But what about Zionism?

This is an intervention, of sorts, into the disagreements between the dissident Jews Ned Curthoys and Dennis Altman (see Overland 187, 196 and 197). Given the scarcity of those publicly distancing themselves in any way from Israel, dissident voices, even if they warrant disagreement, merit at least some respect, and I appreciate that both Curthoys and Altman vocally opposed Israel’s vicious attack on Gaza.

That said, I still strongly disagree with Altman’s view of the attack in one important respect. During the massacre, Altman wrote that Israel had been ‘clearly provoked’ and, in his more recent essay, he discussed the attack as ‘retaliation’. The war on Gaza is not the focus of this essay: for those interested, I have documented the facts at length elsewhere. Suffice to say, in the immediate lead-up to the attack, Israel rejected a ceasefire that was offered by Hamas. The assault was an act of aggression, not retaliation. Israel could have secured the safety of its citizens by agreeing to the ceasefire, and its government knew this, because its own sources show that Hamas had upheld the preceding six-month ceasefire more faithfully than Israel had.

In the dispute between Curthoys and Altman over responses to Zionism, I sympathise with both positions, albeit with reservations. On the one hand, Altman’s seems more moderate and cautious. Yet he dismisses calls for a boycott of Israel. To me, this is unreasonable. I agree that the campaign for boycotts, divestments and sanctions (BDS) is likely to be ineffective in the struggle for Palestinian rights, and I have argued this at length elsewhere. Yet there is an obvious case for the BDS that is hardly frivolous. The precedent is apartheid South Africa. In my view, Israel’s regime in the Occupied Territories is obviously one of apartheid. Palestinians under occupation have been denied their human rights for over forty years. Indeed, Jewish settlers in the West Bank have rights under Israeli law, while Palestinians in the West Bank live under military rule. The pseudo-government of the Palestinian Authority – administering Palestinian cantons under Israeli rule, surrounded by Israeli checkpoints, roadblocks, discriminatory roads, settlements and the Separation Wall – bears obvious resemblance to the Bantustans of apartheid South Africa. Besides the ‘grand apartheid’, there is the ‘petty apartheid’, such as the regime of checkpoints.

This is obviously only a very brief discussion of the Palestinian apartheid issue, and one that puts aside the discrimination Palestinians inside Green Line Israel face, which others, such as Saree Makdisi and Uri Davis, have also compared to apartheid. Certainly, Israel’s discriminatory laws concerning marriage and land ownership are unacceptable, whatever condemnatory label one gives them.

Those who have made the apartheid comparison constitute an impressive list. From South Africa, numerous ANC activists have compared the Occupied Territories to the old regime in South Africa, including the Jewish ANC veteran Ronnie Kasrils. While the ‘a’ word is not used in Richard Goldstone’s justly famous report, it chronicles at length Israeli practices that institutionalise discrimination, both in the Occupied Territories and within the Green Line, which it attributes to Israel’s ‘two-tiered civil status under Israel’s domestic legal regime’. Other distinguished South Africans making the comparison include John Dugard and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In Israel, Shulamit Aloni and Yossi Sarid, both former government ministers and leaders of the dovish Zionist party Meretz, have described Israel’s occupation regime as apartheid. Indeed, Ariel Sharon himself, according to Akiva Eldar and Idith Zertal’s Lords of the Land, reportedly proclaimed that a Bantustan solution was the way to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In other words, there is a very credible case that Israel has instituted an apartheid regime in the West Bank and Gaza and, given that most people now accept that it was correct to boycott apartheid in South Africa, the onus, in my view, falls on those of us who oppose a blanket boycott to explain why.

To me, a targeted boycott of the Occupied Territories would make obvious sense in a way that a blanket boycott does not. A boycott based around what we actually object to isn’t controversial: refusing to buy a product from a West Bank settlement is as straightforward as refusing to buy clothes produced in a sweatshop. Recently, the Norwegian government divested from a company building the Separation Wall in the West Bank. Similarly, the World Council of Churches, representing over 550 million Christians, recommended an international boycott of West Bank settlements. These are campaigns that hardly need momentum and that go hand in hand with the struggle for the creation of a viable Palestinian state in line with the two-state solution, which has the support of almost every government in the world.

