Pressure is mounting on the Albanese government to recognise Palestine as a state. Following a resolution moved by Penny Wong, this became ALP party policy in 2021, and it will almost certainly be reaffirmed at this year’s party conference in August. Former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans has written a powerful defence of the policy, which has been assailed, predictably, by the Israel lobby.
Support for Israel comes from the peak bodies of the Australian Jewish community, in particular the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, perhaps the most successful lobby group for a foreign country in our history. It is very active in organising tours of Israel for politicians and journalists, and in winning support from influential non-Jews on both sides of politics. Recently, an explicitly right-wing organisation, the Australian Jewish Association, has emerged with close links to prominent local conservatives. Sadly, these groups have greater influence than such progressive Jewish organisations as Plus61J and the Australian Jewish Democratic Society.
Recognition of Palestine is largely symbolic, but it would imply a major shift in position by a country that has been one of Israel’s staunchest supporters. Other than Sweden, Western countries have followed the lead of the United States in refusing recognition, even though a majority of other countries do so. At the same time, Western countries remain wedded to the idea of a two-state solution, even as support for it declines in Israel.
As Evans points out: ‘No peace negotiation has much prospect of succeeding if the parties at the table are completely mismatched.’ Even if the two-state solution is now dead, peace between Israel and the Occupied Territories requires international recognition that the Palestinian people deserve equal status in any meaningful reconciliation.
Australia’s position vis-à-vis Israel/Palestine has been a running sore on the left of Australian politics for fifty years. For Palestinian and Jewish Australians, the issue is particularly fraught, caught as we are as witnesses to a struggle to which there seems to be no end, and in which we are assumed to have a particular stake.
I have been to Israel once, more than forty years ago. It felt like a foreign country to me, even though, as a Jew, I could claim the right to live there. Many years later, I wrote a piece in which I said I could not bring myself to say ‘Next year in Jerusalem’, part of the traditional Passover seder, when Palestinians who were born there were denied the right to return.
It is impossible to be a Jew and not have feelings about Israel. However often one claims to have no emotional ties to the country, it will be taken for granted that you do. For the mainstream Jewish community, support for Israel is unquestioned, and even mild criticism is treated as disloyalty. Antony Loewenstein has written movingly of the opprobrium that descended on him and his parents after he first started writing about Israel. Too many Jews believe in freedom of speech, except when it comes to talking about Israel.
In the same way, anyone who is Palestinian, Arab, or even Muslim will often be assumed to give unconditional support to the Palestinian cause. Too often this leads to Australian Muslims and Jews regarding each other with suspicion. Yet I have several times enjoyed conversations with Palestinian Australians about our shared Semitic origins and how they set us apart from Anglo Australia.
There is a clear distinction between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel, but in practice the two are blurred, often deliberately, sometimes inadvertently. Both Jews who defend Israel passionately and those who criticise it speak from a shared historical memory, which means that we are always conscious of possible persecution. That one is not always perceived as a Jew makes for a precarity rather akin to being gay. Hannah Arendt drew parallels between anti-Semitism and hatred of homosexuals as far back as 1951. In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, she wrote of ‘the complicated game of exposure and concealment … Only one’s Jewishness (or homosexuality) had opened the doors of the exclusive salons, while at the same time they made one’s position extremely insecure.’
Among non-Jews there are ardent supporters of Israel – some of whom are also anti-Semitic – and there are others, on both the left and right, for whom Palestine is a crucial issue. Among those Australians who care about the issue, views tend to be deeply polarised. As Foreign Minister Penny Wong observed: ‘One of my frustrations and sadnesses is that this issue is so vexed for so many people that we don’t even have a dialogue in Australia between supporters of both halves.’
