A perennial fixation of the anti-Israel movement is the myth of an all-powerful Jewish lobby working behind the scenes to ensure support for Israel and to crush all opposition. This idea looms so large and is so overwhelming in the minds of many critics of Israel that the workings and influence of organisations and individuals who are generally supportive of Israel have become encrusted in mythology.
Like the bogey-man, that terrifying mythical creature conjured up by adults to frighten children into submission or into obeying boundaries, so too have anti-Zionists conjured up their own bogey-man of an all-powerful and sinister Jewish lobby frightening and threatening anyone who dares to oppose Israel.
Regardless of which term is used – Jewish lobby, Zionist lobby, Israel lobby – the idea is vague and general enough to include virtually anyone who happens to take Israel’s side on any issue, including the Jewish community and its leadership. Jewish community organisations – like other organisations representing different sectors of society, whether other ethnic communities, business, workers, environmentalists, and the like – do indeed at times talk to governments, the media and other bodies, in order to put forward their views on any number of issues of concern to the Jewish community. It is called freedom of expression, something which is indispensable to the workings of democracy.
However, to antisemites and anti-Zionists alike, the acts of Jewish organisations are seen to skew the natural order of how things supposedly should be. It is not merely that this bogey-man is seen to exist, and that its agenda is seen as threatening in some unspoken way; some of the discourse that this idea elicits is indistinguishable from that of hard-core antisemites.
This portrayal of the Jewish leadership and community is based on centuries-old antisemitic stereotypes of Jews somehow acting in concert everywhere as the sinister hidden hand controlling the banks, media and governments across the world. Any supporter of Israel who happens to be Jewish, whether rich or poor, weak or powerful, is seen through this warped lens. It is as though only “Zionist Jews” have any power.
From popes, kings and caliphs, in previous eras, to the powerful oil corporations and corporations in other sectors that have opposed the very idea of Israel for more than 70 years, all are portrayed as hapless subjects, lacking all agency compared to the “Jewish lobby” bogey-man.
This deranged view of the world finds its most infamous expression in the fabricated work known as ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’, first published by the Czarist secret police in 1903 as part of a sinister scheme to discredit political opposition to Czarist rule by falsely branding all such opposition as “Jewish”.
The portrayal of the Jewish communal leadership as a bogey-man has two equally warped corollaries – firstly, that Israel has no merit, and secondly, that opponents of Israel are brave heroes.
The first corollary is that there is no possible positive reason to support Israel. Anti-Zionists cannot conceive that anyone supports Israel on merit, and thus conclude that any such support must be due solely or predominantly to any combination of the following factors: “Jewish” money, “Zionist” intimidation, and “Holocaust guilt”.
This perspective was succinctly expressed by Bishop George Browning, president of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network (APAN), in an article in December 2016 in which he asked rhetorically whether Australia continues to support Israel diplomatically: “because Jewish money (sic) is a major factor in Australian politics… because the Zionist Lobby (sic) is so strong that it imposes a fear factor upon Australian MP’s… because a sense of guilt still prevails in relation to the holocaust, guilt that blots out normal moral obligations to others.”
Those who hold this view can see nothing good or positive about Israel, nothing that is worthy of support. They cannot concede that politicians, media, and others can and do have good reasons for supporting Israel. The fact that Israel is a thriving liberal democracy and a successful multi-faith nation means relatively little, if anything, to these critics. The fact that all of Israel’s citizens, including women and minorities, have equal voting, religious and legal rights, that LGBTI people are free of persecution, that Israel is the only country in the Middle East with a genuinely independent judiciary and that Israel has made extraordinary efforts and concessions towards peace (despite the loud, often-proclaimed threats to its very existence) is brushed aside as if it is of no consequence.
Any good in Israel is ignored and any bad is highlighted and amplified. Many positives, such as LGBTI rights or environmental reclamation, are portrayed as mere pink-washing or green-washing, implying that they are policies which act as a cover or a diversion from the alleged wrong-doings of Israel. For the anti-Zionists it is all black and white, and Israel is irredeemably bad. The fragility of their entire world-view is exposed by the fact that they feel that their world view might crumble the moment they concede even one good thing about Israel.
