.
Secondly, the Palestinian right of return is a sacred issue that will not simply disappear by Zionists wishing it would. Around five million Palestinians have the historical and legal right to return to land stolen in 1948, ethnically cleansed for the sake of a Jewish state. Arguably the vast majority of these Palestinians would not return to their ancestral lands, but they, like Jews, must have the right to do so. Many Jews and the Israeli government fear that such moves would dilute a Jewish state and make its future impossible. They're right, but only if a racially exclusive nation is their ideal. Israelis have the right to live in peace in their ancestral lands, and so do Palestinians.
The occupation of Palestinian land must end immediately. The Gaza "withdrawal" was a sham that essentially allowed the Israelis to imprison over one million Palestinians. Haaretz journalist Amira Hass has written of the Israeli mentality towards these Palestinians: "They are behaving as expected at the end of the extended experiment called 'what happens when you imprison 1.3 million human beings in an enclosed space like battery hens.'" Even as Israeli leaders across the world talk of peace and compromise, the expansion of West Bank settlements continues apace, making a truly contiguous Palestinian state virtually impossible. Such demographic realities make a one-state solution almost the default position, despite the posturing of the Bush administration and its global spokespeople. Spending time in the occupied territories, especially in places like Hebron, one is struck by the immorality of allowing a tiny minority of extremist Jews to control the lives of millions of Palestinians. Is this what the Holocaust taught Jews? Every single settlement on occupied land must be removed, no questions asked. The difficulties of doing so - and the real possibility of civil war within Israel - should not be reason enough to avoid this necessity. The future of Israel depends on this happening.
Finally, Israel must start to extricate itself from the incestuous embrace of successive American administrations. For a nation that claims to be independent in both word and deed, its actions indicate the exact opposite. The long-term viability of Israel is with the Arab world, not a superpower thousands of miles away. If the Jewish state wants to continue being a client of the US, that is its right, but a growing political awareness amongst Muslim Americans, coupled with the rise of India and China as global superpowers, makes Israel's current path unsustainable.
There are many aspects of Israeli culture that are vibrant and enviable. Its policies toward the Palestinians are not among them. As a Jew who believes that both Israelis and Palestinians have the right to live in peace together, corrupt Israeli leadership, blindly supported by Zionist spokesman in the Western world, is endangering Jewish lives by refusing to recognize the rights of another people. The equation is simple. Israel has the right to exist, but so does Palestine. Whether that's in one-state, two-states or some other formulation, that's for both peoples to decide.
Most importantly, however, as already stated by British-born historian Tony Judt, Israel, in its current form, "is truly an anachronism." It is not enough anymore for Zionists to merely deflect all criticism as anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist. In many countries around the world, including Australia, such rhetoric no longer has the power to shut down debate. A humane, responsible and moral Israel must not be allowed to shame its historical mandate. The soul of the Holocaust is not for Zionists to use and abuse. We all suffered in that cataclysmic event. Israel knows what it must do to be internationally accepted.
Your book is a harsh criticism of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, but also of the American and Australian Jewish community. So let's start with this general question: What is it that bothers you about the support Jewish Diaspora gives to Israel - or maybe you think that no support is needed?
Although it's not unique to the Jewish community, an unhealthy tendency has developed within many Jewish Diaspora communities since the birth of Israel. An ethno-centric and racially superior mentality has flourished that places the lives and concerns of Israel and Jews above all others. In this worldview, Israeli lives are always more precious than Palestinian ones. Israel's "security" is far more important than the existence or safety of a future Palestinian state. Such thinking, in my home country of Australia and elsewhere, has long troubled me. Is this what Zionism was destined to become?
When it relates to Israel, far too many Jews are able to defend, justify and explain the Jewish state's behavior, no matter how illegal or immoral. A recent letter published in the Australian Jewish News succinctly articulated the problem: "I have always believed that whatever Israel does is always right for the Jews." This uncritical and anti-intellectual stance completely contradicts the noble Judaic tradition of rigorous thought and dissent.
Since I started writing extensively on the Israel/Palestine conflict in the last years, I've been astounded by the reactionary response of some Jews to the idea of justice for all. Hate-mail and death-threats, by fellow Jews, has sadly become a fact of life. It is as if the overwhelming evidence of Israel's crimes in the occupied territories is always issued by "biased" media, NGOs or governments. Are only Israeli foreign ministry press releases worth respecting?
I have long thought that it is not the duty of all Jews to support Israel. If they want to engage with the Jewish state and improve its international standing, so be it. If Jews want nothing to do with a state that has no direct impact on their daily lives, this position should be respected. If they want to become unofficial spokespeople for the Israeli cause, good for them.
Personally speaking, I may be a harsh critic of Israel's policies (and Palestinian intransigence) but I still call myself a true friend of Israel, the kind the country needs to survive in the long-term, not "yes-men" only concerned with even-greater military reprisals against the Palestinians. After decades of these failed policies, why do many Jews still think that the Jewish state can thrive through force alone?
In my experience, Diaspora Jewish communities regularly prefer to ignore the true reality of the now 40-year occupation and the myriad of ways in which their beloved homeland has persecuted another people for generations. Is this something Jews should really be proud of?
These Diaspora communities need to ask themselves some tough questions, namely how their complicity in the current morass can be reversed. It's never too late to expect an Israeli government of any political stripe to behave morally and legally and rediscover the true Jewish soul.