The fractured triangle: Australian Jews, Israel and the Left
By Philip MENDES
14 May 2008
Historically, Jews were regarded as a “people of the Left”. This reflected the Left’s support for Jewish political rights including the establishment of the State of Israel. However, in more recent decades, Jews and the Left have appeared to sit on opposite sides of the fence concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Put simply, most Jews today appear to solidly support Israel, and most of the Left - particularly the ideological Left - has shifted to a pro-Palestinian position.
In reality, the relationship is far more complex. Both the Jewish community and the Left hold a diversity of views on the Middle East ranging from moderate to extremist positions. There is actually considerable common ground between many Jews and much of the Left in support of a two-state position.
To be sure, Australian Jews provide overwhelming support for the State of Israel. Identification with Israel plays a key role in Australian Jewish life and identity. Yet Australian Jews do not necessarily hold hawkish or hardline opinions. A recent study by Victoria University academic Danny Ben-Moshe found that while most young Jews have a strong commitment to Israel their support is not unconditional and many are critical of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians.
The study’s findings seem to confirm the old adage that every two Jews hold three different opinions. Some Jews support the parties on the Israeli right, such as Likud, which favour a Greater Israel based on permanent annexation of most of the West Bank. Some Jews support left-wing parties, such as Meretz, which recommend the dismantling of most of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank in return for peace.
The neo-conservative Australia Israel Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) aggressively attacks any criticisms of Israeli policies in the public sphere, but conversely the left-wing Australian Jewish Democratic Society (AJDS) vigorously advocates an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
Most Australian Jews probably concur with the position of the elected leadership bodies - the Executive Council of the Australian Jewry and the state and territory Jewish Community Councils - in favour of the two-state solution endorsed by the current centrist Israeli government. Some Jews support this proposed solution on an informed and principled basis. Others are more ambivalent, and would be reluctant to concede that any two-state solution would require Israel to cede most of the territory of the West Bank including the dismantling of most of the existing Jewish settlements.
The political Left is also divided on Israel/Palestine. One perspective - that held by the Australian Labor Party (ALP) leadership, a significant number of ALP MPs from all factions, and some social democratic intellectuals and trade union leaders - is balanced in terms of supporting moderates and condemning extremists and violence on both sides.
A second perspective - that held by the Australian Greens, some of the ALP and trade union Left, Christian aid organisations, and probably a majority of Left intellectuals - supports a two-state solution in principle, but in practice holds Israel principally or even solely responsible for the continuing violence and terror in the Middle East.
This perspective holds that if only Israel ends the occupation and withdraws from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israeli-Palestinian peace and reconciliation will be the inevitable outcome. In general, adherents of this view at least recognise that not all Israelis are the same, and understand the difference between particular Israeli government policies and the Israeli people per se.
A third perspective - held mainly, but no longer exclusively, by the far Left sects - regards Israel as a racist and colonialist state which has no right to exist. This perspective reflects what may be called a position of anti-Zionist fundamentalism that is akin to religious fanaticism. Adherents hold to a viewpoint opposing Israel’s existence specifically and Jewish national rights more broadly which is beyond rational debate, and unconnected to contemporary or historical reality.
The above analysis would suggest that most groups on the Left - as reflected in the first two perspectives - and many Jews would be able to identify significant common ground in favour of a two-state solution. Yet in reality the public engagement between Jews and the Left over Israel often appears to be characterised by intense conflict rather than dialogue. It seems to resemble a football match in which everyone has to take sides and wear their colours. The respective cheersquads - hardliners in the Jewish community and the anti-Zionist fundamentalists on the Left - lead the loud cheers of the masses. And the moderates in the Jewish community and the Left too often fall in behind their aggressive leaders, or else lapse into silence.
A good example of this polarisation was the recent debate over the Australian Parliament’s motion celebrating and commending the achievements of the State of Israel over 60 years. The motion recognised the democratic tradition shared by Australia and Israel as reflected in a common commitment to civil and human rights and cultural diversity, and pledged Australia’s friendship, commitment and enduring support to the people of Israel.
