Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution. Green Left Weekly’s Simon Butler asked Loewenstein about recent attempts to intimidate supporters of the boycott, sanctions and divestment (BDS) campaign against Israel.
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Nineteen activists in Melbourne were arrested at a BDS protest in July outside a Max Brenner store and four of those 19 were later arrested again in dawn raids. Are there any comparable cases in other countries where there have been arrests of BDS activists, or is this particular to Australia?
This is pretty rare. I wouldn’t be confident to say there have been no other arrests of BDS supporters anywhere in the world. But what I can say is that many of the BDS leaders and activists in Palestine itself are pretty shocked.
They have released statements about the behaviour of the Victorian government and, indeed, many Australian political leaders and trade union leaders, such as [the Australian Workers’ Union’s (AWU)] Paul Howes, on this issue.
One of the things I find most disturbing is that these heavy-handed tactics by the police essentially tries to put very clear boundaries around acceptable debate on this question. Only certain frames of questioning are acceptable. Only certain arguments are okay.
One of the things that is very worrying is that Israel’s behaviour itself is becoming even more egregious, more brutal and more criminal — through the occupation and through legislation that makes supporting BDS illegal.
I have Israeli Jewish colleagues that have to now watch their language. They have to be careful what they write, what they tweet and what they say because there is now the serious possibility of being prosecuted by groups that claim a good friend’s tweet is affecting Israeli businesses in the West Bank.
The law says clearly that for the Knesset (Israeli parliament) in 2011, there is no difference between the occupied territories and Israel proper — they are one and the same thing.
So as all this is happening in Israel and Palestine, you have this situation in Australia where we are constantly being told that Israel is a robust democracy and there is a peace process and what the BDS protesters are doing here is reminiscent of 1930s Germany, where, of course, Jewish people — including some of my own family — were targetted and firebombed.
I find this — and I say this as someone who is Jewish — unbelievably disgraceful and offensive that the public is being sold this line by people like Paul Howes, Warren Mundine and Jana Wendt, and the Labor and Liberal parties.
In fact, there is really nobody who is a public figure in this country that is coming out and saying that if you choose to claim that what is happening in Sydney or Melbourne with protests outside a chocolate shop is reminiscent of Nazi crimes in Europe in the 1930s you are cheapening anti-semitism to the point of irrelevance.
In Nazi Germany there was real anti-semitism and that’s undeniable. Here, it’s the opposite.
And secondly, it is very disturbing for me how the mainstream Jewish establishment is more than happy to not just support that line, but to in fact encourage it by saying it themselves, with consultation with the Israeli government, which has been acknowledged in the Israeli press.
So there is an attempt to criminalise debate and set boundaries around that debate. And I think it should be fought in the strongest possible way.
One of the criticisms made against the BDS protests is about Max Brenner. Critics say why pick on Max Brenner, it’s just a chocolate shop and has nothing to do with apartheid. So is Max Brenner a legitimate target for the BDS campaign?
Absolutely, yes. It’s a very legitimate target.
I don’t think Max Brenner is the only legitimate target in the country. But it is very clear — it has been very widely documented — that Max Brenner publicly and privately fully supports elements in the Israeli Defence Force, some of which have been accused of very serious war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza, including during Operation Cast Lead in 2008/09.
It seems very legitimate to say that as consumers in a democratic society, we have a choice on how we spend our money, and ask do we want to spend money in a shop that actively supports elements of a criminal army of a strong ally of Australia? My view is that we should certainly say that.
Of course, there are other examples: cosmetic products by Ahava among others. And there have been protests against them in Australia, in London and in other places around the world.
In April, there was an Ahava shop in London that was shut down because of intense public pressure and protest.
Now the argument against that campaign in London was similar to what you see here: Max Brenner has a right to operate, Max Brenner has a legitimate business, it hasn’t committed any crimes here in Australia and so why do activists have the right to protest a shop that is simply doing its business?
I can’t speak for the activists who were protesting, but my view is that as we saw on numerous occasions during apartheid South Africa, where companies complicit in that occupation (which is what it really was in many ways) were targeted, certain companies complicit in Israel’s occupation are legitimate targets [for BDS].
I completely oppose any use of violence against any shops, but a civil, non-violent protest against a company that proudly supports an army with serious human rights and war crime allegations against them make it an unbelievably legitimate target.
The attempt to try to make Max Brenner the victim here, which is what many are trying to do, is a dishonest attempt to ignore the direct complicity of this company.
There is an attempt here to say that, somehow, activists are behaving badly by not regularly speaking in the terms accepted and dictated by the Zionist lobby or the Labor party or parts of the union movement, such as the AWU, and we should reject that completely.
An example: there has been consistent pressure from the AWU, elements of the Labor party and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), to censor, challenge or at least stop the [ACTU’s humanitarian aid agency] APHEDA from being “pro-Palestinian”.
It fits into the same mould as what is happening here against BDS. It’s almost as though they are saying: “We, the powers that be, have decided how this debate works and you guys in APHEDA or BDS activists in Melbourne or Sydney, how dare you claim to have a different narrative.”
And that’s a move based on fear, not strength. Fear that if anyone spent anytime looking at the poll numbers of how people in virtually every Western country viewed Israel’s policies towards Palestine, the numbers are pretty dismal for Israel.
There needs, therefore, to be civil disobedience — which is what BDS clearly is — to highlight that point, over and over again.
Max Brenner should not be the only company targeted, not at all. But it is a legitimate target.
Victorian government minister Michael O’Brien has called for the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission to investigate five groups, including Green Left Weekly, alleging these groups are anti-Semitic and have broken industrial laws banning secondary boycotts. Coalition senator Ron Boswell has since repeated the allegation in parliament. How do you interpret the move to pursue these groups, most of which were not part of the recent Max Brenner protests?
I think it is clearly a heating-up of pressure. It’s an attempt to bully organisations such as Green Left Weekly, Australians for Palestine and others. Many, as you rightly say, had nothing to do with the Max Brenner protests.
Australians for Palestine support BDS, but they weren’t at the protest. They weren’t there: it’s really quite simple.
The idea is that if you target certain activist groups or certain left-wing unions or whatever, other people will see it and they will pull their heads in.
My hope is that it will have the opposite effect. The reality is that the Victorian government and elements of the political establishment are debasing the concept of anti-Semitism in an attempt to silence political discussion they don’t like or find challenging.
The comments from the Victorian government make it very clear: the real issue here is that they are trying to stop, in their view, living neo-Nazis running around Melbourne. That is essentially what they are saying.
And apart from the fact that its incredibly defamatory, I think there is a real question to be asked of elements of the political mainstream — Labor and Liberal, and for that matter the Jewish community — for allowing, encouraging and supporting individuals in government positions to cheapen the memory of the Holocaust.
I agree that we should never forget the Holocaust. But you don’t remember the Holocaust and the callous killing of Jews and gays and so many others in that horrible event by claiming that any legitimate discussion against Israeli crimes is tantamount to Nazi Germany.
It really does concern me that there has been absolute silence on this question. It ties in with how the Zionist lobby releases, as it does every year, reports of when anti-Semitic attacks or comments are made in Australia.
Some of [the cases reported] are undoubtedly anti-Semitic, such as someone daubing a synagogue. But so much of what is claimed to be anti-Semitism — and you see this in the US and Britain as well — is blatantly the opposite. It’s an attempt to frame criticism of Israel as illegitimate political speech to the point where, in some countries, there is a desire to criminalise it.