Loewenstein’s Keynote speech at Queensland History Teacher’s Association on Middle East

Keynote speech at Queensland History Teacher’s Association on Middle East

I spent the week­end in Bris­bane, Queens­land giv­ing the keynote ad­dress at the an­nual Queens­land His­tory Teacher’s As­so­ci­a­tion con­fer­ence. I was ho­n­oured to be asked to de­liver an ad­dress on the Mid­dle East and speak­ing hon­estly about Is­rael/Pales­tine. Over 220 teach­ers came from across Queens­land, young and old, males but mostly fe­males. I was warmly wel­comed. I admit to being pleas­antly sur­prised by the frank hon­esty ex­pressed by count­less teach­ers (though I think I upset the con­ser­v­a­tive politi­cian who opened the event) about how they talk to high school stu­dents re­gard­ing the Mid­dle East, re­main un­afraid to cor­rectly ex­plain the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween apartheid South Africa and today’s Is­rael and dis­cuss the civil dis­obe­di­ence move­ment known as BDS

What en­cour­aged me were the num­ber of teach­ers who knew the re­al­ity of Is­rael’s bru­tal oc­cu­pa­tion of Pales­tine and weren’t shy about say­ing it. Here’s hop­ing for a new gen­er­a­tion who re­main less cowed by the charges of anti-Semi­tism to speak frankly about the Mid­dle East.

Here’s my speech:

Keynote speech at the Queens­land His­tory Teacher’s As­so­ci­a­tion

Bris­bane, 22 June 2013

Thank you for the ho­n­our of keynot­ing this con­fer­ence. Thank you San­dra and Adrian for invit­ing me and or­gan­is­ing my visit. I’m rapt to be here.


Be brave. Don’t be in­tim­i­dated. Stand up to the bul­lies. His­tory is a bat­tle­field but facts are sa­cred.

I’ve been writ­ing about the Mid­dle East for over 10 years. I’ve vis­ited Syria, Egypt, Saudi Ara­bia, Is­rael, Pales­tine and Iran. Every coun­try pre­sented its own chal­lenges. Lan­guage, cul­ture, po­lit­i­cal per­sua­sion, gen­der and re­li­gion. I’m an athe­ist Jew trav­el­ing in a re­gion that many out­siders pre­sume to be un­friendly, even hos­tile. To be sure, I’ve faced threats and chal­lenges but mostly I’ve found warmth. This is not to ig­nore or ro­man­ti­cise the ha­tred, racism and vi­o­lence that’s be­come en­demic across the re­gion, es­pe­cially since 9/11. Much of this in­sta­bil­ity is fu­eled by West­ern med­dling, arm­ing the worst brutes and en­abling the Mubarak’s, Qaddafi’s and Sad­dam’s.

We ig­nore our own com­plic­ity through will­ful ig­no­rance. In 2013 alone, Wash­ing­ton signed arms deals with Is­rael, UAE and Saudi Ara­bia worth $10 bil­lion. The only re­sult of such agree­ments is to allow despotic regimes to op­press their own peo­ple. Who can for­get the empty words of US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama about sup­port­ing the Arab Spring while al­low­ing ally Bahrain to bru­tally sup­press a de­mo­c­ra­tic up­ris­ing? Is­rael, the high­est re­cip­i­ent of US aid an­nu­ally, ironic for a na­tion that claims to be in­de­pen­dent, uses these weapons to oc­cupy, im­prison and tor­ture mil­lions of Pales­tini­ans. How­ever, none of this power trans­lates to global pub­lic opin­ion, to the con­stant frus­tra­tion of Zion­ist of­fi­cials and their craven spokes­peo­ple in the West. A BBC World poll in 2013 once again placed Is­rael as one of the most un­pop­u­lar na­tions on the planet, along­side Iran, Pak­istan and North Korea.

