BRINGING IT HOME

COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 13 February 2009

by Jake Lynch

I live in the northern Sydney suburb of St Ives, in an area known as Ku-ring-gai, so called after the Aboriginal people who are its traditional owners and custodians. Ku-ring-gai was named in a survey last year as having the highest quality of life of anywhere in Australia. Australia being, at the same time, top of the UN’s Human Development Index, we could be said to enjoy the highest quality of life anywhere in the world (that grinding sound you can hear is the local real estate agents sharpening their pencils).

It was people like me, no doubt, who Rihab Charida had in mind when she told a Sydney audience recently that they could have “literally no idea” what life was like for Palestinians. As I listened to her, I remembered how I found, on my first trip to the West Bank, that nothing I had read had quite prepared me for the day-to-day realities confronting the friends who made us feel so welcome.

And nothing encountered on short visits can give anything more than a general impression of the impotence, unpredictable peril and sheer randomness of living under Israel’s military occupation.

Charida is known to many of us as the Australia correspondent for the Iranian television news channel, Press TV, in which capacity she has been to interview me several times. She’s also the daughter of Palestinian refugees, and she was speaking at a weekly gathering that has become a Sydney institution, Politics in the Pub.

The pub looming large in many Australian communities, there is a sense in which the exchanges there, which actually take place in a local Gaelic club, serve to bring world events home to us in our privileged and largely sheltered part of the world. Every Friday evening, a different panel of speakers take it in turns to make statements and answer audience questions.  

This particular evening was opened by the celebrated stage and screen actress, Judy Davis. She risked – and, through exquisite comic timing, carried off – an anecdote about her attempt to cater for a Jewish dinner guest, which went awry when the meal she’d prepared turned out, inadvertently, to infringe on religious observances. She went on to recall conversations she’d had, over the years, with showbusiness colleagues, about the conflict with the Palestinians.

Davis’ humorous yet moving contribution ended by inviting us to join her in saluting the courage of those who speak out, like Charida, and fellow panellist Antony Loewenstein, the journalist and author who has specialised in raising, from within Sydney’s Jewish community, questions that many would rather remain unasked.

One of these questions brings the conflict home as far as leafy St Ives itself. The suburb boasts a branch of the chocolate café chain, Max Brenner. It’s a hang-out for local youth – preferable, no doubt, to their parents at least, to having them drawn to the pub – but it also makes us complicit in the conflict, and even in the behaviour of the so-called ‘Israeli Defence Force’. Recently, Loewenstein has been alerting us to boasts by the café’s corporate owners of how they support the troops.   

Under the heading, ‘In The Field With Soldiers’, the Strauss group tells browsers of the ‘Corporate Responsibility’ page of its website that:

“Our connection with soldiers goes as far back as the country, and even further. We see a mission and need to continue to provide our soldiers with support, to enhance their quality of life and service conditions, and sweeten their special moments. We have adopted the Golani reconnaissance platoon for over 30 years and provide them with an ongoing variety of food products for their training or missions, and provide personal care packages for each soldier that completes the path. We have also adopted the Southern Shualei Shimshon troops from the Givati platoon with the goal of improving their service conditions and being there at the front to spoil them with our best products”.

The Givati platoon took part in ‘Operation Cast Lead’, the assault on Gaza which began on December 27, 2008, and the Golani platoon are carrying out their reconnaissance in territory that Israel illegally seized from Syria in 1967, and has illegally hung onto ever since.

Apartheid

It therefore places Max Brenner on a different front line, the one looming large in the minds of anyone who – like many in the audience at Politics in the Pub – has asked: what can I do, in response to the naked brutality and lawlessness of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians?

The chocolate on sale in Max Brenner is imported from Israel, so profits go directly to support the country’s economy and the company – by its own account – goes out of its way to support the military. It therefore falls squarely into a category singled out by Naomi Klein as a valid target for boycotting.

It’s one of a number of persuasive comparisons between the situation facing the Palestinians and that of blacks in Apartheid South Africa. Indeed, the then South African Intelligence Minister, Ronnie Kasrils – a veteran Communist of Jewish descent – said a couple of years ago, on a visit to the occupied territories, that the architecture of segregation he had witnessed was worse than the bad old days in his homeland.

