Monday, January 08, 2018

Train reading - reflections on Lyon's Balcony over Jerusalem

One of the books I was given for Christmas was Balcony Over Jerusalem: a Middle East Memoir (HarperCollins Publishers, Sydney 2017) written by John Lyons with partner Sylvie Le Clezio who provided the photos. John Lyons is a distinguished Australian journalist. In 2009 he, Sylvie and son Jack moved to Jerusalem following John’s appointment as Middle East correspondent for the Australian. They lived there for the next six years.

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.


Anonymous said...

The Israel-Palestine issue is a by-product of greater trans-national forces, using it (the conflict) to play out their greater issues.

If anybody was really serious about 'solving' the issues of two fairly insignificant populations they'd maybe relocate the entire UN infrastructure to Jerusalem, and put either the Swiss Guards or the Japanese equivalent in charge of on-the-ground security.

Or maybe the Chinese, who have bigger fish to fry, so would probably be more realistic in their approach: step back, or stop breathing.

But that won't happen, and we will continue to angst about it all, and all the while continue the pretense that it is an earth shattering, irresolvable, problem - of more than insignificant importance.

And the arms dealers and the other offal will feed off the carcass of our failed good intentions. But hey! - we "meant well" - and doesn't it feel good to worry about it?

Jim Belshaw said...

Tart, anon, tart! Can I just pick up your first sentence? What do you see as the trans-national forces?

Anonymous said...

Apologies Jim - kvd - me, myself - owns that post. Was actually more irritated by something short and sour that Neil posted, made even more-so when my comments disappeared into the ether, because I hadn't first logged into Wordpress :)

But back to your question: "What do you see as the trans-national forces?"

Now, I am more than used to your answering a statement with a question, but I think in this case, the pawns are merely that, and I'm surprised you wouldn't at least acknowledge the larger powers in active play? You can name your own, and I mine, but they shift and change every day, so there is not much point.

Just, let's please not kid ourselves that this is a simple Israeli-Palestinian minor confrontation with no wider affects.

And no matter how good/bad uplifting/terrifying one man's (and family's) experience is recorded, the greater consideration is how the political "weight" will shift should eventually one side or the other gain supremacy.

IOW - it suits all of us, this permanent state of impermanence. And his experience, in the wider realm, matters little - however charmingly written.


Jim Belshaw said...

Evening, kvd. Thought the first comment was from you!

I asked the question in the way that I did because of a feeling that in the shifting sands of Middle East politics the Israeli-Palestine issue had become a second-order one, at least for the present.

On the book, the book itself is not really important as a book. My focus was on the patterns of behaviour and what they might mean in the longer term in the absence of change.

marcellous said...

Isn't "balance" a bit of a chimera?

If you mean some kind of "middle point" that would be hard to approach from Australia as Australia is such an international outrider on the subject and this permeates all public discourse so deeply.

marcellous said...

By "outrider" I meant "outlier."

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi marcellous. My comment on balance relates to the feeds I see. On the left, you have a pro-Palestinian feed that just sees Israeli oppression. On the right, you have concerns about Muslim fundamentalism, who see Israel as a defender of Western civilisation. I accept that this is a simplification. If you want to understand what it happening, what might happen you have to stand back. That makes balance important.

Australia is an outlier in many ways. I'm nor absolutely sure how this affects public discourse.

Anonymous said...

The only bit you need to read is Jim's red paragraph - because there you see Jim's thought process move from 'balance' as a term for "fair description of both views" to 'balance' as in "balance of raw, controlling, power".

Rational beings will continue to debate this ongoing dilemma - but the outcomes, whatever they may be, will be enacted by what are, basically, irrational actors. And I just find it strange that this irrationality is never thought to be of any great significance.


Jim Belshaw said...

I do seem to have several different views of balance mixed together. In my comment in red, balance related especially to a demographic tipping point that would have certain consequences. My response to marcellous referred to a different type of balance. So we have at least three types of balance: balance between countervailing weights; balance as in fair, showing both sides; and balance as in objective.

kvd, your comment on irrationality interested me. And, no, I am not going to respond with a question!

The word irrational is another of those slippery ones, at least to me. I know what you mean, and broadly I agree with you. However, I have found that actions that seem to be irrational are perfectly rational as in logical once you know the starting point. That starting point may or may not be rational, but once it is accepted then the logic flows. So we start from beliefs or perspectives that may or may not be rational; most beliefs by their nature have an apparent degree of irrationality. Then we have the consequent actions that may or may not be rational given the starting point.

Anonymous said...

Accepting (and I do) Jim's musing on irrationalities, the problem seems to me to be the different starting points and ensuing paths of the irrational actions.

