‘Governments Are Not Going to Change This. We Have To’: Antony Loewenstein on Israel/Palestine, the Internet and more
By Alex Kane
July 21, 2010
With “peace talks” between the Palestinian Authority and Israel seeming more and more like a dead end, many people around the world, including dissident Jewish voices, are turning to grassroots activism to pressure Israel to end the ongoing occupation of the Palestinian territories.
Recently, Jewish Voice for Peace launched a campaign to pressure TIAA-CREF, one of the largest financial services in the U.S., to divest from companies that profit off of the Israeli occupation. Yesterday, the Olympia Food Co-Op, located in the hometown of Rachel Corrie, the American peace activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer, announced a decision to boycott Israeli goods at their two locations.
Journalist, activist and blogger Antony Loewenstein, an Jewish Australian, has become a must-read voice on Israel/Palestine. Loewenstein, the author of the bestselling book My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution, is currently in New York City, where he will be speaking at Revolution Books in Manhattan this Sunday, alongside author Michael Otterman, whose new book is titled Erasing Iraq: The Human Costs of Carnage. The event, which begins at 1 PM, will center on the occupations of Iraq and Palestine.
Loewenstein, who yesterday appeared on Laura Flanders’ Grit TV show with Ali Abunimah, is currently working on a project that examines privatization in Australia, as well as a book about Israel/Palestine. I recently reached Loewenstein by phone while he was still in Australia, and had a wide-ranging discussion on Israel/Palestine, the role of the Internet and blogs, and the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) targeting Israel.
Alex Kane: How did you get so involved in writing about Israel and Palestine?
Antony Loewenstein: Well, many years ago when I was growing up—I grew up in Australia, in a very liberal, Jewish home—Israel was never a central part of my family but it was something, as most Jews will understand, that was important to support. My grandparents escaped Nazi Germany, my family were killed in the Holocaust, so the idea of Israel being a homeland for the Jews was sort of seen as a given. My grandparents have never been to Israel, my father’s only been once, my mother has never been, and I remember when I was a teenager, well before the Web, talking about something that happened that week, a suicide bombing or something in Israel, and I would sometimes express disdain or criticism of the official Israeli line, and it was met with unbelievable anger and ferocity by my family, by my parents, my other family, and there was a real, clear racism that was existing back then. Two things: one, that we can’t expect Arabs to behave any better because, after all, that’s what Arabs do, i.e., be violent against Jews, it’s sort of inherent in their system, and secondly, that whatever Israel was doing was always defensive.
Fast-forward twenty years in Australia, about seven years ago, Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian politician came out to Australia, she was awarded the peace prize, a prominent peace prize out here, and the Jewish community establishment reacted with apoplexy. She was a “Holocaust denier,” a “terrorist,” all the usual kind of things, and Ashrawi then and now is very moderate. And the argument I said at the time was that if the Jewish community can’t accept someone like her—in fact then she was talking about a two-state solution, she’s hardly a radical—if the Jewish community can’t accept her, then there’s a serious problem. I felt, as a Jew, and I had never written about this publicly, but I felt as a Jew, as a journalist, it was important to put my position strongly, to say that there are some Jews who are critical of Israel, who believe in open and free debate. I wrote about that, got a lot of coverage down here in Australia, was then picked up by Robert Fisk in the Independent in London, and as you could imagine, that caused this issue to go global. He came out and said that it’s important that there are dissenting views.
