A conversation with Antony Loewenstein
Antony Loewenstein: My Israel Question (Melbourne University Press: Melbourne, 2006)
Over a decade has passed since Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn, supposedly heralding a new era of peace in the Middle East. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict rages on, however, a seemingly endless cycle of bloodshed, tenuous ceasefires and failed negotiations. To the casual observer, or even an interested one, the inherently difficult task of attempting to understand the history and possible futures of the conflict is made even more challenging by the need to first penetrate the rhetoric espoused by those on either side of the debate.
Antony Loewenstein’s book, My Israel Question, is the Jewish, Sydney-based journalist’s attempt to grapple, both personally and politically, with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Acclaimed by left-wing commentators such as John Pilger and David Marr and condemned by leaders of the Australian Jewish community, My Israel Question argues that debate has been stifled by powerful Jewish lobby groups that refuse to accept alternative perspectives on the validity of actions taken by Israel. According to Loewenstein, Israel, despite its standing as one of the strongest (US-supported) military powers in the region, relies on the notion of a constant threat to its existence, the atrocities of the Holocaust, and more recently, the “war on terror” to justify its actions, particularly its occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. The author asserts that any criticism of Israel’s actions is dismissed by supporters of Israel as anti-Semitism.
The book opens with an exposition of the controversy surrounding the awarding in 2003 of the Sydney Peace Prize to Hanan Ashrawi, an advocate of the Palestinian cause variously described by commentators as a peace activist, moderate, absolutist and Holocaust denier (an accusation made, but later withdrawn, by former Australian Jewish News editor Sam Lipski ) . The announcement that Ashrawi would be the recipient of the prize sparked howls of protest from groups such as the Australian/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC). In an online opinion piece, Loewenstein commented on the role of those groups in shaping the debate. This led to a chapter on the same topic in Margo Kingston’s 2004 book Not Happy, John! When I asked Loewenstein why he contributed to the Ashrawi debate, he replied:
I just felt that … the only real Jewish voices that seemed to exist in the mainstream were very much being militant and incredibly critical of Ashrawi, I thought, in a pretty irrational and racist way, and I thought that there was room for a different opinion. No[t] so much because I was Jewish, although I am, but just because I thought that she was being smeared for reasons that I thought were incredibly inappropriate and, more importantly, false.
Commenting on the controversy, and the role of Jewish lobby groups played in it, earned Loewenstein personal attacks to the extent that he received hate mail and and was shunned by relatives at family gatherings. Undeterred, it was the Ashrawi scandal - what Loewenstein terms a “fascinating case study of the operation of the Zionist lobby in this country” (4) – and the at-times vicious response that Loewenstein received after first commenting which prompted him to write My Israel Question.
One of the central ideas that the book confronts is that Zionism and Judaism cannot be mutually exclusive. Indeed, the book has been all the more controversial for the fact that Loewenstein is himself Jewish. After setting the scene with the Ashrawi controversy, Loewenstein takes a step back and explains his transformation from the child of a conventional Jewish upbringing in Melbourne to a so-called “chic anti-Zionist”. Raised in a liberal Jewish family, Loewenstein received a Jewish education at Sunday school and was expected home for Sabbath dinner on Fridays. He details, however, how he gradually came to feel “hoodwinked” (27) by the Sunday school lessons and began to question the unwavering support for Israel. As he says in the book, “I wanted to know why it was almost treasonous to advocate a Palestinian state. I wondered why a Jew couldn’t be both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian. And I couldn’t understand why dissenting viewpoints were shunned and ridiculed.”(x)
These questions prompted Loewenstein to spend over a month in Israel and the disputed territories in early 2005 because, as Loewenstein says, “I wanted to see the situation for myself and talk to ordinary Israelis and Palestinians; I also wanted to hear some of the alternative voices in the debate first-hand.” (39) This journey led him from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, to Ramallah then Jenin and Hebron. Loewenstein met with a member of a civilian observer mission, had dinner with relatives, spoke with an Israeli “refusnik” (who refused to undertake compulsory military service in the disputed territories), and interviewed journalists and writers such as Amira Hass, Gideon Levy and Tanya Reinhart.
