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Antony Loewenstein's My Israel Question

Antony Loewenstein: My Israel Question

"I can think of few books about Israel and Palestine, written by an Australian, as important as Antony Loewenstein's brave j'accuse. In challenging the propagandists to give up their addiction, he is a truth-teller bar none."

John Pilger

"This is one of the best treatises which presents in the most lucid way possible why anti-Zionism can not be equated with anti-Semitism. Interweaving personal trips, most valuable information and clear analysis, My Israel Question will serve as an essential guide for those who dare to criticise Zionist wrongdoing in the past and Israeli policies in the present, without being deterred by false allegations of Anti-Semitism."

Dr Ilan Pappe, Senior Lecturer at the University of Haifa, Israel, and author of A History of Modern Palestine

About this book

The undeclared war in the Middle East is the abiding conflict of our era, with little apparent hope of resolution despite years of peace talks.

On one side of the conflict, in the face of suicide bombings and international criticism over its military aggression, Israel asserts the right of the Jewish state to exist in Palestine. On the other, the Palestinian people struggle, some peacefully, some violently, for survival. Far beyond Israel's disputed borders, in New York and Washington, London and Paris, Sydney and Melbourne, the conflict is replayed in passionate public debate by Holocaust survivors, Zionist organisations, Arab advocates, the anti-war movement, newspaper columnists, presidents and prime ministers, and politicians and activists of all shades. [Source]

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In My Israel Question, a young Australian Jew, Antony Loewenstein, asks how much Zionism - the ideology of Jewish nationalism - is to blame for this intractable conflict. He fearlessly investigates the ways in which the Jewish diaspora in Australia and elsewhere have campaigned on Israel's behalf, in the media and in political and business spheres. He also considers the historical rationale for Zionism-including the centuries of virulent European anti-Semitism from which it grew-and asks how relevant and sustainable twentieth-century Zionism is today. A searching discussion from a significant new voice in one of the most important debates of our times. [Source]

"Provoking howls of rage even before it was published, this is a passionate account of how one determined lobby shapes politics and stifles debate in this country. It's come just in time."

David Marr

"What most Australians should do is go out and buy the book and read it, so they can hear both sides of the debate about how Israel treats the Palestinians."

John Mearsheimer, Senior Professor of Politics, University of Chicago

Related pages

16 October 2006: Reporting on the Loewenstein Book Launch and Forum - a page with photos, speeches and articles following the 11 October 2006 Forum on Antony Loewenstein's My Israel Question at Kulcha Multicultural Arts of WA, organised by Project SafeCom, in collaboration with the Social Justice Network.

 :::EVENT::: Wednesday 11 October 2006: Antony's Israel Question: Book Launch and Forum for Antony Loewenstein's 'My Israel Question' - with Antony Loewenstein, Prof Linda Briskman, Dr Samina Yasmeen and Giz Watson MLC at Kulcha, Fremantle. Organised by Project SafeCom in collaboration with The Social Justice Network.

 :::EVENT::: Saturday 29 July 2006: Israel in Palestine and Lebanon: March for Peace and Justice - We call for an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon and Gaza, and for the US and Australian governments to cease their support of the current bombing campaign.

20 July 2006: John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt: The Israel Lobby - Yesterday, ABC Lateline reported: "... two leading American academics have sparked a war of words over their claim that US-Middle East policy has become unbalanced because of the activities of a right-wing pro-Israeli lobby, which tries to shut down critics by labelling them anti-Semitic." Here is the "offending" article, from The London Review of Books.

10 February 2006: Brothers in Arms: Israel's Secret Pact With Pretoria - Israelis have always been horrified at the idea of parallels between their country, a democracy risen from the ashes of genocide, and the racist system that ruled the old South Africa. Yet even within Israel itself....

10 February 2006: Worlds apart: Israel, Palestine and Apartheid - After four years reporting from Jerusalem and more than a decade from Johannesburg before that, the Guardian's award-winning Middle East correspondent Chris McGreal is exceptionally well placed to assess an explosive comparison. The first part of his two-part special report.

