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Antony Loewenstein on boycotts and literary festivals

Passionate and outspoken about Israel/Palestine, among other things, Antony Loewenstein is a freelance independent journalist based in Sydney. Author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution, he is a denizen of the Twittersphere. Antony speaks regularly at literary festivals around the world and his essay ‘Boycotts and Literary Festivals’ is published in the 203 edition of Overland.

What was your pathway to becoming a speaker at literary festivals?

I wrote a book and many festivals in Australia invited me. It was My Israel Question, first published in 2006, and told the story of a dissident Jew challenging Zionist power in the West and the realities of occupation for Palestinians. Many Jews hated it, smeared me and tried to shut down the debate. It was typical Zionist behaviour. Thankfully, they failed miserably, despite continuing to try, and even today literary festival directors tell me that the Zionist lobby still tries to pressure them to not invite me to speak on the Middle East, or anything really. This is what Zionism has done to my people, convince them that victimhood is a natural state of affairs and that honest discussion about Israel/Palestine is too threatening to be heard by non-Jews.

The audiences at my literary festival events, since the beginning, have been largely supportive of my stance – though I don’t just speak about Israel/Palestine, also Wikileaks, freedom of speech, web censorship and disaster capitalism – and curiously the strongest Zionist supporters of Israel rarely raise their voices at literary festivals. Instead, they’ll later go into print arguing that festivals were biased against Israel (as happened recently by the Zionist lobby in Australia, condemning my supposedly extremist views on Israel during the Sydney Writer’s Festival). As I say, victimhood comes so naturally to some Jews.

I often have mixed feelings about attending writers’ festivals. I rarely reject an invitation – and have been lucky to speak at events in Australia, India and Indonesia – but it’s often a cozy club that shuns controversy. I like to provoke, not merely for the sake of it, but I know the middle-class audience will not generally hear such thoughts in events about ‘the art of the novel’ or ‘where is the US in 2011?’ I guess if I wrote about knitting or frogs, it may be harder to stir debates.

What is the purpose of a literary festival?

It should be to entertain, challenge and dissect contemporary life. As books sell less in our societies, attendance at literary festivals has increased. People crave intelligent discussion. They generally aren’t receiving that in the corporate media. To see massive audiences in Sydney, Ubud or Jaipur sitting or standing to hear robust debates on the ways of the world can only be a good thing. But there is an important caveat. Do these events too often provide comfort for the listener, a warm glow about themselves and their existence and all-too-rarely tackle the real effects of, say, government policies or the civilian murders in our various wars in the Muslim world?

I argue for a far more politicised literary scene, where intellectuals aren’t so keen to be loved and embraced by an audience but the art of discomfort is raised as an art form. This is why I argue for boycotts in my Overland piece, relating to Palestine and Sri Lanka. Surely our responsibility as artists is not to kow-tow to the powerful but challenge them? And surely our duty is to make people think about the role of non-violent resistance to situations in which we in the West have a role? Literary festivals are a unique opportunity to capture a large audience and throw around some ideas, thoughts which may percolate. If a reader can digest this, still buy a book and ponder something they hadn’t pondered before, my job here is done.

Writer discomfort, to being feted at literary festivals, is my natural state of being. I welcome it.

As a writer, what inspires you?

Passion, direct action, living life in a way that doesn’t ignore the hypocrisy of our realities, lived experiences, detailed journalism, inspiring tales of heroism (that don’t involve women giving up everything and living in Italy for a few months) and voices that struggle to be heard. I’ve always seen my job as a writer as to highlight and brighten the silenced voices in our society. It may be a Tamil or Palestinian, somebody living under occupation or the worker of a multinational who gets shafted for simply doing her job. This may sound pompous or self-important but frankly most journalists say they believe these things but then spend most of their lives dying to be insulated within the power structures of society.

The recent debate in Sydney over Marrickville council embracing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) over Israel was a rare example of government seeing injustice and trying to do something about it. The faux controversy concocted by the Murdoch press, Zionist lobby and Jewish establishment proved just how toxic the occupation of Palestinian lands has become. As a writer, I savoured the few brave individuals who stood up in the face of overwhelming bullying and spoke eloquently for Palestinian rights and real peace with justice in the Middle East. This position is not something that will be taught on a Zionist lobby trip to Israel (something undertaken by most politicians in Australia and many journalists) but real investigation. There are times, though, when I nearly despair, such as my recent visit to New York and attendance at the Celebrate Israel parade.

I think anger is an under-valued attribute in a good writer.

Where are you now, with your writing practice?

I know far more today than when I started my professional career in 2003. In some ways my anger is far more targeted and my writing has improved because of it. I’m pleased that both my current books, My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution, are currently being updated and translated in various countries around the world. I’m working on a book about the modern Left and another about disaster capitalism in Australia and the world. And that’s just for starters. I’m rather busy. I constantly struggle with the sheer volume of information that exists out there. The internet is a blessing and a curse. Taking time away from this device would be just lovely but I’m not too sure how to do it. Feeling connected as a writer is one of the most pleasing aspects of my job. From a schoolgirl who uses my work in her classes to an Iranian dissident who reaches out to raise the brutal nature of the Ahmadinejad regime.

Our society is infected with writers who seem to see their role as robots, spokespeople for a predictable cause, afraid to offend or provoke. Being on the road as a writer is a humbling experience, hearing people’s stories, but it can also be lonely. Being challenged on my positions, as I often am over an issue like Palestine, can (usually) only make my work better. The ignorance and cowardly behaviour of our media and political elites over such questions – Wikileaks, Palestine or refugee policies – is indicative of a wider societal malaise and sometimes I’m not surprised that I have so few friends in the media. It’s not a loss. Who wouldn’t want to breathlessly report on the latest press release by the Gillard government? Sigh.

If anything, I hope my Overland piece stimulates thought over the far-too-comfortable and insulated work of the literary and arts scenes in the West. Self-congratulatory back-slaps may feel good at the time but history ain’t being written by time-keepers.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Clare Strahan is a Melbourne writer and author of Cracked. She is also a drama tutor, a graduate of RMIT’s Professional Writing & Editing, a writer of fiction and poetry and is a contributing editor. at Overland. She is a freelance editor, creator of the Literary Rats cartoon, and flutters about the twittersphere as @9fragments.

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