By Antony Loewenstein
Antony Loewenstein. In Israel, he writes, “Our redemption and return as a people became another’s people’s catastrophe.” Credit:Wolter Peeters
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For 20 years, I’ve been called a Nazi collaborator. Traitor. Self-hating Jew. Terror supporter. Anti-Semite. “I would rather shake Hitler’s hand than yours.” Propagandist. Arab lover.
It’s strange how familiar I’ve become with all these expressions of hatred from people I’ve neither met, nor spoken to; and yet I understand why – the stakes over Israel and Palestine couldn’t be higher, nothing less than a matter of life and death for both.
The vicious comments started appearing as soon as I published my first major article in The Sydney Morning Herald. It was 2003, and I argued that many of the Israeli government’s actions paralleled apartheid-like policies, that its treatment of Palestinians centred around a racist ideology. I was far from the first Jew to write such things in a mainstream news outlet, but the response was explosive. I had touched a nerve that has followed me ever since.
At this point, in my late 20s, I’d never actually been to Israel or Palestine – that was all to change soon – but something in my reading and gut told me that what my fellow Jews were doing in the Middle East was wrong; that the control and occupation of millions of Palestinian lives at the barrel of a gun was a stain on the Jewish people.
Much of the criticism I was to receive in subsequent years revolved around this central question: how could I, as a Jew, who had lost members of his family to the gas chambers of the Holocaust, not automatically side with a Jewish nation that had been born from this monstrous crime?
The answer was – and is – far from simple. Like all Jews, I carry the knowledge of anti-Semitism and its murderous consequences. I carry the fact that, ever since Israel’s birth in May 1948, sections of the Muslim and Arab world have called for the country’s annihilation.
To be Jewish is to be aware of – and constantly fearful of – the harm that can befall one just for being Jewish. I am not immune to this. I grew up on stories of victimhood – tales of exile, wandering, exclusion, pogrom, annihilation – and, finally, redemption and return when the Jews came to form their own state after the end of World War II. (This followed the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine, which recommended the creation of independent Arab and Jewish states.)
This was Zionism’s ultimate fulfilment; after centuries of persecution, the Jewish people’s right to a homeland in Palestine, its ancient Biblical land, had been realised. We had returned to Zion, the “kingdom of heaven”, and Judaism had come to equal Zionism. To not believe in Israel was to somehow forfeit one’s name as a good Jew. Where else – after the horrors of history – could Jews feel truly safe?
My father, Jeffrey Loewenstein, was born in Melbourne on March 3, 1943, just as his maternal grandparents were being murdered in Auschwitz, the Nazi regime’s most notorious death camp.
Loewenstein’s grandparents Fred and Irma in Dresden in 1938, just before Nazis attacked Jewish targets in the eastern German city during Kristallnacht.Credit:Courtesy of Antony Loewenstein
Like millions of other Jews throughout Europe during the 1930s, my family had clung to the belief that Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933 would be a brief aberration. How could a country that had given the world Bach, Beethoven, Goethe and Einstein be in the hands of an Austrian thug and his gang of criminals?
My dad’s paternal family were from Dresden, the famed city of baroque and rococo architecture on the banks of the Elbe river that was almost completely destroyed by Allied firebombing in 1945 after most of the city’s Jewish population had been deported, murdered or both. Seven years earlier, in September 1938, my grandparents, Fred and Irma, had married in a Dresden synagogue in what was to be its last such celebration before Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass”, when, over two days and nights in November, the Nazis unleashed a wave of violence against the Jewish population.
The mass murder of Jews followed as part of an eradication program that would seek to rid Nazi-controlled Europe entirely of its Jewish population. Anti-Semitism was reaching its apotheosis, even though on my father’s maternal side, the virus of Jewish hatred had already caused great upheaval, forcing my family to move from Poland to Germany in 1915.
On my mother’s side, the pressures were no less calamitous. My mother, Violet Prince, had deep family ties to Austria, Hitler’s birthplace, which the Nazis annexed in 1938, precipitating a cultural, social and economic boycott of Jewish businesses and, eventually, the mass migration of more than 110,000 Jews. The majority of Jews who remained in 1942 were killed.
