Interview: Antony Loewenstein on Palestine’s struggle in Australia

Antony Loewenstein (“ is a writer and journalist based in Sydney, Australia and a founder of Independent Australian Jewish Voices. His first book, My Israel Question, was an Australian best-seller and was short-listed for the 2007 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award; an updated third edition was published in 2009. His second book, The Blogging Revolution, about the Internet in repressive regimes, was released in 2008 and an updated second edition will be out later this year.

Loewenstein has written widely about the recent furor over the vote by Marrickville Council in Sydney to observe a full boycott, divestment & sanctions (BDS) strategy on Israeli products. After vitriolic attacks in the Australian press, especially Murdoch-owned newspapers such as The Australian, and hostile statements by federal and state-level politicians, a second council vote rescinded the BDS motion, while affirming the council’s support for the aims of the BDS movement. The Green Party mayor of Marrickville, Fiona Byrne, who had backed BDS, lost the ensuing state election to Australian Labor Party candidate Carmel Tebbutt, although she did achieve a large swing to the Greens.

In articles for Australian publications such as New Matilda and Crikey, Loewenstein has accused the mainstream press of “misrepresentations and outright falsehoods” in its reporting of the Marrickville affair, noting that “there have been dozens of articles in the Australian recently calling the Greens ‘extremists,’ implying the party is anti-Semitic, claiming BDS is akin to genocide, extensively quoting the Labor and Liberal parties (who unsurprisingly both condemn BDS) and the Zionist lobby (who again oppose it)” (“Where are the Arab voices in Aussie BDS debate?,” 15 April 2011).

Sarah Irving interviewed Antony Loewenstein for The Electronic Intifada.

Sarah Irving: One of the odd things about the Marrickville episode is that there was very little media coverage of the actual decision by the council to observe the BDS call. The press storm suddenly erupted about six weeks later, when the campaign for the New South Wales state elections really kicked off. Although the focus was on the boycott of Israel, was this really an Australian political issue?

Antony Loewenstein: I think that analysis is probably pretty true. When the BDS motion was announced in December it almost went unnoticed. I think what changed was three things. First, a state election was coming in March. Second, the Green Party in Australia in the last nine months or so has gone from being an important third player to very important third player.

They partly assist in the federal balance of power — there are independents as well — and there was, predictably, from the Australian Labor Party, the [right-wing] Liberal Party and from the Murdoch press, a sense that the Greens need to be “cut down to size.” A federal Labor minister, Anthony Albanese, got involved, saying that the Greens were being extreme and so on. His wife, Carmel Tebbutt, was running against Fiona Byrne, the Green mayor of Marrickville, for the state legislature. Albanese didn’t mention this rather important detail when the press covered the issue, that his wife was running, which almost smacks of dishonesty, and the fact that the Murdoch press didn’t mention it either shows how dishonest they are.

So it was almost like there was a federal intervention in the debate and it was seen as a perfect way to try and divide and conquer the Greens. You had senior federal ministers, Kevin Rudd, the former prime minister and now foreign minister, and Barry O’Farrell, then the state opposition leader and now Liberal state premier, former Prime Minister Bob Hawke — this litany of hacks who had spent most of their professional lives demonizing Arabs and who were now asked to speak on the Arab-Palestinian question. Arabs and Palestinians were largely ignored.

I suppose it was seen as a potentially effective way to divide and conquer the Greens and to show anybody who seriously thought about speaking up for Palestinians that this is what happens to you. You will be punished and attacked and defamed and often given no right of reply. That’s the message, and a lot of people I’ve spoken to in the last few months who might once have spoken out now won’t, or didn’t, because they’ve been scared off. That includes trade unions who supported BDS. Many of the unions in the country last year came out in support of BDS — it was partial BDS, more often the settlement boycott, but it’s a start. There were attempts to get them to say something, to speak out in support of Marrickville Council. But there was deadly silence. Not least, in my guess, because of their connections to the Labor Party.

Sarah Irving: Was the rabid reaction to the Marrickville boycott vote by much of the mainstream press, whether Rupert Murdoch-owned or not, in keeping with their usual stance on Israel and the Palestinians?

Antony Loewenstein: The Murdoch press is obviously known in Britain and America — it’s not confined to Australia — for being pretty antagonistic towards Arabs and Muslims. It’s very much signed up to the whole “War on Terror” rhetoric and all which that means. The “War on Terror” has been wonderful for the Murdoch empire’s business, as we’ve seen most recently with Bin Laden’s death.

We also have a situation in Australia which is not unique to us, where the vast majority of politicians and an awful lot of journalists and editors are sent on trips by the Zionist lobby to Israel. They go there semi-regularly, they spend five or six days there, they will spend maybe five minutes in Ramallah [in the occupied West Bank] if they’re lucky. But most of their time will be in Israel hearing about the great threat from the Arabs, the Iranian threat, peace is a long way off — blah blah blah.

They’ll then come back and talk about a two-state solution and the glories of peace. It reflects badly on the hundreds of journalists and editors who’ve been flown to Israel by the lobby and who have not said, “can I do my own thing?”

The idea of simply having your hand held like that is incomprehensible to me. You are a sycophant. They are often people who have critical faculties on other issues, but they go to Israel and they are almost guaranteed to be publishing propaganda when they return. The last trip went late last year, about ten people went, including some good journalists from the Sydney Morning Herald, and before they went I said on my website that we can guarantee one thing: when they get back, they’ll be talking about Iran, [that] Iran’s a threat. And that’s what they wrote. They admit that “sure, there’s an issue with Palestine, but Iran is the problem.” It’s almost like there is an unspoken obligation to your host for having wined and dined you for a week.

