Cutting through the bullshit.

Monday, 5 March 2007

Review of My Israel question by Antony Loewenstein

[I first drafted this review in October 2006 and this version was completed on 13 January 2007.]

Antony Loewenstein’s My Israel question, was first published in August and is already in its third printing. Apart from his personal website (, he has established another devoted to the book (, where you can find links to other reviews.

The book starts off with an account of the controversy aroused in 2003 when the moderate Palestinian intellectual and politician, Hanan Ashrawi, received the Sydney Peace Prize. Since the mainstream Jewish organizations in Australia, like those in the US and elsewhere, are of the view that any recognition of a Palestinian or of Palestinians as such is a mortal threat to the survival of the Jewish people, they mobilised against this atrocity. From its inception in 1998 until 2001, the prize had been awarded at the University of Sydney’s Great Hall. It was to have returned to the Great Hall in 2003, but the campaign succeeded in intimidating Sydney University into canceling the booking. To his credit, NSW Premier Bob Carr resisted the gargantuan efforts of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) and the other lobby groups to dissuade him from presenting the prize.

Antony goes on to chronicle his personal development into a ‘chic anti-Zionist’, which led him to travel to Israel and the West Bank, where he met and interviewed a number of interesting personalities, including Uri Avnery, Tanya Reinhart, and Amira Hass. By and large the people he interviews divulge just what they say in their books and newspaper columns.

The second section of the book comprises a summary of the standard liberal view of the history of Zionism. For a polemical approach to particular periods in Israeli history, Finkelstein’s Image and reality of the Israel-Palestine conflict is interesting. Tanya Reinhart’s 2002 Israel/Palestine provides a detailed account of the Oslo ‘Peace Process’, and her Road map to nowhere fills in the details since then. Ilan Pappé’s History of modern Palestine is probably a good place to find a comprehensive and scholarly overview from a non Zionist perspective.

A third section, ‘Adventures in lobby land’ has a chapter reiterating what I have come to call the Walt and Mearscheimer dog wagging hypothesis. In March 2006, John Mearsheimer, Professor of Political Science at Chicago, and Stephen Walt, Professor of International Affairs at Harvard, published an article in the London Review of Books entitled ‘The Israel lobby’ ( In the article, for which they could not find a US publisher, they endeavour to demonstrate that the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) and other pro Israel lobby groups wield so much influence that the US legislature and executive pursue policies, the 2003 invasion of Iraq in particular, in the interests of Israel at the expense of US national interests.

It goes without saying that AIPAC and the US Zionist right instantly met the paper with howls of rage, branding Walt and Mearscheimer antisemites. The reaction on the left was more nuanced. Some thought Walt and Mearscheimer were essentially correct. Others that the most powerful country in all history does not dance to the tune of an insignificant, if strategic, country of 7 million on the other side of the globe. Some emphasised that the business and geopolitical interests of the US and Israeli ruling classes coincided very closely.

Ultimately, Walt and Mearscheimer’s reasoning fails because it proceeds from the assumption that countries have interests independent of the interests of their ruling classes. The US government exists to serve the overall short and long term interests of US businesses and to regulate their interactions. Much of the time, supporting Israel serves those interests. For example, both the US and the Israeli ruling classes wanted Hizb’allah disarmed, so the US supported the Israeli devastation of Lebanon, replenishing weapons stocks at short notice and preventing a UN Security Council resolution for a ceasefire. But when a conflict arises between the Israeli agenda and the US agenda, there is no doubt about which will prevail. For example, in late 2005, the Sharon government wanted to cancel the elections for the Palestinian Authority scheduled for January if Hamas participated, on the grounds that this would give a ‘terrorist organisation’ unwarranted legitimacy. US interests wanted to see ‘open elections’ that would provide enhanced credibility to the quisling Fatah organisation that they expected to triumph. As we all know now, the US had its way, even though it didn’t work out as they hoped.

