Review: Antony Loewensteinon John Lyons

Who Deserves To Be Boycotted?

Within days of Russia invading Ukraine in late February, the calls to boycott, sanction and divest from Vladimir Putin’s state were deafening. British, Conversative politician and Director of the Number 10 Policy Unit, Andrew Griffith, demanded in the Financial Times that the West, ‘starve Putin of the resources he craves.’ He went on to argue that, ‘no reputable firm or diligent investor wants to do business, even at the furthest remove, with a regime with blood on its hands.’ Although Griffith mentioned Russian oligarchs, the UK has long been a safe refuge for fabulously wealthy Russians.

A new BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement was surging. Warner Bros and Disney halted release of their new films in Russia. The European Space Agency announced that it was unlikely to partner with Moscow in its mission to Mars. Australian winemakers said that eight million dollars of their wines would no longer be shipped to Russia. BWS and Dan Murphy’s pulled Russian vodka and other products from their shelves after a request from the local Ukrainian community.

There have been substantial attempts to isolate Russian banks from the international banking system. Militarily, Europe and NATO are massively increasing their defence budgets, sending arms to Ukraine and enriching defence contractors globally, including in Israel. Millions of Ukrainians have already escaped the devastating conflict by fleeing into bordering countries.

The global action against Russia and the speed with which it happened is unprecedented. Much of the world expressed outrage against Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and acted swiftly to target Putin, his inner circle and the Russian people. It’s the latter group who will mostly suffer from economic collapse. Although these voices are virtually absent in the Western media, it may be fanciful to imagine that punishing the Russian population for the actions of their President will lead to the disintegration of his mafia state. Huge numbers of Russians have departed the country in a hurry to escape Putin’s draconian crackdown and the financial meltdown.

Largely forgotten is the reason that Putin rose to power in the late 1990s. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the economic destruction of the country, assisted by Western elites, gave a strongman like Putin the power and rhetorical backing to assume the leadership.

This tidal wave of anger and frustration directed at Putin’s Russia is both warranted and deeply hypocritical. BDS was used successfully to bring down apartheid in South Africa and is now most commonly associated with the Palestinian-led movement, launched in 2005, to end Israel’s more than half-a-century occupation and discrimination.

Although Israel’s economy is thriving, a host of musicians, artists and academics have registered their opposition to Israel’s occupation and refused to appear there. It’s not a boycott against Jews, as critics routinely allege, but a legitimate tactic with a long history. On its own, BDS doesn’t end abusive practices but it operates in concert with a range of other policies.

In recent times, Chinese firms have been sanctioned for complicity in the oppression of the Uighurs and the Biden administration blacklisted Israeli cyber firm NSO Group for colluding with regimes that hack dissidents and journalists across the globe.

A number of activists have recently noted the myriad ways in which international outrage against Russia quickly translated into economic warfare against that state, whereas BDS against Israel is often associated with controversy, backlash and accusations of anti-Semitism. At least 35 US states have passed anti-BDS legislation including Arkansas, Florida, Illinois and California.

Nonetheless, the current wave of BDS against Russia is far less targeted than BDS against Israel because attempts to destroy the Russian economy are absolute. If similar tactics were used in Israel, freezing bank assets to decimate the Israeli shekel, it would push the most marginalised, the Palestinians, into even greater stress. Palestinians are watching the global tide against Russia with incredulity and envy.

In the wake of punishment against Russia, Sydney-based writer and poet Sara Saleh tweeted: ‘It’s truly staggering how every single barrier to boycotts and divestments and sanctions and welcoming refugees and resolutions and ICC [International Criminal Court] prosecutions has suddenly disappeared because the powers that be willed it so’.

When Rupert Murdoch’s Australian newspaper wholeheartedly backs sanctions against Russia but baulks at similar treatment to Israel, the moral disconnect is clear. Russia is now an Official Enemy while Israel is a friend. Different rules apply. Some occupations are more unjust than others.

