Road less travelled

Road less travelled

12 Jan 2009

dennis-altmanProfessor Dennis Altman
e-mail: d.altman@latrobe.edu.au


First published in The Age on 10 January, 2009


No Jew can feel totally detached from the fate of Israel. The current conflict has revealed the ongoing disagreement within Australian Jewry, with strong statements of support for Israel from almost all official community spokesmen, and equally strong condemnation from a small group of equally committed dissidents.

I know from personal experience that it is difficult for Jews not to publicly support Israel. I imagine it is even harder for Arab Australians to seem critical of the Palestinian leadership, even though disunity amongst Palestinians is obviously echoed in Australia. Dissent is particularly difficult when it is assumed that ones ethnicity or religion determines ones politics, and that all Jews and Muslims necessarily take a predetermined position on the conflict.

But support for the rights of Israelis and Palestinians, or the national aspirations of both, does not necessarily mean support for either Hamas or Olmud. On both humanitarian and rational grounds Israels invasion appears to me unacceptable, even if clearly provoked.

The current conflict replays previous Israeli attacks on its neighbours to stamp out terrorist attacks, most recently against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. History suggests that the result of such attacks is a repetition of previous attacks, whereby new groups emerge to launch attacks on Israel, and hostility towards any rapprochement grows on both sides.

The tragic cycle of violence begetting greater violence has been repeated now for the sixty years since Israel was established. Such protracted conflict creates a psychology whereby some on both sides become dependent on the continuation of violence, a theme that has been explored very movingly in recent Israeli films such as Waltzing with Bashir.
    
Belief that conflict is inevitable, and can only be resolved by total victory by one side, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yet those who really care about the survival of Israel should recognize that no country can survive for ever in a state of war with a much larger surrounding population, who enjoy a huge amount of global sympathy. Finding an alternative way of responding to Hamas terrorism is not only a humanitarian necessity, it is also a matter of national survival.

However hard Israeli supporters try to influence public opinion, the images of large scale casualties in Gaza    is steadily increasing international dislike and suspicion of Israel. As emotions rise there are reports of increased attacks on Jewish organizations, schools and synagogues. This in turn fuels Jewish retorts that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism or, in the case of Jewish critics, self-hatred.
 
There can be no tolerance for anti-Semitism, as distinct from criticism of Israel. But growing frustration among Australian Muslims, who see the government and media as uncritically pro-Israel is understandable, and cannot simply be dismissed.

The shriller the voices on both sides, the more difficult it becomes for others to engage in the debate. But there is a legitimate and important argument to be had about Australias position on the conflict. From its enthusiastic support for the creation of the state, Australia has a bipartisan history of support for Israel, which has sometimes seemed to mean unconditional acceptance of any Israeli actions. This position peaked under the previous government which at one stage voted, along with only Israel, the United States and three former U.S. Pacific island territories, to support Israels West Bank barriers, a position reversed by the current government.   

The Prime Minister came back from holidays in part to state Australias position. In calling for an immediate ceasefire Mr. Rudd seemed to be inching further away from the apparent blanket support from previous governments for Israel and the Bush Administration. His words, which were careful and moderate, were not sufficiently so for the Opposition, whose foreign policy spokesperson, Senator Coonan, has criticized his use of the term insurgence to describe Israeli military action as unbalanced.

Some commentators have linked Rudds policies to his goal of winning Australia a seat on the Security Council. Election to the Council, for a two year term commencing in 2013, depends upon winning a majority of all United Nations member states, although we are effectively vying with Finland and Luxemburg for one of the two seats reserved for western nations. Australia was last a member of the Council fourteen years ago, and failed in a more recent bid, perhaps because the newly elected Howard government was perceived as too close to Washington.

But there are reasons beyond this for the government to go further in demonstrating our position on the Middle East conflict is not dependent on American perceptions and policies. How refreshing it would be were Australia not to appear to follow the American or even the European lead, but rather strongly back those countries in the Middle East, such as Turkey and Egyptboth of which have relations with Israelwhich are seeking to find some sort of resolution to the underlying problems.

I don't believe that western governments are engaged in a war against Islam, but given the succession of wars this century, in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Gaza, it is not difficult to understand why this is widely believed in many parts of the world, including significant countries in our region. I have had disturbing conversations with friends in Malaysia who are convinced that the wild rhetoric of an American/Zionist conspiracy is accurate.

For Australia to develop a position on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in consultation with our ASEAN neighbours, especially Indonesia, would be diplomatically challenging, but it would mark a real commitment to working regionally. Rather than standing in the background of the Israeli cheer squad, Australia could bring a strong voice supportive of legitimate Israeli and Palestinian aspirations to regional debate.

It is unrealistic to hope that the local Jewish community would encourage such a shift in position. But at the least one would expect them to accept that support for the existence of Israel does not hinge upon support for all its actions. A true patriot, said the South African Pieter-Dirk Uys, is one who protects his country from its government.

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