Australian journalist’s new book takes heat for posing “My Israel Question”

Sydney-based journalist and author Antony Loewenstein is used to controversy. On many occasions he has told of how his critical assessment of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a Jew has left him a pariah in family and social circles. This is unlikely to change anytime soon given that he spent the last couple of years penning the newly released My Israel Question, a self-critical consideration of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in a particularly Australian context.

Loewenstein comes from “a liberal Jewish family” with parents he describes as once having been “unthinking Zionists”, who he later realised were simply uninformed because of their reliance on Jewish and mainstream press for their understanding of the conflict. Eventually, despite being deeply moved by his heritage, Loewenstein realised his own discomfort with “the default Jewish attitude towards Israel”. His own revulsion at what happened to Jews in Auschwitz changed him, he says. “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.”

This led Loewenstein to the realisation that “The morality… of Israeli actions was never questioned”. Zionism portrayed Jews as blameless victims, yet Loewenstein was struggling with the disregard for Palestinians. Where was the platform for criticism of Israel? He could not unquestioningly support a Jewish state following his “self-education on the plight of the Palestinian people and the ongoing efforts of the Zionist enterprise to deprive them of a homeland”.

So the essence of his assessment is simply this: “How could a democratic state maintain a brutal occupation over another people for nearly 40 years?”

Australian journalist Peter Manning said on Australian radio recently that “The Palestinian narrative barely gets oxygen in the Australian media.” That his assessment could be easily applied globally is disheartening, but the truth of the statement is undeniable. This is a driving element in Loewenstein’s discussion.

The unbalanced media coverage of the recent Israeli attacks in Gaza and Lebanon in particular certainly supports this. There is little genuine and fair debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Loewenstein wrote in Znet in September, following release of his book, debate is “invariably overly emotive, factually challenged, partisan and counter-productive”.

Early in his book, Loewenstein acknowledges Israel as a state and its right to existence. However, he is concerned with Zionism and its part in the never-ending conflict. Loewenstein is not explicit as to whether having an Israeli state can be divorced from Zionism, and this is a major flaw in his analysis. However, his sentiment is clear: “There must be a way for Israel to exist securely while allowing justice for the Palestinian people”.

In general, Loewenstein’s treatise is not flawless. There is certainly scope for deeper discussion and analysis. But in his fluid style, he covers a fair amount of subject matter, dedicating pages and pages to the news media and pro-Israel lobby, highlighting what he views as controlling political Zionism and the resulting accusation that criticism of Israel is equivalent to anti-Semitism. Loewenstein offers compelling analysis and evidence as to why the Palestinians are consistently being overlooked in this conflict - from Sunday school teachings in which “inconvenient facts were whitewashed”, the inability to separate opposition to Zionism from anti-Semitism in the general discussion, as well as the power of the pro-Israel lobby within the media.

He covers US politics, but dissects the Australian discourse as well, beginning with a highly detailed report on the Sydney Peace Prize awarded to Hanan Ashrawi in 2003, an accolade that was marred by uproar and objections particularly from the pro-Israel lobby.

Such chapters are the high points in the book, as Loewenstein has exposed tactics used by the Australian pro-Israel lobby. This is particularly significant as these are points on which the media have taken notice and will continue to do so.

He argues that the Jewish lobby is responsible for the media’s inability to allow the Palestinians a voice, and consequently the media itself plays its own significant role in the conflict and avoids the issue in general. Loewenstein considers the presence of foreign journalists within Israel and the lack in West Bank, citing Haaretz’s Amira Hass who lives in Ramallah as an exception.

A 2004 report from Reporters without Borders cited harassment of journalists by Palestinian militants as a reason why journalists avoid the West Bank and Gaza, yet the low ranking in terms of press freedom is accountable to ‘acts of violence against the press by the Israeli army’ not Palestinians. Some may argue that Palestinians are in part culpable for their lack of power in the media, but arguably, Israel is more adept in the media arena, strategic in its approach even at military level.

This is an important book, and it comes at a crucial time. With the spectre of Lebanon’s destruction faded from mainstream media, it’s easy to forget that there are many still living and breathing the conflict and its effects. Israelis and Palestinians both understand this well, and Loewenstein does not pretend that there isn’t suffering among the Israelis.

Rather, he critically considers the issue in order to understand himself how the Israelis’ right to live in peace and security exists at the expense of Palestinians, people whose voice is barely heard outside of independent media. He declares his intention to show the Palestinian side of the occupation, demonstrating the need to escape from Zionist perspectives that shed no light on the injustices Palestinians are consistently subjected to. And this much is clear throughout. He has, since the publication of his book, pointed out that he was unable to offer divergent views from Jewish leaders because they refused to participate.

Yet perhaps a misstep on Loewenstein’s part is that, for all his intentions to breathe life into the Palestinian narrative, he does not acknowledge the work of Palestinian and Arab activists in Australia. In fact, what is truly missing from this book is a true Palestinian ‘voice’. The general sentiment of activists in Australia is certainly that his book is weaker for it. Indeed, it is a missed opportunity.

Critics have been thus far quite scathing, primarily attacking the legitimacy of Loewenstein’s claims, and arguing a lack of balance in his evaluation of the conflict. It has even been called simplistic as well as superficial in its take on the situation. However, it is Loewenstein’s lean towards the Palestinian narrative that seems to offend the most and to many reduces the book to having little, if any, worth.

This is far from true. Whether there are minor errors in Loewenstein’s extensive research, and certainly there is room for deeper exploration, the analysis itself is effectively and passionately presented. And this is what it seems to be - minor errors that do not undermine the legitimacy of Loewenstein’s book. For example, much has been made of him sharing the contents of private conversations he had with family members, the Greens, who he stayed with when he went to Israel to research his book, yet only two pages are dedicated to them.

That the criticism has overshadowed any thoughtful analysis of the content and message of the book is instructive: commentators indeed struggle to be heard when presenting views other than the dominant Israeli apologist side of the conflict, views that seek to humanise Palestinians.

The reaction essentially illustrates Loewenstein’s own argument that reasonable debate is impossible. Indeed, it seems that any assessment that closely examines the effects on Palestinians is immediately going to be discounted as a credible source of information as very few have considered the importance of this kind of narrative. He is given little or no credit for his stance.

Perhaps Loewenstein’s consideration is remarkable enough for the fact that he is Jewish and consequently fighting the conflict on a deeply personal level. He could certainly dig deeper, and his approach shows a desire to learn more. Still, his thoughtful analysis makes the book readable and affecting. This is a candid study of a conflict that only grows more heated as time passes.

My Israel Question is essential reading that will provoke thought and most importantly, investigation. Hopefully, readers unused to measured consideration will look deeper into the raging conflict because, as Lowenstein writes, “It’s time for a radical rethinking of the conflict”.

Amal Awad is an editor based in Sydney, Australia and an editorial assistant for The Electronic Intifada.

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