How Australia and much of the West discusses and reports on Israel/Palestine, compared to other conflicts, goes to the heart of Western chauvinism. Whose interests are prioritised and which people demonised? Who is granted legitimacy and who deemed terrorists? What we consume on TV, online, print and radio about the Middle East is directly influenced by the key players in the region and their proxies around the world. Some journalists on the ground in Israel and Palestine (or Syria, Iraq and other war zones) have good intentions, but the information they collect, process and edit is often filtered through a jaded or cynical set of eyes when it is transmitted back to audiences in their home countries. Indeed, self-censorship is common.

This is ‘the story of how the Israeli-Palestinian issue is the single issue which the media will not cover with the rigour with which it covers every other issue,’ writes former Middle East correspondent for The Australian, now ABC Head of Investigations, John Lyons, in his book, Dateline Jerusalem: Journalism’s Toughest Assignment. ‘The Australian media needs to get to a point where the reality of Israel can be discussed.’

I’ve reported from Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem for nearly 20 years and lived in East Jerusalem between 2016 and 2020. The Israeli government tried to kick me out of the country in 2016 for daring to ask a critical question to then opposition leader and current Foreign Minister and Alternate Prime Minister, Yair Lapid. Reporting honestly about Israel’s permanent occupation of Palestine can be fraught, painful and emotional, and yet there are powerful forces in the West aiming to silence or at least dilute those hard truths. The Israel lobby is effective and influential and has spent decades successfully both duchessing journalists and politicians on free trips to the Jewish state as well as bullying opponents.

I’ve experienced this personally. One year before my first book, My Israel Question, was released in 2006, there were attempts to pressure the publisher, Melbourne University Press, not to go ahead. The Australian Jewish News and Zionist lobby pressured publicly and privately to pulp the book when it was released. These efforts failed spectacularly and it became a best-seller.

I don’t write this to suggest I’m a crusading hero but rather to explain what happens to even a Jewish journalist who’s critical of Israeli policies. There is a long list of academics, journalists and activists who are black-listed, cancelled, censored or silenced by false allegations of anti-Semitism or supposed hatred of Israel. As Israeli actions in Palestine become more extreme, settler violence against Palestinians ubiquitous and apartheid now official Israeli policy, Israel’s most ardent backers are forced to ratchet up their tactics to match the realities on the ground. Deflection and obfuscation are essential tools of the trade. 

Dateline Jerusalem is one of the most astute, recent books on Australia’s Israel lobby and how it harasses the media. The subtitle, Journalism’s Toughest Assignment, is over the top. Being based in Israel is not even close to the hardest role in foreign reporting, although it’s clear Lyons means the pressure a reporter receives for speaking truthfully about Israeli occupation. Nevertheless, Lyons has written a compelling book to explain in detail why and how the lobby acts as it does – and who is being ignored in the process.

Lyons alleges that many in the Australian media simply don’t explain the reality of Israel’s occupation because of Zionist lobby pressure. Although the lobby says that the situation is ‘complicated’, Lyons correctly explains that it’s not. That said, ‘the pro-Israel lobby has been spectacularly successful in framing the perception of Israel’s strategic and political situation as vulnerable, its people living under constant existential threat from their neighbours – David surrounded by an Arab Goliath. The reality is completely different.’

A former employee of News Corp for seventeen years, Lyons claims that there are only three people who can dictate what appears in the pages of The Australian: Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, and the head of Australia’s leading pro-Israel lobby, AIJAC’s Colin Rubenstein. It’s an extraordinary allegation and impossible to prove either way. Surely the influence of the fossil fuel lobby has been equally powerful in the hallways of the Murdoch press and shaped its deep scepticism towards serious action on climate change?

Lyons has felt the wrath of the Israel lobby and writes honestly about his experiences inside one of the most pro-Israel media organisations on the planet. Sadly, he doesn’t go into any real detail in explaining why it is his former employer is so ferociously supportive of Israel and its occupation. Internationally, News Corp continues to be one of the Jewish state’s staunchest backers.

