Whose Israel question?

Jarvis Ryan

Antony Loewenstein My Israel Question, Carlton, Melbourne University Press, 2006 (340 pp). ISBN 0-52285-268-8 (paperback) RRP $32.95.

Until recently, to talk about an ‘Israel lobby’ shaping Western policy towards, and debate about, the Middle East was to invite accusations of anti-Semitism and conspiracy theory. This generally meant that no one, except those on the political fringes, did so. The Palestinian scholar Edward Said, in an essay published shortly before his death in 2003, argued that criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians was ‘the last taboo’ in Western discourse (Pilger 2006, p. 9).

This has begun to change in recent years. A combination of factors—including Israel’s brutal suppression of the Palestinian intifada, the appointment of strongly pro-Israel figures to senior positions in the Bush administration, and Israel’s invasion of Lebanon—has led important figures from the political mainstream to question the automatic support extended to Israel by its Western allies.

The former US president Jimmy Carter’s recently published Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, is the most scathing critique of Israel by such a senior American politician. Carter, who oversaw the peace talks between Egypt and Israel in the late 1970s, makes clear Israel’s culpability in the ongoing conflict: ‘Israel’s continued control and colonization of Palestinian land have been the primary obstacles to a comprehensive peace agreement in the Holy Land.’ (Quoted in Finkelstein 2006.)

Another major development was the publication of a paper on the Israel lobby by prominent US political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in March last year. Their essay was published in the London Review of Books after The Atlantic Monthly rejected it. They contend that the United States’ unflinching support of Israel cannot be explained by strategic and moral arguments, and that the only ‘explanation is the unmatched power of the Israel Lobby … the loose coalition of individuals and organisations who actively work to steer US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction’ (Mearsheimer & Walt 2006). Their essay explores how Israel partisans have been able to control public debate and policy.

Jewish critics

A notable feature of those speaking out is that a significant number are Jewish. Of course, there have always been Jewish critics of Israel—Noam Chomsky and Hannah Arendt are names that spring to mind—but they have usually been isolated. Today a growing number of diaspora Jews are challenging the authority of pro-Israel groups which claim to speak for all Jews. In February this year a number of prominent British Jews signed a statement accusing ‘Britain’s Jewish establishment of putting support for Israel above the human rights of Palestinians’ (Jackson 2006). Soon after, hundreds of Australian Jews put their name to a similar declaration.

Among the signatories to the Australian declaration was Antony Loewenstein, a young Jewish journalist who became one of the most important contributors to the debate in Australia with the publication in August last year of My Israel Question. It is the most ambitious work by an Australian on Israel and its supporters in the West, offering many insights into the workings of what he calls the Zionist lobby.

Loewenstein's major case study of the Israel lobby in Australia is the Hanan Ashrawi affair.

Loewenstein was already known to some because of the extraordinary attack against him and his publisher by Labor MP Michael Danby, the only Jewish member of Federal Parliament and a prominent Zionist. A year before Loewenstein’s book was published, Danby wrote to the Australian Jewish News arguing that Melbourne University Publishing ‘should drop this whole disgusting project … If, God forbid, it is published, don’t give them a dollar. Don’t buy the book’ (Loewenstein 2005). Danby’s outburst seemed to confirm one of Loewenstein’s central claims—that Israel’s partisans seek to silence dissenting views rather than encourage debate. It also gave the book useful free publicity.

The Ashrawi affair

Loewenstein’s major case study of the Israel lobby in Australia is the Hanan Ashrawi affair. Ashrawi is a senior Palestinian politician who was awarded the 2003 Sydney Peace Prize, despite the protests of Jewish lobby groups and their supporters. Sydney mayor Lucy Turnbull, billionaire Frank Lowy and Kathryn Greiner, the wife of former NSW premier Nick Greiner, were among those who tried to dissuade NSW premier Bob Carr and members of the Sydney Peace Foundation from giving the award to Ashrawi. Her detractors claimed Ashrawi supported suicide bombings and opposed the two-state solution set out in the 1993 Oslo Accords. Loewenstein shows these claims to be false, and argues her critics’ real objection is her staunch advocacy of Palestinian rights and refusal to accept Israel’s version of events.