Another chapter discusses attacks on British MP George Galloway and London Mayor Ken Livingstone, and includes a rather more informative discussion of the Zionist organizations in Australia. In his review in the Australian Jewish News, Jeremy Jones, ‘director of international and community affairs at AIJAC’, singles this discussion out for its purported inaccuracies, and who would know better? Still considering where Jones is coming from, I am happy to take Antony at his word on these matters.

The fourth and last section focuses on media treatment of the issues, with an emphasis on the Australian media. As a journalist, he is deeply concerned about balance, not just in media coverage, but also in political parties’ positions, an issue I will return to.

The main impression you get reading the book is that Antony is concerned about the issues, that he’s started to do some reading, and that he’s very, very confused. The purpose of this review is to tease out the source of the confusion and try to introduce some clarity to a position on the issue of Palestine.

In the introduction, Antony sets out his problems,

I support the state of Israel and believe in its existence. This book examines how much Zionism – the ideology of Jewish nationalism – is to blame for this intractable conflict. There must be a way for Israel to exist securely while allowing justice for the Palestinian people. A sustainable future for Israel and the Palestinians is my central concern. (p. xi)

This paragraph raises a number of issues – What is Zionism? Is it to blame for the conflict? Is the conflict intractable? What does it mean for Israel to exist? What would justice for the Palestinian people entail? Is that compatible with Israel’s secure existence?

Antony defines Zionism quite succinctly – it is ‘the ideology of Jewish nationalism’ – not a bad definition, as far as it goes. But unless we know what Jewish and nationalism mean, it’s not terribly informative.

Jewish is an inherently ambiguous term because of the confusion between the ethnicity and the religion it describes. Since it is nationalism we’re talking about, it makes more sense to stick to the ethnic interpretation while allowing some flexibility to incorporate converts and the like. An ethnicity, or ‘race’ as it used to be called, is a strictly social category. The members of an ethnicity are defined by themselves, by their communities, and perhaps above all, by their oppressors. So, if I say I’m a Jew, I’m a Jew. If the rabbi says I’m a Jew, I’m a Jew. And if the Nazis say I’m a Jew, I’m definitely a Jew, whatever anyone else might think.

Nationalism is an ideology that divides people into groups on the basis of the territory where they were born or reside or have allegiance to. So it’s kind of metaphorical to speak of ‘Jewish nationalism’, but what makes it a sound metaphor is that Zionism is specifically about the creation of a Jewish state on a particular territory – about transforming an ethnic group into a nation.

Antony makes it quite clear that he is committed to the ongoing existence of Israel. He actually repeats the sentiment three times in those four sentences. Obviously his support for the state of Israel is specifically for a Jewish state, as he clarifies, underscoring his confusion, a little later, ‘I believe that the Jewish state should be a viable, democratic and equal society, where one people are not given privileges refused to others’ (p. 29) [my emphasis].

To ask ‘how much Zionism…is responsible for this intractable conflict’ presupposes that Zionism is responsible to at least some extent. Antony seems to want to distance himself from the ideology of Jewish nationalism. But what is his professed support for the state of Israel, for its ongoing existence as a Jewish state, if not Jewish nationalism? And this is where his confusion begins. He correctly defines Zionism and accurately identifies it as a cause of the conflict he deplores. But he fails to recognize that his very starting point – support for a Jewish state – is nothing other than Zionism as he defines it.

Is the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine responsible for the conflict, and if so, to what extent? This is where Antony’s concern for balance comes into play in compounding his confusion. As in any other colonial context, a balanced approach systematically favours the stronger party, the colonist, the oppressor. In Palestine, as in Australia, the violence deployed to deprive the indigenous people of their land, their resources, their culture is both quantitatively and qualitatively different from the violence deployed to resist. And if it is a concern, there is never any ambiguity about who struck the first blow – colonizing somebody else’s land is the first blow. To condemn the violence of the defender in the same terms as the violence of the attacker may give the appearance of balance, but it decisively fails any test of fairness.

So ‘the ideology of Jewish nationalism’, and more importantly putting that ideology into practice by actually creating a Jewish state, is entirely responsible for the conflict. Even if the Palestinians had offered no resistance, there would still be violence – the violence of the colonists.