Lyons meticulously challenges many myths around Israeli actions in Palestine. This includes an examination of the use and abuse of the word ‘anti-Semitism’, which is routinely thrown against anyone who criticises the Israeli occupation including Jews (it’s happened to me on many occasions). Anti-Semitism is a real and growing threat in many nations around the world but cheapening its meaning is dangerous. For many Zionists, opposing Israel’s founding ideology, Zionism, is akin to anti-Semitism. As an anti-Zionist, atheist Jew myself, I fundamentally oppose this definition.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Dateline Jerusalem is its account of the experiences of former Sydney-based, Palestinian journalist Jennine Khalik. Khalik used to work at The Australian and faced a barrage of opposition both internally and externally. The Israel lobby routinely complained about her presence on the newspaper. Within News Corp, some key editors and sub-editors were vehemently pro-Israel and made her life hell. After writing a story about a visiting Palestinian refugee and singer, Oday al-Khatib, a sub-editor came over to her desk and accused her of being a poor journalist and informed her that, ‘Palestine does not exist.’ Khalik left the paper soon after.

The way mainstream Australian Jewish leaders and publishers view Israel and its occupation of Palestine is tackled by Lyons. He concludes that most of them are either wilfully ignorant or supportive of endless colonisation. For them, that’s what Zionism has become: belligerent behaviour towards Palestinians and blind loyalty to the Jewish state. Zionism is the dominant religion amongst Australian Jewry and any criticism is viewed as heresy. It’s like a cult where heathens are tarred and cast out. Racism against Arabs and Palestinians is ubiquitous; I see and hear it constantly.

However, for growing numbers of younger American, British and Australian Jews, Israeli behaviour isn’t just immoral, but completely counter-productive to the future prosperity of the Jewish people. They’re ashamed that Israel speaks in their name. In the US, this has caused a generational schism between young and old Jews. It’s a long overdue debate. In a 2021 survey, one quarter of American Jews said that Israel is an apartheid state.

When Lyons’ book came out, it received a mostly positive response in the mainstream media (though it was predictably slammed by the Australian Jewish News and Israel lobby). But the lobby was scared that the book’s message would get out. Sydney-based writer Ori Golan was commissioned to review Dateline Jerusalem for the Israel-based news magazine the Jerusalem Report. His fair but uncritical review never appeared and he was never told why. I’ve seen documents that suggest that the Jerusalem Report was pressured not to publish the review by the Zionist lobby on the basis that Dateline Jerusalem was anti-Semitic and didn’t deserve to be taken seriously. Golan told me that he was mystified why the piece disappeared down the memory hole before it was even published.

The lobby had struck again and entirely proved Lyons’ thesis.

Some boycotts are more accepted than others. When the Sydney Festival announced in late 2021 that it was receiving $20,000 from the Israeli embassy in Canberra to make it a ‘Star Partner’, it was condemned by pro-Palestinian activists as attempting to white-wash Israeli occupation through a sponsorship deal. Within a matter of weeks, these activists created what became the most successful BDS campaign against Israel in Australian history.

‘In an attempt to shut down the Sydney Festival boycott, Israel’s apologists often claim that art is ‘non-political’ and creates ‘dialogue’, while boycotts ‘divide us’’, wrote BDS advocates Jeanine Hourani, Rihab Charida and Matt Chun. ‘It is apartheid walls, not boycotts, that divide us.’

Dozens of Sydney Festival artists withdrew in solidarity and demanded the organisers return the money. They did not, and instead blamed BDS activists for allegedly bullying artists. 

Public debate was fierce. Supporters of the boycott argued that it was a democratic right to protest the actions of Israel, a close Australian ally, and take appropriate, peaceful action in response. An anonymous artist in Gaza painted their solidarity. Both Labor and Liberal politicians condemned BDS (against Israel – they’re wholeheartedly behind sanctioning Putin’s Russia) and some even called for it to be outlawed. Other politicians claimed that the campaign was crushing artistic expression. The Sydney Morning Herald published a range of views about the controversy, none more banal than a piece that argued that dialogue was the better way to resolve the Israel/Palestine conflict.

