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Lobbying, the Left and web 2.0: a blueprint for the Australian Jewish community?

October 5, 2009 – 12:49 pm11 Comments

jstreetBy Larry Stillman

When reading a recent New York Times magazine article by James Traub about the emergence of a left-of centre ‘Israel Lobby’, I was particularly struck by how completely different the situation is in this country, and how we are still more or less mired in a quite elitist form of political lobbying, based on wealth and privileged political links with the major parties.

Alternative Jewish-identified voices ranging from what might be characterised as left Zionist (Australian Jewish Democratic Society) to anti-Zionist (Antony Loewenstein, John Docker, Ned Curthoys) are ignored, criticised or stigmatised to varying degrees. It is not contentious  to state that even the views of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society (AJDS), which often parallel those of the anti-occupation Israel left, are never invited to share a level playing field with the ‘official’ suits.

It’s worth recounting what’s going on (at least according to Traub), in the US.

Over the past year, a new organisation called J Street has stormed Washington with the help of a number of young enthusiasts, some liberal-minded philanthropists, and contemporary web 2.0 connecting and lobbying. J Street has shocked the Jewish establishment (AIPAC, the ADL) by being invited to meet Obama, and being heard by Cabinet secretaries and officials. Traub’s article agitated AIPAC so much that the Times had to issue a ‘clarification’, stating  AIPAC’s views were not sought for the article.

One sentence in Traub’s article is particularly notable: “J Street specializes in mounting campaigns that may appeal to the 92 percent [of Jews] who care about other causes more than they do about Israel.” Many American Jews identify as Americans first, and J Street attempts to cater to those who do not feel Israel should be made ‘a special case’ when it comes to such issues as the Occupation. If, as Americans, they could not accept certain behaviour from the US government; they cannot make a special exception for Israel, particularly because the Israel is such a massive recipient of foreign aid. Thus J Street has been pushing a ‘pro peace, pro Israel’ line on Capitol Hill, particularly since about eight percent of Members of Congress are Jewish.

Now, contrast J Street with the traditional and exclusive club of ECAJ-State Community Councils-Zionist Councils-AIJAC, and its effective monopoly of Jewish opinion in Canberra. The leadership of this group of organisations is self-referential. Organisations such as AIJAC are financially independent (including paid, professional staff), and there is a cross over of board membership between AIJAC and Federal Parliament — Mark Dreyfus (MP for Isaacs) was on its National Editorial Board, and Michael Danby (Member for Melbourne Ports) is former employee of AIJAC.   Danby is well known for his vocal positions on Israel.

The newest player on the leadership front, the Australian Israel Cultural Exchange (AICE), lead by Albert Dadon, appears to have gazumped the traditionalists by achieving the controversial Joint Declaration between the Australian and Israeli Governments (read this article in The Age for background). Dadon takes a less aggressive approach to the Israel question, focusing on fostering cultural exchange with Israel — and thus confronting the boycott Israel campaign. It is clear that Labour is somewhat enamoured of Dadon, and a more critical approach to Middle Eastern affairs will not necessarily be forthcoming (witness Julia Gillard’s statements regarding the Gaza War, or quietness over the Goldstone Report).

I’d suggest that the traditional elitist/oligarchical characteristic of Jewish political organisations has been a continuing feature of Australian Jewish life ever since the establishment of the first Anglo-Jewish organisations. Despite the change in the ethnic background of Australian Jews, the need for independent wealth or substantial subsidy, coupled with free time, means that very few people can afford a commitment to community leadership. This model, combined with a highly parochial Jewish press, means that alternatives have not been forthcoming.

Furthermore, we know of an increasing conservative political trend in the Australian Jewish community, which contrasts with the much broader, liberal social agenda of the American Jewish community. Increasing affluence and connection to Israel seems to have led to increased introversion and strengthening of cultural and religious life, without a concomitant expression in commitment to non-Jewish liberal/left causes. And those who are “alienated” ― perhaps those who identify as secular or non-Zionist ― represent the ‘outliers’ who end up not connecting at all; while  in the US, this group is probably at the core of the politically progressive Jewish community.

The only liberal trend in Australia appears to be in the emergence of religious alternatives, but this reflects a turn to personal ‘liberation’ rather than political activism (and again, this may be due to experience of alternatives in Israel). This can be contrasted with the spiritual renewal movement associated with Michael Lerner and Tikkun Magazine in the US that has been going on for about twenty years now. We have seen nothing from clergy here about the link between Jewish belief and progressive political action, including an acceptance of, and outreach, to disaffected members of the Jewish community on issues of common concern. But I suspect it’s part of their contracts to be quiet.

Given the strength of the political establishment, is there any way that web 2.0, which has become such an important campaigning and informational tool in the US, could be adopted here for Jewish-related political causes? It’s still a bit thin, and perhaps early in the peace.

What can we expect from the local Jewish social media then, as a way of putting out alternatives? Not much in the way of direct, critical politics on either a local or international front, at least for the moment. The concerns of the Jewish News online and J-wire are parochial (business and entertainment), and non-threatening reportage or press releases about Israel.

Sites such as The Sensible Jew and even Galus Australis, reflective of a tiny ‘let a hundred flowers bloom’ period, are culturally focussed, oecumenical, and essentially non-political: without a specific cause except the cause of print and oneness. The explicitly political AJDS website is the product of an equally small group of people (which is not to detract from the importance of the messages, and I declare a conflict of interest here as a content developer for the AJDS website).

This issue of broadcasting an alternate message in a new media is a problem facing many small groups and organisations.  One alternative I have thought of is for a number of organisations to pool their electronic resources, despite differences around the margins, and share substantial amounts of content while pushing their particular editorial line.

Unfortunately, no one has been able to locate a rich sugar daddy or mamma to support a liberal political message like J Street’s, with its many thousands of  (probably younger) American Jewish supporters.

Perhaps one hundred baby boomers need to each contribute $1000 to support alternative voices through an independent foundation that supports the new media with all its opportunities for creativity, and, as we used to say, ‘let it all hang out’ for the sake of a politically and culturally progressive Jewish Australian presence that can bypass the lugubrious and self-interested group at the top. There certainly is a core of talented younger people who could take up the challenge, and I suspect many of them are not part of existing networks and structures, but would thrive with the new media.

A hundred other intelligent and creative voices are certainly better than the usual dozen (ageing) voices (and I am one of the older guys now).

Larry Stillman is an executive member of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society.

References:

Jews and Australian politics, eds Geoffrey Brahm 
Levey and Philip Mendes, Sussex Academic 
Press, 2004.

Power And Powerlessness in Jewish History, David Biale, Schocken Books, 1986.

The News About the Internet, Michael Massing, New York Review of Books, Volume 56, Number 13 · August 13, 2009

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