Australia’s Israel Question: A matter for civilised debate or partisan? (2006)

By Alan H Goldberg AO

The catalyst for this conversation was the publication of Antony Loewenstein’s “My Israel Question”. But what is that question? Loewenstein calls it (p xi) “a plea for mutual respect and understanding”. Yet his text does not consider mutuality in any way. He says (p xi) his central concern is “a sustainable future for Israel and the Palestinians”. A concern I share. Yet his text is not a balanced consideration of a sustainable future for Israel and the Palestinians. It is a one?sided polemic. It is a diatribe. He vehemently criticises supporters of Israel, or the Zionist lobby, as he calls it, for their attacks on writers in support of the Palestinian cause, yet he makes no criticism, for example, of the UK boycott of Israeli academics (p 243).

He is entitled to write a passionate plea for an appreciation and understanding of the issues which have confronted and involved Palestinians. He is entitled to proclaim and publish his views and opinions. But he, as should all writers, be careful to ensure that any assertions of fact should be accurately stated. A number of commentators and critics have identified factual and historical errors in the book but that does not merit a response of bullying or intimidation. As I read the book, I referred to the extensive footnotes from time to time to examine the support for the text. I was surprised to find that on many occasions the source used was a secondary source rather than a primary source which made me wonder about the veracity of the text. For example, on p 151 when dealing with the incident in 2006 involving the recommendation for the suspension of Ken Livingstone from the Greater London Council, Loewenstein wrote “A few days later, however, a High Court judge froze the suspension and allowed Livingstone to continue the fight against the ‘McCarthyite’ decision to ban him.” But the footnote does not show that it was the judge who labelled the decision “McCarthyite” as the text suggests; rather it was a journalist in a newspaper.

He should also be prepared to expect comment and criticism if his thesis is one which challenges views and opinions held by others in the community. If he wishes to provoke criticism of the attitude of groups in our community he must be prepared to be exposed to criticism and to accept it. After all, that is what the market place of ideas is all about.

More particularly is this so, when he expresses views about Israel, Palestinians and the Middle East which he knows, or ought reasonably to expect, will arouse passions resistance and complaint. For example, he says (p 238) that “Israel’s legitimacy is now in doubt”.

Loewenstein seems to be saying that he has been censored and muzzled and shut up by variously the Zionist lobby, the Jewish community and supporters of Israel. I would venture to suggest that the opposite is precisely what has occurred. Sure, his work has been critically assessed but look at the publicity and platforms he has obtained. He is regularly featured on New Matilda’s website (at my last count 25 articles) and has written pieces for other news media. He has appeared on national television. And we have today’s session.

But he is not entitled to label criticism pejoratively as bullying or unacceptable behaviour when it is no more than a critical and reasoned analysis of his text, his views and the manner in which he develops his thesis. Loewenstein asserts in his introduction that:

“There must be a way for Israel to exist securely while allowing justice for the Palestinian people”.

I agree. But a text intended to expose that way should examine why it is that Israel has had, since 1948, and continues to have, well?founded fears for its secure existence. The author never acknowledges or deals with the intransigence since 1948 of many in the Arab world in relation to the right of Israel to exist.

Israel and its policies, as with any other country, are not above criticism and neither should they be. And I reject the proposition, in one of the issues I have been asked to address, that criticism of Israel is inevitably anti?Semitism. That’s absurd. Yet there is no doubt that criticism of Israel can evolve into anti?Semitism depending on the nature, content and language of the criticism made.

There is a hint of this in another issue I have been asked to address:

“Is there a Zionist lobby in Australia. And if so is this problematic?”

Why: “Is there a Zionist lobby?” Why not: “Is there an Israel lobby in Australia?” Loewenstein falls into the same error. He refers to the fact that within weeks of the announcement of the award of the 2003 Sydney Peace Prize to Hanan Ashwari “virtually every mainstream Jewish organisation was expressing its opposition to the award” (p 5). Fair comment. And then he refers to the “Zionist lobby getting busy” (p 8).

Yes, there is a lobby in Australia which supports Israel and its right to exist within secure borders free from attack. That is not problematic; and why should it be problematic?

For Jewish people, Zionism is part of a communal aspiration, a modern homeland for the Jewish people, but that is not the sense in which Loewenstein uses the word Zionism. Loewenstein uses the expression “Zionist lobby” in a pejorative, disparaging way. He uses it as a “put down” epithet and seeks to create the impression that there is something illegitimate or wrong or evil about things “Zionist” and the concept of a “lobby”. The concept of a lobby and lobbying is an essential and well?accepted component of a democratic State. There are many lobbies in Australia and indeed in other countries. There is nothing intrinsically illegitimate or wrong about a lobby. Peter Rodgers agrees. There is a doctors’ lobby, there is an environment lobby, there are numerous lobbies in support of other countries and of course, there are NGOs all of which are an essential part of the expression of views and the influencing of political and governmental decisions in a pluralist democracy.