So most of the media has “form” in one way or another. I wouldn’t say that the reaction to Marrickville was more extreme than usual but I would say that there was little or no context about why BDS is not an idea put forward by neo-Nazis, which is the impression you’d have got by reading the press, and that it has growing support. But the latter is in some ways the Achilles’ heel — that the boycott is getting international support, which is exactly why there was this attempt to crush it here. The people who follow this issue know what’s happening in parts of Europe and Britain and even some parts of the US. This was a perfect opportunity, so they thought, to crush it here before it really took off. A local Sydney council was a perfect way to do it, and the fact that there was a Green mayor, even better.

SI: The extreme press response is being widely seen amongst Australian activists as having been a tactic to scare other public bodies, such as universities or councils, away from considering BDS policies. Has it worked for the moment?

AL: Put it this way: those unions which signed up last year have not rescinded their BDS motions. But they haven’t said much about it publicly either. I did notice, though, that the Maritime Union of Australia put out a statement supporting partial BDS, which is the first one I’ve seen for a while. Essentially it was saying that “Palestine’s got a problem, we support BDS, bring it on.” It didn’t mention Marrickville specifically. And while the Maritime Union is not one of the top unions in the country it does have a sizable membership. The other unions have been conspicuous by their silence, and I think that’s probably because they want to remain a bit quiet because of the Australian Labor Party, which goes to show how morally bankrupt the ALP has become.

SI: Was the mainstream press and political reaction to the Marrickville vote part of a wider systemic attitude towards BDS in Australia?

AL: Yes. I don’t necessarily see it as part of a coordinated campaign against BDS. By that I mean I don’t think there was a meeting in a room between the Israel lobby, the Murdoch press and and Labor Party. They don’t even need to do that. It doesn’t need to happen that way.

There’s a sense that the Palestine debate in Australia is one that’s largely about excluding the voice of Palestinians. There are recent exceptions, not least because of a handful of pro-Palestinian groups who’ve been pro-active in lobbying the mainstream media to get some representation. But there is an ingrained racism in the corporate press in Australia. Very few non-Anglo figures appear in the papers or on TV regularly. You hear very few Arab voices in general; it’s not just about Palestinians. I think there is a deliberate exclusion. As in many countries, the media is largely run by old white men.

In some ways what happened in the Arab revolutions should have given them, you would think, unique opportunities to have people speaking in their own voice from Tunisia and Libya. There have been Tunisians and dissident Libyans and Egyptians in our media, but largely it is still white journalists going to country X to write about it. When was the last time the Australian media had a major Egyptian, Libyan or Tunisian activist or nongovernmental organization writing in our papers, in their words? It’s happened, but very rarely.

The Palestinian issue is very similar. The idea of even suggesting that journalists should include Arab voices within the Marrickville story barely occurred. Sure it was about local politics as well, but the idea that you’d write about Palestine and not even think, “Gee, what does an Arab think?” It’s almost like the worst example of what happens in the New York Post or on FOX — and it wasn’t all in the Murdoch media, I might add.

The Palestinian question here is also about US foreign policy and Australian policy, which is that we are essentially a client state of the US and proud of being so. The Australian government talks about being independent but is quite the opposite. Australia has framed its world-view around receiving protection from America. There’s an unspoken idea that if we get invaded by Indonesia or China or some other other “Asian” country, who’s gonna protect us? America, allegedly.

So in order to stay in line with US policy, the Palestinian question here seems to be based around deliberately ignoring what Israel is doing in Palestine. So when you have pro-BDS types, whether Palestinians or Jews, saying BDS is necessary because of how Israel behaves, because there is a lack of legality, because there is impunity for occupation crimes, a lot of people in the media often say “that’s just ridiculous.” They’ll come out with the usual lines about Israel being a democracy. There is a line of ignoring what occupation means; it’s barely used as a word. It’s a “territorial dispute” and we’re engaged in a “peace process” and Abbas is “talking to the Americans” and so on.

SI: Even in the left-of-center, “alternative” media — online publications such as New Matilda and Crikey — there was only some coverage of Marrickville, BDS and the press response, and much of it was coming from you, Antony. Would they have covered the story if you hadn’t pitched it to them?

AL: There’s really a couple of issues here. Within many activist groups it seems like there’s an element of either naivete or of defeatism — they think “well they wouldn’t publish this anyway, so why bother?”

I’m not saying everyone thinks like that, but I’m not the only person who could be writing about this. I’m not Arab or Palestinian. Obviously I’m Jewish and I’m engaged because of that issue, feeling that “my people” are committing crimes in “my name,” which is a pretty awful feeling. But I do know a number of cases where Palestinians tried to get in those publications and didn’t succeed. I don’t know about the facts behind that. I can’t speak for those publications. I also think that even in some “alternative” publications here there is a degree of wariness about the issue. It’s seen as two rabid sides and that we need some “moderation.”

I would also like some other Jewish voices, younger Jewish voices, to be speaking out. There are some, but so few. You don’t hear in Australia, as you do in the UK and America, those Jewish dissident voices. I think it reflects badly on how unimportant real human rights are for the majority of Jewish people in Australia. Some of them might campaign about refugees or indigenous issues, which are important, but for me the real test of someone’s conscience is how they deal with issues that are close to home. I’m not saying that other issues don’t matter, but it’s how you deal with an issue which affects you, which is close to your family. That’s the real test of someone’s personality and sadly the majority of Jews here are failing by ignoring the issue, or campaigning against it, or staying silent. It’s disappointing and frustrating.

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. Her first book, Gaza: Beneath the Bombs, co-authored with Sharyn Lock, was published in January 2010. Her new edition of the Bradt Guide to Palestine is out in November 2011, and her biography of Leila Khaled in spring 2012.

Antony Loewenstein’s website can be found at