In his reply to Altman’s essay (Overland 197), Ned Curthoys refers to a blanket boycott as a possibly effective means for ending the occupation. Yet the high profile recruits to the BDS campaign that he cites, Naomi Klein and Neve Gordon, support a targeted boycott of the Occupied Territories. Gordon argues this is a contextual approach; Klein recently went on a book tour in Israel, where she simply boycotted institutions she thought related to the state or the occupation. I would be greatly heartened if Curthoys would be willing to slightly amend his position on this basis, which I think would help broaden its appeal. More generally, I agree with Altman’s view of the most constructive way forward: to seek ‘to slowly change official Australian perceptions of the conflict and to find ways to shift the language of the debate’.

Interestingly, though Altman’s long essay is very cautious in tone, he appears to regard the two-state solution as unsatisfactory or, perhaps, inadequate. Curthoys, who is part of a two-person committee to dismantle Zionism, would agree. As it happens, I am not a nationalist, and I cannot accept the legitimacy of the political Zionist cause. Yet I think ‘dismantling Zionism’ is a project that cannot be achieved for decades, until an increased Palestinian population within Green Line Israel forces the issue. To me, the struggle against the racist crimes of Zionism seems analogous to the struggle against other forms of racism, a struggle in which battles should be picked appropriately. In the US, it took decades to abolish slavery and another hundred years to dismantle various forms of legal discrimination against African-Americans, and it may be a few more centuries until historically entrenched racism and socio-economic disadvantage is overcome. In Australia, first we had to stop massacring Indigenous Australians and then we had to stop discriminating against them and stealing their children (indeed, according to the Australian (22 August 2009), even now ‘Aboriginal children are being taken from their parents in numbers much greater than the Stolen Generations’). Today, we need to end the discrimination of the Northern Territory Intervention. There is no universal panacea in the struggle against racism. It is ongoing and needs to be waged anew after every victory.

I want to frame this response as a broader intervention, particularly given Curthoys’ cautious criticisms (Overland 187) of Independent Australian Jewish Voices’ (IAJV) online declaration calling for free debate around the Middle East crisis. As it happens, IAJV is so structurally hopeless and disorganised that there exists no-one to defend it, speak on its behalf or even necessarily notice what is said about it. Now the folks who lead the way for IAJV – Peter Slezak, Antony Loewenstein and Eran Asoulin – were kind enough to provide me a blog at the IAJV website but, besides my stake in IAJV, I hope to shift the political focus of Australia’s leftist Jews, and perhaps leftists more generally.

Curthoys, I think correctly, pointed out that IAJV’s statement of principles was limited, and less independent than its British counterpart. For some reason, the Australian organisers included a line calling for recognition of ‘Israel’s right to exist’. Curthoys, rightly and importantly, denounces this, noting ‘its desire to normalise Green Line (pre-67) Israel by pre-empting any discussion of the legitimacy of Israel and Zionism’.

I agree. Indeed, I think there is much to be said in favour of discussing the legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise. More importantly, it is striking that, in a call for more open debate on Israel and Palestine, the margins for dissent were set to the Right of one of the issues most obviously crying out for free discussion.

It is a shame the declaration bothered to be Zionist. It is not clear if this was necessary. It is worth discussing whether the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine was legitimate. It is also worth discussing the factual questions involved. How was Zionism achieved? Did the Zionists behave ethically in their quest for a Jewish state? Was it possible to establish a Jewish state in a land predominantly Arab without engaging in ethnic cleansing and oppression?

These questions are becoming increasingly difficult for Zionists to deal with, which is perhaps why it is so important to them to avoid the discussion. The leading Australian Jewish communal organisation, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ), co-wrote a submission to the Senate on academic freedom, where anti-Zionism was practically defined as anti-Semitism. This is not atypical but is indicative of a problem for Zionists: it is becoming difficult to defend Zionism on abstract principles alone. ECAJ, together with other communal organisations such as the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies (JBD), has come to support Benny Morris, who is considered pro-Israel because of his right-wing views. Yet Benny Morris is perhaps the leading scholar in exposing the Israeli archives that document the role of Zionist militias, and later the Israeli army, in the expulsion of the Palestinians during the Nakba of 1947–49. Morris famously defended the expulsions in an interview for Haaretz years ago and suggested it was a shame Israel hadn’t expelled all of the Arabs.