One of the key is­sues when dis­cussing Is­rael/Pales­tine is ac­knowl­edg­ing the re­al­ity of the sit­u­a­tion on the ground in Pales­tine it­self and how his­tory has brought us to this mo­ment. Any­body who spends time in­volved in this en­vi­ron­ment will know how fraught it can be. What re­ally hap­pened in 1948, the year of Is­rael’s birth but also the Pales­tin­ian cat­a­stro­phe, the Nakba? Is­rael, like many other colo­nial-set­tler states, such as New Zealand, Amer­ica and Canada, is yet to fully ac­cept, let alone apol­o­gise, for the eth­nic cleans­ing that took place at its in­cep­tion. The spoils of vic­tory were too sweet, merely a few years after the great­est tragedy to be­fall the Jew­ish peo­ple, the Holo­caust, an event that af­fected vir­tu­ally every Jew on the planet in­clud­ing my fam­ily, most of whom were un­able to leave Ger­many and were mur­dered in the death camps at Auschwitz.

It’s a quirk of his­tory that I re­cently be­came a Ger­man cit­i­zen. Be­cause my grand­par­ents, es­cap­ing Ger­many in 1939 and ar­riv­ing in a cul­tur­ally back­ground Aus­tralia in the same year, were made state­less by the Nazi regime, Ger­many today wants to atone for its geno­ci­dal pe­riod by help­ing Jews who can prove their an­ces­try to once again be­come val­ued mem­bers of Eu­rope. I re­mem­ber re­ceiv­ing my pass­port from the Ger­man con­sulate in Syd­ney a few years ago and being asked by an of­fi­cial how I felt. I told him I was moved, nearly to tears, to think that only a rel­a­tively short time after my peo­ple had been mas­sa­cred in un­prece­dented num­bers I was being wel­comed back into the Ger­man fold. I won­der how my now de­ceased fam­ily mem­bers would feel about this, per­haps un­com­fort­able that any­body could for­give but not for­get the past. For me, it was like the ul­ti­mate vic­tory against Hitler. You tried to kill us all and wipe us from the face of the Earth. Well, we’re still stand­ing. And Ger­man.

But I di­gress. None of this should dis­tract us from the vital task of teach­ing Is­rael/Pales­tine and the Mid­dle East to a new gen­er­a­tion that is more con­nected and in­formed than any be­fore it. But ig­no­rance about the rea­sons for the con­flict are con­stant. A clas­sic study of the trend fea­tures in a book called Bad News from Is­rael by Greg Philo and Mike Berry from the Glas­gow Media Group. The 2004 book out­lined the ways in which the main­stream media dis­torted and often lied and this con­tributed to viewer in­er­tia and frus­tra­tion. The au­thors write:

“The study sug­gests that tele­vi­sion news on the Is­rael/Pales­tin­ian con­flict con­fuses view­ers and sub­stan­tially fea­tures Is­raeli gov­ern­ment views. Is­raelis are quoted and speak in in­ter­views over twice as much as Pales­tini­ans and there are major dif­fer­ences in the lan­guage used to de­scribe the two sides. This op­er­ates in favour of the Is­raelis and in­flu­ences how view­ers un­der­stand the con­flict. The study fo­cused on BBC One and ITV News from the start of the cur­rent Pales­tin­ian in­tifada, the Glas­gow re­searchers ex­am­ined around 200 news pro­grammes and in­ter­viewed and ques­tioned over 800 peo­ple.

“There is a pre­pon­der­ance of of­fi­cial ‘Is­raeli per­spec­tives’, par­tic­u­larly on BBC 1, where Is­raelis were in­ter­viewed or re­ported over twice as much as Pales­tini­ans. On top of this, US politi­cians who sup­port Is­rael were very strongly fea­tured. They ap­peared more than politi­cians from any other coun­try and twice as much as those from Britain.

“TV news says al­most noth­ing about the his­tory or ori­gins of the con­flict. The great ma­jor­ity on view­ers de­pended on this news as their main source of in­for­ma­tion. The gaps in their knowl­edge closely par­al­leled the ‘gaps’ in the news. Most did not know that the Pales­tini­ans had been forced from their homes and land when Is­rael was es­tab­lished in 1948. In 1967 Is­rael oc­cu­pied by force the ter­ri­to­ries to which the Pales­tin­ian refugees had moved. Most view­ers did not know that the Pales­tini­ans sub­se­quently lived under Is­raeli mil­i­tary rule or that the Is­raelis took con­trol of key re­sources such as water, and the dam­age this did to the Pales­tin­ian econ­omy. With­out ex­pla­na­tions being given on the news, there was great con­fu­sion amongst view­ers even about who was ‘oc­cu­py­ing’ the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­to­ries. Some un­der­stood ‘oc­cu­pied’ to mean that some­one was on the land (as in a bath­room being oc­cu­pied) so they thought that the Pales­tini­ans were the oc­cu­piers. Many saw the con­flict as a sort of bor­der dis­pute be­tween two coun­tries fight­ing over land be­tween them. As one viewer put it:

