feature | Dennis Altman

196 coverOVERLAND 196
spring 2009


published 22 August 2009

Escaping the tribe?

Dennis Altman discusses his ambivalence about Israel

Until she died earlier this year, my mother was in a Jewish retirement home in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, a facility that was heavily fenced and required guests to identify themselves at the gate. Every time I visited was a reminder of the ways in which, even in Australia, the tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have infected ordinary life for Jews and Arabs. The couple of times I travelled there with a taxi driver who seemed Muslim, I felt uneasy about the unspoken conversation we might have had about the role of Jews and Muslims in a country where we are both minorities yet remain divided by distant conflicts.

There was an irony in my mother living in the Montefiore Home, for neither she nor any of my immediate family had ever been observant Jews or ardent supporters of Israel. Her father, Aaron Patkin, was an early and prominent Australian Zionist but Israel was never an issue of great concern to my mother or to her children, while my father, although a Jewish refugee from Vienna in 1938, had no connections with any Jewish religious or political organisation. When I was a young politics lecturer at Monash in the late 1960s, the Six-Day War (which led to Israel’s annexation of the occupied territories) passed me by. I was far more concerned with the looming disasters in Vietnam and the burgeoning anti-war movement in Australia.

Since the creation of Israel, we have seen the rise and fall of the Cold War, the effective end of European empires, the dismantlement of apartheid in South Africa and the symbolic triumph of the civil rights movement in the United States with the election of a black president. Yet Israel’s relations with the displaced Palestinian population and their descendants seems as far from a solution as ever, and if a fragile peace has been achieved with Egypt and Jordan, the threat of war with Iran and its Arab allies now looms large. Reflecting on the persistence of the conflict, Roger Cohen has written, ‘only in the Middle East do the dead rule’. It is not my purpose to explain the intractable nature of this conflict, a sad mixture of competing national ambitions, political short-sightedness and ideological inflexibility on both sides. Rather, this article was born from what might be seen as a very Jewish need to understand and express the ambivalences I feel about Israel – and Australia’s position as one of its most steadfast allies. More immediately, it stems from revulsion at the death and suffering during the short invasion of Gaza, a conflict that again polarised global opinion in ways that seemed to isolate Israel and its few supporters.

It is not possible to be a Jew and remain detached from feelings about Israel. Not necessarily feelings of loyalty: when I visited Israel in the 1970s I was annoyed by the questioning as to when I would make aliyah (move to Israel). Israel struck me as a foreign country, more Middle Eastern than my own images of Jewry from the cake shops and occasional earlocks of East St Kilda.

But just as Israel would not have come into being without the Holocaust, I would not have been born without the flight of refugees from Europe that brought my parents separately to Australia, where they met and married. Even those who have no great wish to identify as Jews have, in the end, no choice: others see it as an essential part of who we are, and their perception must inform ours. The ambivalence of the Jew as both insider and outsider runs through an enormous literature, of which Jean-Paul Sartre’s and Hannah Arendt’s writings are probably the best known.

Perhaps it is not surprising that when she needed to enter an aged care facility my mother chose Montefiore, even though she found its emphasis on Jewish rituals irritating and rather alien. Similarly, I am very conscious of who amongst friends and colleagues is Jewish, even though it is rarely a matter of overt concern.

I first became involved in the Israeli/Palestinian debate through the battles that split the Australian Union of Students (AUS) in the mid-1970s: I had embarked on a half-serious research project on international student politics, a harbinger of later work on global social movements, and I attended an AUS council meeting where pro- and anti-Israeli forces battled each other over subordinate clauses. This was when I first encountered a certain sort of anti-Semitism that masquerades as pro-Palestinian, and came close to being taken to court by a now-forgotten figure of the Left, Bill Hartley, who once quite unself-consciously described himself to me as anti-Semitic. I have encountered casual anti-Semitism only several times in my life, but almost every Jew is constantly primed to suspect it.

It seems too simplistic to declare oneself anti-Zionist: had I been a Jew in Russia in 1905 – or in Germany in 1933 – I suspect the attraction of Zionism would have been strong. In this different historical period, those of us who live in countries like Australia can easily refute the idea that we need a homeland elsewhere but today, of course, the majority of Israeli Jews are born in Israel. To deny that Israel is their homeland is equivalent to arguing that all non-Indigenous Australians should leave, not a position I have ever heard from even the most passionate local opponent of Zionism.