This is in my DNA, part of my history. As many as six members of my family perished at the hands of the Nazis, but both my maternal and paternal grandparents managed to find refuge in Australia in 1939. They were among the lucky ones because, only a year earlier, T.W. White, Australia’s minister for trade and customs, had told an intergovernmental conference on Jewish refugees in France why “undue privilege” wouldn’t be given to Jews (and non-British subjects) who wanted admission into Australia, despite the perils they faced: “As we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one,” he said. Australia did raise its Jewish intake after Kristallnacht, though far from enough to satisfy the need of escaping Jews.
Loewenstein at his bar mitzvah with his parents in Melbourne in 1987.Credit:Courtesy of Antony Loewenstein
In 2005, I visited Israel and Palestine for the first time and began to see what the occupation of a subjugated people looked like: Israeli soldiers screaming orders at Palestinians at militarised checkpoints. Women and children forced to queue for hours under a scorching sun. Summary arrests. Homes demolished by Israeli bulldozers. Every aspect of daily life restricted and monitored by the state; and, of course, the relentless building of illegal Jewish settlements on land that – according to international law – was earmarked for a Palestinian state.
Such is the intractable and complex nature of this conflict, however, that the paragraph above this is enough to cause conniptions among many Jews. For them, there are no “illegal Jewish settlements” and there is no “occupation” because the land belongs to the Jews, and it belongs to the Jews because it was granted to us by no less a power than God himself.
To be Jewish is to argue. It is to debate in ways that bring us closer to the “truth”. What did God mean? Are these actions or thoughts right? Are they just or fair? To debate is to be part of a rich and proud Jewish tradition of verbal contest, and yet when it comes to the Palestinian people, much of the Jewish community has no desire to question Israeli actions, even though most have not visited the West Bank – where the majority of Palestinians under occupation reside – nor chosen to break bread with a Palestinian.
I can understand, from my own family history, why. Our suffering as a people had been too great for far too long and it is now our turn to know peace and security. Never mind that Israel has never known this “peace and security” and never mind that this collective mindset prevents us from seeing the suffering of another people.
The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 was the result of a spectacular collision of competing historical forces – Zionism versus Arab nationalism. The Jews, who had survived the most murderous regime in modern history, had founded a state of their own; while the local Palestinian population – after rejecting the legal and moral basis for a Jewish homeland on what they regarded as Arab land – was to be rendered stateless.
To debate is to be part of a rich and proud Jewish tradition of verbal contest, and yet when it comes to the Palestinian people, much of the Jewish community has no desire to question Israeli actions.
Growing up as a Jew, I never learnt what the establishment of Israel in 1948 meant for the estimated 750,000 Palestinians expelled or forced to flee. Many Palestinians left with nothing more than a key to their home, a potent symbol that still exists today of their desire to return. Entire Arab villages were conquered, in some cases razed to the ground.
In his acclaimed 2006 book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Israeli historian Ilan Pappé uttered the unutterable when he wrote about the massacre of Palestinian civilians in villages such as Tantura. “What took place [on May 22, 1948],” he wrote, “[…] was the systematic execution of able-bodied young men by Jewish soldiers and intelligence officers.” Pappé noted that between 1947 and 1949, more than 400 Palestinian villages were destroyed and civilians killed or forcibly removed. This is the attempted obliteration of a people and culture that we Jews find almost impossible to discuss.
In 1967, Israel’s size more than tripled following the Six-Day War when, over the course of six lightning days, the young country seized the West Bank (of the Jordan River), including East Jerusalem, from Jordan; the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt; and the Golan Heights from Syria. For Jewish people the world over, this was a moment to savour. Israel had become a regional superpower. It had also become an occupying power, one that immediately concerned Israeli politicians such as then education minister Zalman Aranne.
“I do not for one minute accept the idea that the world outside will look at the fact we’re taking everything for ourselves and say ‘Bon appétit’,” he said, in postwar 1967 cabinet minutes released 50 years later. “After all, in another year or half a year the world will wake up; there’s a world out there and it will ask questions.”
Palestinians driven from their homes by Israeli forces and fleeing via the sea at Acre, 1948. Credit:Getty Images
For the Palestinians, the 1967 war added hundreds of thousands more refugees to those already displaced. They were scattered to all corners of the Arab world and beyond, but many Jews had little or no sympathy. The Palestinian plight was blamed on belligerent Arab leaders and the Arab world’s refusal to accept the creation of a Jewish homeland in its midst.
And so, in turn, many Jewish hearts became closed. Closed to the fact that for the next 56 years – up until today – nearly every aspect of daily life for Palestinians in the West Bank, now numbering 3 million, would be dictated by Israel; and, similarly, in Gaza where Palestinians, now at 2 million, would be confined to what is regularly described as the world’s largest open-air prison.