‘The im­pres­sion I got (from news) was that the Pales­tini­ans had lived around about that area and now they were try­ing to come back and get some more some more land for them­selves – I didn’t re­alise they had been dri­ven out of places in wars pre­vi­ously.;”

Hav­ing been a pro­fes­sional jour­nal­ist for over ten years, I reg­u­larly hear about fel­low re­porters and ed­i­tors, in most media or­gan­i­sa­tions, re­luc­tant to crit­i­cise Is­rael with­out equal time given to damn­ing the Pales­tini­ans. This form of self-cen­sor­ship, ar­guably the most per­ni­cious kind, is be­cause of Zion­ist lobby pres­sure and in­grained bias to­wards a sup­pos­edly West­ern na­tion and US ally. Just think how often on the sup­pos­edly left­ist ABC ap­pears Is­raeli gov­ern­ment spokes­peo­ple spout­ing pro­pa­ganda. Isn’t it ridicu­lous that a media group con­stantly in­vites Is­raeli PR hacks when they know they’ll be do lit­tle more than issue talk­ing points? Never un­der-es­ti­mate the fear in­side the es­tab­lish­ment press of the bel­liger­ence of Is­rael ad­vo­cates. Brav­ery amongst jour­nal­ists is a rare com­mod­ity.

The facts are im­por­tant and de­spite ap­pear­ances re­main largely un­con­tested. Is­rael was born in sin with the eth­nic cleans­ing of Pales­tini­ans and the killing of count­less un­armed Arabs. After the 1967 Six Day War, Is­rael al­most im­me­di­ately began oc­cu­py­ing the West Bank and Gaza and mes­sianic Zion­ism was re-born. This oc­cu­pa­tion isn’t on dis­puted land. It’s Pales­tin­ian land. Vir­tu­ally every coun­try in the world, ac­cord­ing to in­nu­mer­able UN votes, agrees with this view. It’s not an ac­ci­dent that the oc­cu­pa­tion has lasted for more than 45 years. It’s a plan, con­stantly evolv­ing with cir­cum­stances, but de­ter­mined to set­tle what was claimed to be empty land. Today there are over 600,000 Jew­ish colonists on oc­cu­pied ter­ri­tory, all of whom are there il­le­gally. This sta­tus-quo is backed by Amer­ica and es­sen­tially en­dorsed by Eu­rope and Aus­tralia. It doesn’t mat­ter if Labor or Lib­eral is in power in Can­berra, this love af­fair with rad­i­cal Zion­ism is bi-par­ti­san.

Teach­ing these facts to stu­dents re­quires ex­plain­ing what oc­cu­pa­tion means. How Is­raeli and Jew­ish sol­diers, often no older than 18 years old, hu­mil­i­ate and beat Pales­tini­ans wait­ing in check­points for hours. Raid homes in the mid­dle of the night and kid­nap chil­dren for in­ter­ro­ga­tion. Use Pales­tin­ian kids as human shields, con­firmed by yet an­other UN re­port this week. De­fend Jew­ish set­tlers when burn­ing Pales­tin­ian fields and de­stroy­ing their crops. This is apartheid in all its grimy ug­li­ness. There’s one mil­i­tary law for Pales­tini­ans in the West Bank and a dif­fer­ent set of rules for Jews. Is­raeli sol­diers are rarely chas­tised for abus­ing Pales­tini­ans. The Is­raeli group Break­ing the Si­lence reg­u­larly pub­lishes tes­ti­monies from cur­rent and for­mer IDF forces de­tail­ing the ways in which as­sault­ing Pales­tini­ans, phys­i­cally and psy­cho­log­i­cally, is vital to sur­vive in the IDF. De­hu­man­is­ing the enemy is the only way most sol­diers are able to jus­tify a never-end­ing oc­cu­pa­tion.