About the Author

Antony Loewenstein is a Sydney-based journalist and author. He has written for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Sun-Herald, The Australian, The Bulletin, Znet, Crikey, New Matilda, The Big Issue and Counterpunch. He was also a contributor to the 2004 bestseller, Not Happy, John! He is a board member of Macquarie University's Centre for Middle East and North African Studies. His website can be found at [Source]

Title: My Israel Question
Author: Antony Loewenstein
Publisher: Melbourne University Press
Publication Date: August 2006
Format: 352 pages
Size: 234 x 153 mm
Binding: Paperback
ISBN: 0 522 85268 8
Price: $32.95

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Book Review: My Israel Question

Scrutinising the conduct of the modern Israeli state raises uncomfortable but necessary questions, writes Peter Rodgers

The Australian
July 29, 2006

Peter Rodgers is a former ambassador to Israel and author of Herzl's Nightmare: One Land, Two Peoples.

THERE is no better illustration of the cancerous nature of much discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than federal Labor MP Michael Danby's advice to Melbourne University Press in mid-2005 that it "should drop this whole disgusting project". Not that Danby had read a word of the book at the time and if he makes good his promise he won't.

Danby formed his view on the basis of a six-part questionnaire Loewenstein sent him during the book's research stage. The questions showed an unremarkable if decidedly critical bent towards the policies of Ariel Sharon's government and the support it received from Australia, both at government and Jewish community level.

Danby's attack was bizarre, given the vigour of dissent about Israeli policies within the Jewish state. Israel has long dined out on being the Middle East's only democratic nation. Some of that gloss was taken off last January when the Palestinians freely elected a Hamas government but, that unpalatable fact aside, few countries anywhere can match Israel's no-holds-barred political life.

The mentality that drove Danby's outburst is similar to the one that conflates all criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism in a desperate effort to bludgeon non-Jewish critics of Israeli actions into silence. Loewenstein is a harder target as he's discourteous enough to be Jewish. So he has to be labelled a "self-hating Jew", whatever that ridiculous term means.

Fortunately, MUP head Louise Adler -- also publicly lambasted by Danby -- ignored his advice. The result is a highly readable and thought-provoking examination of the nature of the Israeli state and its supporters abroad.

Reared in Melbourne in a liberal Jewish family, Loewenstein supports the right of Israelis "to live in peace and security but not at the expense of the Palestinians". Those seemingly innocuous words mask a cruel reality. Long before a Hamas Government in the Palestinian territories gave Israel even more reason to dislike its neighbours, Israeli-Palestinian dealings had the mentality of a cockfight: only one party could walk out of the ring alive.

Loewenstein rightly decries the absolutism of such thinking. Among his various targets are the Zionist lobby in Australia and the Australian Government's "Israel-first doctrine". The former "patrols the boundaries of public debate, aiming to silence anyone who occasionally strays from the accepted line". The latter was on display in July 2004, "when Australia became just one of six countries that voted against a UN resolution ordering Israel to destroy the security wall through the West Bank". The other five nay-sayers were the US and Israel, plus the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau.

Defending Australia's vote, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said it was reasonable for Israelis to protect themselves from suicide bombers. That fair comment is seriously weakened by the fact that, snaking around illegal Israeli settlements, the security barrier lops off 9per cent of the territory of the West Bank.

It is also not helped by remarks such as that by Isi Leibler, one of Australia's most prominent Jewish leaders, that Palestinian society was "no less suffused with evil than were the people of Germany under Hitler". Mutual contempt and dehumanisation clearly should be ranked with terrorism and settlements as one of the great impediments to any resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Loewenstein observes that neither side "has a monopoly on suffering", arguing that denying Palestinians "their dignity and humanity is one of the great failings of contemporary Judaism and no historical calamity justifies it".