For this reason they are impelled into the nonsensical proposition that Israel and loyal Israelis are not only devoid of any virtue but also inherently evil. The more that Israel is portrayed as evil by anti-Zionists, the more powerful and insidious the Jewish leadership has to be painted in order to explain why good people defend and support Israel.
The intellectual and moral dead-end of the anti-Zionist view is laid bare by the anti-Zionists’ demonisation of both Israel and the diaspora Jewish community with epithets about “Jewish money”, “Holocaust guilt”, “a racist apartheid genocidal state” and, of course, the almost supernatural power of “the Jewish lobby”. Such are the straws at which anti-Zionists must grasp in order to explain the persistent refusal of intelligent, well-motivated people to buy their arguments.
In short, these anti-Zionists believe that the only reason their position is not the dominant one in politics, the media and society, is because of the bogey-man – the mythical image which have they have created, of a sinister Jewish lobby and its all-powerful machinations.
The second corollary follows from the first. Since the “Jewish lobby” is portrayed as moneyed, all-powerful, a bully, and as vicious and threatening, anyone who publicly stands up against Israel, or against the Jewish lobby, or the Jewish community leadership must of necessity be hailed and feted as a brave “hero”.
The actions of Jewish organisations and others who support Israel as part of the free interchange of ideas in any democracy are spun into the old myth about a powerful Jewish conspiracy. Critics of Israel are thus conferred with an under-dog status, a victim-mentality, and a brave-resistance-hero image.
When journalist John Lyons wrote a book ‘Balcony over Jerusalem’, in 2017, he included a chapter titled ‘The Lobby’. No adjective was needed – everyone knew who the lobby was. Lyons alleged in an interview that he was “savagely targeted” simply because he wrote what he saw. The “savage” targeting apparently consisted of written complaints about his work. His dark allusions to “the Lobby” might have led readers to imagine that he suffered constant harassment, physical abuse and threats to his life, by Jewish organisations. In reality there were letters of complaint and articles critiquing his book, including an exposure of the book’s inaccuracies and biases. Nevertheless, many anti-Israel activists and others lauded Lyons as a “brave” journalist and honoured him with celebrity appearances to tell his “brave” story.
The claim of unjustified targeting even occurs when critics respond to obvious inaccuracies about Jews or Israel. John Lyons complained that he was also “attacked” for a documentary, ‘Stone Cold Justice’, which he co-produced in 2014. The documentary included unsubstantiated claims that Israeli soldiers crucify Palestinian boys, crudely invoking the murderous libel of Jews as “Christ-killers”. When objections were raised by Jewish organisations, Lyons complained that he was being targeted, bullied and attacked, without any valid reason. In truth his work was simply being critiqued – and with ample reason. Journalists are as accountable for their work as anyone else.
The lionisation of critics of Israel and the demonisation of those who critique their work has a more sinister aspect. It serves as a way of bullying and cowing into silence those who stand up against lies, demonisation, and incitement against Jews and Israel. It is appalling that it has again become necessary to state that Jews have the same democratic rights as other citizens to voice their concerns, and to do so as robustly as advocates of any other cause.
Those who speak against Israel are no more “heroic” than those who speak up in a democracy on any contentious issue. Real heroes are those who risk their lives, freedom and livelihoods to speak truth to power, especially in countries governed by dictatorships of the kind that exist in Iran, North Korea, Gaza, China and Saudi Arabia.
In western democracies, those who generally take an anti-Israel stance, whether in journalism or in the anti-Israel movement or elsewhere, do not face any threat to their lives, freedom or livelihoods. Yet thev concoct the myth that they face a powerful and insidious opposition, in order to obfuscate the nature of the power they truly fear – the power of ideas contrary to their own. In this, the far left of politics is following the far right.
Psychologists would have a field day working out why anti-Israel critics and activists seem to have such a deep need to glorify their own work and to be hailed as brave warriors. Their construction of the “Jewish lobby” as a bogeyman certainly helps them rationalise why their views have failed to attain the dominance they crave.
Whether by accident or design, the entire discourse that has grown up about “the Lobby” has nurtured an atmosphere in which old discredited conspiracy theories about Jews, and the recrudescence of antisemitism, flourish. This has done nothing to enhance, and has actually undermined, the prospects for a better and clearer understanding of the raft of complex and multi-layered issues that relate to Israel and the Palestinians.
Julie Nathan is the Research Officer for the Executive Council of Australian Jewry