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Landau has Landed

November 14, 2011 – 4:23 pm23 Comments

David Landau

By Mandi Katz
Earlier this month I attended a panel as part of a Jewish book festival In Melbourne. It was a lively and diverse discussion on all things bookish and Jewish.  That is, until one of the panellists, a publisher said that he was planning to publish the English edition of a book of testimonies of Israeli soldiers in the Occupied Territories. The temperature rapidly rose as several people become very vocal, criticising the publisher on grounds that the book will provide fuel for anti-Semitism and anti -Israel sentiment.

No-one claimed that the testimony was unreliable or untrue; the concerns were that the book would feed anti-Israel views.

Civil as this episode was (it was in a book-shop after all), it confirms my view that for many in our community, when it comes to Israel, PR comes first. The desire for frank discussion among rational people who share a deep concern for Israel takes second place to the need to explain how vulnerable, and how just, Israel is. People who don’t see it that way are regarded as dissenters; at best as irresponsible, at worst as self haters and traitors.

David Landau, the Israel correspondent for The Economist and former Editor in-Chief of Ha’aretz newspaper, who will be visiting Australia this month as a guest of the New Israel Fund (Australia), has often been described as a dissenter.

Landau is unusual; he is an Orthodox Jew who made aliyah in 1970 and remains a proud and loud member of the peace camp. His credentials are unquestionable: he’s collaborated with Shimon Peres on his memoirs and on a recently released biography of David Ben-Gurion and has authored a forthcoming biography on Ariel Sharon. And after years at the Jerusalem Post and then at the helm of Haaretz, he speaks with insight and authority.

But it doesn’t take great Google skills to discover that Landau can be controversial. He is laser sharp in his commentary, some of which is very critical of Netanyahu’s government. He has also been known to use language which is either colourful or off colour – depending on your sensibilities.

Some in our community have already questioned why we chose to invite someone like David Landau. The answer is simple: if we set out to raise awareness and understanding about Israel and the dilemmas it faces, it makes no sense to censor valid perspectives, which reflect the views of many Israelis and are aired freely in Israel.

Looking no further than the mindless and hateful language outside Max Brenner shops across Australia, or the distorted views of Lee Rhiannon and cohorts, it is clear that there is a need for pithy messaging that conveys the deep truth that Israel has the right to defend its people and borders.

But proper discussion about Israel has to involve more than messaging. Truth and nuanced understanding don’t feed hate and violence. Propaganda, whichever side it comes from, is always more dangerous than balanced and considered discussion. People with dogmatic views will find fuel for their agendas regardless of this sort of discussion.

When we substitute careful analysis with spin, what gets glossed over are some hard truths: that the ongoing occupation, regardless of historical and security context, involves serious human and civil rights breaches; that the issues are existential for Palestinians too and that the number of Palestinian deaths in this conflict significantly exceeds the number of Israeli deaths; and that while Palestinians have agency in this conflict, and responsibility for the current impasse, Israel uses its superior power in ways that entrench the status quo.

It is very gratifying to focus on Israel’s many achievements, which are all the more impressive in its region, but what gets neglected when we do that above all else, is that Israeli society faces profound challenges. If we are to relate to Israel honestly, issues such as the extreme economic disparity in Israel, the threats to religious and political freedom and discrimination faced by minorities, need to be discussed with openness and maturity.

Anat Hoffman, the director of the Israel Reform Action Centre who was in Melbourne earlier this year, underscored this point. In her opening remarks she said she would tell us some uncomfortable things about Israel, things we might prefer not to hear – but that we wouldn’t love Israel any less at the end of her address.

She was right. Like many people, I have over the years come to understand Israel differently, in a less starry-eyed way. It has not diminished how much I care about Israel, and it has helped me understand how much Israel needs diverse support, including support for organisations such as those funded by the New Israel Fund, which tackle some of these complexities.

There are lots of reasons to avoid thinking too much about Israel, in current parlance to “disengage”. Terror against Israelis is vile, and it is distressing to see the hatred directed at Israel.  There is no simple solution or happy ending to this conflict and for many people, thinking about the options that Israel faces is too hard. It’s easier to not to think about it, or to take comfort in a party line.

But putting PR before our individual and communal understanding of Israel’s predicaments is not the answer. We can’t turn our backs on Israel by disengaging, and we undersell our commitment to Israel when we apply a less thoughtful and honest approach to understanding Israel’s dilemmas, than we do to understanding other political, religious or ethical issues.

Critics can label David Landau and the many and diverse people interested in hearing him speak in Sydney and Melbourne this month as dissenters. Or they can come with an open mind and hear what he has to say.

Mandi Katz is a member of the board of New Israel Fund Australia

David Landau will be speaking in Sydney and Melbourne over the next two weeks

Details

Sydney

Wednesday 16 November at 7.00pm – 20s and 30s NIForum

Thursday 17 November 17th at 7.15pm – Inner West community event

Sunday 20 November at 7.15 pm – Emanuel Synagogue/Eastern Suburbs community event

Melbourne

Wednesday 23 November at 7.45 pm – Caulfield Park Pavilion  (Registration on line or at door)

Thursday 24 November at 7.30pm – 20s and 30s NIForum

Registration details – see nif.org.au

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