Essay

The silence

MANY AUSTRALIAN JEWS take an intense interest in Israel. They find it difficult to ignore the miracle of its creation so soon after the Holocaust, but also impossible to ignore the underside of that miracle: the tragic dispossession of the Palestinian people. They find themselves on the horns of a dilemma made all the more wicked by the gag so many Australian Jews impose on themselves, even when they disagree with the Israeli state's actions and policies.

Despite recent worrying moves by the Israeli state to repress dissent, Jews in Israel who hold pro-Palestinian views are not necessarily seen as traitors to their country. They are not even thought to be very unusual. But for Jews in Australia it's a very different scenario. Publicly admitting to pro-Palestinian views is eerily like coming out about your sexuality: there's a similar set of worries about what your family and friends will think, who will stand by you and who will shun you. And once you are out, do you become an activist for the cause or is simply coming out courage enough? And anyway, why should it be brave for an Australian citizen to criticise the actions of another state?

For Jews of my parents' generation who had survived the Holocaust, Israel was non-negotiable. Its creation, in 1948, was for them a kind of compensation and apology for the horrors and losses they had endured. They saw Israel's existence as virtually guaranteeing an end to anti-Semitism, an end to pogroms and the long and uneasy wanderings of the Jews in many lands. If Israel existed, there was hope. And their own survivor guilt was lessened a little.

That generation supported Israel through everything and with everything it had, moral and monetary. In every Diaspora country there was (and still is) a version of the United Israel Appeal, to which every Jew every year gave a couple of hundred dollars or several thousand, depending on their means. If those Holocaust survivors went to synagogue they prayed for Israel's wellbeing and survival, just as they prayed for the wellbeing of their country of nationality. They sent their children to youth camps that were Israel-focused. Many of those kids spent time in Israel in their teens, usually on a kibbutz (as did many idealistic young non-Jews), and came home fired up by the progress and energy of the new country. They could be unambiguously proud of this democratic state whose people stood tall and kowtowed to no one, a state that won wars against its larger neighbours and made the desert bloom.

It sounded good and it felt good to many thousands of Australian Jews. But from the beginning, there was, I think, some unease below the surface.

The year that Israel was declared a state was also the year my family arrived in Australia. I was five and just wanted to become an Aussie as fast as possible.

I took little interest in Israel as I grew into adolescence. But I did agree with the catchphrase parroted then and now: Israel 'had a right to exist'. Of course it did. And the Jews, being good, moral people who knew too well what it was like to be oppressed, would make a decent accommodation with the few Palestinians who might have lost land. Israel seemed a beautiful idea, and the young bronzed Israelis on their kibbutzim, tilling the soil, no longer victims, were a perfect antidote to a tragic history.

What's more, Israel had from its inception undertaken never to refuse a Jew entry, so even if we Diaspora Jews chose not to live there it was, potentially, a safe place to escape to in case of trouble. Never again would we be trapped with nowhere to go and no one willing to take us.

That's as far as it went for me. I never went to those Zionist youth camps – I was uncomfortable with their pro-Israel zeal. I dimly thought there was something amiss in being loyal to two countries. Australia was now my country and I was interested in no other. I remember my mother telling me that, when she was a teenager in the early 1930s in Hungary, some relatives tried to convert her to Zionism. She was not interested. Hungary was her home, she told them, and she wanted no other. A few years later her fellow Hungarians, in collaboration with Eichmann, killed her husband, father, brother, and would have killed her and her children had she not had the nous to go into hiding. Is it any wonder that people of her generation, once the war was over, turned to Israel as their beacon of hope?

But my case, I thought, was different. We'd come to Australia because it was tolerant, a place where the abuses of Old Europe were simply not possible. We were bemused – and delighted – to find that Protestant Australians seemed to dislike Catholics far more than Jews. And white people's treatment of Aborigines was not even on the agenda. They were a dying race, we were told – and conveniently dying, for the most part, in remote places out of our sight. It was a long time before I saw any parallels between the British coming to take over 'terra nullius' and the Israeli settlers taking over a piece of land with so few Palestinians on it that it did not really count – did it?

In each case, even if there was a white lie about pre-possession, it could be rationalised by a superior claim on the land: farmers versus mere hunter-gatherers, poor subsistence farmers versus sophisticated Europeans with new techniques. Yet it struck me even back then that 'Israel's right to exist' was a curiously defensive phrase. Lurking behind it was an implied question: exist at the expense of whom?

 

WHEN I WENT recently to hear a talk about the Israel-Palestine issue at the University of New South Wales it was the first such event I'd attended. I am in my sixties and for thirty-plus years I've watched with increasing unease, then concern, then horror, then shame as the Jewish state I'd been taught to believe would become a leader among nations became, in the eyes of many, a pariah among nations.

The speaker was Anna Baltzer, an American activist here on a lecture tour. Baltzer is well educated and articulate, and has nice manners and a winning smile. A slim, pretty brunette, she looks younger than thirty-two. She's apple-pie America, with a Jewish twist – and she travels the world putting the case for the Palestinians.

