Loewenstein: Why Bother?

Antony Loewenstein has provided fodder for this blog on a number of occasions. Some of our readers have asked whether writing about Loewenstein serves any function, or indeed, whether such posts provide him with oxygen or legitimacy.

Let me state for the record: I have no personal beef with Mr Loewenstein. I met him once, quite briefly, back in 1996 . I am quite uninterested in examining his personal history or psychological motivations for his positions. For me, Loewenstein the man is himself quite uninteresting. Loewenstein, the phenomenon, is another matter entirely.

Loewenstein-as-phenomenon has enormous relevance in what it reveals about academia and centre left media in this country. He is also an important lesson in how our community might best respond to such phenomena.

Choosing the word, “phenomenon,” is quite deliberate. Whether this blog engages his ideas or not, Mr Loewenstein is now firmly ensconced in a particular milieu that shifts between media, academia, and leftist activism. Despite his many research failures, poor writing, and flaccid argumentation, he has been clutched to this milieu’s bosom, whether we like it or not.

It is up to those – Jews and non-Jews alike – who object to polemic masquerading as analysis, to expose the flaws, factual errors, and flimsy presmises that characterise Mr Loewenstein’s work. If we don’t, his words will still be published, and they will still be read by people who may not yet have a clear view on Israel/Palestine.

It is equally important, however, not to try to match Loewenstein’s emotive tactics, or to assume a depth of knowledge on the part of his  readers. Many people see that he has held a university position and written for respected publications and assume that what he says must have merit. Such people will not respond well to tirades from Jews. Indeed, Antony’s original claim to fame – that the Jewish community tried to “silence” him and other dissenting voices – is only bolstered when a hectoring, moralising tone is employed to counter him.

So how exactly does someone without any relevant qualifications, experience of the region, knowledge of its languages, research skills, or even an adequate command of the English language rocket to prominence? Mr. Loewenstein enjoyed an appointment to the board of Macquarie University’s Centre for Middle East and North African Studies, has had two books published and has written for numerous publications – some more estimable than others.

It all began with Margo Kingston. Google her name for instruction in how to destroy your journalism career by veering so far to the left that even The ABC won’t touch you. Back in 2004, she commissioned Mr Loewenstein to write a chapter for her book, “Not Happy John: Defending our Democracy.” Mr Loewenstein’s chapter centred on the unfortunate Hanan Ashrawi affair. In 2003,  a number of prominent Jews made a number of egregious public relations and media blunders in their attempts to prevent Dr Ashrawi’s receiving the Sydney Peace Foundation’s peace prize.

Peter Wertheim, who is ECAJ’s newly appointed executive director, spoke forcefully about the issue to the Sydney Morning Herald. Jeremy Jones was equally vocal. They very publicly took on then Premier of NSW, Bob Carr, garnered support from then Sydney Lord Mayor, Lucy Turnbull, and – in short – turned what should have been a low profile, two paragraph item in tomorrow’s fish-wrappers into a media dust up that had editors and journalists salivating.

Remember the 8 minute play? Now imagine the furore surrounding that, the foolish media behaviour of Jones and Lamm during that time. Dear readers, that was nothing. Years after, the Ashrawi event is still a touchstone for academics in certain Middle Eastern studies departments who enjoy discussing how Jews like to silence dissenters.

So the likes of Wertheim and Jones – amongst others – created an atmosphere ripe for an opportunist. Mr Loewenstein seized on his “unique” combination of Jewishness and anti-Zionism… and so did the media and academia. Every time one of our leaders tried to argue against him, Mr Loewenstein was able to trot out the accusation that he was being muzzled by the community. And make no mistake, our leaders were as deft at dealing with Mr Loewenstein as they had been with Bob Carr and Hanan Ashrawi.

What Loewenstein may never realise is that he has also been playing the role of “useful idiot.”

