My Israel Question

Antony Loewenstein: My Israel Question, Melbourne University Press, 2006, 340 pp, rrp $AUS 32.95


See: http://myisraelquestion.com




In this determined and controversial critique of the role of Zionist lobbyists in influencing the public sphere, and exhaustive consideration of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories, Antony Loewenstein can be credited with having produced a truly ground-breaking work.  Determined to ‘humanize’ the Palestinian people in the face of attempts to deny them both sympathy and justice, Loewenstein rejects Zionism as "an exclusionary and racist national ideology that has always overlooked the rights of the Palestinians."   While fully appreciating the anger such words of condemnation are certain to evoke amongst his own Jewish community, the author is uncompromising in his depiction of what he sees as a ruthless and coordinated campaign to set limits upon, and determine the language of debate surrounding the future of Israel and the Occupied Territories.  Rejecting claims he is a ‘self-hater’ or apologist for terrorism, Loewenstein is insistent:  "Zionism is not Judaism. Deliberately associating the two is a dishonest method of silencing anyone who may disagree with either."  He continues: "Conflating legitimate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism…is a strategy intended to stifle criticism and dissent."   This is an argument that the author maintains throughout much of the book: an argument that is illuminated by the stories of Israelis, Diaspora Jews and others who have dared criticize the Jewish State – some of whom have faced a torrent of vilification in response.


Recalling attempts by elements of the Zionist lobby to discredit Palestinian peace activist and political figure Hanan Ashrawi after she was awarded Sydney Peace Prize, Loewenstein details what he sees as a stifling and intimidating atmosphere created by the lobby in its attempt to limit debate over the future of Israel and the Palestinian Territories.  After receiving tirades of abuse in response to his defense of Ashrawi against claims she was equivocal in the face of terrorism, Loewenstein’s resolve was hardened, and he determined to provide a thorough critique of the forces he saw as being arrayed against the causes of conciliation and peace.  According to Loewenstein, Ahsrawi was targeted in a campaign of slander solely because she represented a creditable spokesperson for the Palestinian cause, and because she ardently maintained the right of an oppressed people "to resist occupation and injustice".   The author argues that, in the minds of her detractors, this stand was conflated with support for terrorism, even despite Ashrawi’s resolute condemnation of suicide bombing.  Loewenstein’s critique of the ‘Ashrawi affair’ marks the starting point of a fruitful and expansive consideration of the influence of the Zionist lobby worldwide, and of the many varied views of policy makers and members of the world Jewish community both inside and outside of Israel and the Territories.


Perhaps one of the most telling chapters of this title comes late in the second chapter where Sara Roy argues in quote provided by Loewenstein,


"In the post-Holocaust world, Jewish memory has faltered – even failed – in one critical respect: it has excluded the reality of Palestinian suffering and Jewish culpability therein. As a people, we have been unable to link the creation of Israel with the displacement of the Palestinians. We have been unable to see, let alone remember, that finding our place meant the loss of theirs."


In response to the plight of the Palestinians, Loewenstein refers to the notion held by some Israelis that there never was a historical Palestine and that, as a consequence, Palestinians are really "Hashemite Jordanians" – and thus that Palestinians should make their home in Jordan.    What emerges is a picture where some on the Israeli right seek to provide a rationale for, or an excuse for policies which really cannot be seen as anything short of ‘ethnic cleansing’.


There were some for whom the choice confronting the Zionist movement was clear even well before the formation of the modern Israeli state.  Loewenstein accredits the following quote to Y.Weitz, "head of the Jewish Agency’s colonization department" from 1940;


"Between ourselves it must be made clear that there is no room for both peoples in this country…there is no other way other than to transfer the Arabs from here to neighboring countries, to transfer all of them: not one village, not one tribe, should be left."


For Loewenstein, the logic of this statement remains in force even today.  As he argues, "Israel opposes a resolution to the conflict because it opposes the presence of another people on land it has claimed exclusively for Jews."  For both the Israeli mainstream, and radical supporters of the settler movement, support for expansionism and further disenfranchisement of the Palestinian people is only marked by differences in degrees: by disagreement over the extent of the expansion beyond the pre-1967 borders necessary to build a ‘greater Israel’.