That particular interview was striking for its unabashed racism towards Arabs and Muslims, and so it may have been thought that the Australian Zionist community would have found it difficult to embrace such a figure. Yet I had the privilege of hearing the head of the JBD introduce Morris by talking about the JBD’s struggle against anti-Semitism, oblivious of the irony involved.

Indeed, Morris’ shocking views seem to have become almost conventional wisdom amongst the establishment. The ECAJ’s joint Senate submission deploring anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism recommends Morris as a scholar to be taught at universities, while Bren Carlill, writer for the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, offered, in an article for Online Opinion (‘Myth Busting’, 10 June 2008), a euphemistic defence of the expulsion of Palestinians. When I challenged Carlill on this, he was willing to admit a ‘significant minority’ of Palestinians had been the victims of ‘deliberate expulsion’ – but defended this as ‘perfectly understandable’. Indeed, Carlill’s views had been hitherto so entirely uncontested that he was genuinely puzzled that I would react so strongly, and suggested that perhaps he had inadvertently insulted my wife. What can be said about such an intellectual atmosphere?

While I do not admire any form of Zionism, that is not to say that all Zionisms are created equal. Curthoys, for example, quotes Noam Chomsky with approval in his original article on IAJV (‘An opportunity missed? Independent Jewish Voices and the question of Zionism’, Overland 187). Chomsky, however, has been a Zionist since at least the 1940s and has advocated a two-state agreement for about thirty-five years. Contra Curthoys, this does not mean he is blind to the problems of a Jewish state that discriminates against non-Jews. Nor is he blind to the crimes intrinsic in its creation. Supporting a two-state solution is simply a concession to the current realities of the Middle East. Israel is the superpower of the region, backed by the superpower of the world. It is surrounded by weak countries, with hostile populations, but usually puppet governments who covertly support Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians. Within this context, the prospect that Israel will be forced to do anything is slight. The prospect that Israel will be forced to do something that its population overwhelmingly opposes – like dismantling the Jewishness of the Israeli government – is non-existent.

In Israel, public opinion polls tend to show the level of violence inversely correlates with hope, traditionally translated into support for centre-left Zionist parties. These parties have collapsed since Ehud Barak declared in the wake of the Camp David failure that ‘there is no partner for peace’. Public opinion, however, remains receptive to the dismantling of settlements in the context of a peace agreement, and this sentiment is likely to increase if Israelis can be persuaded that such measures might actually bring peace. In principle, a majority of the population should be willing to support a serious two-state agreement: the dismantling of the settlements and their infrastructure, and the creation of a viable Palestinian state. This looks improbable because of Israel’s rapid colonisation of the West Bank but, in the short term, it presents the only possibility for creating a basic, decent life for Palestinians living under a brutal and cruel occupation.

As I understand his views, Curthoys does not regard this as satisfactory. He derides the ‘Left Zionist shibboleth’ of ending the occupation so that Israelis can ‘normalise their society and live in peace with a Palestinian state’. Yet I think it should be recognised that, however much we deplore the systematic discrimination against Palestinians within Green Line Israel, the situation in the Occupied Territories is so much more shocking and criminal as to take the highest priority.

Consider, for example, a few simple facts about the blockade on Gaza. It was casually reported in the New York Times in May 2009 that Israeli military officials ‘count the calories’ allowed into Gaza, with Israel ‘ration[ing] aid daily’. In other words, Israel precisely controls how much food is allowed. Meanwhile, Israeli organisation Gisha, the Legal Centre for Freedom of Movement, issued a release in June 2009 noting that Israel allows only eighteen food items into Gaza. Juice powder is one example of a banned food item.