I mean, if everyone hated Vegemite, but acted out in different ways, then you might have a workable basis from which to provide 'a solution'. (in extremis, cease producing the product)

That is not the case here, or in any conflict afaics: the actors start from different positions, proceed with different motives, and with different preferred outcomes, different supporters/sponsors (for each of which, go round the logic loop), plus different religious views - all held (as Jim states) possibly quite 'logically'.

There is presently no player (in fact, there never has been) willing to undertake (was it?) Alexander's action, and cut the Gordian knot - because any outcome imposed does not perfectly suit that player's own position. Rinse and repeat.

Describing a problem, however well, is far removed from 'solving' it.


Jim Belshaw said...

Sorry for the delay in responding, kvd. I had to think about what you wrote.

I think that the description of the problem remains central, including recognition of the various ways actors define the 'problem". Not all problems are necessarily solvable. With every problem, there is also the question of whose problem is it?

Take the Israel/Palestine problem. It used to be mainly called the Arab/Israeli problem, itself a perceptual shift. In very simple terms, the problem is to find a way for two groups to live together in harmony in the same geographic space when both groups define problem and solution in different ways between and within each group.

The primary problem owners are the Israelis and Palestinians.It may be that the problem is not soluble. One outcome might be that Israel as dominant power imposes ethnic cleansing. A second more likely outcome is what has been called the Bantustan solution. Both would create new problems. A still more likely outcome is that exhaustion in the two communities will result in some form of moving compromise.

Is the Israeli/Palestine problem an Australian problem? Clearly, the Australian Government faces a political issue because portions of the Australian community have made the Israeli/Palestine question there problem in a very partisan way. Then the Australian Government faces diplomatic issues because of the importance of the problem to the US, the perceived interconnection between the problem and other problems such as the war on terror and our previous attempts to balance support for Israel's right to exist and the injustices imposed on the Palestinians.

But does all this make the Israeli/Palestine problem an Australian problem? I would argue no, that Australia is not a party and has no problem ownership. Our problem is to decide how to respond to the issues raised recognsing that it, the main problem, is not our problem. So while we recognise Israel's right to exist and should respond sensibly to injustices, we should respond in a low key way recognising that it the original problem is not an Australian problem. In the end, the main problem owners have to work it out.

Anonymous said...

The "Palestinian" problem only emerged after the 1948 war; it became more acute after 1967 and more especially after 1973. So let Jordan have the west bank (the "Jordan is Palestine" solution). Israel would be mad to relinquish occupation of the west bank to a Palestinian regime; look what happened in Southern Lebanon and Gaza. Fatah wouldn't stand a chance against the intimidation of Hamas.


Jim Belshaw said...

I guess that prior to 1948, DG, it was the "Jewish" problem! Starting from the premise in your last sentence, returning the West bank to Jordanian control is an option. But which parts of the West Bank and would Jordan accept them? If not, how do you think Israel should/could manage the changing demography within Israel and the territory it controls?

An eye opener said...

Haaretz twisted language, especially on racism: slaps it on cultural divisions or on safety but not on Arab Muslim racist attacks

The "competetive" tantrum trend among hard Israeli left to utter the "racisn" terminology has been for some time.

They are ever so loud on isolated cases of violent attacks against Arabs which we all condemn, of course.

Yet, they are silent on every weekly attacks by racist Arabs targeting Jewish civilians (at times travelling for miles far away from own Arab town...). Of course it's Arab Muslim terrorism but it's also anti-Jewish ethnic racism and religious bigotry. 

Yet, will term any Israeli security measure as "racist." As if it's "not" saving lives, what it is really about.

Will minimize Arab Islamic Palestinian use of its own population as human shields (at least since 1980 by Arafat), and Israeli attempts to evacuate before an anti terror operation. 

Will maximize exaggerate any claim of abuse.

Incidentally, with all the heavily funded anti Israel groups in Israel. why isn't there any peace movement on the Arab Palestinian side, Hamas' Gaza or Fatah's Ramallah? 

If one specific community wants to keep its unique education, they immediately cry "racism".

They are silent on every Israeli court case that favors Arab vs Jew. But ever so loud on any partial-discriminatory incident. Despite the fact, it is rather ultra-orthodox who feel most all out discriminated against, mainly prompted by anti Religious hatred campaign by hard left like Haaretz.

These supposed "peaceninks", these same hypocrites, incite against, demonize Haredi ultra Orthodox conscientious objectors who refuse to serve in IDF draft in Israeli army.

Haaretz and the like, are not just biased. But hate mongers.