I realised that, although she's much younger than me, Baltzer grew up making much the same assumptions I did. Then, in her early twenties, she did a lot of travelling and made some Palestinian friends. She heard stories of dispossession from their farms and businesses, and removal from their homeland, but she thought these people must be prejudiced or mistaken. It was only when she became closer to a couple of families and became immersed in what had happened to them that she decided to go to the West Bank and Gaza to see for herself.

That was the beginning of a new life and a new mission – to tell the world what she had seen. She knew that a young American Jew lining up behind the Palestinians could make an impact, but she also knew she would render herself persona non grata with the vast majority of her fellow American Jews.

Baltzer did not spend too much time on her personal history because she had so much she wanted to tell us about contemporary Palestine. One of her books, Witness in Palestine: A Jewish American Woman in the Occupied Territories (Paradigm, 2006), is an account of her many visits to Palestinian villages to monitor Israeli soldiers' behaviour at checkpoints, to record violations and to assist Palestinians to negotiate their daily lives in a non-violent way. It's a readable and unpretentious book, yet I find it very hard going – as hard to read as the last book I reported on in these pages, Human Rights Overboard: Seeking Asylum in Australia(Scribe, 2008), produced by the People's Inquiry into Detention. The stories are horribly similar in the inhumanity and ignorance displayed by the powerful towards the powerless. She records, for instance, the words of one young man who spent six months in an Israeli jail for no reason other than that a relative of his was a Palestinian radical: 'There were boys there [in the prison] only fourteen years old. And there was an eighty-year-old man who was very sick in bed crying. I told the guard he was going to need a doctor or he was going to die. The guard answered, "He is dangerous. If he dies, then the people of Israel will be safe."'

Baltzer also cites the so-called Citizenship Law of 2003, which retroactively prevents Palestinians who marry Israelis from receiving Israeli citizenship. 'The law also denies citizenship to children born of an Israeli citizen and residents of the West Bank or Gaza. Via special permission from Israel's Interior Minister, children have been allowed to stay with their family in Israel till the age of twelve, when the child is uprooted and forced to leave the state.'

 

FOR MOST AUSTRALIAN Jews, to do what Anna Baltzer does would be unthinkable. But there is a growing number of alternative voices, and in late 2010 I became one of them. After years of agonised silence and fence-sitting, I decided that enough was enough. For others, Gaza had been the trigger; I avoided reading too much about that. But then in May 2010 Israeli troops raided a civilian flotilla trying to break the blockade on Gaza, causing nine civilian deaths. That was it for me. I decided, together with more than 130 fellow Australian Jews, to run an advertisement in the national press criticising Israel. The ad, published under the auspices of Independent Australian Jewish Voices (IAJV), appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian and the Australian Jewish News.

IAJV, formed in 2007 and modelled on similar organisations in Europe, is a loose-knit association that aims to put forward different views to the prevailing rhetoric. There are a couple of other like-minded groups and a handful of Jewish pro-Palestinian activists – Antony Loewenstein is perhaps the best known – who are often the subject of vilification and the occasional death threat. (The IAJV website receives messages like 'Fuck off you self-hating bastards.') In general, though, Australian Jews line up solidly behind a pro-Israel stance. Or they keep quiet. They maintain what I call the Silence.

Here are some of the common reasons put forward:

To criticise Israel is to give fuel to its neighbours, most of whom have vowed to drive the Israelis into the sea.

We should not criticise our own; there are plenty of others doing it for us.

Israel must do whatever is necessary to defend itself. Its destruction is the great unthinkable; thus, normal moral principles can be modified or suspended.

There are other ways to change the behaviour of the Israeli state than by public criticism or even public debate we must work from within.

Jews criticising other Jews will open the door to increased anti-Semitism.

Diaspora Jews living outside Israel have no right to criticise leave that to people who experience daily life there.

The existence and success of Israel (and this is the huge unspoken assumption behind most of the ideas listed above) somehow makes up for the six million lives lost in the Holocaust and thus deserves the unquestioning support of every decent Jew.

Muddled and tainted as many of these ideas are, they form a powerful barrier against any Australian Jew speaking even mildly against the Israeli state.

And then there is moral blackmail or self-censorship. The moral blackmail is not necessarily spoken but it takes these sorts of forms:

How can you do this (i.e. speak out against Israel) to your own father, who lost his family in Auschwitz?

If you speak out, your brother/mother/cousin will not speak to you again.

How could I face my friend with whom I agree on most things, except he's a committed Zionist and would never forgive me?

Or as one friend said to me, fully aware of the joke, 'I'll sign the ad, as long as you don't tell my cousins!'

Perhaps more than anything, the Silence reflects a painful awareness of the complexity of the situation, the perceived need to be aware of all the 'facts' in this tortured and ever-changing story. On both sides there is a multitude of compulsive fact-followers experts in the art of fact and counter-fact, argument and rebuttal. They can cite the number of 'illegal' settlements by 'rogue' settlers; or, on the other side, the number of 'lethal' rockets raining down on the 'brave' settlers. They believe that an objective case can be made to justify the actions of the Israelis, or the Palestinians, and that case, with all facts marshalled, will in the end win the propaganda war. They ignore the most salient fact of all – that 'facts' can be marshalled to win almost any argument. It happens on both sides every day.