As others have mentioned on this blog, he is valuable to anti-Zionists who want to shore up their philo-Semitic credentials before launching into Anti-Zionist rhetoric. He is also a novelty and a lightning rod for intra-communal dissent. He is extremely valuable in places such as Znet because he can say things that would be deemed anti-Semitic were they written by a non-Jew.

His role has been similar at Macquarie. Having spent a fortnight in the Holy Land, not speaking Hebrew, Arabic, or Farsi, and not actually having studied any sort of Middle Eastern related discipline would not normally characterise the CV of someone taking up a position on a Middle East Centre’s board. What value could such a person have, beyond useful idiocy?

But imagine for a moment, that it’s 2003 again. We have the opportunity to rewrite history. Had our leaders not destroyed our communal reputation at the time so thoroughly – had they chosen, perhaps, toaccept that we cannot actually control the outcome of something like the Sydney Peace Prize, Loewenstein would never have had his first big platform.

Our leaders failed us then. Now, we are left with the task at chipping away at Loewenstein’s credibility: a credibility which rests on the media’s and academia’s perception that he has engaged in a Davidian battle against the Jewish communal Goliath – and won.

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Related posts:

  1. The Sensible Jew Salutes Antony Loewenstein.
  2. Antony Loewenstein: Easily Startled
  3. Michael Fagenblat’s Presentation at the Seven Jewish Children Reading
  4. Reader Response 5: Israel, Kangaroo Courts, Unity, Speaking Out, and Subheadings
  5. Reader Response 7: Responding to our Non/Anti-Zionist Readers

16 Responses to “Loewenstein: Why Bother?”

  1. MrZee says:

    It’s a “lightning rod” not a “lightening rod”

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  2. gustavm says:

    As a very, very occasional visitor to this blog a number of observations are called for:

    1 The sub-heading is just plain dumb!

    2 This blog seems, at best, to be able to attract some half-a-dozen commentators who evidently have nothing better to do than talk to and at each other

    3 The blog seems obsessed with its own importance in calling [if not requiring] a response from whomever its question or issue is directed

    4 whatever moderation there is by Yvonne Fein [the public face] is not evident. The double-standards in what is fair comment and a personal attack is astounding. Fein has, at least, attracted her 1
    minute of “fame” by being mentioned in The Sunday Age and even garnering a photo in this week’s AJN.

    More importantly TSJ seems obsessed with [a] attacking just about every communal leader, and [b] Antony Loewenstein. That might be fair enough if the anonymous “author” of TSJ were not such a coward [notwithstanding the pathetic reason for not doing so revealed in this week's AJN] by refusing to reveal who she is. Living in an ivory tower at some Uni somewhere provides no licence to TSJ to be so contemptible in hiding behind her anonymity – yet berating anyone who doesn’t ascribe to her narrow view of the world.

    Whilst on the subject of Antony Loewenstein [a tinge of envy that he is out there with a profile which the TJS clearly hasn't/] to refer to his writing as “poor” seems rather odd and pompous – given that the book My Israel Question was short-listed for the NSW Premier’s Literary Prize. I expect the redoubtable TJS would say that the reason for the latter is obvious. The judges were clearly anti-ZIonists or anti-Israel!!!

    TSJ might do well to get out from behind her PC and get a life. She might even do something constructive by “coming out” and actually participating and doing something worthwhile in the Jewish community – instead of lobbing her rather pathetic and mostly irrelevant hand-grenades from the protection of anonymity.

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  3. Disinterested Observer says:

    Gustavm: I agree with your points 1-4.

    #1 I have tried to gently suggest that the subhead is absurd, although I wasn’t quite so direct as to call it “dumb”, because I’ve been busy criticizing SJ for throwing around language like “swill” and “vile”, so I didn’t want to be too hypocritical.

    #2, well, yes.

    #3 Ahem, well, this blog is in the habit of ordering people about, most of whom, I suspect, never see their orders.