At the same time, one can feel Jewish without any particular identification with Israel, even though this is rarely acknowledged by either Zionists or their anti-Semitic opponents. We have close friends who include us in their Passover Seders, and manage not to shame me for knowing none of the Hebrew words for the service. But each year the refrain ‘next year in Jerusalem’ poses problems for me. We could, after all, settle in Jerusalem next year – but many Palestinians who desperately want to return to their ancestral homes cannot.

If one is known to be a Jew, one is assumed to be an automatic defender of Israel. The assumption is, of course, fostered by the organised Jewish diaspora, whose political and financial support is an essential part of Israel’s strength. A couple of years ago, two Harvard academics, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, created enormous controversy when they published The Israel Lobby, which lays out the extent to which pro-Israeli groups determine American foreign policy. Mearsheimer and Walt emphasise that there are non-Jews in the Israeli lobby, especially those whose evangelical Christianity has evolved from anti-Semitism to seeing Israel as part of God’s plan for redemption, but in the end it is American Jewish organisations that provide the backbone of the strongest foreign policy pressure group in Washington.

Ironically, while the neo-conservatives whose influence was strongest under the presidency of George W Bush included many Jews, Jewish money and votes are crucial within the Democratic Party. Barack Obama was concerned that he might not hold the traditional Jewish Democratic vote, especially in Florida and Pennsylvania, but in the end he was supported by something like 75 per cent of Jewish voters. Given recent tensions between African-Americans and Jews, and the attempts to paint Obama as ‘untrustworthy’ on Israel, this was a remarkable triumph of good sense. Obama, like every serious contender for the presidency, pledged strong support for Israel, and indeed competed with Hillary Clinton, whom he chose as secretary of state, on closeness to the Jewish community. His chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is the son both of a militant Zionist and an American civil rights activist, and has never expressed any recognition of parallels between the position of African-Americans and Arab Israelis or displaced Palestinians. The extent to which Obama will be willing to force the current Israeli government to abandon its hard-line positions will be a major test of the president’s readiness to alienate a significant domestic constituency.

The Jewish vote is far less significant in Australia, but our political leaders have a long bipartisan tradition of closeness to Israel. (There are only two federal electorates where the ‘Jewish vote’ could influence the outcome, one held by Michael Danby for Labor, the other by Malcolm Turnbull for the Liberals.) As in the United States, the support is largely led and choreographed by the organised Jewish community. When Antony Lowenstein wrote about this in My Israel Question, Melbourne University Press came under considerable pressure not to publish the book. Subsequent public criticism of Israel, organised by Lowenstein and a group of which I am a fringe member, was bitterly attacked by many Jewish organisations, who accused us of disloyalty. Ironically some of the attacks came from people who would not find similar criticism of Australian foreign policy outside the acceptable norms of democratic political debate.

Jews in countries like Australia still behave as if they belong to a persecuted and vulnerable community, which would be weakened by any internal dissent. There is little understanding of the community’s relative strength, especially as viewed by the smaller and far less resourced Palestinian population. I am reminded of a conversation in New York during the early days of the AIDS epidemic with a Haitian physician who longed for the sort of clout wielded by the gay community – even as gay community organisations complained bitterly about their inability to focus the attention of the Reagan administration. Yet, just as gays could quite legitimately point out that homophobia was real – and that it fuelled neglect of the new disease – so too can Jews point to increasing reports of anti-Semitism, and its expression in statements from Hamas and Iran.

Support for Israel only rarely surfaces as a political issue in Australia, and many people uneasy about the government’s strong support for Israel feel unable to say so for fear of being denounced as either anti-Semitic or pro-terrorist. I can think of no other subject of international politics so surrounded by fears and anxieties that it has become requisite for an author to proclaim his or her ethnic, religious and political allegiances before expressing an opinion. As a result, the voices raised become increasingly shrill, since anything other than accepting the essential rightness of the Palestinian or the Israeli cause is seen as too difficult.

In recent years, both Hawke and Howard expressed very strong support for Israel, and at one point the Howard government voted alongside Israel, the United States and three former US island territories to support Israel’s barriers on the West Bank, despite them being ruled illegal by the International Court of Justice. When the Rudd government reversed Howard’s position, it was attacked by the Liberal opposition. The government’s response to the recent war was one of cautious advocacy for disengagement but never to the point of not backing Israel. Very few Australian politicians have publicly criticised Israel, and those who have were quickly disciplined by their party. This year Howard was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Hebrew University, whose president referred to his ‘commitment to distinguish the right from the wrong’. One hopes someone – perhaps a Jew who had come to Australia as a refugee – reminded President Magidor of the Tampa and ‘children overboard’ scandals.

