Life

Antony Loewenstein: Changing
people's perceptions about
Jews

www.safecom.org.au

His recent visit to Aceh made Antony Loewenstein the first Jew that most people in the country's devoutly Muslim province had ever met or engaged with.

Some Acehnese he met were surprised to learn that the Jewish-Australian journalist, author of the controversial and best-selling book My Israel Question, was a harsh critic of Israel's policy on Palestine, and was in fact a supporter of the latter.

"Are there many of you?" asked a man from a group that had pledged to travel to Gaza to fight the Israeli army during its conflict with Hamas.

Another said, "We don't hate Jews, but we oppose Israel's occupation of Palestine."

A Sydney-based writer and blogger, Loewenstein spent two weeks in Indonesia last month as a guest at the major literary event the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, in Bali, as well as visiting the ancient Buddhist monument of Borobudur (also part of the festival) and going to Aceh to take part in discussion forums.

On his speaking tours elsewhere, he says, the most common reactions he gets are: "You're Jewish and you don't like Israel? What do you mean? That's impossible."

And he guessed Indonesians would have a similar view.

"In a Muslim-majority country like Indonesia, it might come as a surprise to learn that Jews are critical of Israel," Loewenstein tells The Jakarta Post.

"It's a perception in the Arab world as well that all Jews support Israel."

As he said at a recent event in Australia, "In Aceh, Jews are seen as little more than occupiers and brutes in Palestine. The concept of anti-Zionism never enters their thinking or media."

He also expresses surprise that more and more Jews are now in opposition to Israel and in support of the Palestinian people, and that is something he is trying to tell the Muslim world about.

"I'm trying to challenge people's perceptions that I'm Jewish, and I'm proud to be Jewish, but I'm pro-Palestine," he says.

"Israel is still occupying Palestine, and it's my moral responsibility to fight against it in my own ways."

On a visit last July to the devastated Gaza Strip, he found the occupation had never been worse.

He met many of the 1.5 million Palestinians desperate for a normal life, something denied to them for decades due to Israel's occupation and frequent bombings.

"The war continues, settlements expand, nothing's changed. The change is only in Obama's rhetoric. What he said is obviously different from Bush, but it doesn't solve problems," Loewenstein says.

The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to US President Barack Obama last month was premature, he adds.

"I think the award was more about what Obama is expected to do rather than what he has actually done," he points out.

"Israel keeps arguing that it is a democratic state fighting terrorism for all of us. It becomes much easier to make that argument, but it is wrong.

"I think Israel's behavior is outrageous, and it will not change unless the funding it receives from the United States is reduced.

"The Western powers, including the US, the UK and Australia, back Israel's battle and share its belief that the destruction of the Islamist group benefits their interests."

Israel should be treated like any other country calling itself a democracy, and not be excused especially given its bellicose tactics in the global arena, he goes on.

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In a Muslim-majority country like Indonesia, it might come as a surprise to learn that Jews are critical of Israel.

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"There are a growing number of Jewish groups joining this call. They are not afraid of being labeled anti-Semitic or self-hating, and simply believe in justice," Loewenstein says.

He believes that in the Muslim world, there is a need for people to hear more about Jews taking a critical stance against Israel. He even speaks up against his own government for supporting Israel. He has also cofounded an initiative, Independent Australian Jewish Voices, which works with Palestinians on their shared concerns.

His time in Aceh was spent discussing a broad range of issues with journalists, local writers and high school students: the Middle East conflict - comparing his perspective as a Jew and that of the devout Muslim Acehnese, posttsunami development as well as freedom of expression.

Loewenstein also admits he was surprised to find four Jewish tombstones, with Hebrew epitaphs, near the Aceh tsunami memorial museum.

The four Jews, he recounts from what he was told, died in the 1800s and 1900s, and have since lain in peace in the heart of a devoutly Islamic society.

"A writer, Fozan Santa, told me that many Acehnese know about it, yet there was no hatred toward these monuments," Loewenstein says.

"Generations of Acehnese protected them. Holland sends funds to maintain the cemetery.

"This was not something I expected in a province ruled under sharia law. Although Jews are almost solely defined through brutal Israeli actions, I found no outright hatred of Judaism."

He also found that people there liked Obama's rhetoric and his apparent change in US policy toward the Muslim world.

"But their patience has a limit. The wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Palestine continue and show no signs of closure," he says.

Despite growing support for Palestinians, even among Jews, Loewenstein doubts the situation will change anytime soon.

"I'm not very optimistic because I don't see much movement on the ground by the international community," he says.

"There needs to be a drastic action, where civil society gets together in a targeted boycott campaign to convince Israel that it can't behave this way."

He adds public support for Palestine and dissatisfaction of the US continue to grow, "But how we take that opinion and translate it into political action, that's the question."

As a Muslim-majority country and emerging democracy, he says, Indonesia should take a stronger lead in this issue.

"I know Yudhoyono said Indonesia would be more involved in the process. I would like him and other leaders to put pressure on different parties to stop Israel's unacceptable behavior," he says.

Loewenstein also criticizes Obama, who pledged to create better relations with the Muslim world but continued to support Israel's occupation of Palestine and did nothing to address this major grievance to Muslims.

The author of The Blogging Revolution also encouraged other writers the world over to be more provocative and less afraid to be critical of the issue.

Several days after Loewenstein left Aceh, an 18-year-old Acehnese girl - one of his translators during the public events - sent him a message, saying, "People here can love Jews now because of you."

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