So, over the years, I spent time in the Middle East, in Israel, in Palestine, I was in the West Bank and Gaza again last year, I’ve spent time in most of the Middle East, in Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc., and feel, I suppose, in many ways that it is important, although I see myself as a human being first and a Jew second, that it’s vital to articulate an alternative Jewish perspective. I mean, years ago, my position was fairly conventional: I believed in the two-state solution, and I believed that because when I was in Israel, many years ago, the people I was speaking to, the one-state solution, people often forget this now, but the debate about this has moved so fast, that there’s obviously a tactical question and a moral question, but certainly, practically five years ago a two-state solution was arguably impossible anyway. Putting aside the moral question of whether there should be a two-state solution, my position about that has changed, and in my latest edition of My Israel Question, my book, I sort of articulate why that is. In its simplest form, it’s because, practically, the colonization process is so far advanced, and its continuing, even during the recent so-called “settlement freeze”–in fact there wasn’t a “freeze” at all, there was settlement building happening, as many journalists, including Max Blumenthal, documented in the last month. And secondly, as a moral question, the issue of a Jewish state existing I think is fundamentally problematic because it inherently discriminates against those who are non-Jewish, which is 20 percent of the population within Israel. I should also say this, finally, that my point is not just being opposed to a Jewish state, I have equal issues with religious states, and I’ve spent a lot of time writing about Iran, Saudi Arabia, Muslim states that inherently discriminate against non-Muslims. Now clearly, they’re not democracies, they don’t claim to be a democracy, and Israel does. I’m not comparing Israel to Iran or Israel to Saudi Arabia, I’m simply saying that my opposition to the concept of a religious state, and Israel is undoubtedly based inherently on an interpreted Jewish history, I think the problem is far bigger than just a Jewish state, I think it’s also the question of religious states oppressing minorities, and we see that across the Middle East.
AK: A lot of the discussion about Israel/Palestine, in the U.S. press obviously, but also in the Palestinian press, the Israeli press and the European press, it centers on the very big role that the United States plays, and that’s obviously true for good reason, but I’m curious to know what Australia’s role is in Israel/Palestine, because we don’t hear much about that. And how are Australian activists tackling that role?
AL: Australia is, in many ways, one of the largest economies in the world, so it’s not a small player, it’s smaller than America or China, of course, and much of Europe, but it certainly is a relatively major economy. So, Australia is a so-called “important country.” But when you talk about Israel/Palestine, when Israel was formed in 1948, Australia was one of the first countries to come out to support Israel in the United Nations, and since then, 50 years since, keep in mind a shift here or there, Australian governments have been incredibly supportive of Israel. What I mean by supportive of Israel is that they’re very uncritical towards Israeli policy.
During the Bush years, we had a prime minister here called John Howard, who supported Bush in the Iraq War, Afghan War, rendition, and that was a period where, in the UN, Australia shifted some of its key votes to line up alongside a tiny handful of others, and Norman Finkelstein has talked about this in a disparaging way and he’s right, that in many of the key votes, and Australia is still sometimes on this side, you have America, Israel, Australia, Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands, talking about occupation, expansion of settlements, etc. And clearly, Palau and Micronesia and the Marshall Islands are doing it because they are client states of the U.S. and they need the cash. In some ways, that’s more understandable. It’s regrettable, but understandable.
So my question is, what’s Australia’s excuse? Now, Australia is very close to the U.S., we have troops in Afghanistan despite the fact that most people are opposed to it here. We’ve had successive prime ministers who have been to Israel, the last prime minister, Kevin Rudd, said that Israel was “in his DNA.” Our current prime minister, Julia Gillard, who is Australia’s first female prime minister, recently came out and said one of the key points of her foreign policy will be support of Israel.
But I think what is shifting is public opinion in Australia, and indeed, in much of the West. We’re seeing in the last six, twelve months, particularly since “Operation Cast Lead” and even more so since the flotilla massacre, a growing awareness in civil society that governments are not going to change this. We have to. And in the last six months, some of the key unions down here have put forward motions to divest and boycott Israel, which is significant, and there is a campaign to try and increase that. In fact, recently, Diana Buttu, who is a Palestinian from Canada but living in Ramallah, who is very involved these days in speaking to unions globally about instituting an effective BDS campaign, she was brought out here to speak. So she spoke to two unions about the role they can play, comparing it of course to the campaign against South Africa. A recent study found that support for Israel in the general public is declining. After the Gaza conflict a year and a half ago, the majority of Australians who were polled were opposed to the Israeli position and supported the Palestinians.