Who to believe? What if you are wrong? Here I must make a confession. I don't know all the facts. I am an amateur in this deadly and important game, and that should be, in the opinion of many, enough to silence me.

But to my mind I know enough of what matters, or what matters to me. I know that the Palestinian minority in Israel does not have full political or human rights. I know that many of them have been dispossessed of their land and livelihoods and have lived in misery for many years. I know that hundreds of Jewish settlements are eating into what is commonly acknowledged to be Palestinian land. And that the wall that is still under construction is an abomination that divides Palestinians from their farms and schools, and makes everyday life passing through checkpoints and long detours difficult and dangerous and humiliating. And then there is Gaza, where the Palestinian population has been forced to live without building supplies and basic necessities in a kind of open-air prison. I know that there are many breaches of humanitarian law and of humanitarian standards in all the situations I have mentioned. And I know that since the 1967 military occupation of Palestine, which continues to this day, the moral credibility of the Israeli state has steadily eroded.

I know enough to conclude that the Israeli state oppresses Palestinians, both its own minority and those in the occupied territories, in significant and unacceptable ways. There are, unhappily, many countries that persecute their minorities, some in ways far more horrendous than anything done by Israel. But I do not speak out against most of them; if I do anything at all I concentrate on human rights abuses in my own country, towards refugees and indigenous Australians. Why not leave Israel and its problems alone?

Anyone born in another country will know that a residual interest in the country of your birth can last a lifetime and take generations to eradicate completely. You can feel completely Australian yet have an attachment to another nation with which you have emotional and cultural ties. Life is complicated – it's no big deal.

That's the kind of thinking I have used for a long time. How else to describe myself, accurately, except as a Jewish-Hungarian Australian? But there's the rub. The Jewish part is a complex package – not exactly religion or race, but a historical and cultural mix that because of the twentieth century's nasty trajectory has a strong pull. It's a pull that makes enthusiastically Australian Jews – and their counterparts in countries across the world – nonetheless feel strong ties with Israel.

 

HOWARD JACOBSON, WINNER of the 2010 Booker Prize for The Finkler Question, is a funny man and an excoriating writer. The question in the title stands in for the Jewish Question, on which the novel is a mordant if relentless riff. Jacobson dares to go where few others would, making deadly serious fun of Jews and Jewishness, anti-Semitism, Israel, terrorism, the Holocaust – you name it.

He is especially funny on organisations such as IAJV. He invents an English outfit called ASHamed Jews (and plays with the connotations of 'ash'). ASHamed Jews becomes the platform for his anti-hero, Finkler, to vent his rage at Israel. The joke, as Jacobson sees it, is English Jews having the gall to be ashamed of Israel and Israeli Jews.

I laughed with Jacobson, but I had a problem, too. There is a kind of intellectual evasion, a category mistake even, for the sake of the satire. He makes no distinction between the Israeli state and those who live in it. Yet to criticise a state apparatus, its policies and bureaucracies, is a vastly different thing to criticising individuals for being Jewish. Diaspora Jews like me speak out against the current political and military powers in Israel, but we do not feel shame or dislike of the country because of them. We are not self-haters, but nor are we willing to keep quiet because the state happens to be run by Jews.

Still, the 'shame' some Jews feel about Israel is a peculiar beast, and needs some unpicking. It originates, I think, in the notion of the purifying, even educative, effects of suffering. Jews have gone through much: they have been persecuted big-time and for a long time. That should give them moral insights not granted others, and a moral superiority which would ensure that they do not visit on others what they have had visited on them. Or so the theory goes. And when it turns out that the emperor has no clothes, that Jews are no more insightful or compassionate en masse or as a nation than any other people, the disillusionment and shame is correspondingly intense.

At the other end of the spectrum are those Jews who simply cannot acknowledge that Israel is a state like any other. It is a special case, the land promised by God to them. Israel can do no real wrong – it's all lies and distortions by its enemies. Thus their continued blindness in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary.

 

THOSE AUSTRALIAN JEWS whose unease about Israel's actions has been mounting in recent years could start by re-examining their fear that in criticising Israel they will be abetting anti-Semitism. I believe the opposite is the case. Non-Jews often stifle disapproval of Israel's misdemeanours for fear of being labelled anti-Semites. So when Jews speak out, as we did in the national press, there is relief, and permission given. Many responses to the advertisement came from non-Jews, asking if they could sign up.

For me, there can only be one answer to the dilemma, although to my shame I have taken half a lifetime to come to the realisation that if I see any state apparatus – run by Australians or Ugandans or Israelis – oppressing its minority and breaching humanitarian standards, I should speak out and defend that minority. If that state is important to me, even if it is not my own country, there is all the more reason to try to persuade it back to the paths of righteousness, so that one day I may again be proud of my association with it.

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