I first discovered the importance of the Israel/Palestine conflict in my early teens, in Melbourne. I remember sitting around the Sabbath table with my parents and cousins, discussing the events of the week as we consumed schnitzels, soggy vegetables and chicken soup. In an age before the internet, we relied on print and radio for information about the Middle East, and it all seemed terribly far away. During the Intifada in the late 1980s, where there was the first mass-organised Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation, many middle-class Israelis suddenly realised that their government’s actions would come at a high moral price.
My family would rail against Palestinian ‘terrorism’, they abhorred then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Israel was blameless, cast as the eternal victim of irrational Jew-hatred. But the racism against Arabs, and blindness to the validity of Palestinian resistance, struck me as sick, a hangover from a Nazi-at-the-door mentality. I complained and challenged these positions, but I was usually dismissed as young and ignorant.
More than fifteen years later, I wrote My Israel Question as a statement against predictable thinking on the Middle East. I was writing as an atheist Jew, and called for a Judaism that wasn’t infected with Zionist supremacy. I opposed the occupation, challenged the Zionist lobby’s bullying of politicians and journalists, and asked for open debate. In return, I received vitriol and hate-mail from an insecure Jewish community wedded to the idea of Israel as a homeland (even though most of them never wanted to live there, preferring a far more multicultural nation in Australia).
But times are changing. I’ve seen a growing willingness in the wider community to challenge Israeli actions and question the Australian government’s unequivocal support of the Jewish state. These kinds of views, unprecedented a few years ago in mainstream society, are principally due to Israel’s increased intransigence and criminality – a consensus that is growing, despite both the Labor and Liberal parties refusing to open their eyes to the new reality in Palestine. Not that you heard any of this during the federal election campaign. In fact, foreign policy was mostly absent from the debate.
On 25 June, the day after Julia Gillard politically assassinated Kevin Rudd for the prime ministership, the Australian’s Foreign Editor, Greg Sheridan, informed readers that ‘anyone who expects foreign policy to move to the left … will be disappointed.’ He outlined the continuity in the Labor party, namely the US alliance, backing the war in Afghanistan and support for Israel, ‘despite a vigorous campaign to talk [Gillard] out of attending’ last year’s first Australia-Israel Leadership Forum’. Her message in foreign affairs and national security, as Sheridan wrote, ‘is one of … reassurance’.
It was a position enthusiastically shared by the Lowy Institute’s Michael Fullilove. He argued that the Afghan conflict was fought for ‘honourable ends’, and Gillard’s ‘most important [foreign policy] theme would be continuity’. As Deakin University’s Scott Burchill dryly noted about such punditry: ‘In other words, don’t change a thing, don’t think afresh about any policies, even a futile war – everything is going swimmingly.’
A few days later, Sheridan wrote that the Rudd government’s expulsion of an Israeli diplomat from Australia in May – after Israel was found to have murdered a Hamas operative in Dubai in January with the aid of foreign passports, including Australians’ – ‘may have been the single foreign policy issue that did Rudd the most harm in domestic political terms’.
Rudd’s motivations? Labor professionals were worried that friends of Israel would turn to Tony Abbott’s Liberals. None of this, of course, came to pass during the election. With the exception of the Australian Jewish News attacking the surging Greens for their supposedly anti-Israel stance, Israel was all but excluded from discussion.
The message from the foreign policy establishment was clear. There were acceptable boundaries of movement; stepping outside of them would be condemned. Indeed, Gillard herself told the Sydney Morning Herald, less than two weeks after her ascendancy, that ‘it’s not my intention to change any of the fundamentals of our foreign policy.’ The key planks outlined were the US alliance, ‘continued deployment in Afghanistan, support for Israel and focus on our region’. It was only after the August poll, and more futile Australian deaths, that a robust parliamentary debate on the Afghan deployment looked possible.
The prime minister’s list was curious for its additions. It would interest most Australians that the Jewish state was a ‘fundamental’ aspect of our global positioning. But it is a subject that undergoes virtually no debate in the Australian parliament or within the major political parties. It is an article of faith, a state religion without compare.
Australia is not unique in this position. Recall the 2008 US presidential election. Israel was the only country that all major candidates had to continually pledge allegiance: during the Vice-Presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, both explained how much they admired Israel, a curious game of one-upmanship. There were no expressions of desire for Colombia, Saudi Arabia or East Timor. Australia maintains a similar, sycophantic position.
The rise of Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott will change little, if anything, towards pressuring Israel over its oppressive policies in the West Bank and Gaza. And deplorable statistics are irrelevant to Canberra’s relationship with Tel Aviv.
In July, independent Israeli human rights group B’Tselem released a startling report that found twenty-one per cent of the built-up area of West Bank settlements was land that Israel recognised as private property, owned by Palestinians. The ongoing siege of Gaza contributes to malnutrition and stunted growth in young children in this open-air prison. Every human rights group in the world demands a lifting of the blockade.
Are these the ‘shared values’ with Israel Western leaders constantly talk about? David Cameron, Barack Obama and Julia Gillard continuously defend their stance by highlighting Israel as the Middle East’s ‘only democracy’. Compared to Iran and Saudi Arabia, this position can be argued, but the Jewish state deliberately discriminates against non-Jews on the basis of race and religion alone.
I visited Gaza for the first time in July 2009 to report on conditions in the occupied territories. I wanted to see for myself the devastation of the war six months earlier, and speak to Palestinians about their lives. In Gaza, I saw the effects of years of isolation: a people desperate for recognition and humanity caught in a futile battle between rhetoric and reality, growing Hamas extremism and perceived Zionist pragmatism. Entire neighbourhoods had been flattened by Israeli missiles, with rebuilding impossible due to lack of resources. Nobody was starving, and food-stuffs were entering from the Egyptian smuggling tunnels, but people told me they craved freedom of movement; the right to be free and independent.