Wong is positing a balance between two sides, both of which need to compromise, which neither Israel’s supporters nor opponents will concede. Given the balance of power between Israel and the motley governments of Gaza and the West Bank, the suggestion is itself problematic. While both Israel and Palestinian groups use violence, it is Palestinian land that is being taken over by Israeli settlements, and it is Palestinians who are subject to constant surveillance and control. We cannot call for dialogue as though there is no distinction between occupier and occupied. Even defenders of Israel struggle to defend the increasing dispossession of Palestinians from more and more of the West Bank.
But Wong is correct in pointing to the deep polarisation around Israel/Palestine in Australia. Both supporters and opponents of Israel believe that their positions are ignored: Andrew Markus could complain of deeply prejudicial coverage of Israel in the Australian media, while John Lyons has documented the extraordinary pressure on him as a foreign correspondent to support Israel.
While attitudes are changing, the dominant discourse in Australia has been one of deep support for Israel, which is imagined as a fellow democracy struggling in an alien geopolitical environment. Australia played a role in the creation of Israel, thanks to the energies of then Foreign Minister H.V. Evatt, who, as president of the General Assembly, was crucial in winning United Nations support for the establishment of Israel in 1948. Subsequent prime ministers continued that support, with some hesitation from Gough Whitlam and Kevin Rudd. Over the past seventy years, Australia has voted more consistently in support of Israel in the United Nations than almost any country bar the United States, while the Morrison government suggested moving the Australian embassy to Jerusalem, a project of Donald Trump’s that has so far been followed by only three other countries.
For many in Labor there was a deep sense of connection to an Israel which they saw as pioneering new forms of social democracy through the kibbutz, a form of collective living. For conservatives, Israel quickly became seen as an outpost of Western liberalism in an increasingly hostile Middle East, so that Australia was one of the few countries to support Israel when it colluded with Britain and France in the 1956 Suez War. (This was one of the rare occasions where Australia diverged from its reliance on the United States.)
No Australian prime minister was closer to Israel than Bob Hawke. When he first visited Israel in 1971, he seemed to fall in love with the country. He played a role in negotiating with Soviet authorities to allow Jews to emigrate, and he became close to Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. When Whitlam moved towards a more even-handed approach to Israel/Palestine he was bitterly opposed by Hawke.
But as the Israeli Labor Party started to lose support in the 1970s, a more sceptical view developed on the left of the ALP. The Palestinian cause became a major issue within the then Australian Union of Students (AUS), which adopted a series of strongly pro-Palestinian resolutions; these were then repudiated by a vote on member campuses. The first funded research I ever engaged in resulted from my following this debate. Already I was made aware of the complications facing any Jew who is critical of Israel. A decade later, Julia Gillard, then president of AUS, was caught up in similar debates, and supported a two-state solution against those calling for a unified Palestine.
Gareth Evans, who was foreign minister under both Hawke and Paul Keating, was determined to maintain an even-handed approach, recognising that peace depended upon Israel accepting the reality of a Palestinian people and state. Meanwhile, pro-Palestinian voices were becoming more active within the Labor Party. In her 1982 biography of Hawke, Blanche d’Alpuget points to the leading role played by Victorian Socialist Left leader, Bill Hartley. I had my own run-in with Hartley in the late 1980s, when I referred to him on ABC radio as ‘anti-Semitic’; Hartley sued for defamation. He later dropped the case, not before I was assured of considerable legal support through Prime Minister Hawke’s office. (For the record, my comment was based on a discussion with Hartley himself.)
The Howard government was more supportive of successive right-wing Israeli governments, a position which changed when Rudd came to power in 2007. Yet it was under Rudd’s successor, Julia Gillard, that support for Israel led to a major split within the government. After Rudd resigned as foreign minister in 2012, he was replaced by former New South Wales Premier Bob Carr, whose views on Israel had moved from emotional support to a far more critical stance. (Carr describes the evolution of his views in his memoir, Run For Your Life.) After a series of arguments, in which Carr was supported by a majority of his Cabinet colleagues, Gillard agreed to switch a crucial United Nations vote from support for Israel to abstention.
