You are here

Working with the Jewish community on justice for Palestine

I’m here today to define the boundaries and fringes of democracy in Israel and the Australian Jewish community.

Over the course of my short life I’ve moved across the political spectrum, from the far-right fringe where I was included in the democratic process, to the BDS-supporting left where I am largely excluded. So who’s allowed in and who’s kept out? Where are the boundaries? Let’s look at the case study of right-wing outcast Baruch Goldstein:

In Ramadan 1994 Baruch Goldstein entered the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, West Bank. Armed with an automatic Galil rifle, Goldstein opened up on the crowd of worshippers, massacring 29 Palestinians and injuring 125 more. Eventually a Palestinian knocked him out cold with a fire extinguisher and he was beaten to death.

It's important to emphasise that the overwhelming majority of Israelis firmly condemned the massacre. The prime minister of Israel at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, addressed Goldstein posthumously “You are not part of the community of Israel... you are not part of the national democratic camp... Sensible Judaism spits you out... You are a shame on Zionism and an embarrassment to Judaism.”

But some of Hebron’s settlers still celebrate Goldstein as a martyr, and they dance and sing at his grave every anniversary of the massacre. Those who support Goldstein sit on the fringes of Israeli society and of the Jewish community, but, despite all this, there is still a place for them in the democratic process. In fact, the Israeli government still bends over backwards to represent and defend the settlers in Hebron.

For example, a settler and a Palestinian living side by side are under two different sets of laws: the settler lives under domestic Israeli laws, and the Palestinian under military law. So if an Israeli settler gets violent with a Palestinian local, he is granted almost complete impunity under Israeli domestic law. But if a Palestinian is violent with a settler, even in self-defence, the soldier may use almost whatever means he deems necessary against the Palestinian enemy under the full protection of Israeli military law.

The message is clear: settlers who support Goldstein’s massacre are worthy of Israel’s protection and of Israel’s democracy; West Bank’s Palestinians are not.

As a kid, I was exposed to those who supported settler violence. My teachers introduced the name ‘Baruch Goldstein’ to me in this way. They said “Baruch Goldstein was a man who the Palestinians beat to death for being a Jew.” At the time I was horrified by the Palestinians. How could anyone commit a crime like this?

These sorts of reductionist arguments followed me everywhere I went as I grew up. I’d been taught that the BDS movement did not listen to facts; that the best the Jewish community could do was to either not engage with them, or to make a joke out of them. So four years ago I showed up to a BDS protest wearing a Batman mask and putting on a Batman voice. I somehow scored a Triple J interview at the protest where I talked – in-character, of course – about Batman’s hidden love for Max Brenner chocolate.

In other words, the stance of the Jewish community’s leadership and of Israel’s government, is that BDS activists, even if they are Jewish, are to be laughed at and excluded; but settlers who support blatant massacre are to be taken seriously and represented. I know because I was part of this process.

But I found that the moment I began to engage with ideas like BDS that I wasn’t supposed to engage with I had unknowingly embarked on a long journey of lost debates, dizzying epiphanies, and knowledge of bombing after bombing in Gaza.

But it’s been a slow journey. I previously interned at the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies. Those I grew up with weren’t kind to me when they heard of the internship. Among them the Jewish Board of Deputies had a reputation for being relatively soft on terrorism and loose on principles.

On my first day interning I walked in to the lobby’s office, starry-eyed and keen, wearing the baggy suit from my high school formal. They sat me down and explained that the bulk of the job in the Jewish Lobby is to defend the Israeli government. So I asked “what if we disagree with Israel?”

They replied that “If we, as the Board of Deputies, disagree we don’t really say it in public. We feel that Israel gets enough criticism.” In other words the policy is that Israel can only be right, and – when it is at its worst – it is still not wrong. Of course, this extends to Israel’s protection and democratic representation of violent settlers.

On the other hand, Israel and the staunchly Zionist leaders of Australia’s Jewish community work to actively shut out Jewish BDS activists and many other types of Jews.

For example, BDS activists Peter Slezak and Vivienne Porszolt keep a funny, yearly tradition. Every year they apply to speak at the Jewish festival of ideas, Limmud Oz and every year they are rejected. Their main goal is to remind the festival-goers that the organizers are not interested in representing all Jewish opinions.

It's quite ironic given the way that most Australian organizations consider themselves perfect democracies, and describing themselves as some combination of the word salad "the representative-elect peak roof-body of [place XYZ]'s Jewish community."