Gaza was a contradiction. I stayed in a modern hotel overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, while a few metres away rubbish gathered in the streets. Hamas gunmen watched traffic as officials entered clothing shops to demand the removal of female mannequins; Islamisation of the society has only worsened since.
In truth, the Australian political leaders have chosen to side with a country that has continually occupied another people for over sixty years. It is seen as politically cost-free; a powerful Zionist lobby, sizeable Jewish donations, relatively disorganised Arab and Palestinian communities, and corporate media determination to present ‘balance’ for its readers and viewers have all contributed to the inertia.
An objective analysis of successive Australian governments reveals a remarkable consistency in attitudes towards Israel. Former prime minister John Howard regularly praised the Australian Jewish community for its social involvement and staunch support for Israel. He rarely, if ever, condemned any Israeli atrocity or act of war.
Kevin Rudd was much the same. He once told a meeting of Jewish leaders in 2007 that support for Israel was in his DNA – it is a country framed as forever defending itself against annihilation from threatening Arab neighbours. It was a romantic image, and many on the Left believed it after Israel’s founding in the late 1940s. It was easy back then – and the ALP was one of the first political parties in the world to support Israel in the UN – when a post-Holocaust generation wanted to accept the state as a noble attempt at socialism and equality.
But it was a deadly myth that began to crumble after the Six Day War in 1967, which saw Israel gain control of the Gaza Strip. Religious fundamentalism and the settler exodus moved quickly into the mainstream, backed and funded by secular politicians to entrench the Zionist ideology of continued expansion. By the 1980s, dissenting Israeli historians discovered in the archives what Palestinians had been claiming for years: ethnic cleansing took place in 1948. Israel was born on the back and blood of another people, an eerie comparison to other colonial nations, including Australia.
But Western leaders continued to sprout untruths about the realities in Palestine. Occupation was ‘disputed territory’. Terrorism was only labelled such when committed by Palestinians. Israel was always ‘striving for peace’. Barack Obama said as much during a press conference in the White House in mid-2008, after meeting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But, of course, the November mid-term elections were imminent, and Jewish support for Democrat candidates would be jeopardised without Washington’s support for Tel Aviv.
In Australia, public debate is anaemic. The only politician brave enough to speak out in parliament about the Middle East has been departing Labor backbencher Julia Irwin. A lone voice on challenging Israeli spin, she has paid a price for her actions: shunned in cabinet and mostly ignored in the mainstream media. Irwin told parliament in late June of this year that she vehemently opposed the continued expansion of Jewish colonies in the West Bank. ‘This is no more acceptable to the rest of the world than the former apartheid regime in South Africa,’ she said. A few weeks earlier she had called for a boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) against Israel because, ‘while nations’ leaders fail to act, responsible citizens throughout the world are beginning to take action.’ BDS is currently booming across the globe, from dock workers in the US refusing to unload Israel ships to musician Elvis Costello bypassing the country on tour in protest of its occupation policies.
During a recent interview with me in Crikey, Julia Irwin explained that Israel could survive economic isolation but, like apartheid South Africa, the Jewish state ‘cannot survive a cultural and academic boycott … While politically Israel lurches further to the right, Israelis must come to realise that they are all judged by the actions of their leaders.’
But most of our politicians remain tone-deaf to the shift in public opinion. Days after Gillard assumed the prime ministership, a former Israeli ambassador to Australia, Ross Burns, wrote a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, questioning the appropriateness of her partner, Tim Mathieson, being given a property sales consultant job in 2009 by prominent Zionist lobbyist, Albert Dadon. Burns also accused Gillard of being ‘remarkably taciturn on the excesses of Israeli actions in the past two years’.
National Secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union, Paul Howes, responded in Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph that Dadon was simply ‘prominent in the local Jewish community’ and it was ‘one of the crassest examples of shoddy journalism I’ve seen.’ Dadon, a new generation of Israeli lobbyist with a kinder face, courted Kevin Rudd from the moment he entered parliament, and took Gillard to Israel on the inaugural Australia–Israel Leadership Forum. A collection of corporate journalists and politicians privately discussed ways to enhance the relationship between Israel and Australia. The event was modelled on the equally secretive annual Australia–US Dialogue. These meetings are deliberately designed to advocate ideas that exclude the public, pushing ‘continuity’ in foreign affairs despite growing public unease over US actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Israeli behaviour in Palestine.
Ironically, we now have the regular and unedifying sight of the Zionist lobby complaining to the government that its positions aren’t pro-Israel enough. When Foreign Minister Stephen Smith marked the fourth anniversary of the Hamas capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in June, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry found his tone ‘extremely troubling’ because he hadn’t condemned Hamas enough for its barbarity – more of an Israeli government talking point than anything else. No such compassion for the thousands of Palestinians imprisoned illegally in administrative detention without any chance of a fair trial or hearing.
Australians are worthy of a frank assessment of our unqualified support for Israel. America is beginning to embark on this conversation; a recent article on the Daily Beast website claimed the Jewish state would always be in a perpetual state of war and questioned whether Washington should back a nation that seemed so unwilling to end its conflict with the Muslim world. But it seems, for the time being, that neither the Labor nor Liberal parties have any interest in finding a peaceful solution in the Middle East, and Australians deserve far better. The rise of the Greens in the August election provides the best hope yet of the Australian parliament debating what we are supporting in the Middle East.