In response to this, there would by many who, as Loewenstein recognizes, would claim that in the 2000 peace talks, former Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak offered Arafat ‘everything’ – and that his refusal demonstrated that there was ‘no partner for peace’. Refuting these claims, Loewenstein goes on to argue that the 2000 peace talks provided no resolution to the question of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, with Israel seeking instead to annex great swathes of territory while failing to provide "full legal rights to the annexed Palestinian residents."  Furthermore, Loewenstein maintains that, in the talks, Israel did not provide for East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, instead offering "the adjacent town of Abu-Dis", and provided no resolution of the question of Palestinian refugees.  Also, importantly, there was no recognition of Israeli responsibility for the displacement and suffering of said refugees in the first place: "a central demand of Arafat".   This stands in stark contrast to the treatment of the issue in much of the Western media: which portrayed Arafat as ‘an obstacle to peace’.   Loewenstein asks the obvious question: "Why was Arafat’s rejection of the 2000 peace deal rarely presented as anything other than a refusal to accept peace?".


Alongside his broader critique of the Israeli occupation, Loewenstein subjects the world Zionist lobby to searching criticism, pointing to instances where the lobby has targeted critical voices in the United States, in Britain and also in Australia, reprimanding media for ‘bias’ or, at worst, accusing critics of anti-Semitism.  In particular, Loewenstein notes the power of the Zionist lobby in the United States in the form of the AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee).  The situation in the United States, according to Loewenstein, is complex:


"Despite the power of the Zionist lobby, other factors also shape US support for Israel. They include: the politics of oil; the arms industry and its influence in Congress; the sentimental attachment of US liberals to Israel‘s internal democratic institutions; the Christian Right’s messianic beliefs; racist attitudes towards Arabs and Muslims; and the failure of progressive movements to challenge US policy on Israel successfully."


Despite this complicated picture, however, the author clearly argues that the influence of the Zionist lobby is key, and weighs upon the minds of US policy-makers. In particular, Loewenstein notes how when Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney "questioned the occupation of Palestinian land, Jewish organizations, including the AIPAC, offered financial support to her rival, Denise Majette."


By contrast with Britain, where critical voices remain prominent through publications such as the Guardian and the Independent, Loewenstein sees the Australian public sphere as being closer to that of the US where, according to the Guardian, "[The] parameters for debate are relatively narrow compared with the rest of the western world." 


In particular, Loewenstein focuses on the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), which he describes as "the only well-funded Jewish group in the country, and the best organized."  As he argues, AIJAC "takes a high profile stand on many issues, yet is not accountable to the community through elections."  Loewenstein notes how AIJAC lobbied vociferously against the bestowing of the Sydney Peace Prize upon Hanan Ahshrawi.  In the face of such lobbying, Loewenstein observes, every corporate sponsor ultimately abandoned the foundation.   The author indicates: "the organizations were told their ‘client base’ would be affected if they continued their support".   The author also observes how AIJAC has pressured the Australian Labor Party to silence, or otherwise disassociate itself from dissenting Labor figures such as Julia Irwin, with other backbenchers, who "spoke out in favor of a Palestinian state and against the harshness of the occupation".  Irwin responded to this pressure arguing, "…The Israeli Labor Party tolerates more diverse views than some in the Australian Jewish community suggest the ALP should tolerate…".   


Loewenstein also associates AIJAC with attempts to influence programming of Australian public broadcasters such as the ABC and SBS.  Specifically, the author observes a 2003 AIJAC report which objected to "SBS calling the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem ‘occupied Palestinian land."   In this, Loewenstein argues, AIJAC went directly against United Nations Resolution 242 "issued in November 1967, which stresses ‘the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war’."   AIJAC has also lobbied SBS to withdraw planned programming, including an attempt to bar the screening of John Pilger’s documentary, ‘Palestine is still the issue’.  Furthermore, Loewenstein notes AIJAC’s objections to the screening of a program on the ABCs ‘Four Corners’ criticizing Ariel Sharon’s role "in the massacre in 1982 of more than 2000 Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut."     As the author sees it, "In AIJAC’s opinion, any news story that portrays Israel in a critical light is biased, irresponsible and sign of anti-Semitism." 