The Israel lobby’s treatment of Ashrawi does not bode well for genuine debate and dialogue between Israel’s supporters and their counterparts. As Loewenstein concluded: ‘If a moderate such as Ashrawi can be defamed and vilified by almost every Jewish commentator, the obvious conclusion is that any recognised Palestinian will be automatically silenced and smeared’ (p. 22).

The Ashrawi affair is a good demonstration of the various methods employed by Zionist lobby groups to discredit rivals: vilification, unsubstantiated allegations and backroom manœuvring. Loewenstein examines other ways these groups seek to control public debate. Chief among them is the battle to influence media coverage: the well-resourced Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) assiduously develops ties with senior journalists and organises ‘information tours’ to Israel for reporters, MPs, political advisers and trade unionists (p. 220). AIJAC and other groups pay close attention to media reports and are quick to approach editors and producers with allegations of bias. But, as Loewenstein points out, ‘bias’ almost invariably means any report criticising Israel, or which uses terms such as ‘occupation’ and ‘settlements’ (p. 222).

Of course, access to media is useless unless you can present a convincing case. Zionists are very effective at framing debates in terms that put Israel in a position of moral superiority, overlook inconvenient facts and discourage criticism. According to Loewenstein:

The Holocaust remains the primary justification and the shield behind which supporters of Israel stand. We are constantly told of Israel’s precarious position in the Middle East, surrounded by hostile Arab states. The fact that Israel is the largest recipient of US foreign aid, and is widely regarded as the world’s fifth strongest military power, with its arsenal of nuclear weapons, is routinely ignored. The Holocaust ‘effect’ legitimises Israel’s behaviour by silencing critics who don’t wish to be regarded as anti-Jewish, anti-Zionist or antisemitic [sic] (p. 225).

Access to the media is useless unless you can present a convincing case.

Since the 9/11 attacks, Israeli politicians have also emphasised that their country shares a common interest with the West in confronting ‘terrorism’.


Another tactic is to not engage in debate at all, but to accuse opponents, either of not being sufficiently qualified to comment (one of the main criticisms of Loewenstein), usually because they don’t live in Israel or haven’t spent enough time there, or of anti-Semitism. Zionists regularly raise the cry of anti-Semitism to insulate Israel from criticism, and in particular argue there has been a resurgence of anti-Jewish racism in Europe in recent years. In response, Loewenstein cites Israeli academic Yaron Ezrahi, who questions the motivations behind such claims:

The right-wing in Israel describes every criticism of the country as a form of anti-Semitism. It is very convenient for the present government [the Sharon government, in late 2003]—which is the most right-wing in Israel’s history and headed by a prime minister who has not taken the smallest initiative in the direction of a diplomatic effort in the peace process—to blame everything on anti-Semitism (p. 108).

Anti-Semitism is a serious concern, Loewenstein argues, but should not be exaggerated or conflated with opposition to Israel’s actions. A 2004 study by the US Anti-Defamation League ‘reported a fall in antisemitic attacks across Europe but a rise in hostile views towards Israel’ (p.108). Loewenstein points out that European opinion is far more hostile to Muslims than to Jews.

Freedom to criticise

One of the great ironies Loewenstein draws our attention to is that debate about Israel’s behaviour is much freer in Israel itself than in the West. This is partly to do with perceived authenticity: ‘internal dissent is often tolerated because it comes from within’ (p. 224). Even controversial views, such as the idea that Jews and Arabs should live together in a unified secular state, are discussed. However, according to Liel Leibovitz, a journalist with the New York-based Jewish Week:

If you make [the same argument] here, whether you’re Jewish or not Jewish, it does not go over well. It is perceived as an attack on Israel’s very right to exist … [W]hen I came here to the United States about 6 years ago, I was surprised to find that positions or arguments that were considered almost mainstream in Israel were here sort of anathema (Dateline 2006).