Loewenstein, who visited Israel for the first time in researching this book, is profoundly disillusioned with the Jewish state. So are some Israelis and others in the Jewish Diaspora. A former member of the Israeli Defence Force recently wrote that anyone who believes that the IDF and the Shin Bet (Israel's internal intelligence agency) do their best to minimise violations of human rights "is naive, if not brainwashed. One need only read the testimonies of soldiers to be convinced of the depth of the immorality of our actions in the territories."

How, Loewenstein asks, "could one still have blind faith in a country that enacts citizenship laws to prevent Palestinians who marry Israelis from living in Israel with full rights? How could one idealise a nation with an army that, despite Sharon calling it 'the most moral in the world', frequently engages in war crimes in the occupied territories, collectively punishes the Palestinian people, and destroys and steals Arab land for expansion of settlements"?

Towards the end of the book, Loewenstein argues that the creation of an independent Palestinian state is inevitable. Sooner or later, he writes, Israel and the Palestinians will have to meet face-to-face and negotiate with honesty: "Only then -- and on the condition that both Israel and the Palestinian states achieve safety and security -- will this conflict be resolved." Unfortunately, the past and the present give no cause for any optimism about the future.

MUP has used as a marketing ploy Danby's injunction to the Australian Jewish community that if "God forbid" the book is published, don't buy it. We can only hope -- pray may be a better word -- that the book-buying public, Jewish and non-Jewish, will treat that demand with the contempt it deserves.

Now that it is out, the book will draw fire from others besides Danby. In a recent television debate with Loewenstein, Ted Lapkin from the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council accused him of falsely describing Israeli-only roads in the West Bank as "Jewish-only" ones. Lapkin pointed out, correctly, that Israeli Arabs also can travel on these roads.

Lapkin also noted that the map early in the book has serious errors.

Despite this, My Israel Question still deserves a strong readership, precisely because it makes us uncomfortable.,20867,19907559-5003900,00.html

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Mad world: daring to question the role of Israel

Canberra Times
July 23rd, 2006
Jenna Price

I can't write about Israel. It is way too hard. In my family, I am alone in supporting Israel. In my country, there would be few who would support Israel and its actions - and the others are all raving right-wing maniacs.

Well, when I say support, I think it should exist. My husband and children all believe that it would make more sense to have Israel in, say, Poland. What's the point in being surrounded by enemies, they ask. So I won't go into the whole thing about how for centuries, Jews felt as if they were surrounded by enemies, even in Europe. Israel was founded as a giant refugee camp, an idea to which most of us would be sympathetic. But right now I'm even more sympathetic to Lebanese families who are getting bombed to death, when they were just minding their own business and living family lives. Lebanon in summer is beautiful and I was delighted to hear that a young family friend was to visit Lebanon this month and get a crash course in Arabic.

He, of course, is trapped there and getting more than a crash course.

It is no longer fashionable among assimilated Jews like myself to support the existence of the state of Israel, and if you do, you had better want it to be in pre-1967 borders or you lose your licence. Joking. In regular circles, however, Jews who criticise Israel are in big, big trouble. Ask Antony Loewenstein. He is the author of My Israel Question, soon to be published by Melbourne University Press. He grew up in a traditional Melbourne Jewish family, went to a conservative private boys' school and did honours in arts at Monash. But a few years ago, he started questioning the role of Israel in the Middle East. He started questioning his parents. And, they started questioning themselves. Now, they've changed their position - lost a few friends along the way - but accepted their son's view that maybe the Israeli way is not the right way. (In 1975, I remember helping a charming Palestinian boy screenprint some anti-Zionist posters. My mother went off her head. The Loewenstein parents sound far more moderate.)

Antony, 31, is an only child so maybe they get more sway with their doting parents, but his ability to change the way his parents thought might augur well for the success of his book. And I don't mean the kind of success where the book goes to number one (although I'm sure he'd like that too). The success we need is to bring, to Jews, the frustrating topic of Israel out into the open. To non-Jews, what Israel has done to recently rebuilt Beirut is a disgrace. And if that was happening to any other country in the universe, Jews would feel the same way. It's raising that consciousness to reflect what is happening in Lebanon which will be a challenge. Why should Israel exist? For Jews, it was built as a haven and in our minds, continues as one, just in case there is another Holocaust.