The author also notes similar episodes in the United States.  Apparently, "Robert Fisk revealed in 2001 that CNN, after constant lobbying by pro-settler groups, stopped referring to Gilo as a ‘Jewish settlement’, instead calling it a ‘Jewish neighborhood’. The fact that Gilo is a Jewish suburb illegally occupying land outside Jerusalem mattered little."    Furthermore, Loewenstein notes a tendency amongst US news programs to refer to "Israeli violence as ‘retaliation’ almost nine times more often than Palestinian violence."  According to Loewenstein, "This disparity is meaningful. The term ‘retaliation’ suggests a defensive stance undertaken in response to someone else’s aggression.  It also lays responsibility for the cycle of violence at the doorstep of the party being ‘retaliated’ against, since they presumably initiated the conflict…  This inherent bias against the Palestinians, and the journalistic belief that the Israelis are fighting a war inflicted upon them, rather than one of their choosing, is critical to how the public views the conflict."


By contrast, Loewenstein is supportive of efforts by some in the media to represent Palestinian voices and perspectives. Against charges of bias: of anything other than ’50/50′ coverage of perspectives, Loewenstein refers to a statement made by journalist, Robert Fisk.  Fisk had argued,


"in the realm of warfare…you are morally bound as a journalist to show eloquent compassion to the victims, to be unafraid to name the murderers and you’re allowed to be angry….  [In] 1982, in Sabra and Shatila, I wrote about the victims, the dead who I physically climbed over and the survivors.  I did not give 50 per cent to the Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia who massacred them nor to the Israeli army who watched the murders and did nothing." 


Fisk’s musings are especially relevant in circumstances where "Mass confiscation of land, acts of collective punishment, arrest without trial and house demolitions [have become] the norm".


Loewenstein criticizes the practice amongst some journalists of fending off criticism of bias by seeking some illusory ‘balance’ in the reporting of events.  In particular he argues,  "Too often…accepting ‘official sources’ as accurate, while dismissing dissenting perspectives as unreliable, results in disproportionate emphasis on an establishment perspective and in support for state power…".   Loewenstein’s criticisms and observations are especially poignant given efforts by the Howard Conservative government in Australia to ‘stack’ the ABC board with ultra-conservative political appointees, and its withdrawal of the right of ABC staff to appoint a representative of their own to the ABC board.


Perspectives including those favoring a Two State Solution, and those favoring a One State or ‘bi-national’ solution, are presented through the viewpoints of those concerned.   One individual featured in Loewenstein’s narrative: Tony Judt of the Remarque Institute of New York University argues,


"The true alternative facing the Middle East in the coming years…will be between an ethnically cleansed Greater Israel and a single integrated bi-national state of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians."


Unfortunately, though, such perspectives are not developed, nor does Loewenstein provide a broad assessment of competing claims for a Two-State and One-State, or ‘bi-national’ solution. 


The ‘bi-national’ solution, here, envisages the creation of a federation, with Israeli and Palestinian republics as member states.  Perhaps what many Zionists fear most of all, here, is not simply terrorism, but rather the rise of a peaceful liberal human rights movement in Israel and the Territories: one that demands equal rights of citizenship, and with the changing demographic make-up of the region, threatens the dominance of Jews in the very land they call their own.  In particular, Loewenstein notes how, according to Rabin, "if Israel were to hold on to the West Bank permanently":… if Palestinians were denied the vote "Israel would no longer be a democracy, but an apartheid state."    This is an angle the author appeals to regularly, citing the creation of ‘Jewish only roads’, checkpoints and the ‘security wall’ which he sees as a prelude to future Israeli expansionism.   By contrast, should the bi-national movement succeed, it would end all hopes of Israel comprising a purely ‘Jewish state’.