As part of Loewenstein’s attempt to understand how the current situation in the Middle East came about, the book takes the reader on a whistle-stop tour of the history of Zionism and anti-Semitism. It is these chapters that are particularly susceptible to criticism for what Jeremy Jones, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry has described as a “sloppiness”2 in writing. Indeed, the use of footnotes is somewhat erratic. Some statements which seem to require substantiation are not footnoted and there is a tendency to refer to secondary, rather than primary, sources. Critics such as Ted Lapkin, director of policy analysis at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, assert that the book contains several factual errors like the mention of “Jewish-only” as opposed to “Israeli-only” roads3. In response, Loewenstein queries whether or not someone like Jones is in a position to make such an assessment of his scholarship: “If you ask someone like Jeremy Jones what his ideal academic text would be, it would be a book that is essentially written by an Israeli government. That, of course, is balanced.”
But was it ever Loewenstein’s intention to present “both sides of the story”? Loewenstein’s discussion of “editorial balance” becomes particularly interesting in light of comments by his detractors that the book is one-sided and biased toward the Palestinian perspective. Loewenstein says that “internal balance”’ is a “meaningless term in current affairs journalism”. He suggests in his book that telling both sides of the story does not necessarily mean 50/50 space for and against a particular issue. Loewenstein comments that there has been a trend over the past thirty years of journalism towards the idea that “balance is about fairness and that what matters is that both sides of an issue are ventilated over time.” (201) My Israel Question seems to reflect this notion that balance should be judged on the basis of a body of commentary, over time, and not over the course of a single work. The book can therefore be seen as an attempt to counteract what the author perceives to be an imbalance in the way the conflict has been reported and debated in the Western media. Loewenstein is not concerned with a detailed exposition of the arguments which oppose his - he views them as already widely espoused. Loewenstein commented that to me that:
The book was never meant to be an academic text … it doesn’t have every single perspective in there, of course, but you get an overview of the history of Zionism from a certain perspective and there are other perspectives that are out there of course … And I’m not an academic, I’m a journalist and an author.
The book does sit somewhat uneasily between the genres of reportage and academia. While the journalistic qualities of the book make it more accessible than an academic text, readers will still, however, expect rigorous analysis and the opportunity to consider the arguments critically. Any attempt to summarise such a protracted and complex conflict is inherently ambitious and, in attempting to do so, the book must cover a lot of ground in a short space. The level of the analysis does, therefore, suffer as a result. Those reading this book as an introduction to the conflict are unlikely to come away with an appreciation of the complexities of the debate.
The latter chapters of the book focus specifically on the way lobby groups have affected political discourse and news media (particularly the ABC and SBS) in order to shape and mould the version of Middle-Eastern politics that is eventually presented in the media. Loewenstein asserts that he does not take issue with the existence of Jewish lobby groups but rather with their tactics. When I asked him what role he thinks lobby groups should play in the political process, he said:
I think that Jews of course have every right to lobby as anybody else does. I’ve got no issue with Jews having an opinion and they have a right to put that [to the] government and the media. The problem is the way in which it is done and frequently … it’s done in a very intimidatory or predatory way.
Loewenstein does not therefore suggest that Jewish lobby groups alone set Australia’s foreign policy agenda. Rather, he argues that they ferociously patrol the boundaries of the debate and the terms within which the conflict is discussed, making journalists increasingly reluctant to produce material which might attract the ire of such groups. Perhaps it is a function of the fact that there seems to be a dearth of similarly organised pro-Palestinian groups, as Loewenstein claims.
To the extent that My Israel Question highlights the triumph of rhetoric over detailed knowledge and understanding about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it is a useful reminder [of the need to] question the gaps in the reporting of Middle-Eastern politics. The book also, however, partly contributes to the rhetoric, albeit from a perspective different to that commonly represented in the mainstream media. Loewenstein is in the process of writing his next book which he says is “about how the Western media is generally failing to hold government and business to account and why that is”. No doubt more controversy will follow.
- Sam Lipski, 'The puzzle behind the Sydney Peace Prize', Australian Jewish News, 3 October 2003. Lipski’s apology ran the following week.
- Jeremy Jones, “Vanity’ author’s delusions of grandeur”, Australian Jewish News, 3 August 2006.
- Ted Lapkin, “Antony Lowenstein’s reign of error”, Australian/Israeli Jewish Affairs Council, date of access: 19 November 2006, <http://www.aijac.org.au/resources/aijac-media/tl_cri_070806.html>