“The best strategy to end the increasingly bloody occupation is for Israel to become the target of the kind of global movement that put an end to Apartheid”, Klein wrote, in The Nation, as the pounding of Gaza was at its height.

Back in the 1980s, I remember attending the massive anti-Apartheid demonstration in London, where exiled ANC leader Oliver Tambo spoke, along with the Reverend Jesse Jackson. “It’s not the destitute, or the prostitute”, Jackson intoned, to the assembled masses in Trafalgar Square, “but the man in the three-piece suit that is keeping Apartheid alive in South Africa today”. It was a plea to put the bite on businesses, which ultimately depend on our custom and goodwill to survive.

Sport was also seen as a means to bring pressure to bear. “Sports and business have a lot of common ground”, the Strauss website burbles. “It is no wonder that the language of business often uses terms from the world of sports such as team work, friendship, tolerance and support”.

One of the classic anti-Apartheid posters, which festooned our student bedsits, showed a South African policeman wielding a sjambok on a crowd of black protestors, above the slogan, “If you could see their national sport, you might be less keen to play them at rugby”.

I can imagine handing out leaflets outside Max Brenner in St Ives, perhaps showing a stricken Palestinian family being lowered over by a gun-toting Israeli soldier with some wording such as, “If you could see what they have for breakfast, you might be less keen to eat their chocolate”. It could cause ructions.

St Ives is home to a sizeable Jewish community, although we should not leap to the conclusion that its members automatically support Israel, any more than does Antony Loewenstein – indeed, many may very well be emboldened to speak out for what they believe is right, by his courage and example. Another notable contingent locally is South African émigrés, many of whom were glad to see the end of Apartheid, only to become disillusioned at the country’s continuing problems, and vote, with their feet, to leave.

Lobbying

Activists in Australia are now redoubling their lobbying efforts to get the government to take a firmer line. Pronouncements by the acting Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, in the early days of the latest crisis, proclaiming Israel’s “right to defend itself”, became a focus for particular discontent. Foreign Minister Stephen Smith has now agreed to meet a deputation, which will call on Australia to:

“Use its diplomatic leverage to:

·    Request that the Quartet on the Middle East and its Special Envoy Tony Blair, and the US Special Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell, expedite a just peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by ending Israel’s economic blockade and illegal occupation of Palestinian Territories.

·    Demand full and unimpeded humanitarian access for humanitarian staff and assistance, including of food, fuel and medical treatment.

·    Secure the immediate lifting of the Israeli blockade on Gaza to allow freedom of movement of people and trade in and out of Gaza”.

The letter sent to Smith continues:

“We also urge the Australian Government to increase its humanitarian commitment to the Palestinian civilians affected by the conflict:

·    By immediately increasing its allocation of funding and resources for relief and reconstruction efforts for long-term recovery.

·    To immediately provide in-kind support to civilians, and specific support and resources for women and children, affected by the conflict to ensure access to adequate health services (including treatment in third countries – and/or Australia as needed).

·    To immediately increase access to education services for Palestinians, including scholarship programs in Australia, to build capacity for long-term reconstruction in Gaza”.

This last point brings the issue home in a different way, of course, since we university academics would, in many cases, gladly accept Palestinian scholarship students on to our degree programs. Another option, that is often raised, would find us more divided, however. Should we extend our boycott from the men in suits at the Strauss Group to men and women in academic gowns?

When this question arose at Politics in the Pub, Rihab Charida had a ready answer – only shun contact with academics and institutions clearly complicit in the regime. That’s a relief for me, since I have enjoyed good cooperation and collegiality with Israeli colleagues who work courageously, in both professional and personal capacities, for peace. They deserve our support.

There is a phenomenon of social psychology known as ‘the bystander effect’. The more onlookers there are, at an incident of danger or depravity, the less likely it is that any one of them will take decisive action to bring it to an end.

The murderer witnessed in the act by fifty people will get away, because everyone will assume someone else has called the police. Michael Ignatieff, in The Warrior’s Honor, argues that television’s global reach has now made the inequalities of today’s world into everyone’s business, and an implicit moral challenge to all of us. But it may simply have increased the number of bystanders. 

My colleague, Annabel McGoldrick, has found that the way conflicts are reported tends to make us feel ‘disconnected’ from any prospect of a solution to the all-too evident problems. It has to start somewhere, though – so it may as well start here, with a chocolate melt.

 

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 13 February 2009.

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