The current ALP party platform calls for the recognition of Palestine, which the Albanese government has declined to do. Recognition would be largely symbolic, but it would represent a break with other Western countries – and align Australia with all our ASEAN neighbours. The Greens have gone further, in apparently rejecting the notion of a two-state solution, which remains the standard Western position, even as it becomes less and less viable.
Supporters of Israel like to point to the alleged double standards of those who constantly condemn Israel while ignoring more egregious abuses in countries such as China, Iran, and North Korea. This misses the point that Israel portrays itself as part of the Western liberal democratic world and therefore has to be judged by those criteria. It is also true that Israel has been an easy target for the United Nations and its agencies, while appalling abuses by other states are ignored.
But this argument also ignores the reality that very different understandings of democracy underpin the national ideologies of Israel and Australia. Since the 1970s, successive Australian governments have stressed that ours is a multicultural society, building on the words of Noel Pearson that Australian identity brings together ‘our ancient heritage, our British inheritance and our multicultural triumph’. Israel, on the other hand, defines itself in ethno-religious terms, as the state of the Jewish people, rather as Iran proclaims itself an Islamic republic.
Yet roughly twenty per cent of Israelis are Arab. It is true that they enjoy better living conditions and more political freedom than their counterparts in surrounding Arab states, but theirs is a limited citizenship in a state which defines itself as ‘Jewish and democratic’. The 2018 nation-state law changed the status of Arabic from an official language to one with ‘special status’, and declared Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people, who had a unique ‘right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel’. Except for one brief period, the parties representing the majority of Israeli Arabs have never served in government.
A Jew can come to Israel and claim citizenship; a Palestinian who has been dispossessed, either by the creation of the Israeli state or by the subsequent occupation of the West Bank, cannot. (Some Palestinians living in East Jerusalem do have citizenship.) This is a fundamentally different assumption about citizenship from that of Australia, which rejects ethnicity or religion as the basis for recognition.
It is hardly surprising that some Indigenous Australians feel a connection with Palestinians, with whom they share a sense of dispossession by more powerful settlers. The short-lived The Sunday Paper (the name reflecting grievances against Schwartz Media) was based explicitly on drawing comparisons between the two experiences. Odder is the argument of Rabbi Ralph Genende, who has written an entire chapter in the book Statements for the Soul claiming parallels between the history of Jewish and Indigenous dispossession without acknowledging the Palestinians. It is true that there is a historical connection between Jews and the land that is now Israel that hardly applies to the British settlement of Australia. But to ignore the equal claims of Palestinians is surely an act of bad faith.
At some level, support for Israel in Australia rests upon an unstated, probably unconscious, desire to justify settler-colonialism. Israel was established at a time when most white Australians were ignorant, either deliberately or unwittingly, of the ways in which Australia had been settled. As greater awareness of the situation of the Palestinians developed, so too did the rhetoric that saw Israel as a unique beacon of democracy in the Middle East, and its defence as central to the Western world.
Despite its flaws, Israel remains a more attractive polity than, say, Saudi Arabia or Iran. The Economist’s democracy index rates it as a flawed democracy, sandwiched between Portugal and the United States at twenty-nine (Australia is ranked fifteen). But this measures Israel proper; were it to include the West Bank, where almost a quarter of the population are now Israeli settlers, the rating would presumably drop dramatically.
While Israel’s reputation has declined, this is hardly reflected in the strength of the pro-Israel lobby. Other than the United States, no other country has such a well-coordinated cheer squad, with a number of full-time lobbyists and considerable largesse in the form of trips to Israel. The imbalance between supporters of Israel and Palestine in powerful positions in Australia is very similar to the imbalance between the two nations themselves.
From its inception Israel has struggled to find a way of being both a Jewish and a democratic state; the lack of a formal constitution is largely due to the inability of Israelis to find an acceptable formula to reconcile these two aspirations. The massive demonstrations against Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to weaken the powers of the Supreme Court have underlined this problem, yet, as Joshua Leifer has pointed out, ‘The protesters, it can seem, want to preserve civil liberties for Jews … while preserving the existing infrastructure of Jewish supremacy.’