But I don't want that state to be built on the corpses of another forgotten nation, as Jews were forgotten during the Second World War. I know the Israel question. I wish I knew the answer.

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The dissenter who dared to ask why

He doesn't mean to shock and outrage. Antony Loewenstein just wants Jews to open their minds to other views. Ben Cubby reports.

Sydney Morning Herald
July 29, 2006

TO HIS critics, he is a "pro-Hezbollah cheerleader", a "token Jew" and "smouldering teen idol" who is "working for the destruction of Israel" through his "rabidly anti-Zionist agenda".

He has received death threats, been abused and shunned by members of his family and mocked across sections of the media and the internet.

For a young writer whose first book has barely hit the shelves, Antony Loewenstein, 31, is quickly honing a reputation for getting under people's skin. His book, My Israel Question, is a probing analysis of Israel's direction and an attempt to uncover Australia's Zionist lobby. Loewenstein's timing is also, unfortunately, exquisite. The book, delayed for several months, is being launched this week as war flares along Israel's borders.

Raised in Australia in a family of Jewish emigrants who escaped Europe in 1939, his work is shaped by his life experience as much as recent events in the Middle East. Now after two years of research and soul-searching, Loewenstein awaits reaction to the book's publication, relaxed and comfortable in his Sydney home, with his partner and his pet dog, Chomsky.

"It's still extremely frustrating," Loewenstein says. "I don't want to be defined as the guy who criticises Israel; I didn't ask for this. In a lot of ways I support Israel, but I do think some things about it are becoming sick, like the addiction to military power."

The central thesis of My Israel Question - that Israel's treatment of Palestinians has created a moral blindness that ordinary Jews have become afraid or unwilling to question - has cost him many friends, he says. In the book he relates a story of a relative who cornered him in a public toilet and attacked him for his views.

"Put it this way, my work's not a subject that gets talked about very much at family events any more," he says.

Loewenstein was raised as part of a liberal Jewish family in Melbourne, attending a private Anglican school but also a Jewish Sunday school. Petty anti-Semitism was part of the landscape, he says. A message he absorbed from his family was that Jews stick together, preserving memories about past injustice. His parents, he says, told him "there's something different about Jews - and only we understand that".

Later, in his teens and early 20s, he began to see this perspective as racist. "Looking back on my Sunday school lessons, I felt I had been hoodwinked. Indeed, it was a remarkably similar history to the one I learnt at school about Australia's colonial past and its treatment of Aborigines. In both cases, inconvenient facts were whitewashed."

Attending university, Loewenstein began to read more widely, and became influenced by writers such as Edward Said, the Palestinian American theorist and literary critic. "I began to understand that you could really question history," he says.

In his mid-20s, Loewenstein visited the Auschwitz death camp. "Seeing the results of blind hatred and unchallenged devotion slowly led me to be more questioning on a range of matters, including my heritage and the state of Israel," Loewenstein writes.

In 2003, he landed a journalism traineeship with the Herald's website, but left after two years to become a freelance writer. He places opinion pieces with newspapers and magazines, and wrote a chapter for Margo Kingston's book Not Happy, John!

Until now, Loewenstein has largely been defined by his critics. In private, he is intense, passionate, friendly and engaging. His public persona, articulate and defensive, seems to have evolved partly in response to a battery of scornful critics. Many of them come from Australia's Jewish communities.

Jeremy Jones, a spokesman for the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, whom Loewenstein makes passing reference to in My Israel Question, says factual errors about the role and function of Jewish organisations in Australia detract from the book's value.

"It's a vanity publication, sloppy and very poorly researched. I've read the book and I found it very disappointing. It's not the sort of thing somebody who doesn't know the history should read; they might make the mistake of taking it seriously."