    #4 My first impression of this blog was that it was a hate site. It does have other attributes, but as you say, personal attacks flow freely (in one direction) on this site.

    As for the obsession with Loewenstein: to be frank I am in favour of obsessions, so however absurd this one may be, I say “let it continue”.

    SJ: thank you for reminding me of the Sydney Peace Prize fiasco. I had quite forgotten it and certainly had no idea it launched the career of Antony Loewenstein, culminating in his current capacity as Sydney & New York based internet titan.

    Some interesting points arising from your screed above:

    You mention some academics who “enjoy discussing how Jews like to silence dissenters”.

    You also say that “Had our leaders … chosen, perhaps, to accept that we cannot actually control the outcome of something like the Sydney Peace Prize”. That is, you are asserting that those leaders do in fact believe that they can “control the outcome of something like the Sydney Peace Prize”. They certainly acted at the time as though they could veto it, although one might imagine they learned otherwise.

    But my point is, you are stating that Jewish leaders *act* as though they *do* expect to be able to silence views that they don’t like. Now, if it is OK for *you* to think that, why shouldn’t those academics you mention think as you do?

    Along similar lines, you say that Loewenstein “can say things that would be deemed anti-Semitic were they written by a non-Jew.”

    Do you really believe that “statement X” by a non-Jew would be anti-semetic, but “statement X” by Loewenstein is not? Actually, you don’t say that it would *be* antisemetic, you say it would be “deemed” so.

    (a) can you give any examples of a statement whose meaning and intent depend solely on the genetic makeup of the speaker?

    (b) Who performs the service of “deeming” in these cases?

    I would also be interested in the views of the other contributors on these points.

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  4. O Sensible One, I thought this was a cracking post.

    No one has answered your central question – how should the community react to Loewenstein – so I’ll give it a whirl.

    There are a number of theoretical options.

    1. Ignore him totally
    2. Only correct factual mistakes he has made
    3. Attempt to engage him in public fora, hoping to reveal his inadequacies
    4. Label him a ’self-hating Jew,’ wannabe bigshot, what-have-you.

    The idea behind all these options is to lessen his credibility, and thus make a) media organisations less likely to run him and b) the general public less likely to believe him.

    All the ideas have their flaws (though some have more flaws than others).

    1. Ignore him totally, and he’ll be free to say what he likes. This has the added flaw that he’s so frigging infuriating, that ignoring him, while potentially good in theory, just won’t happen, and we’re likely to get periodic outbursts of frustrated indignation from all sorts of people, including myself.

    2. This is, again in theory, possibly the best method, because, over time, it reveals he makes mistakes, and dispassionate analysis of his work reveals them. The problem is, how does one get across the message that he makes mistakes? If he writes something on a website, his mistakes can be pointed out in comments (on websites other than his own, of course). The problem with that is, few people read comments of articles on websites. Those who do, tend to have their mind made up. (Broad generalisation, I know, but there you have it). If he’s on other media, it’s harder to simply point out mistakes.

    3. Engaging him is the best possible way, in my opinion, but also the least likely method to be pursued. If we were to engage him in public – public debates, televised debates, running his articles in friendly publications, then running counter articles to (again, dispassionately) debunk his bunk, it would show the world or whoever is listening that his arguments really are hollow. The problem with this approach is it takes an initial community decision (or mindset) that he is ‘legitimate.’ There is a fear that engaging him on television or in a public debate ‘legitimises’ him because the public would see him as an equal (or an equal to the other person engaging him). And while this is true, there is no other way to publicly debunk his claims with him on the same stage, unable to respond to well-put arguments. A couple of decent defeats on television would see his credibility shrink.

    4. Ad hominem attacks are the most gratifying in the short-term (and he really is, I mean, REALLY is a schmuck!), but it backfires pretty quickly and as such, should not be used.