To understand what it means for Israel to exist, we need to understand what it means for a Jewish state to exist. It simply makes no sense to speak of a Jewish state that does not privilege Jews or Judaism in some way. Even if the form this privilege took were entirely trivial, like the name of the state or the design of the flag, it would still slight and offend those not so privileged. In conception and implementation, a Jewish state embraces inequality and is inherently undemocratic.

But it goes beyond just being undemocratic. Because the Jewish state necessarily privileges Jews as an ethnicity, it is also inherently racist. Zionism arises from the premise that all Jews have common interests, that all non Jews have opposing interests, and that Jews and non Jews cannot join forces to combat anti-Semitism. Furthermore, Zionism assumes that anti-Semitism will inevitably arise wherever Jews live among non Jews and the only practical way to overcome anti-Semitism is for Jews to isolate ourselves from non Jews. In some versions, isolation is the only possible way to avoid it – Moses Hess, for example, writes of the Germans’ ‘inborn racial antagonism to the Jews’ (Rome & Jerusalem, 1862 (

In this respect, Zionism counterposes itself directly to the socialist principle of class solidarity. Specifically, Jewish employees have interests in common with their Jewish employer that they do not have in common with their non Jewish coworkers. It fosters the illusion of alliance between classes whose interests are directly contradictory and the illusion of division between those with common material interests.

Wherever a Jewish state was established it would have to displace somebody. Although primarily a secular ideology, Zionism has always preferred Palestine on the grounds that in Jewish scripture a supernatural being gave the mythical ancestor of the Jews the right to take that land from the indigenous Canaanites by military conquest.

Throughout the early 20th Century, the Zionist movement always aspired to create a Jewish majority in Palestine. Until the Holocaust, Jews fleeing persecution in Europe never considered Palestine a desirable destination. But by 1947, immigration still only brought the Jewish population up to about a third of the 2 million living in Palestine. With immigration failing to create the desired majority, the alterative was ‘transfer’, or ‘ethnic cleansing’ as it known nowadays.

The idea was not new – Herzl mentioned it in his diary in 1895. And there is no doubt that there was an explicit plan. On 10 March 1948, David Ben-Gurion and his closest advisors, ‘the Consultancy’, finalised ‘Plan Dalet’, to rid the country of its indigenous population. Ilan Pappé’s new book, The ethnic cleansing of Palestine, identifies documents that confirm the plan’s existence and implicate those who formulated and carried it out. He also argues that Plan Dalet meets all the criteria attributed to the crime against humanity of ‘ethnic cleansing’, as defined by the UN, the US State Department, and others.

The number of Arabs forced to flee the area that became Israel has always been contentious, but the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) estimates it as about 711,000. Sixty years down the track, some of these people are still alive. Together with their descendants, they now comprise over 4 million refugees, all of whom are entitled to return to the homes they fled if justice is to be served, or even UN resolution 194 complied with.

‘Allowing justice for the Palestinian people’ begins with redressing the grievous injustice of the Nakbah. Nobody knows how many would exercise the right of return, but the returnees would reduce or eliminate the Jewish majority in Israel and just compensation would bankrupt the Jewish state, which is why Israel has always rejected it outright as ‘national suicide’. Antony mentions the Nakbah in passing in his capsule history of Israel (p. 79) and even mentions the right of return in his discussion of Camp David (p. 232), but despite his concern for justice for the Palestinians, drops this central issue there.

Another requirement for justice concerns the so called Israeli Arabs, the Palestinians who remained within the 1948 ceasefire lines and have become Israeli citizens. If nothing else, it is patently unjust to demand that these Muslims, Christians, and Druzes submit to the indignity of living in a Jewish state, especially while some of their relatives have been exiled, sometimes nearly within sight, for six decades, and others suffer under the jackboot of the Israeli military in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

The refugees are not the only Palestinians who have lost their property to Israel. Israeli law classifies many Arabs as ‘present absentees’ and expropriated the ‘abandoned’ property they were forced off. The Israeli state has never recognized Bedouin settlements in the Negev, thereby depriving them of all infrastructure and services, including building permits, rendering all structures illegal and susceptible to demolition, even if they were built long before 1948. Antony also mentions these issues (pp. 96 and 51), but does not pursue them. Those who want a fuller understanding of what the Israeli Palestinians face should read Jonathan Cook’s Blood and religion.

