While the book does describe some of John’s experiences covering conflicts across the Middle East, its primary focus is on the relationships between Israel and the Palestinians using both family experiences and John’s interviews as catalyst and evidence.
It’s actually a difficult book to summarise properly. In broad terms, he:
- Shows how Israeli occupation including the settlement program affects, penalises, ordinary Palestinians
- Examines the evolution of the settlement program, arguing that it reflects long-standing Israeli policies
- Traces the rise in power of the settler movement
- Suggests that occupation and the settlement program is having a coarsening affect on Israeli culture and political life, with most Israelis increasingly isolated, cocooned,
- Is very critical of the Palestinian leadership which he regards as inept, corrupt and self-serving, caught in an almost symbiotic relationship with the Israeli Government
- Is very critical of US Government policy and the influence of the pro-Jewish lobby in Australia and the US
- Suggests that a real two state solution may no longer possible given fragmentation of Palestine lands
- Suggests that the Israeli Government cannot accept majority rule in a single state since demographic change means that the Jewish population would inevitably be in a minority. In these circumstances, the most likely outcome is an apartheid Bantustan style arrangement.
I note that this is my interpretation in my words.
Issues of Balance, Bias and Pattern
I felt that this book was partisan to the point that balance was lost.
I will explain this in a moment. First, I want to give you a link to a response from the polar opposite, the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), an organisation heavily (and I suspect correctly) criticised by John. His descriptions of the AIJAC’s lobbying efforts within the Australian were a bit staggering.
The AIJAC piece suggests, among other things, that John is biased to the point that it distorts his judgement; that he misrepresents or at least misreads the history of Jewish settlement in the occupied lands; that he presents attitudes in Israel as fixed and uniform when there is variation; and that he quotes selectively from those who support his position.
To cross-check the AIJAC report from an Israeli perspective, I spent a frustrating three hours searching for Israel English language responses to the book, including site specific searches on both Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post. Recognising the growing weaknesses of Google as a search tool, a constant frustration, I thought that I might find something since I think the book received some form of Israeli launch. That was not to be. The coverage that is out there was almost entirely written from a Palestinian perspective.
I said that I felt that Balcony over Jerusalem was partisan to the point that balance was lost. It is a passionate book, a memoir, neither a journalist’s report nor a coldly objective analysis. I found myself wishing that John had dealt a little more with the why, including Israel’s place in the region. I found myself questioning some of his examples not because they were necessarily wrong, but because of a feeling that John’s passion made the reporting unreliable. In this context, I thought that the AIJAC response made some valid points.
John also has something of a reputation as a campaigner.This 2005 piece from Crikey, John Lyons: hatchet man on the make, provides a then left perspective. The review of Balcony over Jerusalem by David Leser in the Australian (Still Occupied, 5 August 2017) provides another perspective.
If you accept the book's bias, if you accept that the reporting on individual events and broader history is not necessarily reliable, there is still a pattern of events, one that is supported by other reports, linked to the nature of occupation itself, to the concept of a Jewish state and to the need for that state to defend itself. That is why I read Balcony Over Jerusalem with interest, but with a sense of depression..
My Own Evolving Position
Back on 11 November 2009, I wrote:
I do not pretend to understand the dynamics of this conflict, although I do know a fair bit of the history. Like many Australians, I have swung from very strong support for Israel coming out of the dynamics of World War II to something of an opposite position, almost a pox on both your houses.
Leaving aside current issues, I think that the combination of economics and demographic change is working inexorably against Israel. I suspect that if I sat down and looked at the numbers I could probably guess the point at which the balance will finally tilt. It may be that Israel has now lost its chance for a viable two state solution and that, instead, it is now staring down the barrel of a gun at some far more unpalatable outcomes.I am old enough that the events of the Second World War and the Holocaust were very fresh when I was a child. I also grew up in a fairly religious environment, so I was very familiar with the the Bible and its stories. I was also strongly influenced by Leon Uris's 1958 novel, Exodus and the subsequent 1960 film of the same name. I wasn't blind to things like the Irgun terrorist attack on the King David Hotel nor to the injustices inflicted on the Palestinians, but I was very pro-Israel.
There was a an underdog, David and Goliath thing in all this. As Israel grew in strength to become a nuclear power with the most powerful armed forces in the immediate region, it became harder to think of it as underdog. The continuing troubles associated with occupation, settlement and injustice began to rank more highly, to erode my support for Israel. I was not alone here. It was part of a broader trend. The Israeli/Jewish lobby may be powerful and able to deliver tactical victories in certain countries, but it appears to have lost the strategic war. so far as public opinion is concerned.
Part of Israel's problem lies in its definition of itself as a Jewish and democratic state.Originally, Jewish was defined in terms of ethnicity. Hitler did not distinguish between Jews by ethnicity and Jews by religion. If you met the Nazi definition of Jewish based on birth you went to the gas chambers. With time, the Israeli definition of Jewish seems to have become more focused on religious belief.
There is an inherent tension between a Jewish and democratic state. How can you be a Jewish state if the majority of your population is not Jewish? How can you be democratic if you have rules to preserve your Jewishness and role as a Jewish state that over-ride democratic majorities?
In theory, the problem might be resolved in this way. Israel is a secular state.It is also homeland to the Jews. Both are written into the constitution and are accepted by all. Being a Jewish state need not mean, however, that non-Jews are discriminated against. All Israelis are equal but all accept that Israel is a home for the Jews wherever they may live, a refuge. This does not preclude Israel being home to others, nor does it mandate special treatment for Jewish people in domestic law. In practice, this is not so easy. The problem has become more complex as the definition of Jewishness becomes more religious based.
At present, people of Jewish descent make up around 75% of the Israeli population, around 6.6 million people. All these numbers are rubbery since they are affected by boundary definitions and disputes. The Arab population is around 1.85 million. In West Bank and Gaza, the non-Jewish population is around 4.7 million. Again very roughly, the Jewish and non-Jewish populations are roughly in balance. However, the higher non-Jewish birthrate means that the Jewish population is likely to drop well below half over the next thirty years. Here-in lies the rub.
The original two state solution would have made two different spaces. However, the progressive fragmentation of the West Bank now makes it very difficult to create anything approaching a viable, sensible Palestinian state. A one state solution means that the Jewish population could be out-voted if votes proceeded on ethnic lines.
I am going to have to leave this thought thread up in the air. I am out of time on these reflections.I suppose that what I am searching for is a path outside the current binary approach.