But of course, like in America or many other states, there’s a disconnect between what the political leaders and mainstream corporate media talk about and what the public thinks. And I’ve noticed, even since I’ve been writing about this issue for the last seven years, that although the corporate media here is still slavishly following a U.S. line, there are cracks appearing. So, for example, you do read, not often, but more often, Arab people in the press, Palestinians, dissidents, and not just the usual Zionist spokespeople, who until recently were the only ones you heard. Something happens about the Middle East, and who are the first people you turn to? If Mark Regev is not available, who’s actually Australian by the way, the key Israeli spokesman from the Prime Minister’s office in Israel and who was born and bred and taught in Melbourne, unfortunately, you go to the Israel lobby. Although their voices are still there, and they’re clearly powerful, I’m not going to deny that, they have less power than they once did, publicly at least, and that’s significant, and you see that in many countries around the world.
So, Australia is not, on the one hand, massively influential in the Middle East—that would be a lie. But for example, you can look at New Zealand, which is even smaller than us, and four years ago, you may remember, they caught a number of Mossad agents forging passports, which is reminiscent of what happened recently, and they basically severed diplomatic relations between New Zealand and Israel for a number of years. Now again, that didn’t bring down apartheid Israel, but it’s significant and I think that countries that are smaller can often lead by example, and the Australian government doesn’t seem to be doing it anytime soon, but I think civil society certainly is becoming far more vocal, to say why is Australia, as a democracy, backing a brutal occupation and apartheid in Palestine, and still talking about the shared values we have with the Jewish State.
AK: You’ve also written a lot about the Internet and blogs and how it can be a very powerful tool in fighting oppression. Generally speaking, can you talk about that and more specifically, how you see that being played out with Israel and Palestine.
AL: I think one of the things that is really clear about the rise of Web activism, or whatever we’d like to call it, is that it has fundamentally shifted how many of us engage in political issues via the world. I mean, one of the things that became very clear about the uprising in Iran last year, was, although it was fascinating and traumatic and Iran has become even more mired in dictatorship than it was before, one very quickly realizes, although mostly the American press chose to ignore this, is that it was framed as a “Twitter revolution”—I’m sure you remember it from last year—the truth is that the majority of people in Iran a) don’t Twitter, and secondly, most of those Twitter accounts that were talking about the streets in Tehran were coming from the U.S. Now, I use that as an example because I don’t argue that the Internet is about to bring democracy. There are undoubtedly many in the neo-conservative movement who talk actively about empowering Web activists in Iran, China, Saudi Arabia to become more pro-U.S., to believe in the overthrow of a dictatorship, and install a more pro-US government—that’s not what I’m saying at all. What I’m saying is that there has undoubtedly been a shift in the abilities of citizens in most countries to articulate their views on gender issues, political issues, issues about their personal lives, how they feel about foreign policy, frivolous things, whatever it may be.
When it comes to Israel/Palestine, what happened in the past, I suppose, five years particularly, and I’ve often used many of these sources, there’s been an explosion of two things: one, dissident Jewish bloggers in Israel proper, and I’m talking about people like the blog the Promised Land, Joseph Dana, amongst others, interesting people who are actually fed up with what they generally see as the pro-government line that they see in the Israeli corporate press. Ha’aretz, to some extent, is an exception to that, although it obviously has a left, Zionist line as an editorial position, but it certainly publishes a lot of wonderful journalism, there’s no doubt about that, alongside some pretty, not-so-good journalism as well. So those bloggers are important, and I think they’re being funneled into a wider context because of blogs like Mondoweiss, which give it a more global platform.
And of course, there are also Palestinian bloggers, and we shouldn’t forget about those. It often takes more effort, sometimes, for those who don’t write in English to be read, and so a blog like Global Voices often does translation, other websites did translation during the course of the Gaza conflict a year and a half ago, some of the only voices, in fact, we were hearing were Palestinians or Gazans who could blog. That’s significant because it provides a more nuanced view of what occupation means, what invasion means, what the dropping of white phosphorus means on civilian areas, what does that mean. Photographing it, videoing it, detailing it, and of course making it far more difficult, then, for Israel and its supporters internationally to deny what the evidence shows very clearly. If you simply rely on corporate media to get your information on the Israel/Palestine conflict, as has been documented time and time again, the sad problem is that virtually every single one of those corporate journalists live in one city, or two cities: Jerusalem, or Tel Aviv. And they’re very interesting cities, although I’ve yet to understand why, although I do, particularly Western outlets, don’t base people in the West Bank and Gaza. And the argument is often made that it’s not safe, but that’s not a good enough reason.