But contrary to the arguments of some critics, the motion was not a one-sided statement of support for Israel and neglect of the Palestinians. It also called, on three separate occasions, for the establishment of an independent, viable and sustainable Palestinian state alongside Israel. This two-state position received the support of virtually all ALP MPs except for long-time anti-Israel campaigner Julia Irwin.
Yet the attack from the anti-Zionist fundamentalists came quickly and aggressively. A group of Palestinian Australian organisations organised a full-page advertisement in The Australian newspaper on March 12, 2008 condemning the Australian Parliamentary motion, and describing Israel’s existence as a “triumph of racism and ethnic cleansing”.
They argued that the “Israeli people and its leaders” were responsible for the dispossession and ongoing suffering of the Palestinians. They also used inflammatory language alleging that Israel had “poisoned our (the West’s) relations with the whole of the Arab and Muslim world
This language implied that Israel was somehow responsible for both September 11 and the Bali bombings. Overall, the advertisement was not a critique of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, but rather a rejection of Israel’s establishment in 1948. It implied that Palestinians could only acquire justice via the destruction of the state of Israel, rather than the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
The advertisement was also signed by a number of other left-wing groups and individuals including approximately 30 Jews mainly associated with Antony Loewenstein’s Independent Australian Jewish Voices group; a number of socialist, peace, refugee action and women’s groups; and a handful of unions including most notably the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU). The left-wing AJDS dissociated themselves from the advertisement, citing its extreme and one-sided language.
Representatives of the CFMEU later argued that criticisms of Israeli government policies did not make them anti-Israel just as criticisms of the policies of George Bush did not make them anti-American. But this qualification seemed to miss the point that left-wing critics of Bush were generally not calling for the dissolution of the US state.
In contrast, the ACTU formally rejected the advertisement, noting their support for Israel’s right to exist and a Palestinian State alongside Israel. In addition, Paul Howes from the Australian Workers Union blasted the advertisement, and affirmed his union’s solidarity with the democratic institutions and free trade unions of Israel.
A further article by ex-ABC journalist Peter Manning - one of the signatories to the earlier advertisement - in The Sydney Morning Herald on April 29, 2008, presented similar hardline arguments. Manning argued, without even a hint of subtlety, that the Palestinian refugee tragedy or Nakba had “poisoned Western-Islamic relations around the world”. He also claimed, citing far Left Israeli academic Ilan Pappe, that Israel had utilised the famous Plan Dalet to ethnically cleanse the Palestinians in 1948, but failed to acknowledge that the interpretation of these events was the source of enormous contention amongst serious historians.
In contrast to Pappe, the Israeli historian Benny Morris - who provided the first book length study of the causes of the Palestinian refugee problem back in 1987 - argues that it is simplistic to blame the Israelis in isolation for the creation of the Palestinian refugee tragedy without reference to the broader political and military context.
According to Morris, the exile of the Palestinians occurred during a brutal war in which the Palestinian leaders and the Arab states openly threatened to destroy the newly founded State of Israel and massacre its population. This was a zero-sum conflict which the Israelis won and the Palestinians lost.
Plan Dalet was not an Israeli master plan to expel the Arab population, but rather a series of military measures to defend the borders against invading Arab armies. It is also easy to forget that this war took place only three years after the Holocaust, and almost 6,000 Israelis - that is nearly 1 per cent of the entire Jewish population of Israel - died in the conflict.
A relatively more moderate contribution was provided by Arab community activist Joe Wakim in Adelaide's Advertiser of March 14. Wakin urged Prime Minister Rudd to also acknowledge the dispossession and suffering of the Palestinians. While Wakim’s arguments were heavily biased towards the Palestinians, he still called for acceptance of Israel’s existence, and mutual recognition of each other’s narratives. These were sentiments that many Jews would have endorsed.
The arguments of the ACTU, Joe Wakim and others on the moderate Left suggest a positive way forward for Jews and the Left to find common ground. Many can agree that a two-state solution based on Israel and Palestine as neighbours rather than Palestine instead of Israel is the desired solution. Perhaps they can now join together in common activities to identify practical political strategies that help make this solution a reality.
Dr Philip Mendes
is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Social Work at Monash University, and the author most recently of Australia's Welfare Wars Revisited, UNSW Press, published in early 2008.