Certainly, all the moral arguments remain on the side of those in favor of the bi-national approach.  Envisaging peace and conciliation amongst Israelis and Palestinians, the proposal offers the hope of co-existence and mutual identification with the entire of the land formerly known as Palestine. Also, bi-nationalism offers the prospect of justice for Palestinian refugees. 


Nevertheless, there are significant obstacles to such proposals.   Most tellingly, Loewenstein notes that "since 1994 more than 700 Israelis have died in more than 120 suicide attacks."    Currently, Israeli hostility to the Palestinians is sharpened by the constant threat of terror attacks, and certainly Hamas still aims to eliminate the state of Israel: as opposed to entertaining notions of a bi-national federation. In order for the bi-national solution to gain greater credibility, therefore, there would need to be a veritable ‘sea change’ of public opinion in the Palestinian Territories: to a perspective that seriously entertained and, in fact, accepted the proposition of sharing the land of historical Palestine with Israel, on the basis of equal rights of citizenship for all.  Such a ‘sea change’ of public consciousness would require years of hard work: including a number of good will gestures from the Israelis to show they were serious about a just peace.   Dismantlement of the ‘security wall’ and a permanent halt to the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, as well as compensation for and recognition of the grievances of Palestinian refugees, and finally equal citizenship rights afforded to non-Jewish Israeli residents: this could mark the beginning of a protracted peace process which sought to radically change ‘hearts and minds’ on both sides of the Israel/Palestine divide. 


It might also be noted that such views as Judt’s seem unnecessarily dismissive of the prospects of a Two-State solution which provides full citizenship rights to Palestinians living within Israel, and recognizes the suffering of refugees, offering compensation and recognition for those displaced after the 1948.  While a ‘bi-national’ solution may seem an ideal: an ideal worth working for over the long term, the more immediately realizable option of a ‘Two State Solution’ should not be ruled out – especially if it addresses the core grievances of the Palestinian people.


Importantly, though, should Palestinian recognition of Israel rest upon the acceptance of pre-1967 borders, recognition of the grievances of refugees and the affording of full citizenship rights to all residents of the state of Israel: then it is up to Israel to establish its legal and moral legitimacy in the face of the plight of those people whom it has displaced and dispossessed.   


Unfortunately, Loewenstein’s outright rejection of Zionism is likely to alienate those who endure in their commitment to the cause of a Jewish National Home, while at the same time recognizing and addressing the grievances detailed in his book  In an interview with refusnik (ie: a conscientious objector against compulsory Israeli military service),  Martin Kaminer, Kaminer reflects on the changing definition of Zionism: "Noam Chomsky said the 50 years ago I was called a Zionist and now I’m called an anti-Zionist even though my views haven’t changed."    It is up to those on the Israel Left, and in the Left of the Jewish Diaspora – and all Jews of good conscience – to reject a definition of Zionism that goes beyond the original aim of providing a ‘Jewish National Home’ (which could be interpreted in terms of a bi-national state or otherwise a two state solution) instead embracing the notion of a ‘purely Jewish State’: a state which by its very definition discriminates against non-Jews.   There are many in Israel, and around the world, who – already – have taken this step, and the Jewish Left remains a rich source of inspiration for those campaigning for justice.  If anything, Israel: a society where "[A] quarter of Israelis now live below the poverty line, and more than half of the Arab households in Israel live in poverty and are discriminated against in their access to education, employment and infrastructure" – ought be seeing a resurgence of Leftist and progressive forces.


All in all, Antony Loewenstein has produced a work that penetrates to the very heart of the question of the Israeli occupation, drawing on a range of sources including interviews with a wide range of journalists, academics, refusniks, activists and other public figures to provide an impressive and critical consideration of the history and future of Israel, of Palestine and of the Zionist movement.   For those wishing to come to grips with the issues surrounding the Israeli occupation, and the work of what Loewenstein calls the ‘Zionist lobby’ in framing, limiting and influencing debate on the Middle East, and the role of the United States and Israel in the region, this title makes essential and absorbing reading.


Tristan Ewins




Tristan Ewins is a freelance writer, teacher and member of the Socialist Left of the Australian Labor Party (ALP)

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