AK: Nor is it really true. The notion that Western journalists being based in the West Bank or Gaza is dangerous is a very overblown notion. Many Western journalists, if they were based there, would be completely fine.
AL: I agree completely. The truth is, it’s sort of funny in a way isn’t it, because journalists, or some corporate journalists go into Iraq or Afghanistan, which are war zones and are dangerous places and journalists risk their lives, and often they do wonderful work in the line of duty. But the West Bank, for example, is pretty safe, and Gaza is actually very safe, they’re both very safe areas. There still seems to be, with exceptions, a journalist from the New York Times, Ethan Bronner, others, will go there for a few days and come back. And I spent time with Ethan Bronner last year when I was in Israel, interviewed him I should say, and he’s a very friendly guy, he’s obviously the bureau chief for the New York Times, he’s friendly enough, but I think one of the things that comes out very clearly when you speak to someone like that is a failure to understand that one cannot simply primarily have Jewish, Zionist voices reporting the conflict. Let me just explain, for the record, I would be equally against if every reporter for the New York Times was an anti-Zionist Palestinian. There needs to be different perspectives in there. This is not a question of saying it should be all one side or the other. And I don’t want to use the term balance, because that’s a bad term as well. I’m saying there needs to be a diversity of views, and this is where, of course, the Web becomes central. We often joke in Australia and elsewhere, that to find out what goes on in the halls of the Pentagon, one reads the New York Times. But if you actually want to find out what goes on on-the-ground in many countries, you rarely would read the New York Times. You would read blogs, or whatever it may be.
I think with Israel/Palestine, there is in fact a responsibility, I would argue, that if the mainstream press was more honest about listening to different views, on the opinion pages, for example, they would regularly publish bloggers from different countries. And I’m astounded, although I use that term very loosely—I’m not very surprised that the mainstream press, who constantly whines about the fact that they have no money to pay for content, aren’t more often utilizing the role of bloggers in many countries. In Iran, in Palestine, in countries where journalists for whatever reason choose not to go. The content is there; I think that really shows that there is a tendency often, and a desire, to want to avoid seeing the real effects of U.S. foreign policy on civilians, whether it’s in Palestine, in Iraq or Afghanistan. To this day, I read the New York Times most days, Washington Post, I look at most of these papers online, and they rarely publish articles by Iraqis or Afghans or Palestinians. It’s as if you need to be a white person, and go to Palestine, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, and say this is what I’m seeing. I’m not dismissing that—I’m a white person too. But I’m saying is that it seems that there is a complete inability or unwillingness to actually publish people in their own voices, and bloggers, I think, can obviously provide that.
AK: I really only have one more question. It’s sort of a broad question, but what are your thoughts about the future prospects for justice in Palestine?
AL: Oh, the big question, Alex. Well, I think only a fool could say that the short-term is going to be pretty. I presume that you would agree with that. It’s always difficult to predict this sort of thing, and I get asked this question a lot.
One of the things that I fear during the Obama administration, whether it’s three more years or seven more years, is an imposition of a two-state solution. I worried about this, in fact, during the Bush years, believe it or not. I thought it was conceivable that George W. Bush would simply say, “here’s a Palestinian state.” I mean, the truth is, with the power of the U.S. and the international community, nothing stops them from declaring a Palestinian state tomorrow. It wouldn’t be viable; I’m not suggesting it would be a good thing, but nothing stops them from actually doing it. You have a complicit Palestinian Authority who are more than willing to accept the largesse and the support of the U.S. and Israel. They are being built up as wonderfully effective colonial masters. I just read a few days ago in Ha’aretz that Israel’s top security officer increasingly spends time with West Bank security forces, the way in which the PA and Israel works together, i.e. silencing dissent from Hamas and others. So the fear that I have, potentially, is a two-state solution is declared, and it would not be viable, and it would not be a pleasant thing for Palestinians, it would not be with East Jerusalem as its capital. It would not be anything that honest Palestinians would want, in the diaspora or in Palestine itself. So that’s something I think which is possible, and I worry about it, and I think that it needs to be more talked about, Ali Abunimah in particular has talked about that and I praise him for that, the fear that this may be happening.