In other words, our redemption and return as a people became another’s people’s catastrophe, which is why the Palestinians have always called the creation of the Jewish state the Nakba – the Catastrophe.
In 2006, my first book, My Israel Question, was published. My main argument – then and today – was that Israel was brutally occupying the Palestinian people and that this occupation was buttressed by an unquestioning Jewish diaspora.
Its publication proved a life-changing event that drew battle lines that exist to this day. Shortly after its release, my parents received emails from four different Jewish couples, most of whom they’d known for more than 20 years. They’d shared Passover meals, enjoyed holidays together and watched each other’s children grow up. The wording of the emails was suspiciously similar and the message abundantly clear: none of them now wished to associate with my parents because of their views on Israel and support for my work; support which had only come after years of often fierce debate. The more my parents had come to understand, the more their views had shifted – from an uncritical pro-Israel position to one where it was possible to both support Israel’s right to exist and the rights of Palestinians. They were not mutually exclusive.
The author and Ali, at right, with his mother and father in Jerusalem in 2016.Credit:Courtesy of Antony Loewenstein
These former family friends – lawyers, accountants and businessmen, all solid members of the Jewish community – tried to pressure others to similarly cut ties with my parents. Soon afterwards, another Jewish couple whom my parents had known for decades ditched them without explanation.
My mother – a gentle and warm-hearted person who rarely raised her voice and cared deeply about helping the less fortunate – was incredulous. She couldn’t fathom how friends could behave this way, particularly those with whom she’d shared so many of life’s precious moments. That was in 2006. In 2016, she became seriously ill and in November of that year, she died. There was not one message of condolence from these former friends, not one gesture of sympathy nor remembrance. “They were never true friends,” my father says now, reflecting on this dark period of our lives.
Soon after my book was released, the Israel lobby sought – unsuccessfully – to have my publisher, Melbourne University Press, pulp it. I was condemned by one Jewish reviewer as a “militant, anti-Zionist dissenter”. At the same time, I received praise from a number of Jews and members of the public telling me that My Israel Question had given them the confidence to express their own disquiet with Israeli behaviour. The book found a broad audience, and an international one.
That was before receiving another message expressing the hope that my parents and I would be at the front of the line being marched into the gas chambers.
Nonetheless, the denunciations levelled at my parents and me hurt. One family friend called my father a Nazi for daring to criticise Israel. I was verbally abused at the wedding of a cousin. My then partner and I were both warned by email that we would be shot. That was before receiving another message expressing the hope that my parents and I would be at the front of the line being marched into the gas chambers.
Perhaps the most revealing interaction occurred the year after publication, when I was invited to the home of a leading member of the Jewish community to discuss Israel and my book with a group of self-described “left-leaning” Jews. My parents joined me for what soon turned into a concerted attack. I was accused of defaming Jews and wanting to see Israel destroyed.
Shortly afterwards, this same person told my parents that it was no longer in their interests to support me, strongly hinting that my father, a barrister, would soon stop receiving briefs from Jewish solicitors.
So much for the love of debate.
In 2016, my non-Jewish partner Ali Martin secured a senior job with Oxfam in East Jerusalem. I was initially reluctant to live in an area that had consumed so much of my professional life, but soon decided that it would be a unique opportunity to regroup after being based for a year together in war-torn South Sudan. Ali’s commitment to human rights was one of the main reasons I had fallen in love with her.
The author and Ali.Credit:Courtesy of Antony Loewenstein
We moved to the Palestinian neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, two kilometres north of the ancient walled city of Jerusalem. It was – then and now – a place suffused with tension. Jewish settlers seized property from Palestinians with impunity, claiming ownership of their homes. Israeli police harassed the non-Jewish population. The ultra-religious Haredi Jews lived nearby in insular communities that bore all the hallmarks of a 19th-century Eastern European ghetto, including strict adherence to Jewish prayer, modest clothing for women and long, black coats and hats for the men.
This was a period when my opposition to Israeli policies began to further harden. I could see what the occupation was doing and how it was becoming an immutable fact of life, and this drew me closer to my Palestinian friends rather than to the extremist Jews who wanted to expel them.
Today, the situation is far worse. In December last year, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, returned to power at the head of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. Not only had Netanyahu himself been indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, some members of his cabinet were convicted felons, including Itamar Ben-Gvir, an extremist settler found guilty in 2007 by a Jerusalem District Court of inciting racism and supporting a terrorist organisation.