In 2013 the then-president of the Jewish Communal Appeal, Peter Phillipsohn, admitted quite openly that “The Limmud board has agreed to work with the leadership of our community to develop guidelines that preclude these people,” meaning Peter and Vivienne, “from being given a voice in our community.”

Of course, Israel is no different in the way it excludes BDS activists from democracy. Just this week Rabbi Alyssa Wise from Jewish Voices for Peace flew to Israel to speak at an interfaith event. Israeli customs denied her entry because she supports BDS. The Jewish State and the greatest democracy in the Middle East stops dissenting Jewish voices at its gates.

Because dissenting Jews are kept outside of the community it makes them hard to find, but I have recently found that they exist in much greater numbers than I had thought. I tend to meet them far away from Jewish community events. Two years ago I chatted up a stranger on the bus who later turned out to be Peter Slezak, and this year I stumbled on a snap protest against Bibi’s arrival in Sydney as I was walking home. I met Vivienne among the protesters.

Vivienne, myself, and others began a group called the Sydney Left Jewish Collective, and I wanted to expand our membership. So I began putting my thoughts down on Facebook, writing a combo of short tweet-sized statuses and 1,000 word essays, hoping to reach new Jewish Leftists hiding in places far-away from the community centres.

I was also quite angry at the way that our leaders in the Jewish community want to erase dissenting Jewish voices rather than listen to us. I was tired of being kept away from the microphone, so I took to Facebook statuses because the online world is one giant open mic. Young people trust mainstream media less and less, they’re now getting their news from social media.

And it shows that the younger generation of Jews are fed up with the conservative Zionist leadership. According to the 2016 census, about one in four Aussie Jews don’t identify as Jewish anymore. There are about 6,000 less Jews on the census in 2016 than there was in 2011. Support for Israel is also dropping among Jewish American students, falling by twenty-seven percent in the last seven years. But Australia’s leadership doesn’t accurately represent these changes. They want to pretend everything is as it always has been. This makes my job a lot easier.

So I found that there were more dissenting Jews than I expected, and I met many face-to-face whose dissent was for all sorts of reasons rather than just anti-Zionism. I met a religious Jew from Campbelltown who was shut out of the Eastern-Suburbs-based community because of the housing crisis. I’ve also met a Jew from an Arab country who was racially profiled by the community and kept away from synagogues. These stories are common, but they don’t reach the sheltered inner layers of the community.

So I reached many political outsiders through Facebook, including Senator Lee Rhiannon, who met with me over tea. Lee told me that her father’s mother was Jewish, but that she doesn’t call herself Jewish and reminded me that neither would Jewish law.

She then recalled how a leader of the Israel Lobby once accused her of antisemitism for being silent and therefore ashamed of her Judaism, despite that she doesn’t identify as Jewish.
But if Lee did identify as Jewish, she’d face similar criticism to what I have faced as a proud Jew from my own community. Some Zionists call me the BDS movement’s ‘Uncle Tom,’ or a ‘self-hating Jew,’ or a ‘Nazi Jew’ or the resident ‘token Jew.’

So, put simply, they just don’t want to hear dissenting voices, especially dissenting voices for Palestine. And they will do anything they can to erase dissenting Jewish voices.

My involvement in BDS has gotten me more anti-Semitic slurs from Zionists than it has from anti-Zionists. And make no mistake: Nazi Jew is an anti-Semitic slur. It doesn’t attack my ideas, it attacks my identity and my heritage in the most insensitive way because of the way I express my Judaism.

Jewish Australian’s identity is fading under our community’s leadership. Jews who are different are excluded. Regressive Zionist politics labels any dissent as antisemitic. They are fighting to stay on the wrong side of history. It’s time they remember who’s worth representing and who isn’t.

No democracy can perfectly represent every person, but if violent settlers who celebrate massacre have a place on the inside of Israel's and the Jewish community's democratic process then surely there must be a place for BDS, a peaceful movement to exercise the human right to boycott.

It’s time they remember that a democratic Australian community must extend to more Aussie Jews.

It’s time they understood that the Jewish State does not even represent all Jews, let alone Palestinians. It’s time that our representatives began to support a better democracy.

The video can be found here. All the other presentations are worth watching.

Presentation at the 2017 Australian national BDS conference at Sydney University.