The newly arrived Israeli ambassador to Israel, Amir Maimon, condemned the BDS movement and said that arts and politics shouldn’t mix. This is a common argument made by opponents, but it is completely ahistorical. The successful campaign against apartheid South Africa directly linked arts and culture and many other boycott campaigns have, too.

I was involved in 2011 in a boycott campaign against the Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka for granting legitimacy to a government who had brutally crushed the Tamil people in a civil war that ended in 2009. Alongside Booker Prize winner Damon Galgut, Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali, Arundhati Roy and Ken Loach, we asked participating writers to withdraw from the festival in order to send a powerful message in support of free expression in a nation, then and now, that actively works against it

There have been other notable boycott campaigns in Australia in recent memory including during the 2014 Biennale in Sydney where the main sponsor was Transfield, a company used by the Australian Federal government to manage refugee services. Profiting from asylum seeker misery was not a good look for an event that wanted to discuss art and culture. More recently, author Tim Winton spoke at this year’s closing night of the Perth festival’s Writer’s Weekend to condemn the event for taking money from fossil fuel company, Woodside Energy. In the US, fearing an avalanche of boycotts against fossil fuel interests, there are moves to blacklist companies that refuse to do business with oil interests.

Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the Sydney Festival boycott was the increasing public prevalence of Palestinian voices, not simply ignored or demonised as has been the default setting for decades. It wasn’t perfect and a lot of media outlets are still unwilling to ditch the toxic ‘both sides’ version of journalism, where both a pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian point of view must be presented for the reader or viewer to decide, as if they are equally weighted. Imagine a similar tactic employed by the media in 1990, where a pro-apartheid South African advocate was placed on the same pedestal as an opponent of the regime, with the two equated as legitimate sides of an important debate. Apartheid fell four years later. In hindsight, such a strategy would have appeared gross and disrespectful to the legitimate campaign to end South Africa’s racial oppression.

The success of the Sydney Festival boycott has scared the Israel lobby and its supporters. It’s hard to imagine now any respectable arts festival in Australia, apart from events with large Jewish audiences, taking money openly from the Israeli embassy. The backlash would be huge. The BDS campaign has inflicted a political and cultural price to further engagement with the Israeli embassy.

I’d argue it’s equally problematic to receive funds from any overseas embassy, whether the US, France, Israel, Germany or China, because the use of soft-power diplomacy is always at least partially aimed at hoping that audiences won’t think about that nation’s own crimes (from the US-led invasion of Iraq to Beijing’s suppression of the Uighurs). Regardless, the Sydney Festival boycott is now a template for future BDS campaigns in Australia and around the world. 

The long-term ramifications of the boycott debate, turbo-charged in the past month by the almost unanimous global stampede to sanction and shun Putin’s Russia, is to show it’s possible on a grand scale. The Jerusalem Post worries that boycotts against Russia will make it seem more logical to behave similarly against Israel (while claiming that the Jewish state desperately wants peace, despite occupying Palestine for more than half a century). In contrast, leading Israeli dissident journalist, Gideon Levy, imagined what a global boycott against Israel would look like and it pleased him.

The BDS campaign against Russia will lead to a more serious examination of Israel, a nation that’s been indulged by Western support for decades. Allowing an honest conversation on Israeli policies in Palestine is only feared by those who have something to hide. The Israel lobby’s pernicious role has worked for decades but its ability to stage-manage what we see and hear about the conflict is decreasing. Social media and more than 50 years of occupation means that Zionist ethno-fascism is increasingly a model for the worst, more racist actors across the globe.

What the Sydney Festival boycott shows, along with the worldwide outrage against Russia in Ukraine, is that it’s possible to successfully punish a human rights abuser. All that’s often missing is the will to do so.