Australian Jews and the Middle East; the suppressed debate @auth = By Angela Matheson


Australian Jews and the Middle East; the suppressed debate By Angela Matheson

Clive Kessler is a Sydney Jew whose grizzled beard and crumpled woollen jacket identify him as a comfortable academic. But as he slumps into an armchair littered with books, he describes his life being threatened several times this year and how he risks confrontation with angry colleagues each time he leaves his office.

It is not anti-Semites who target Kessler, but fellow Jews angered by his political stand. Born of an eminent Jewish family and currently professor of sociology at the University of New South Wales, Kessler is a significant figure the Jewish establishment wishes it could ignore. In a community where dissent from the official Israeli line is considered traitorous, Kessler's outspoken criticism of Israeli policies and his support for the PLO has led to his unofficial excommunication.

News that Kessler had received numerous death threats over the phone hardly concerned community leaders. Mark Leibler, president of the Zionist Federation of Australia and a member of the executive of the World Zionist Organisation, is quick to emphasise his key role as representative of the Jewish community. "Death threats of any kind are outrageous and inexcusable, but perhaps Kessler should remember there are holocaust survivors in Australia who cannot cope with members of its own community supporting people who cheered on the Scuds in Israel", he said.

Leibler believes Kessler may be exaggerating. "Death threats make good press", he said.

More upsetting to Kessler than the death threats is the broader attitude of the Jewish community toward him. "The vast majority of the community and in particular the establishment consider me a moral non-person", he said. "I'm not to be spoken to, the issues I bring up are not to be debated, and I'm to be treated as if I don't come from the same religious and cultural community."

Kessler is one of a significant number of Jews who have been cast to the margins of the Jewish community. His participation in a recent debate at the University of NSW sponsored by the Palestine Supporters Association, at which he expressed support for a two-state solution within Israel is typical of the activism which has made Kessler notorious within the Jewish community.

Yet the Jewish mainstream claims pluralism is encouraged.

Jeremy Jones, Sydney director of the influential Australia/Israel Review, says, "We are not a monolithic community. A broad range of topics are debated." Leibler

agrees: "Argument is encouraged so long as contested issues lie within an acceptable range of debate."

But both believe the views of particular groups are "extreme and unacceptable".

The "acceptable range of debate" called for by Leibler and Jones does not appear to extend very far beyond a right-wing Israeli line. Support for the PLO or a two-state solution are considered against Jewish interests.

Says Jones, "In the light of the PLO's support for Saddam Hussein, its history of terrorism and its failure to change its covenant calling for the destruction of Israel, despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, one can only regard the point of view of Kessler and others like him as un-Jewish".

Leibler agrees. "Our federation tries to focus on the essentials which bind the Jewish community. There's an overwhelming consensus that a Palestinian state is totally opposed to Israel's security interests and that the PLO is not a fit organisation to be involved with in dialogue. Those who argue otherwise would be met with near universal condemnation from the Jewish community."

The intimidating prospect of being labelled "un-Jewish" and ostracised from the cultural, political and religious network to which they belong is too much for most Jews.

Dissenting groups do not doubt that most Jews agree with the establishment line. But they object to the assumption that the majority view is the only credible one.

Leah Loeve is a 63-year-old Egyptian Jew who has been activist for most of her adult life. She is a founding member of the Sydney-based human rights group, Jewish Women for an Independent Palestine (JWIP) and is scathing in her assessment of the Australian Jewish establishment. "Tell me why they think they have the right to label some Jewish views credible and others not", she said. "We are Jewish women. Our opinions are as valid as any other."

Loeve argues that it is easier to hold dissident views within Israel than in Australia. "Issues across the political spectrum are discussed in Israel but here, anyone who isn't right wing is labelled marginal and unreliable and, sometimes, a fanatic."

JWIP formed soon after the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, in part to counter what it believes to be a skewed presentation of Jewish opinion by the media. In particular, they felt the need to draw attention to Israel's increased human rights violations in the occupied territories.

"Because so much attention was focussed upon the threat posed to Israel by Iraq, the Palestinian problem was ignored", said Loeve. "It was not possible to stay silent and be complicit knowing the Palestinians were restricted to their homes, on risk of being shot, and were having their crops pulled out."

JWIP supports the PLO and a two-state solution, and hopes to enter into debate with the Jewish community over these issues.

Left-wing women's groups receive the harshest criticism. Another group, Women in Black, is a movement of Jewish, Palestinian and other concerned women. Their dramatic protests send shockwaves throughout the Jewish community. Clad in black, members sit in silent vigils in public places to mourn the plight of Palestinians in Israel. Groups have recently formed in Australia, with the Sydney group holding its first vigil earlier this year in Martin Place in the city centre.