On 29 July, the Red Cross – generally a non-political organisation – issued a release on the blockade, complaining that Israeli ‘[r]estrictions on imports and exports of goods imposed since June 2007 had shut down 96 per cent of industrial operations in Gaza’, with the ‘collapse’ of the Gazan economy leading to ‘a dramatic increase in poverty’. This has ‘taken a heavy toll on the population’s diet’ and for ‘tens of thousands of children […] has resulted in deficiencies in iron, vitamin A and vitamin D [with] the likely consequences [including] stunted growth of bones and teeth, difficulty in fighting off infections, fatigue and a reduced capacity to learn.’ Some 28 000 Palestinians in Gaza do not have access to running water, with power outages averaging five hours a day. This is because Israel does not permit sufficient industrial diesel, nor does it allow paper or ink.

In September, Haaretz covered a report by the United Nations Environment Programme that warned that Gaza’s water supply was on the verge of collapse, threatening the supply for 1.5 million residents. It would take twenty years to rehabilitate. Part of the reason was Israel’s attack on Gaza which had, for instance, destroyed nearly one-fifth of Gaza’s greenhouses, damaged sewage facilities, and ‘caused long-term damage to the ground that will impede cultivation’. One effect of the declining quality of drinking water is ‘blue baby syndrome’ through which infants suffer from respiratory and intestinal problems.

The cruelty of Israel’s war on the people of Gaza is shocking, and one does not need to be for or against Zionism to think that it is immoral to cause such grievous suffering. Indeed, Curthoys dedicated his article criticising IAJV to the memory of the late Tanya Reinhart. I share his warm regards for Reinhart, whom I heard speak a few times and whose books on the latest phase of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict I profited greatly from reading. But Reinhart was also a strong partisan of a two-state agreement. Her book Israel/Palestine: How to End the War of 1948 begins by acknowledging the ethnic cleansing of 1948. Yet she holds – and I imagine many Australians would reason likewise – that if this were the only crime her state had committed, she could adjust to it and ‘probably live with it’. Reinhart was willing to support a boycott – but only for the specific purpose of forcing Israel to end the occupation.

Suppose that a substantial portion of Australian Jews would advocate an immediate end to the occupation and all that goes with it: further military attacks against Palestinians, collective punishments, the blockade, house demolitions, torture, confiscation of Palestinian land and water resources, and so on. This would undoubtedly strike a major blow against the international Zionist fantasy of unconditional Jewish solidarity based on nationalism. It would also substantially open the way for the Australian media to pose tough questions about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

However much we deplore the chauvinism of the leadership of the Jewish community, there’s something else that must be said: how many people outside the Jewish community vocally criticise Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians? John Pilger doesn’t live in Australia, but he has spoken out on Palestine for decades. How many gentile intellectuals do the same? There is a widespread silence on Palestine in Australia, but not disproportionately to the Jewish community’s discredit. Indeed, in a recent survey on the views of Australian Jews, some 20 per cent did not identify as Zionist. If we allow for the 5 per cent questioned who said they had no interest in current events in Israel, that leaves some 15 per cent of the Jewish community who may hold completely unorthodox views on Israel and Palestine. Considering only 28 per cent of the broader public considers themselves ‘pro-Palestinian’, according to a poll commissioned by the Coalition for Justice and Peace in Palestine, it seems to me that Jewish dissent is beginning to take its toll on Zionist orthodoxy, and in the coming years, this may well cause major headaches to the resident Zionist chauvinists. Furthermore, 29 per cent of Australian Jews think Israel ‘should be willing to dismantle’ ‘all or most’ of the settlements in the West Bank as part of a permanent peace. There’s a promising market in the Jewish community into which an end to the occupation can be sold.

In all this, it is unnecessary to ask people whether they support the existence of a Jewish state. Why argue about nationalism? I think nationalisms are stupid and easily lend themselves to ugliness. Yet it is not the easiest argument to win. If the Zionist establishment ties itself up with ethnic cleansing, we should simply suggest that ethnic cleansing is always wrong, even when the victims are Palestinian. Why not argue that Israel should not starve Palestinian children, or that Israel should stop torturing Palestinians? It is to Australia’s international discredit that this government and the last one have been completely supportive of Israel’s crimes. It is hardly beyond the realm of the possible for the Rudd government to oppose the settlements, to oppose the Wall in the West Bank, which was ruled illegal by the International Court of Justice, and it is also perfectly possible for our government to oppose the siege on Gaza.