It is fair to say that Loewenstein confuses and mistakes legitimate criticism for what he calls bullying and lobby pressure. Some comments about his book may have been excessive, passionate and over the top, yet other comments were rational, considered and accurate in their identification of deficiencies in the book.

But don’t condemn a whole group or community with the excesses of one or two. The Jewish community is not monolithic in its views, opinions or attitudes. There is the whole spectrum from left to right, politically, religiously and socially, and well?off to modest living. But I believe that most, certainly the vast majority if not all, of people who identify themselves as belonging to the Jewish community support the proposition that Israel has the right to exist as a sovereign nation within secure borders, free from external and internal attack whether from rockets or suicide bombers or otherwise.

The vast majority also accept that there must be a just outcome for the Palestinian people. As do the majority of the Israeli people.

I have no doubt that the Jewish community leadership is representative of community sentiments on the right of Israel to exist within secure borders and on the need for a just resolution of the issues involving the Palestinian people. To that extent the Jewish community is uncritical in its support of Israel. That is not to say that on occasions one feels uncomfortable about particular issues in or relating to Israel.

What I found disturbing about the text was Loewenstein’s use of pejorative and inflammatory language to criticise Jewish institutions and Jewish people who supported Israel which language was not justified or warranted by the subject?matter with which he was dealing. Let me give you an example. He refers on p 169 to an “incident in 2003 [which] further highlighted the pressure exerted by powerful members of the Zionist lobby”. He is referring to Isi Leibler’s concern, with John Howard’s comments in 2003 on Israel’s threats to destroy Hammas. The Prime Minister had said “the hyper?escalation by the Israelis is very unhelpful and I don’t think it is in the interest of Israel”. According to Loewenstein, Isi Leibler suggested the Prime Minister needed a little counselling on the matter and said that the Prime Minister’s statement, he believed, was based on insufficient information. Loewenstein then says “this kind of absolutist position has overwhelmed all others within the Liberal and Labor parties”. But what is the “absolutist position”? It is no more than the making of representations to the Prime Minister on a matter of concern. Loewenstein then goes on in the next paragraph to say that “it suits the Zionist lobby’s agenda to hype its influence and to pressure the major parties into submission”. He provides no factual basis for such a generalised assertion.

There are many examples in the text where Loewenstein uses the expression “Zionist Lobby” as a pejorative term as something evil when he really means to talk about either Jewish people, the Jewish community or Jewish supporters of Israel. Although the text is concerned with attacks on, and criticism of, people who support Israel, I could only find one reference in the text (p 217) to the expression “supporters of Israel”. Throughout the book Loewenstein uses the expression “the Zionist lobby” as a synonym for supporters of Israel. He criticises Ronny Fraser, the Chairman of the Academic Friends of Israel (on p 153) about a statement he made about Ken Livingstone in relation to an unfortunate statement Livingstone made early in 2005 to a journalist. Loewenstein says that, “Fraser was merely the latest to conveniently conflate Israel and Jews and to suggest that they were one and the same thing”. Yet on numerous occasions Loewenstein conflates the terms himself. On p 124 he says that the “Zionist lobby” can take at least some of the credit for what he calls the pro?Israeli stand of American political parties and Western media organisations. Yet three lines later he refers to the fact that there are powerful connections between politicians and “Jewish lobby groups” in both the USA and Australia. Is there a difference between the two lobbies? He falls into the same error five pages later on p 129 when he refers to views of Cynthia McKinney, an African American Georgia Congresswoman who expressed views which “Jewish groups” would rather not be aired in the public domain. Yet in the very next line he refers to the fact that it is increasingly important to “Zionist groups” that they win over the leaders of the Latino and black communities. Why the change from “Jewish groups” to “Zionist groups”?

The issue has also been raised whether the media is biased in its treatment of the Middle East? It is said that AIJAC would argue that it is rabidly anti?zionist, whereas non?zionists would argue the media is relentlessly pro?zionist. Again, for “Zionist” I read “Israel”. The media as a whole is obviously not biased in its treatment of the Middle East. I do not understand AIJAC to say that it is. There is diversity in the media so it is inevitable that some elements in the media will take a view or run a line that is perceived by some to be biased. One can easily identify some media reports that a supporter of Israel would regard as biased against Israel and one can just as easily identify media reports that are biased in favour of Israel. But the same goes for Palestine and the Palestinians.