Loewenstein says claiming his scholarship is sloppy is stock-in-trade for people who wish to denigrate his work. "They always say that. The sad thing is, in Israel there is robust debate about the sort of things I'm talking about. In Australia, they just attack you straight away. The book is accurate, carefully researched."

Aspects of the criticism may be deserved. Much of Loewenstein's writing to date has comprised polemics and commentary. It is not difficult to discern a certain sameness, a slightly harping tone, in a lot of his published pieces about how the "mainstream media" is a rotten and corrupt structure.

Loewenstein passionately believes television and newspapers have become terrified of criticising Israel, after hounding by Zionist lobbyists. When asked if he knew of any examples of reporters being guided by editorial directives from his time at the Herald, he said he did not know of one. When pressed, he said he would "rather not go into it".

But it also seems true that most of the criticisms levelled at his work focus on minor errors of time, date or place, leaving his broad themes unchallenged. Critics will no doubt hunt for errors to undermine Loewenstein's case. Undoubtedly there will be some errors, as in any book with hundreds of endnotes and references.

Happily for Loewenstein, My Israel Question is a serious and interesting work that will stand up to the coming barbs. He has clearly put his soul into the book, knows most of his turf well, and is smart enough to separate Palestinian aspirations for greater rights and freedom from the acts of violence that often seem to be an intrinsic part of their struggle. His picture of Jewish public opinion inside Israel is similarly nuanced. Far from being the work of a "young rebel" - a term he says was used to describe him when he was growing up inside the Jewish community - most neutrals will view it as relatively moderate.

Loewenstein has been called "far left", most recently by Ted Lapkin, the policy director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, in a debate on the ABC's Lateline program. A genuine far-left analysis of modern Israel would have been more scathing than Loewenstein's modest calls for a two-state solution and a re-examination of US financial and military support.

It asks tough and legitimate questions, such as why an Israeli death is an event of gravity and a Palestinian death barely worth a mention. To many, this would hardly rank as a contentious question. It is the sort of thing that must crop up in hundreds of thousands of Australian households, while reading the papers or watching the news.

"I just want to encourage people to think about these questions a bit," he says. "We need to get beyond the idea that everything we do in the West is noble and right."

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"I never felt comfortable with what I saw as a racially superior mentality. It seemed disturbingly close to racism."

"Looking back on my Sunday school lessons, I felt that I had been hoodwinked."

"How could one still have blind faith in a country that enacts citizenship laws to prevent Palestinians who marry Israelis from living in Israel with full rights?"

"Israel, not unlike Australia, was reared on myths of racial and cultural superiority and long resisted any serious examination of the effects of colonial actions on indigenous peoples."

"It's said that only Israelis have the right to criticise Israel's policies, not those in the Diaspora, though we never say that about other societies."

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Book Review: Willing to critique Israel

The Age
Book Review
August 20, 2006

A Jewish writer demands to have his views heard, despite the charge of anti-Semitism. By Sarah Smiles.

At a wedding nearly two years ago, Antony Loewenstein was accosted by an enraged relative in the men's toilets.

"He started saying that my work is a disgrace, it's offensive and it's causing anti-Semitism," recalls Loewenstein.

The ominous charge of anti-Semitism has dogged Loewenstein, who is a Jew, since he began critiquing Israel as a young journalist. An op-ed piece he wrote for The Sydney Morning Herald in 2003 - questioning what he described as Israel's blindness to the Palestinian's suffering under occupation - elicited endless hate mail.

Loewenstein has since been besmirched as a "self-hating Jew", a "traitor" and even compared to the Nazis' master of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels- tough charges for a good Jewish boy raised in Brighton whose own family had perished in Nazi gas chambers.

While the abuse has often been hard to stomach (Loewenstein received a death threat earlier this year) he has refused to accept that criticism of Israel should be instantly equated with anti-Semitism. He believes members of the Jewish community, ever mindful of the trauma of the Holocaust, wield the cry of anti-Semitism as a discursive weapon to silence dissent on the Jewish state.