The Is­raeli ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem rou­tinely de­nies the Pales­tin­ian con­nec­tion to the land and de­monises any re­sis­tance as ter­ror­ism. This is partly why racism in­side Is­rael is ram­pant as Pales­tini­ans have been largely seg­re­gated from Is­raeli Jews. This is like apartheid South Africa with the West­ern world’s bless­ing and ac­quiecense. How can you hu­man­ise the other when you never see or speak to them? Pales­tini­ans often tell me that their only con­tact with Is­raelis is see­ing sol­diers oc­cu­py­ing their cities and towns.

Every con­flict has com­pet­ing nar­ra­tives but not all sto­ries are equal. When ex­am­in­ing Nazi Ger­many, it’s es­sen­tial to un­der­stand the ways in which Hitler trans­fixed a na­tion for 12 years. Why were so many Ger­mans able to com­mit such hor­rific crimes? But our focus must be on the vic­tims of these out­rages; Jews, ho­mo­sex­u­als, the peo­ple of Eu­rope, gyp­sies and a range of other peo­ples. Like­wise in Is­rael and Pales­tine, de­con­struct­ing the Is­raeli and Zion­ist ide­ol­ogy is es­sen­tial to see how the eter­nal vic­tim has be­come the proud brute. Many Jews feel, es­pe­cially after the Holo­caust, that Jews will never again be marched like lambs to the slaugh­ter. Is­rael has one of the most pow­er­ful mil­i­taries in the world, nu­clear weapons and end­less back­ing from Wash­ing­ton. And yet de­spite all this, para­noia, often cre­ated to jus­tify vic­tim­hood, is a con­stant theme in this de­bate. What we should be doing far more often is lis­ten­ing to Pales­tini­ans tell their own sto­ries and how a proud peo­ple has suf­fered for the crimes of Nazism.

As a jour­nal­ist and com­men­ta­tor on this issue, as well as being Jew­ish, we need to re­mem­ber that the de­lib­er­ate con­fla­tion of Ju­daism and Zion­ism is a mod­ern in­ven­tion. It is not nat­ural. I am Jew­ish. I am not a Zion­ist. I am anti-Zion­ist. I do not be­lieve that Jews have a right to live in a coun­try where the rights of an­other peo­ple are sub­ju­gated. Jews have the right to safety any­where in the world but not if they colonise land that be­longs to some­body else.

The media, com­men­ta­tors and many al­legedly se­ri­ous peo­ple talk about the two-state so­lu­tion as being the only an­swer to the con­flict. But par­ti­tion will never hap­pen, not least be­cause it’s now prac­ti­cally im­pos­si­ble when suc­ces­sive Is­raeli gov­ern­ments have pledged to ex­pand Jew­ish colonies, mak­ing a Pales­tin­ian state lit­tle more than a pos­si­ble rump. But morally and his­tor­i­cally, a one-state equa­tion is the best way, with all the in­evitable chal­lenges, to allow all peo­ples of all re­li­gions to live and thrive in a mod­ern na­tion state. Na­tion­al­ism and Holo­caust trauma, the for­mer fu­eled by politi­cians and media while the lat­ter is used to in­su­late Is­rael from le­git­i­mate crit­i­cism, has turned Is­rael into a con­sti­pated coun­try, claim­ing to want peace but act­ing in the very op­po­site way.

So where does this leave ed­u­ca­tors? Don’t be afraid of teach­ing stu­dents that colo­nial his­tory is ugly. There are few, if any he­roes. That de­nial­ism is a con­stant, as we still see in Aus­tralia today with the re­fusal by many to ac­knowl­edge that our poli­cies in­fan­tilise and de­monise mi­nori­ties for crude, po­lit­i­cal gain. Re­sist par­ents or prin­ci­pals who de­mand “bal­ance” when dis­cussing the Mid­dle East. Are there two equal sides dur­ing eth­nic cleans­ing? Dur­ing at­tempted geno­cide? Hardly. There are com­pet­ing voices, and they must be heard, but there are rights and wrongs. This isn’t to say that many facts are con­tested and his­tory, usu­ally writ­ten by the vic­tors, is se­lec­tive. For ex­am­ple, we no longer have any ex­cuse to not ac­cess texts trans­lated from Ara­bic. Only teach­ing the main­stream, and there­fore widely ac­cepted nar­ra­tive, is the easy op­tion and should be re­sisted. In my ex­pe­ri­ence, stu­dents rel­ish a world that is be­yond good­ies and bad­dies.