I think the reality is that the one-state solution is not going to happen tomorrow, or next week, but it’s certainly gaining traction, certainly in the diaspora. In Palestine itself, the figures are hard to see, but it appears that within Israel proper, the Jewish population’s support, as you know, let’s just say is very slim. It’s very, very slim, there’s no way to get around that. In the Palestinian communities, both in Israel proper and in the West Bank and Gaza, it’s much higher and growing. In fact, in the last studies I’ve seen, it’s close to fifty percent, which is quite high, considering that two years ago when I saw other results it was about thirty percent. So it’s growing, and there’s no doubt, because people are disillusioned with the possibility of a two-state solution.
I think what is also happening, which I am more encouraged by, is the fact that there is a growing awareness in the diaspora about what is going on. And I just saw, and I’m using this as one example, there was a five-minute report on Fox News about the virtual impossibility of Palestinians being able to obtain land in Jerusalem. Now again, Fox News is very pro-Israel, and I’m not suggesting that suddenly changed, and they’ve become in love with Palestine, obviously not. But those sort of stories are increasingly appearing in the corporate press, and the effects of those is causing, which I am pleased about, the growing disillusion within American Jewry towards Israel. This is something that of course Mondoweiss and I write a lot about too. The Israel lobby in the U.S. realizes that its so-called fan-base is shrinking. One of the things that I did agree with in Peter Beinart’s recent article, despite much of it being not to my liking, was when he talked about the future of the Israel lobby in America being made up particularly of Orthodox Jews whose views on Israel are more extreme than those who are in charge now. And you could argue, in a cynical way, that’s in fact very good for Palestine, because that will show to more Americans that if that’s what is required to be pro-Israel, is to hate Arabs, I don’t want to be a part of that. And I’m encouraged by that trend, if you get my drift, rather than the status quo continuing.
I think hoping and praying for Obama to bring change—nothing’s impossible—but he’s moving towards a situation, as I said, where some kind of Palestinian state, a truncated state, a complicit Palestinian state, is on the cards, and I think the task of all of us, particularly in the diaspora, and within Israel and Palestine, is to support a BDS campaign.
A BDS campaign is important because, as Neve Gordon wrote a few days ago in the Observer, the BDS campaign doesn’t have a particular platform. It doesn’t say two-states, one-state. Admittedly, many of the people I know have a one-state view, but there’s no official position. What he says is that it’s to try and make Israeli Jews realize that the occupation must come with a price. You cannot simply continue to occupy and expand settlements, colonizing the West Bank and blockading Gaza, and expect the world to treat you as friends. And although the BDS campaign, one can hardly say that at this stage it has changed the political situation over there, because it hasn’t, what it has done is increasingly change the conversation in the diaspora. And the fear of BDS in Israel, as we see in the Knesset, growing numbers of legislation moving through there to try and ban people who advocate for it, such as Neve Gordon, I think is an indication of how much they do fear it.
And let me just finish on this point. A lot of people have been writing about the World Cup in South Africa, and I only bring this up as an example because of two things: one, that the end of apartheid there, in many ways, was sort of a false end to that hideous regime. Anyone who reads about that country realizes that the truth is that, although politically apartheid is over, economically it’s actually continued. But if one looks at the studies of how blacks and whites view the other, it’s actually quite remarkable how many, a majority in fact, there is an ability to be forgiving or have a desire to move on. That would not have happened unless there was some justice for the crimes that happened. I use that as an example to say that for anyone who claims that Israel/Palestine is intractable, and it’s never going to be solved, and there’s no way to move forward and it’s always going to stay the same, that South Africa—which is an incredibly imperfect society, poverty is rampant, as I said I’m not idealizing it for a second—but what there has been is at least a beginning, a beginning of racial reconciliation. And I think without Israeli Jews and the Israeli state and the Jewish, Zionist diaspora realizing that they cannot continue with the way things are, and in the U.S., which is a key country and I’m encouraged by what’s happening on university campuses, etc. So, although politically I’m quite disillusioned, I’ll be honest, as an activist, as well as a journalist, I’m more encouraged by what I’m seeing.