Ben-Gvir is now Israel’s national security minister, in charge of the country’s police force.
Graffiti in the Gaza Strip. Credit:Courtesy of Antony Loewenstein
Racism in Israel has begun to soar to new heights. In March this year, Israel’s far-right Minister of Finance, Bezalel Smotrich, called for the Palestinian village of Huwara “to be wiped out” in the wake of a Palestinian gunman’s killing of two Jewish settlers. Shortly after the killing, Huwara was subjected to one of the worst cases of mass Israeli settler violence in years when hundreds of Jews attacked the town, setting fire to Palestinian homes, torching cars and terrorising the local population. One Palestinian was killed and dozens more wounded while the Israeli army looked on. (Smotrich later called his remarks a “slip of the tongue in a storm of emotions”.)
As a Jew, I see it as my duty to speak out against actions like these. Yes, anti-Semitism is a real and growing threat, but combating it requires an understanding of how unqualified Jewish support for Israeli behaviour sometimes contributes to it.
A key theme in my new book, The Palestine Laboratory, is how the Jewish state has spent decades developing the tools and technologies to oppress the Palestinians, and how it now exports these tools to well over 100 countries, including dictatorships such as Myanmar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The conflict in the Middle East is not a contest between two equal sides and that is not just my view. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, leading Israeli human rights groups such as B’Tselem and Palestinian civil society have all released reports in the last few years accusing Israel of committing the crime of apartheid and crimes against humanity.
This is not the Israel I care to support, and it’s not the Israel that an increasing number of Jews – both inside and outside the country – feel willing to defend. To me, that is a rare sign of hope, as is the generational shift in thinking amongst Democrats and young Jews in the US. A Gallup poll this year found for the first time that US Democrats sympathise more now with Palestinians than Israeli Jews. Within the American Jewish community, there’s a civil war-of-words over attitudes towards Israel. Barely a day passes without a synagogue finally allowing anti-Zionist views to be heard or Jewish youth groups insisting to their elders that Palestinian voices be listened to and respected.
In Australia, the Jewish establishment remains resolutely Zionist, but cracks are beginning to appear. I’ve heard from a variety of Jewish contacts that many young Jews are voting for the Greens, undeterred by the party’s well-known opposition to Israeli occupation, while at the same time Palestinians are forcefully challenging the Jewish community to view them as equals.
At the recent Adelaide Writers’ Week, director Louise Adler invited at least half a dozen Palestinians to appear, despite outrage from sections of the Jewish establishment and the media. Incensed by inflammatory comments on social media by a Palestinian writer, they demanded more Jewish and Israeli perspectives. Adler – the daughter of “devout secular” immigrant Jews, steeped in Jewish culture herself – refused to back down, despite the withdrawal of some sponsors, and as a result, many Australians heard, perhaps for the first time, the unfiltered voices of Palestinians.
The author with Ali in Bethlehem in 2018.Credit:Courtesy of Antony Loewenstein
My wish is to follow in the grand tradition of a hybrid, cosmopolitan Jewish identity. When I became a German citizen in 2011 – thanks to the German Basic Law restoring citizenship to descendants of those who’d had theirs removed by the Nazis – I cried as the consular official handed me my new passport. It felt like a final victory against Hitler, a victory against hate.
Even the rabbi who prepared me for my bar mitzvah – and has known my family for decades – has publicly decried his “eternal embarrassment” at being my Jewish teacher.
Daring to speak out against Israel’s behaviour towards the Palestinians brings with it an endless amount of personal attack. Even the rabbi who prepared me for my bar mitzvah – and has known my family for decades – has publicly decried his “eternal embarrassment” at being my Jewish teacher.
Today, I have two young boys with Ali and we’re intent on raising them with some knowledge of Jewish traditions and history. But it won’t be the fairy-tale version of Israel that I was fed, because that’s a version that seeks to erase the trauma and history of an entire Palestinian nation.
Writing this story has forced me to again consider the emotional cost of opposing Israeli actions. I’m not asking for sympathy; rather, for a better understanding from my fellow Jews that to criticise Israel is not to render oneself a lesser Jew or a traitorous Jew. It is to stand up for what is most noble in the Jewish traditions of enlightened, liberal humanism.
Antony Loewenstein’s The Palestine Laboratory: How Israel Exports The Technology Of Occupation Around The World (Scribe, $35) is out May 30.
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