The Murdoch press – above all its intellectual masthead, the Australian - largely functions as a house organ of the Israeli government. Its editorials during the Gaza War and the subsequent elections favoured Israeli hardliners, and most of its regular columnists accept the view of Israel as an outpost of Western democracy in a global struggle. Support for Israel is reflected even in book reviews: Greg Sheridan has used the Australian Literary Review to publish a long and emotional defence of Israel, while a recent review by Alan Gold, a Jewish community leader, echoed the denunciations of former president Jimmy Carter who has sought to find a new path to Middle East peace. It may be emotionally satisfying to describe Carter’s ‘hackneyed adolescent viewpoint’, but there are some of us who suspect the man who won the Nobel Prize for his mediation in the Middle East deserves more serious attention. In a similar fashion, Les Rosenblatt has suggested that our identification with Israel stems from an unwillingness to face up to (white) Australia’s own history of (dis)possession, subjugation and displacement. But one could just as easily argue the opposite – that identification with the Palestinians would be an easy way of assuaging our own guilt. That is not to deny parallels between the attitudes of settlers in both countries towards those they dispossessed: in the recent war, there were unsettling echoes of Henry Reynolds’ references to ‘disproportionality’ in the punitive expeditions against Indigenous Australians in the nineteenth century.

But the identification with Israel seems connected to a general sense of being part of the ‘West’, a geopolitical term that should have died with the Cold War but has, on the contrary, resurfaced, especially in that discourse which posits the central conflict of our time as that between Western enlightenment and Islamic-based terrorism. If many on the Right in Australia took a perverse comfort in the sparseness of the coalition supporting George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq – those shrill attacks on ‘old Europe’! – the same sense of righteousness runs through the pro-Zionist stance of Israel’s most ardent apologists. The specifics of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict have been inserted into a grand narrative that places us on the side of good, and allows us to obliterate the actual realities of occupation and mutual fear.

In general, the passions Israel’s invasion of Gaza aroused elsewhere did not echo here, outside the ethnic communities directly affected. The sustained criticism of Israel in British publications like the Guardian or the London Review of Books went largely ignored by our media. In Britain, there were student occupations on a few campuses; in Europe, very large street demonstrations. Some pro-Israelis have asked in perplexity why there is such condemnation of Israel when other acts of brutality are commonplace across much of the world. But if we are to argue that as part of the ‘West’ we represent a certain level of commitment to norms of decency then it is reasonable that we hold those of us we regard as part of the West to those norms.

There probably was some justification for Israeli retaliation in January against Hamas rocket attacks on its territory, although that is less clear than the Australian media suggested. It is far harder to find any justification for the assault on Palestinian civilians, which far exceeded any military necessity. Yet for most Jews to admit this is to enter into a critique that becomes frightening, since it undermines the particular delusion that Israel is somehow exempt from the brutality universal to war and occupation. To recognise that Israel’s relentless search for military solutions to ‘the Palestinian problem’ has poisoned the country’s very soul is to embark on a journey that might end with Tony Judt’s conclusion that a ‘Jewish state’ is now a dangerous anachronism. As he says: ‘In today’s “clash of cultures” between open, pluralist democracies and belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno-states, Israel actually risks falling into the wrong camp.’

The Right cannot have it both ways: if we are to praise Israel for its democratic system, which gives a racist party – Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu – veto power over a potential government, how do we dismiss elections that give power to Hamas, despite its undoubted support of terror? Even Martin Indyk, former US ambassador to Israel, acknowledges that Hamas ‘freely and fairly won the Palestinian elections’. Moreover, how do we then justify close ties to Saudi Arabia, an unpleasant autocracy that denies religious freedom and equality for women, exactly the freedoms we claim to be fighting for in Afghanistan?

An even more difficult question relates to the extent to which a democratic state can be based upon an ethno-religious definition of nationality. I could move to Israel and claim full citizenship in ways that are not available to Arabs born there, let alone those who fled after the establishment of Israel. How ironic that nations who understand citizenship as open to all those who migrate, whatever their background, should have become the staunchest supporters of a state that bases citizenship on ethnic and religious essentialism.

