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Netanyahu's Jaunt Down Under and Colonial Ties That Bind

If Israel was America, protesters would await Netanyahu at the airport holding signs with the letters BLM inscribed on them: Bedouin Lives Matter.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull shake hands during their joint news conference in Sydney, Australia, February 22, 2017.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull shake hands during their joint news conference in Sydney, Australia, February 22, 2017.Credit: JASON REED/REUTERS

Even from a distance it was impossible to ignore the wide smiles and satisfied looks on the faces of Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu during their dream vacation in Australia. Against the backdrop of Sydney’s enchanted views, far away from coalition pressures, criminal investigations and the nagging media, the prime minister was given an ardent embrace by his Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull and an enthusiastic reception by a warm and admiring Jewish community. Palestinian supporters demonstrated in Sydney, Netanyahu got into a superfluous clash with leaders of the Labor Opposition and he might yet pay a dear price one day for ignoring the proud Jewish community of Melbourne, but all in all he was showered with appreciation and admiration and asked to give for nothing in return. Netanyahu got but a taste of his sweet fantasies before returning to the daily grind in Jerusalem, which is probably why he’ll be travelling again soon.

Multi-millionaire Turnbull leads the more moderate wing of his conservative party, which, given that everything is upside down in Australia, is actually called the Liberal Party. Rumor has it that the main reason for Trump’s famously rancorous telephone conversation with Turnbull is his mistaken belief that he was talking to yet another leftist nudnik. Turnbull is a graduate of Oxford and a trained lawyer who tried his hand at different business ventures until hitting it big with a lucrative 1994 exit from one of Australia’s first email providers. He represents the electoral division of Wentworth in Sydney, in which most of the city’s well off Jewish community resides, and the two sides have developed mutual admiration societies over the years. Turnbull’s wife, Lucy, once served as Lord Mayor of Sydney. In many ways, he and Netanyahu are a perfect match for each other: Both are probably lamenting the fact that when they finally get a U.S. president of their own ilk, it comes in the form of an unguided missile like Trump.

Israel is not the first thing on the minds of Australians, to say the least, but the ties between the two countries are deep and mostly positive. This year will mark the 100th anniversary of the Australian Light Cavalry’s conquest of the city of Be’er Sheva during World War I. The event features prominently in Australia’s military legacy, which was described by Netanyahu, who apparently thought Turkey’s Erdogan wasn’t listening, as “liberation from the Ottoman Empire.” Australian troops in Palestine were very popular in the old Yishuv, especially among women, as my dear mother always informed me, with a twinkle in her eyes. Australia wasn’t just the first country to vote for the 1947 Partition Resolution, the decision may not have come to pass at all were it not for the efforts of Aussie diplomat H.V. Evatt who chaired a special committee on Palestine and dealt with the aftermath of the resolution as President of the General Assembly. Australian public opinion has traditionally been a bit less warm toward Israel than, say, American public opinion, but for the past forty years, successive Australian governments, especially on the conservative side, have been among Israel’s most steadfast supporters.

One can find common, overarching threads between Israel and Australia that can include, in some cases, the United States as well. All three were founded by immigrants and refugees, who created – or at least recreated – new nationalities. All three received their independence in one way or another from England while adopting and adapting its legal system, though Australia is the only one who hasn’t completely let go, despite Turnbull’s past efforts to declare a Republic and remove the English Queen as sovereign. All three venerate the pioneering spirit and the conquest of the wilderness. All three excel – in the case of Australia, at least dream of excelling – in creativity and innovation. All three view themselves as outposts of equality and democracy in hostile and undemocratic surroundings, as Netanyahu pointed out in Sydney, just like he did in the U.S. Congress, in a not completely accurate quote from George Eliot’s pro-Zionist novel Daniel Deronda, published in 1876. One of the protagonists, Mordechai Ezra Cohen, blasts the debauched and corrupt “Turk” who controlled the Holy Land at the time, promising “a [Jewish] republic where there is equality of protection, an equality which shone like a star on the forehead of our ancient community, and gave it more than the brightness of Western freedom amid the despotisms of the East.”

It’s not certain that this is the best line that Netanyahu could have come up with. Eliot’s support for the Jews setting up a forward Western position among the primitive Eastern nations was used by Palestinian historian Edward Said to prove that Zionism is another manifestation of Western colonialism that sought to displace indigenous peoples. In the eyes of Zionism’s enemies, this is another common denominator binding Israel, Australia and the United States together. Since the 1960’s, Australia has come to terms with its past denial of the displacement and massacres of Australian Aboriginals that, together with the far deadlier Western diseases imported by newcomers, decimated the indigenous population from about half a million in 1788, when the first settlers came, to only 31,000 in 1911. The population has gone back up to its original size now, though Aboriginal independence, pride and much of the culture have been lost forever.

