Israel seen as an asset

Colin Rubenstein

The Australian – 19 April 2006

No lobby is shutting down a debate about the Middle East

IN his opinion piece on this page yesterday, Antony Loewenstein complains that an “Israeli lobby” in the US and Australia relentlessly campaigns to stifle pro-Palestinian voices through “intimidation and slander” (“Don’t let any lobby shut down debate”).

Loewenstein, an unabashed anti-Zionist, who has repeatedly written of his desire for the disappearance of Israel as a Jewish state, seems to suffer from none of the censorship that he claims is the lot of his ideological fellow travellers. After all, he is writing a book on the Middle East for one of Australia’s prominent academic publishers and he’s been published in a variety of online and print publications.

The stark contrast between what Loewenstein says, and the platforms upon which he has the opportunity to say it, gives rise to a certain irony. Moreover, similar views by others appear in vast numbers of books, articles, online sources, in the media, and in Australian political debates.

Loewenstein has now seized on a flawed article by two American academics, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, which alleges an “Israel lobby” controls US foreign policy in opposition to America’s “true” interests. Loewenstein is quick to accuse critics of smears and censorship, but avoids engaging their substantive critiques of the paper such as dubious assertions, dodgy sources and logical non-sequiturs.

To give but one example, Mearsheimer and Walt allege that the “Zionist lobby” was largely responsible for the Iraq War, and then cite various American neo-conservatives who urged intervention in Iraq. But then they admit that the neo-cons gained no traction until September 11, and it was this attack that led to the change in US policy. But the fact that they have effectively refuted their own point is then ignored in their conclusions. Anyone wanting a detailed dissection of the paper’s problems should look at Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz’s point-by point critique of the paper (see below).

In essence, Mearsheimer and Walt reject the obvious explanation for US (and Australian) support for Israel. As polls in both countries consistently show, most citizens do not agree with their view that Israel is a strategic liability, but see it as an asset. They see Israel as not only a sister democracy, with common values, but also a smart, powerful and resourceful Western ally that enhances common interests.

Instead, the two academics concoct a conspiracy theory about the vast supposed power of an Israeli lobby that has maintained a 50-year “stranglehold” not only on both major American political parties, but also all major media outlets, all think tanks, and academe. Moreover, according to the paper: “The core of the lobby is comprised of American Jews who make a significant effort in their daily lives to bend US foreign policy so that it advances Israel’s interests.” It is not just supporters of Israel who allege anti-semitic implications in this approach. For instance, Christopher Hitchens, a writer and author who has frequently been highly critical of Israeli policies, says the paper’s conspiratorial ideas are “creepy” and “unmistakably smelly”.

This conspiracy theory fits in very well with the world view of anti-Zionists such as Loewenstein. Many have long believed that the reason they have failed to convince many others is not because of any flaws in their arguments, but because the other side is too powerful and shuts down “real debate”. Loewenstein cites critiques of views such as his own and claims they amount to censorship but is actually attempting to claim special privileges for these views — one cannot criticise them or you are “suppressing” them.

Moreover, Loewenstein has been known to engage in a little ad hominem browbeating of his own; he accused all “Jewish leaders” of being guilty of “bigotry, racism and intolerance” for disagreeing with his stance on the Palestinians. Similarly, Lowenstein falsely claims that the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council opposed Israel’s disengagement from Gaza. Actually we supported it as “courageous” and said it had “the potential to substantially bolster the peace process”. Loewenstein says we view Palestinian self-determination as “taboo”. Actually we have long favoured it, provided it is in the context of a secure and lasting peace with Israel.

The Australian Jewish community universally wants Israeli-Palestinian peace, but the vast majority of us disagree with Loewenstein on how to get there. That does not make us powerful, though I like to believe we have persuaded many people of the merits of our views. It does not mean our efforts to do so threaten Australian democracy, as he claims, just as Loewenstein’s do not. And it does not mean we censor those with whom we disagree, but neither does it mean that anti-Zionists are immune from criticism and robust debate.

Colin Rubenstein, a former lecturer in Middle East politics at Monash University in Melbourne, is executive director of AIJAC.