It should be clear from this that I sympathise with Curthoys’ criticisms of IAJV but do not share his conclusions. In his extended discussion of Ilan Pappe’s latest book, Curthoys notes that, in 1949, there were some 9000 Palestinians languishing in Israeli jails, suffering from torture and beatings. He point out that the figures today are comparable. And that is precisely the point. Australia committed even more egregious crimes against Indigenous Australians in the course of colonisation. In Australia, however, the crimes of the frontier have ended, whilst the Zionist frontier continues in the West Bank today. With Israeli soldiers and settlers shooting Palestinians with near impunity, the past is important to understanding how we got here, but it is not essential to the tasks of today.

If that is in defence of IAJV’s moderation, what can be said about its task of broadening discussion of Israel and the Palestinian cause? As practically anyone who has ever criticised Israel publicly knows, there is a spectre that haunts discussions of these issues. Curthoys and I both have the dubious distinction of being Jews who have been accused of anti-Semitism. In my case, Michael Danby accused Antony Loewenstein and me of anti-Semitism for criticising Israel in newmatilda. We also earned an angry report from the B’Nai Brith Anti-Defamation Commission, which repeatedly urged ­newmatilda to stop printing criticisms of Israel.

Interestingly, Altman praised Melbourne academic Philip Mendes as someone he liked and respected. I found this surprising from someone who knows the difficulty of public discussion of Israel and Zionism. If anyone in Australia should be singled out as poisoning public discourse with vicious and unwarranted charges of anti-Semitism, it is Mendes. Of Curthoys, for instance, Mendes suggested that he and John Docker were ‘remarkably unconcerned about the first Holocaust’ and that their ‘ideas could potentially lead to a second Holocaust.’ At new Jewish blog Galus Australis, Mendes thought it important to point out that Curthoys was also only ‘of part Jewish background’. He expressed his disappointment that Jewish leftists, such as those in the Australian Jewish Democratic Society, did not ‘aggressively confront’ Docker and Curthoys and their ‘hate-filled diatribes’. By that, Mendes referred to their advocacy of a one-state solution.

For an encore, Mendes queried whether a talk I gave – whose contents he knew nothing about beyond the title (‘The influence of Zionism on Australian politics’) – was ‘connected to the Protocols of The Elders of Zion’. This is curious, given that he apparently follows my blog, and had quoted elsewhere an entry I wrote in January specifically naming and condemning supposedly pro-Palestinian anti-Semites.

As it happens, Mendes considers himself a leftist. I think his relationship to the Left is about as warm as McCarthy’s was, though I’m willing to grant that Mendes may have a shorter list. In August 1944, Orwell wrote that, for leftist literary intellectuals who shared his suspicion that something had gone very wrong with the Soviet Union, ‘willingness to criticise Russia and Stalin is the test of intellectual honesty’. For Jewish leftists, the test of intellectual honesty is their willingness to criticise the Israeli government and Zionism. It may be difficult for some due to reasons of nationalism. It may be difficult because of the kind of vicious responses such positions constantly attract.

In that respect, Altman and Curthoys, even if I do not agree with them on everything, have at least made an effort to value truth above ethnic solidarity. It is about time that the issues were opened to free debate, without the usual flood of hysterical name-calling. Perhaps some day, those of us who oppose colonisation, torture, ethnic cleansing and racist state discrimination will not be the ones considered racists and lunatics. It is up to us to make that day happen.

Michael Brull blogs for IJAV and writes for newmatilda and elsewhere.
Michael Brull
Overland 198-autumn 2010, pp. 92–98

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Michael Brull

Michael Brull is a columnist at New Matilda. He’s written for other publications including Fairfax, the Guardian, Crikey, Tracker and the Indigenous Law Bulletin.

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