There are two rather different starting points for a Jewish discussion about the conflict in the Middle East. The first is the assumption, already discussed, that ethnic and religious solidarity must be the basis for any position on Israel. But the second is a long-standing Jewish commitment to social justice. Observant Jews would claim this stems from the belief in tikkun olam, or perfecting the world. It is precisely the Jewish experience of dispossession and oppression that makes many Jews strong advocates for the rights of Indigenous Australians and refugees. For some of us, that experience should also allow Jews to empathise with the people of Palestine – but that empathy seems to be strongly in retreat, especially in Israel. Reports of the behaviour of Israeli troops in Gaza, and the rightward move in the recent Israeli elections, suggest that positions are hardening across the country.

If we begin with the recognition that ‘Jews’ and ‘Israelis’ are very different, that ‘the people of Israel’ include a significant number of non-Jews and the diaspora consists largely of Jews who have no intention of moving to Israel, we might be able to break the conceptual confusion that makes it so difficult to understand the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Jews in Australia were significant players in the development of multiculturalism, the understanding that national identities constantly shift, and that Australianness cannot be defined in terms of the religious and ethnic characteristics of the original British settlers. From that experience, Australian Jews should be able to make the leap to radically re-imagine Israel as a country no longer based upon a nineteenth-century definition of citizenship but rather as a diverse state in which Jews are a majority.

While I was writing this, Philip Mendes, a supporter of Israel whom I respect and like, was quoted in the Australian Jewish News as saying dialogue between Australian Jews and Arabs was a waste of time. I understand Philip’s frustrations, but I think he is wrong. I took part in an event around the Nakba, the commemoration of Palestinian expulsions from Israel, and I found the search for common ground exhilarating. But even if Mendes was correct, what is the alternative? Too many Israelis and Palestinians have been caught up in a vicious cycle of hatred, fear and revenge that makes rapprochement not only unlikely but at some level unwanted. Easier to proclaim that peace is impossible than to engage in the emotional and psychological shifts that would allow Jews, Arabs and Palestinians to live together. We know that many on both sides desperately want peace; we also know that minorities on both sides can effectively derail the goodwill of the majority. I suspect that only a major leap of faith by one or the other side – greater than that displayed in the past by leaders of both Israel and Fatah – can break the deadlock. That leap will need to come from the Israeli side, because Israel is far stronger, and yet in the long run has the most to lose.

The problem with the Middle East is that, like the White Queen, we have to run very fast to stay in place. What once was anathema to Israel and its allies – recognition of the Palestinian Authority and a two-state solution – is now common wisdom. It was almost achieved in the dying days of the Clinton administration, as Martin Indyk’s account suggests, and had there been a truly great man at Camp David maybe the necessary jump could have occurred in 2000. Today a two-state solution, by itself, will be insufficient.

Negotiations must go beyond a two-state solution, which would leave Palestine as a divided and weak satrapy of Israel. Israeli Jews must recognise that they cannot win real security through continuing occupation and repression, and that the very survival of Israel demands a basic reconceptualisation of what the nation is. It is the sort of leap of faith that South African whites made under the leadership of Botha and de Klerk, and it is made far harder by the absence of a Palestinian equivalent of Mandela. But the alternative is the slow destruction of Israel as a decent and democratic society, as it becomes more and more a beleaguered garrison state, with a growing minority of second-class citizens, and facing unrelenting hostility from an increasingly radicalised Palestinian population. It is here that Australia could make a real contribution to peace, acting as an intermediary with those countries in our region whose support for a major paradigm shift could help change the current international pariah status of Israel.

Seeking to slowly change official Australian perceptions of the conflict and to find ways to shift the language of the debate is far more meaningful than the campaign for sanctions on Israeli cultural and academic institutions just launched by a group of Australian academics. Their call was sadly reminiscent of the call by the Jewish Community Council to boycott former Iranian president Khatami’s visit to Melbourne – in both cases one suspects moral indignation was more important than any calculation of what might bring effective change.

In the end, the debate revolves around the persistence of tribalism, the deep and often irrational loyalty felt for those with shared histories and memories and fears of persecution. I know that I can’t fully escape my tribe, however hard I might try. I wish it would behave better.

Dennis Altman is a professor of politics and director of the Institute for Human Security at La Trobe University. He is the author of twelve books, including Global Sex (Chicago), Gore Vidal’s America (Polity) and 51st State? (Scribe).
© Dennis Altman

Overland 196-spring 2009, pp. 26–32

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