How­ever, far too often, sup­port­ers of Is­rael claim the con­flict is dif­fi­cult to ex­plain and there are no easy so­lu­tions. We shouldn’t shy away from ex­plain­ing what decades of oc­cu­pa­tion does to a coun­try, how it cor­rupts and coarsens hearts and minds. Read dis­si­dent Is­raeli his­to­rian Ilan Pappe to un­der­stand this bet­ter. He’s been forced into exile in Britain due to on­go­ing threats against him and his fam­ily in Is­rael for dar­ing to chal­lenge 1948 myths that re­main po­lit­i­cally use­ful to this day. Here’s Pappe writ­ing this year in The Elec­tronic In­tifada:

“The per­pe­tra­tors of the 1948 eth­nic cleans­ing were the Zion­ist set­tlers who came to Pales­tine, like Pol­ish-born Shi­mon Peres, be­fore the Sec­ond World War. They de­nied the ex­is­tence of the na­tive peo­ple they en­coun­tered, who lived there for hun­dreds of years, if not more. The Zion­ists did not pos­sess the power at the time to set­tle the cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance they ex­pe­ri­enced: their con­vic­tion that the land was peo­ple-less de­spite the pres­ence of so many na­tive peo­ple there.

“They al­most solved the dis­so­nance when they ex­pelled as many Pales­tini­ans as they could in 1948 — and were left with only a small mi­nor­ity of Pales­tini­ans within the Jew­ish state.

“But the Zion­ist greed for ter­ri­tory and ide­o­log­i­cal con­vic­tion that much more of Pales­tine was needed in order to have a vi­able Jew­ish state led to con­stant con­tem­pla­tions and even­tu­ally op­er­a­tions to en­large the state.

“With the cre­ation of “Greater Is­rael” fol­low­ing the con­quest of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, the dis­so­nance re­turned. The so­lu­tion how­ever could not eas­ily be re­solved this time by the force of eth­nic cleans­ing. The num­ber of Pales­tini­ans was larger, their as­sertive­ness and lib­er­a­tion move­ment were force­fully pre­sent on the ground, and even the most cyn­i­cal and tra­di­tion­ally pro-Is­rael ac­tors on the in­ter­na­tional scene rec­og­nized their ex­is­tence.

“The dis­so­nance was re­solved in a dif­fer­ent way. The land with­out peo­ple was any part of the greater Is­rael the state wished to Ju­daize in the pre-1967 bound­aries or annex from the ter­ri­to­ries oc­cu­pied in 1967. The land with peo­ple was in the Gaza Strip and some en­claves in the West Bank as well as in­side Is­rael. The land with­out peo­ple is des­tined to ex­pand in­cre­men­tally in the fu­ture, caus­ing the num­ber of peo­ple to shrink as a di­rect con­se­quence of this en­croach­ment.”

You won’t hear these facts in main­stream text books or the media. They are truths whis­pered by grow­ing num­bers of peo­ple glob­ally, sick of being si­lenced by charges of anti-Semi­tism for dar­ing to raise them. It is why the boy­cott, di­vest­ment and sanc­tions (BDS) move­ment against Is­rael, so ef­fec­tive against apartheid South Africa, is thriv­ing. Ig­nore the al­le­ga­tions by the Mur­doch em­pire and Zion­ist lob­by­ists that BDS is akin to Nazism. When the po­lit­i­cal process fails, cit­i­zens have a moral re­spon­si­bil­ity to non-vi­o­lently re­sist. The his­tory of civil dis­obe­di­ence will one day soon promi­nently fea­ture BDS. Stu­dents will learn that we all have the power to make eth­i­cal de­ci­sions when we wit­ness crimes being com­mit­ted in our name.

Be brave. His­tory isn’t al­ways on the side of jus­tice but we have a chance to cor­rect that in our work and play.



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