At what point does criticism of Israel become anti-Semitism? To its ardent supporters, any criticism of Israel is seen as such, and even many of its critics believe that to challenge the assumption of a ‘Jewish state’ is inherently anti-Semitic. There is particular sensitivity around accusations that the occupation of the West Bank is a form of apartheid, even though that term has been widely used by Israeli critics. But the rapid expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank – with a population now estimated to exceed half a million – makes the prospect of a genuine two-state solution less and less possible. Certainly, the current Israeli government seems totally uninterested, while Palestinian leadership is weak, divided, and corrupt.
At a Passover seder this year, held in the home of a close friend, there was overwhelming sadness at the current state of politics in Israel and the lack of any moves towards rapprochement with Palestinians. In my lifetime I have witnessed what seemed intractable political issues resolved: the Berlin Wall has fallen, and the Soviet Union collapsed; apartheid has ended in South Africa; the once great European colonial empires have dwindled to a few outposts like New Caledonia and the Falklands.
Yet at no point since 1947 has the prospect for a just solution between Israel and Palestine seemed less possible. I suspect that only a major shift on both sides would open the way for some sort of resolution. From the outside, it seems the two peoples remain frozen between despair and denial, without leaders on either side with the moral stature to move forward.
It is here that Australian Jews can play a significant role. While there are a number of small progressive Jewish organisations willing to criticise the Israeli government, the loudest voices come from groups like the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, whose stance is unfailing opposition to any moves that might challenge the current status quo. Those who profess love for Israel have an obligation to call out the basic dilemma: Israel cannot be both Jewish and democratic if it continues to deny equal possibilities for nationhood to Palestinians.
Whether that is any longer possible within the framework of a two-state solution is the essential dilemma. On a recent visit to Australia, former Israeli MP Naomi Chazan asked: ‘What’s the state of Israel geographically today? Is it inside the green line? Beyond the green line? Divorce is not practical any longer. We need to learn to share the land.’
Until that reality is grasped, there is no prospect for an end to the conflict.
This article is one of a series of ABR commentaries on cultural and political subjects being funded by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.
- On the Israel lobby see Bob Carr: ‘The Israel lobby and Labor in Australia’, Mondoweiss, 1 June 2022
- Gareth Evans: ‘The case for recognising Palestine’, The Conversation, 15 June 2023
- Antony Loewenstein in Good Weekend, 13 May 2023
- Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, George Allen 3rd edition 1967: 82]
- Interview with Deborah Stone, Plus6IJ, 22 November 2022
- Andrew Markus: ‘Anti-Semitism and Australian Jewry’ in G.B. Levey and P. Mendes: Jews and Australian Politics, Sussex Academic Press, 2004: 122; John Lyons: Dateline Jerusalem: Journalism’s toughest assignment, Monash University Press, 2021
- See Blanche d’Alpuget: Robert J. Hawke, Mandarin, 1994 chapter 15
- Dennis Altman: ‘A secular democratic Palestine: a new litmus test for the left’, Politics X, November 1975
- Gareth Evans: Incorrigible Optimist, Melbourne University Press, 2017: 180-2
- Bob Carr: Run For Your Life, Melbourne University Press, 2018
- Ralph Genende: ‘Words that emerge from the heart’ in S. Morris and D. Freeman: Statements for the Soul, La Trobe University Press, 2023
- Joshua Leifer: ‘Whose Constitution, Whose Democracy?’ NYRB, 11 May 2023: 23
Dennis Altman is a Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are God Save the Queen (Scribe, 2021) and Death in the Sauna (Clouds of Magellan, 2023).
Article link: https://www.australianbookreview.com.au/abr-online/current-issue/992-august-2023-no-456/10521-dennis-altman-on-the-alp-and-israel
Article source: The Australian Book Review | Dennis Altman | August 2023