Finally, the occupation of 1967 must come to an end. Antony concurs with the ‘international consensus’ and most of the Palestine solidarity movement that what this means is for Israel to withdraw all its troops and more than 400,000 ‘settlers’ from the territories occupied in June 1967. The Palestinians could then establish their own state in the West Bank and Gaza. This approach rests on the assumption that the occupation of 78% of Palestine in 1948 was ok, but the occupation of the other 22% in 1967 was not. There are a number of reasons the ‘two state solution’ can never deliver justice to the Palestinian people.

The principal reason is that such an arrangement not only leaves the ethnocratic Jewish state intact, but creates yet another sectarian non Jewish state. Furthermore, it does not address the right of return to homes within Israel. Some versions, like the Geneva Accord, explicitly give Israel the right to determine how many and which refugees will be allowed to exercise their right. Nor does the creation of a separate Palestinian state resolve the issues affecting Palestinian citizens of Israel. In fact, it exacerbates them. Once ‘they have a state of their own’, they will be even less welcome in the Jewish state.

Advocates of the two state ‘solution’ often assert that because of Israeli racism and intransigence, the only practical solution is partition. In fact, it is largely because of that very racism and intransigence that partition can never work. Anyone who believes that an independent Palestinian state bordering Israel will be able to develop free of Israeli interference might consider how free of Israeli interference the independent country to the north has been over the last three decades, notwithstanding the UN forces stationed there.

In discussing the wall Israel is constructing, Antony complains, ‘The possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state becomes all but impossible with a security barrier snaking across occupied land’ (p. 95), a sentiment he reiterates twice (pp. 255, 257). In reality, of course, a contiguous Palestinian state has never been possible. It’s as if he had forgotten that some 30km of Israeli territory will separate the northeast corner of the Gaza Strip from the nearest point in the West Bank. In any two state arrangement, an intransigent Israel could cut the vulnerable corridor and isolate the ‘independent’ Palestinians from each other as easily as they have since November 2005, when they specifically undertook not to in the Agreement on Movement and Access (AMA).

Significantly, Antony has reconsidered his position. In a speech he gave on 8 December at NSW Parliament House, he said,

I’m starting to share the view of …advocating the one-state solution, principally because the so-called state that is sometimes dangled in-front of the Palestinians is both questionable and divided. (linked from

My Israel question has sparked some renewed discussion of the Palestine issue in

Australia and helped to distinguish criticism of the grossest excesses of Israeli policy from anti-Semitism. While it doubtless took courage to be the first – at least the first I’m aware of – to write a book critical of Israel from an Australian perspective, it does not break new ground. Its strength lies in the treatment of the Ashrawi affair, the Australian Zionist organizations, and the Australian media treatment of Palestine. Confined to these issues, it would have been a much better book. Although My Israel question is a long book accompanied by 60 pages of footnotes, Antony never achieves sufficient clarity to articulate an actual question.


Cook, Jonathan. 2006. Blood and religion: the unmasking of the Jewish and democratic state. London: Pluto Press.

Finkelstein, Norman G. 2003. Image and reality of the Israel-Palestine conflict. 2nd ed. London: Verso.

Pappé, Ilan. 2004. A history of modern Palestine: one land, two peoples. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

---- 2006. The ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Oxford: Oneworld.

Reinhart, Tanya. 2005. Israel/Palestine – ending the war of 1948. 2nd ed. New York: Seven Stories Press

---- 2006. The road map to nowhere: Israel/Palestine since 2003. London: Verso.

Rose, John. 2004. The myths of Zionism. London: Pluto Press.

Selfa, Lance, ed. 2002. The struggle for Palestine. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

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