The funereal symbolism of the demonstrations enrages the Jewish mainstream.

"Women in Black are beyond the pale", said Leibler. "They are anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist organisations. They are regarded as such by the Jewish community and that's exactly what they are. They mean nothing."

Even moderate Jews are fiercely opposed to Women in Black. Susan Bures, editor of the widely read national newspaper Jewish News, is respected by members of the Jewish community across the political spectrum. Members of the community claim she is the "sweet voice of reason". She describes herself as being in "the centre of the Jewish web".

"It is not possible to tolerate Women in Black", said Bures. "They are negative people who see only the bad in everything. They do not represent the Jewish view."

In reality, Women in Black has a substantial international Jewish following in Israel, the US and Europe.

In a climate where the Jewish mainstream is vehemently opposed to negotiations with the PLO, the Sydney group recently invited the Australian PLO representative, Ali Kazak, to address them. Kazak warmly welcomed the initiative: "Women in Black are one of the few groups around with Jewish members brave enough to publicly acknowledge the human rights abuses committed upon our people. With people like this, Palestinians can work for real dialogue and change."

Women in Black's marginal status in Australia is a symptom of a peculiarly conservative Jewish community.

Issues which are the subject of open and fierce debate in Israel are taboo here.

A case in point is the controversial debate carried out in the Financial Review and Jewish News late last year in which Kessler and Jewish colleague Ephraim Nimni argued that the PLO's pragmatism and willingness to compromise were in sharp contrast to the "extremist intransigence" of the Israeli government. Kessler and Nimni called for an Israeli peace initiative and argued that the Palestinians were being "forced into the hands of the Iraqi dictator".

Although this view is common within the Israeli peace movement, Kessler and Nimni's story caused a furore. Letters poured into the Financial Review in protest, and Jeremy Jones ran a story in the Jewish News comparing Nimni and Kessler's view to that of "any Kurd who supported Saddam Hussein's use of mustard gas".

Jewish consensus demands that the community stand publicly united. Leibler argues, "You can imagine what can happen when a Jew openly criticises Israel — the enemies who would like to destroy us can latch on quickly and use it to our disadvantage".

Not so, insist the left, who argue that strength comes from publicly airing differences. "The cost to the community if it cuts off honest debate is enormous", says Alf Leibhold, chairman of the Sydney Jewish Left. "It inhibits awareness and development of issues of central political importance."

Says Kessler, "The risk of not exploring the basis of a peaceful conciliation with Palestinians and other Arabs is dismaying and indefensible. What we lose is the meaning of Zionism, which is based on the belief in the entitlement of people to a state and to self-determination. How can we refuse to debate the issue of a Palestinian state when the issue of statehood is central to our own philosophy?"

Behind closed doors, however, some less outspoken members of Jewish society appear disquieted. "Of course many of us are unhappy with the way Israel is treating the Palestinians", says Susan Bures. She is uncomfortable with her admission and at a loss to explain why the Jewish News has not carried an editorial on the Palestinian issue for some time.

Bures believes that many of her friends and colleagues who publicly agree with the Zionist Federation's support for settlement in the West Bank and opposition to a Palestinian state are deeply troubled in private. Of the people she has surveyed, many think settlement is "like a slap in the face with a wet fish" for the Palestinians. "How can they take the Israeli offer for

negotiations seriously when we're cramming as many people onto their land as can fit? But these Jews feel they must not publicly dissent. It's seen as disloyalty."

Israel continues building settlements in the occupied territories, where Palestinians are forced off the land of their birthright to make room for Russian immigrants. This systematic human rights abuse, along with many others condemned by the United Nations, is glossed over by the Jewish establishment.

Leibler is adamant that the initiative for peace must lie not with Israel but with the Palestinians, who, he argues, can not be negotiated with until they abandon their chosen representative — the PLO — and organise an alternative representative acceptable to the Israeli government. "This window of opportunity is not yet closed if the Palestinians' are willing to meet the challenge", he said.

Such views anger Barbara Bloch, a quietly spoken coordinator for TAFE and former member of London Women in Black. Her concern at the absence of debate in Australia led her to convene Sydney's Women in Black. She believes the Australian Jewish establishment, in line with Israel's ruling party, the Likud, has deliberately misconstrued PLO support of Iraq as a convenient excuse to continue resettlement programs and avoid entering negotiations.

"Using this excuse is a con. Whatever our view on the rights and wrongs of the PLO's stand over the Gulf War, the Israeli occupation of Palestine is still an occupation", she said.

Kessler argues that the Jewish community will atrophy unless it concedes Palestinian statehood. "To continue to deny the Palestinians' statehood while asserting one's own is moral autism." he said. The only way to make peace, he argues, is to make peace with the enemy.