    So, in theory, option 3 should be utilised. But it won’t, because of a couple of different reasons. First, the Jewish community and its leadership (which I believe actually is largely representative) is human, and people like Loewenstein get their goat, and they can’t help respond in a bad way. And second, the Jewish community and its leadership is made up of a whole and large range of people, who react different under various circumstances. The community and the leadership is not monolithic, despite what it tries to portray, and what outsiders often think, and as such, hoping that all will agree what the ‘right’ thing to do is, and that they’ll all do the right thing is impossible.

    But let me leave you with a thought. That is, Antony Loewenstein is largely debunked and non-credible, anyway. Don’t believe me?

    When he became better known, as a result of his book being released, he appeared in The Australian, The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, the ABC and all sorts of other media, such as New Matilda and the like. But, when was the last time Loewenstein had an article published in ANY of Australia’s broadsheets? When was the last time he appeared on television? After the initial splash, the sensible media realised that Loewenstein had one thing to say: ‘the Jews stifle dissent.’ However, the very fact he appeared so widely totally undermined his argument, and he was quickly dropped by all mainstream media.

    His media appearances now are largely in media that are on the broad (and sometimes far) left. They already agree with his anti-Israel views, their readers already agree with his anti-Israel (and anti-Jewish establishment) views, and no amount of engagement will change Loewenstein’s credibility in their eyes.

    Yes, he still appears in talkfests where everyone on the panel is anti-Israel (or highly and unfairly critical of Israel, if that’s the more nuanced way of putting it), and his second book was published by the same person who published his first, despite the huge number of embarrassing and simple factual errors in his first), but that’s because the publisher wants to promote him, because birds of a feather hang out in the same pubs. As for his appointment to Macquarie University, the guy behind that, whose name I can’t remember but once did, has long been anti-Israel, and Loewenstein was perfect for him. But the Centre substantially reduced its own credibility by having Loewenstein on the board. I do remember a quote from him. Asked why he had chosen Loewenstein, he replied, (I’m paraphrasing) ‘I wanted to have a Jew on the board.’ While it’s a great idea, in a centre about the Middle East, to have a Jew on the board, to choose the Jew who represents the left-wing, anti-Israel extreme of Australian Jewish opinion says a lot about the character of the man, as well as his academic credentials.

    I haven’t read Loewenstein’s second book. I don’t know if he’s hired a fact-checker. I actually thought it remarkable and – frankly – beyond him to change subjects like he did, and I credit him for that. But it didn’t get him back into the mainstream media, did it?

    Loewenstein’s whiny tone and single-issue message (which was itself incorrect) made him a 15-minute wonder.

    I conclude by saying, if a mainstream media operation approaches the Jewish leadership asking them to engage with Loewenstein in some sort of debate, they should do so, because they’d wipe the floor with him. But if he speaks at left wing writers festivals or writes in New Matilda, let him go wild. They deserve him.

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  5. Disappointed says:

    This site has gone from bad to worse. I am truly disappointed by the levels to which members of the community are prepared to dive in order to get their 15 minutes…I hope it’s worth it.

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  6. Yiddishe Mamme says:

    I’d like to second Elder’s contribution.
    Loewenstein has presented himself as such an extremist, biased anti-Zionist-Israel-Jews, that he’s simply “burned” himself as a media item. However, I also agree with TSJ that Loewenstein as a PHENOMENON (of Jews turning against everything and anything that is Jewish/Israeli/Zionist) is something the Jewish community, here in Australia but also in Israel and in the UK and the US, should develop a way to cope with. It seems to me that the Loewenstein phonomenon has grown in the fertile soil of Post-Zionist academia, and this is one of the first places where a concerted effort to right the facts and reintroduce rationality to the debate may bear fruit.

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  7. michael says:

    Unfortunately Yiddishe Mamme our young Jewish kids that come straight from our Jewish day schools with a appreciation of Israel and Zionism many of them having visited Israel during these years end up coming out of our Universities either as Anti Zionists or at the best disinterested by standers thanks to our Jewish Academics.

