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An unhelpful discourse on Israel – Jeff Halper censored

ajnThe following article was written by Israeli/American peace activist Jeff Halper for the Australian Jewish News but the paper refused to run the piece, despite spending weeks attacking Halper and his supporters in its pages. It was published by Antony Loewenstein on his blog on 31 March 2009.

The uproar in the organized Jewish community over the prospect of my speaking in Australia is truly startling to an Israeli like me. Granted, I am very critical of Israel’s policies of Occupation and doubt whether a two-state solution is still possible given the extent of Israel’s settlements, but this hardly warrants the kind of demonization I received in the pages of The AJN. Opinions similar to mine are readily available in the mainstream Israeli media. Indeed, I myself write frequently for the Israeli press and appear regularly on Israeli TV and radio.

Why, then, the hysteria? Why was I banned from Temple Emmanuel in Sydney, a self-proclaimed progressive synagogue? Why did I, an Israeli, have to address the Jewish community from a church? Why was I invited to speak in every university in eastern Australia yet, at Monash University, I was forced to hold a secret meeting with Jewish faculty in a darkened room far from the halls of intellectual discourse? Why, when the “leaders” of the Jewish community were excoriating me and my positions, did the Israelis who attended my talks express such appreciation that “real” Israeli views were finally getting aired in Australia, even if they did not all agree with me? Given the support my right to speak evidenced by most of the letters published in The AJN, this all raises disturbing questions over the right of Australian Jews to hear divergent views on Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians held by Israelis themselves.

It raises an even deeper issue, however. What should be the relationship of Diaspora Jewry to Israel? Whatever threat I represented to the organized Jewish community of Australia had less to do with Israel, I suspect, than with some damage I might to do to the idealized “Leon Uris” image of Israel which you hold onto so dearly. This might seem like a strange thing to say, but I do not believe that you in the Diaspora have internalized the fact that Israel is a foreign country as far from your idealized version as Australia is far from its image as kangaroo-land. Countries change, they evolve. What would Australia’s European founders think – even those who until very recently pursued a “White Australia” policy – if they were to see the multi-cultural country you have become? Well, almost 30% of Israeli citizens are not Jews, we may very well have permanently incorporated another four million Palestinians – the residents of the Occupied Territories – into our country and, to top it off, it’s clear by now that the vast majority of the world’s Jews are not going to emigrate to Israel. Those facts, plus the urgent need of Israel to make peace with its neighbors, mean something. They mean that Israel must change in ways Ben Gurion, Leon Uris and Mark Leibler never envisioned, even if that’s hard for you to accept.

Yet I see this as a positive thing, a sign of a healthy country coming to grips with reality, some of it of its own creation, even if it means that Israel will evolve from a Jewish state into a state of all its citizens – a bi-national or democratic state. Rather than “eliminating” Israel, this challenge is in fact a natural and probably inevitable development. It will not be easy, but if you can become multi-cultural, so can we.

But that’s our problem as Israelis. What’s your problem? Why should discussing such important issues for Israel be the cause of such distress for you? Because, I venture to say, you have a stake in preserving Israel’s idealized image that trumps dealing with the real country. In my view, Israel is being used as the lynchpin of your ethnic identity in Australia; mobilizing around a beleaguered Israel is essential for keeping your kids Jewish. I would go so far as to accuse you of needing an Israel in conflict, which is why you seem so threatened by an Israel at peace, why you deny that peace is even possible, why a peaceful Israel that is neither threatened nor “Jewish” cannot fulfill the role you have cast for it, and thus why you characterize my message as “vile lies.”

This, to be honest, is the threat I represent. Only this can explain why rabbis, community “leaders” and Jewish professors choose to meet me secretly rather than have me, a critical Israel, in their synagogues or classrooms. This is all understandable. You do need a lynchpin if you are to preserve your identity as a prosperous community in a tolerant multi-cultural society. I would just question whether the real country of Israel can fulfill that role, or even if it’s fair to Israel to expect it to.

We are different peoples. Israel can no more define Diaspora Jewish life than you can define Israel. Rather than knee-jerk defense of an imaginary place, you need to develop a respect for Israel and Israeli voices, a respect that will come only when you start regarding Israel as a real country. And you have to get a life of your own. You have to develop alternative Diaspora Jewish cultures and identities. Ironically, after all I have said, the Israeli government will resist that, for it uses you as agents to support its policies, often extreme right-wing and militaristic policies that contradict your very values of cultural pluralism and human rights. Remember: Israel does what it does in your name. Unless you take an independent position, you are complicit.

What befell me in Australia is just a tiny piece of a sad story of mutual exploitation: you using Israel to keep your community together, Israel using you to defend its indefensible policies. Perhaps something good can emerge from all this: robust discussion on the nature of Israeli-Diaspora relations. I’m going home to Jerusalem. You have to let Israel go and get a [Jewish] life.

Jeff Halper is the Director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, a peace and human rights organization dedicated to achieving a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians. He can be reached at <>

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