His first book, My Israel Question, is a frank, personal journey into his struggle with his Jewishness, modern Zionism and the policies of Israel. He raises uncomfortable, controversial themes in describing Israel as an inherently racist state waging a brutal apartheid in relation to the Palestinian people.

He furthermore argues that an influential Zionist lobby in Australia uses its weight to intimidate journalists and politicians.

"There is a high price to be paid for politicians that speak out," says Loewenstein, arguing that those who have spoken in defence of Palestinians in the past have been routinely "hammered by the Israeli lobby".

Loewenstein's journey begins with the unease he felt with the sense of exclusivity and racism he encountered in his own family towards non-Jews. Non-Jewish girlfriends were unwelcome in his family home. A Polish girlfriend was suspected of having anti-Semitic skeletons in her family closet.

Loewenstein felt equally uneasy with what he saw as a "blind default position" of Jews who pledged unquestioning support for Israel.

He started reading alternative narratives of the Arab-Israeli conflict that factored in the experience of Palestinians displaced with the creation of the Jewish state in 1948. Celebrated by Israelis, it is alternatively lamented as the "nakbah" or "catastrophe" by dispossessed Palestinians.

His book documents his trip to the Occupied Territories last year, where he saw first hand "Israeli-only roads" and multiple checkpoints preventing the movement of Palestinians - checkpoints where Palestinian women had given birth having been refused crossing to hospitals. In Israel, he met a disillusioned couple living on a kibbutz; family members who declared vehement hatred for Palestinians; and left-wing Israeli journalists who questioned the sustainability of modern Zionism.

Loewenstein's book has already met with fierce opposition.

Michael Danby, federal MP for Melbourne Ports, dismissed it as "disgusting" before it was completed. "I don't seek to censor Mr Loewenstein, but ... the decision of Melboune University Press to pick a person like him - he's a total fringe player - to write a book on a serious topic," he told The Age.

"Why would you read something of someone who has such hateful views? . . I think most people are going to take my advice and ignore it. I don't think he will sell a copy."

Loewenstein considers such dislike of alternative views in the Jewish community as reflecting its desire to dominate the discourse on the Arab-Israeli conflict. "The definition of (editorial) balance by Zionist groups is that only our side is right and should be heard," he says.

While Loewenstein says debate on Israeli policies is de rigueur in Israel, he believes there is an unspoken law within the Jewish Diaspora community that Israel should not be criticised in public.

While he supports Israel's right to exist and a two-state solution for the Palestinians, he nonetheless rejects the concept of a Jewish state and policies that prevent non-Jews from achieving full rights of citizenship.

"If an Israeli marries a Palestinian from the Occupied Territories - they can't have the same rights of citizenship," says Loewenstein. "That's racism, pure and simple."

Whereas many people see the Arab-Israeli conflict through the prism of Israel's right to security, embattled as it is by extremist groups avowed to destroy it, Loewenstein wants understanding of why such hatred exists towards Israel in the Arab world. He attributes it to what he describes as Israeli brutality, and his sympathies clearly lie with the Palestinian people.

While Loewenstein's book has been criticised for historical inaccuricies and for being far too pro-Arab, he has nonetheless triggered a debate in Australia about Israel and the control of discourse of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Loewenstein does not believe he has adopted a cavalier viewpoint: his stance has clearly come at a huge personal cost. Some family members don't talk to him and his parents have been snubbed by Jewish friends.

"I know there's a great deal of anger, anguish and frustration that I'm not being patriotic to my cause," he says. "But democracy to me is about diversity of views and a lot of people who write (hate mail) to me clearly don't believe in democracy and probably shouldn't be living in a democracy. They think my views don't have a right to be heard. What are people afraid of discussing?"

Antony Loewenstein's My Israel Question is published by Melbourne University Press. He discusses Israel with Julian Burnside and Robert Richter next Sunday at The Age Melbourne Writers' Festival.