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The Israeli Diaspora soul-searching

By Antony Loewenstein - posted Tuesday, 15 April 2008

During Israel’s recent bombardment of Gaza, the Australian Jewish establishment reacted with unreserved support. Israel’s leading human rights organisation B’Tselem reported that the majority of Palestinian victims of the onslaught were civilians.

David Knoll, from the New South Wales Board of Deputies, wrote that, “Israel is using force only when all else has failed”. Vic Alhadeff, from the same organisation, casually suggested “wresting security control of Gaza from Hamas and handing it to any leaders who commit to peace”.

Israeli actions are once again internationally reviled and yet defended by a steadily declining number of people. Uncritical Zionist support for the Jewish state and an addiction to Israeli violence is fast becoming the greatest threat to its future existence. Debate continues to be supplanted by unquestioning solidarity.


From supporting the 2006 Lebanon war to advocating military strikes against Iran, mainstream Jewish voices across the Western world have long attempted to speak with one voice, a rallying cry for support of Israeli actions and defence of its motives. This was enough for decades to build a Zionism that didn’t tolerate dissent, an ideology that thrived and relied on lifelong obedience. However, the last years have seen a profound shift in Jewish public opinion and increasing ambivalence towards the Jewish state, though this is rarely reflected by community spokespeople.

When a recent United Nations report found that Palestinian terrorism was the “inevitable consequence” of Israel’s illegal occupation, Israel reacted with predictable bluster. The study was tarred as a typically biased and anti-Semitic UN study, but the real lessons were conveniently ignored. Most of the world understands that resistance to occupation is a legitimate and legal form of action, whether in Iraq or Tibet, but we are expected to believe that these universal precepts don’t apply in the Palestinian territories as well.

On a range of issues, views that are held by many Israelis are seen as beyond the pale in Jewish circles in the West. A recent poll found that a majority of Israelis believed Israel should hold direct talks with Hamas and yet this startling fact appeared nowhere in the Australian Jewish establishment. It was the exact opposite, with commentators and editorialists debating the ways in which the Hamas government should be obliterated. Diaspora Jews have the luxury of expressing views that are anything but “pro-Israel”.

Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama, claimed by some optimists as heralding a new period of justice and dialogue in American foreign policy, agrees with the Bush administration’s position of shunning contact with Hamas. Prominent Palestinian Rashid Khaliki recently said that Obama’s position on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict was “almost indistinguishable from [that of] all the other candidates”. Independent White House candidate Ralph Nader has labelled Israel’s actions in Gaza as “colonial”.

A recent incident at Harvard University highlighted the inability of the Jewish establishment to understand the shifting sands of the debate. A roving exhibition, “Breaking the Silence”, explains the abuses by Israelis soldiers against the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Progressive Jewish groups explained the importance of the photographs. “We cannot look the other way”, one said. “We cannot be silent.”

But Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, argued that the exhibition was harmful and should be shelved. The organisers, he said, should not be “promoting programs and material that don’t promote love and respect for Israel.” Such blatant attempts at censoring the realities of Israel are contributing to the gradual disillusionment of young Jews towards the Jewish state.


This inability to recognise a changing intellectual landscape is also playing out in Australia. A leading journalist has reported that when meeting with senior members of the local Zionist lobby, they refused to answer his questions on the “Israel Lobby” thesis by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. There was nothing to discuss, he was told. A best-selling, highly controversial book was deemed beyond candid discussion, a worrying sign that the Jewish establishment pretends that business as usual would suffice.

Two recent studies about American Jews have provided intriguing information about Diaspora attitudes towards Israel. One, at Brandeis University, found that Jewish attachment to Israel has remained largely strong over the last decade. The other, by Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, reveals that inter-marriage and more personalised forms of Judaism have led to a loosening of ethnic loyalties towards Israel. Only 54 per cent polled were comfortable with the very idea of the Jewish State.

Global Jewish attachment to Israel remains mired in a self-centred position, incapable of publicly debating the faltering nature of their favoured state. The Association of Civil Rights in Israel recently found that the Jewish state was overwhelmed by racism, with 50 percent of Israelis not wanting to live in the same apartment block as an Arab nor allowing their children to befriend Arabs.

Such results cry out for Diaspora soul-searching and yet Australian, Zionist spokesman Vic Alhadeff simply mouths the article of faith that, “the core issue is that Israel seeks peaceful co-existence with a Palestinian state.” Thankfully, most of the world simply doesn’t believe him although the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd also ignores the Palestinian tragedy while celebrating the foundation of Israel, describing it as a “custodian of freedom” in a recent parliamentary motion celebrating the country’s 60th birthday.

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About the Author

Antony Loewenstein is a freelance journalist, author and blogger. He has written for the Sydney Morning Herald, Haaretz, The Guardian, Washington Post, Znet, Counterpunch and many other publications. He contributed a major chapter in the 2004 best seller, Not Happy, John!. He is author of the best-selling book My Israel Question, released in August 2006 by Melbourne University Publishing and re-published in 2009 in an updated edition. The book was short-listed for the 2007 NSW Premier's Literary Award. His 2008 book is The Blogging Revolution on the internet in repressive regimes. His website is at and he can be contacted at

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