Loewenstein argues that the authenticity argument doesn’t hold, pointing out that we hear very few critical Israeli voices. Israeli journalists such as Amira Hass and Gideon Levy provide unique perspectives on the conflict, their work is readily available on the internet in English, and yet they are never published or interviewed in Australia (p. 226). According to Loewenstein this points to a deeper problem with Western media coverage of Israel, rooted in a preference for the familiar. In short, the Israelis seem more like ‘us’ than the Palestinians:

The Palestinians have become ‘unpeople’, seemingly unworthy of sympathy or understanding. ‘Our’ people are important, but ‘they’ are not. This narrative has been constructed through a complex web of media, politics and lobbying, and has resulted in a skewed perspective on the defining conflict of our time (p. x).

Debate about Israel's behaviour is much freer in Israel itself than it is in the West.

Israel partisans seek to maintain this state of affairs because to do otherwise would mean facing up to Israel’s violations of international law and the human rights of Palestinians. For Loewenstein, the need to deny the common humanity of Palestinians helps explain the demonisation of Hanan Ashrawi: ‘The real problem with Ashrawi’s prize, for much of the Jewish community, was the legitimacy it bestowed on the Palestinian narrative of occupation and oppression.’ (p. 19).

New voices

But the Ashrawi affair also provides hope for a different future. Bob Carr stood firm and AIJAC and other groups ended up looking like bullies trying to suppress free speech. The incident shattered the image of a monolithic community whose leaders spoke with one voice. This, Loewenstein argues, was the most significant outcome:

The affair opened up fault lines in the Australian Jewish community, and in the space created, new voices were heard, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Ian Cohen, a New South Wales Green MP, saw the Ashrawi affair as a breakthrough for Jewish community politics, invaluable ‘in opening up the ability of people in or around the Jewish community to have a view that was only tolerated before’ (pp. 21–22).

The marginalisation of dissenting voices is a major theme of My Israel Question. However, it is also a story of how these voices are becoming harder to ignore. The widespread reaction to Loewenstein’s book is one example: he was pilloried by AIJAC and a number of Jewish writers. Their main charge was that the book was full of factual errors. These are minor (for instance, the glossary in the first edition incorrectly says former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir was a member of the Irgun militia, instead of the Stern militia) and do not refute the book’s central arguments, nor its valuable contribution to public debate. My Israel Question has been very well received in wider circles, selling thousands of copies, attracting a great deal of media interest, and encouraging others to voice their opinions.

Loewenstein has provided a very useful introduction into complicated debates for those new to the issues, but also a rewarding challenge for those to whom the debates are more familiar. He combines the best aspects of academic and journalistic writing to change the way we think about the Israel/Palestine conflict and how it plays out in the West.


Special Broadcasting Service 2006, ‘Campus Conflict’, Dateline, reporter Chris Hammer, 8 November, Transcript [Online], Available: http://news.sbs.com.au/dateline/index.php?page=archive&artmon=11&fyear=2006# [2007, Apr 20].

Finkelstein, N. 2006, ‘Peace not apartheid: Jimmy Carter’s roadmap’, Counterpunch, 13 November [Online], Available: http://www.counterpunch.org/finkelstein11132006.html [2007, Apr 4].

Jackson, A. 2007, ‘New group takes on Jewish lobby’, The Age, 6 March [Online], Available: http://www.theage.com.au/news/national/new-group-takes-on-jewish-lobby [2007, Apr 9].

Loewenstein, L. 2005, ‘Stop the press! Attempts to squash my book on Israel/Palestine’, ZNet, 19 October [Online], Available: http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=8965 [2007, Apr 11].

Mearsheimer, J. & Walt, S. 2006, ‘The Israel Lobby’, London Review of Books, 23 March [Online], Available: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n06/mear01_.html [2007, Mar 19].

Pilger, J. 2006, Freedom Next Time, Bantam Press, London.

Jarvis Ryan is a Canberra-based teacher and writer.

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