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  8. I had a look at Loewenstein’s web site, and its design and his blogging style struck me as an excellent piece of SEO*.

    Elder of Zion puts forward a good analysis of the possible options for response, and others note how this post and others make this look more and more like a Loewenstein hate site. Of course considering that his site is an Israel hate side, the double negative simply makes SJ a pro Israel site ;)

    Anyway, in the spirit of making this topic more about communal advocacy and PR, may I suggest that the best way to combat the likes of Loewenstein is to do substantially what he does but for “our team”, and better.

    Rather than attacking him (aside from direct corrections and responses where needed), articulate and internet-savvy people within our community should promote their own, more rational and balanced, positions on Israel in a way that deflects or indirectly responds to his views, and in a way that is widely publicised and promulgated through online and other media.

    While breaking the academic barrier to centrist and right-wing views is challenging, the media and the internet world can be somewhat leveled with an approach like this.

    * SEO = Search Engine Optimisation. What web sites use to make themselves as popular and widely-read as possible.

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  9. michael says:

    I conclude by saying, if a mainstream media operation approaches the Jewish leadership asking them to engage with Loewenstein in some sort of debate, they should do so, because they’d wipe the floor with him. But if he speaks at left wing writers festivals or writes in New Matilda, let him go wild. They deserve him……..

    Fairfax , ABC and the Universities love him!

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  10. Really?

    When was the last time he was in a Fairfax newspaper or ABC Radio or TV?

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  11. Mohan says:

    I look forward to a debate between Lowenstien and a Zionist. I saw one between Ted Lapkin of AIJAC and Michael Shaik of Australians For Palestine. Shaik “wiped the floor” with Lapkin.

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  12. Edders says:

    Michael, you said in your post that “our young Jewish kids that come straight from our Jewish day schools with a appreciation of Israel and Zionism many of them having visited Israel during these years end up coming out of our Universities either as Anti Zionists or at the best disinterested by standers thanks to our Jewish Academics.”

    Firstly, there is still a very strong community within the Jewish Zionists youth movements from Betar to Hashomer Hatzair which produces proud Jews and proud Zionists such as myself. However, I do share some of your concerns, I believe the reason is because there is a lack of a proper Jewish body that has a voice for Jewish university students. The issue becomes that you step onto the university campus and posters are everywhere sprouting anti-Israel and Anti-Zionist propaganda is enough to scare even some of the proudest people into hiding. The ones left with the passion are the leaders of the youth movements, who devote so much of their time to the youth movements that it is unreasonable for the members of the community to demand much more from them at the moment.

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  13. Edders says:

    Mohan,

    any zionist who knows their dates and arguments would wipe the floor with Loewstein, there are huge holes in his arguments and his research is very much only skin deep. One only needs to ask Loewstein how much time he has spent in the area to know that it would not have been sufficient time to research the complexity of the conflict. More over, in a discussion with him after one of his talks at Monash University, it was easy to see that his ego dominated all areas of debate and discussion as he refused to allow anything that said he was not the first to critisize Israel within the Jewish community, despite many movements coming before him.

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  14. Mohan says:

    Edders thank you for the reply. I am surprised no Zionist has chosen to challenge Lowenstien to an open debate. I am aware of the fact that there are factual errors in his book “My Israel Question.” However, all the criticism against him has been to label him “anti-smite” or “self-hater”, “opportunist” etc etc, while the principled thing to do would be to subject his work to critical analysis. And there cam be a significant serice to Zionism if a champion debates Lowenstien in an open forum.

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  15. sensiblejew says:

    Thank you, Mr Zee.

    Typo corrected.

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  16. sensiblejew says:

    Thank you, Elder of Zion for your wonderful comment. Clearly, I’m not going to agree with everything you’ve written, but your very insightful take on the issue is much appreciated.

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