Netanyahu got a taste of local repentance when he heard several statements of Acknowledgement of Country during his stay, which is the way Australians now honor the original owners of their land in most official ceremonies and functions. Canberra has never fully apologized for its overall treatment of the indigenous people on the Australian continent, though former Australian Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a formal apology in 2008 for what is called the Stolen Generations, the Aboriginal children torn from their homes so they might assimilate among Christian families. Together with former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, Rudd is one of two former prime ministers, both considered friendly to Israel during their tenure, with whom Netanyahu clashed during his visit after they proposed that Australia recognize Palestinian statehood. 

The United States also apologized to Native Americans, who were displaced and in many cases destroyed – though the country did so on the sly and almost as an afterthought, disguised as a clause in a 2009 defense appropriation bill which Barack Obama signed into law. The apology did not allow for Native Americans to sue for damages and Obama did not mention it much in public, though when he did he was criticized, of course, by conservative commentators. Whatever progress was made, however, will certainly come to a halt in the age of Trump, who has been likened, both by himself and admirers, to the average American’s hero, former President Andrew Jackson, who is also considered the biggest ethnic cleanser of Native Americans in U.S. history.

Trump’s promoters, including Steve Bannon, portray him as successor to Jackson’s populist style, citing their popularity among lower and middle class – and white, of course – Americans. Jackson was also considered a master at manipulating the increasingly powerful printed press of the early 19th century, just as Trump is a champion of Twitter today. Jackson rode a wave of anger and protest at Washington corruption, all the way to a rebound landslide victory in the 1828 presidential elections, an analogy picked up after the elections by Trump himself, who said “there hasn’t been a popular movement like this since Andrew Jackson.” But Jackson had darker sides as well, which may come too close for comfort for Trump. Historians say he ultimately dumped the old Washington elite for a new one made up mostly of his friends and cronies, on whom he showered perks and bestowed land grabs. He was also the owner of 200-300 African American slaves, though he was considered more humane than many contemporaries because he provided his slaves with food and shelter.

Jackson, who fought as a boy in the War of Independence, was a hero of the War of 1812. He liberated New Orleans from a superior British force but also conducted bloody reprisals against Indian tribes who sided with the crown. Several years later he took Florida away from Spain and was appointed as its governor, conducting bloody wars against Native American tribes, especially the Seminoles. As president he legislated the Indian Removal Act to facilitate the forced transfer of hundreds of thousands of Native Americans from their historic grounds in the American South so their lands could be given to European settlers. The forced removal is known in American history as “Trail of Tears” and is sometimes compared to Nazi death marches for Jewish and other concentration camp prisoners.

Of course, many Israelis will vehemently protest their inclusion in such a colonialist grouping. First, because Zionists claim that they didn’t take Palestine away from another people but were rather reclaiming their ancient homeland. Second, because even by the descriptions of Zionism’s worst enemies, it’s hard to compare the fate of Aboriginals and Native Americans to that of Palestinians, harsh as it may have been. Third, because there is no small amount of hypocrisy in the fact that Australians and Americans allow themselves to criticize Israel, given their past, which is probably why many of them don’t.

Both countries, on the other hand, have made some efforts to confront their dark pasts, while in Israel the denialism is steadily growing. The very discussion of the Palestinian tragedy of 1948, which Palestinians call the “Nakba,” is now regarded as almost treasonous. One consequence of this refusal to stare history in the face is the parallel denial of the fact that Arab lives are cheaper in Israel, as are Aboriginal lives in Australia and Native American lives in the United States. This was evident this week as well, with the sentence handed down in the trial of Hebron shooter Elor Azaria, which dealt with army discipline and procedures rather than the value of human life, and even more so with the new revelations about the house demolitions in the Bedouin village of Umm el-Hiran.

It’s abundantly obvious that Israel’s minister for internal security and the police chief would never have allowed themselves to blame the victim, Yakub Abu al-Kiyan, for his own death and to immediately accuse him of being an ISIS terrorist if he had been Jewish, even if all the other circumstances were completely identical. By the same token, the policemen at the scene would have never dared to let him bleed to death for over twenty minutes if he had been Jewish and they would never have come to carry out civilian house demolitions with a deployment usually reserved for a retaliation raid against terrorist bases in the first place.

There are of course valid reasons for some of the Israeli forces’ behavior but one can’t escape the underlying traces of racism and one can’t deny the knowledge that someone who belonged to the ruling race would have met a different fate. This isn’t all that different from what routinely happens in classic colonialist states with sordid pasts. If this was America, Netanyahu would be met at the airport upon returning from his jaunt in Australia by protesters waving large signs with the letters BLM inscribed on them: Bedouin Lives Matter.