…we hold them by the balls, and they hold us by the throat. We squeeze and they squeeze back. We are trapped by them, and they are trapped by us. Avi Shalit, My Promised Land.
Seen from the air, they’re just targets with nowhere to run to”. Bruce Cockburn, Tropic Moon
Australian journalist John Lyons was The Australian’s Middle East correspondent for six years from 2009. During that time, Lyons resided in Jerusalem, together with his wife, photographer and producer Sylvie Le Clezio, and their young son Jack.
Balcony in Jerusalem is his memoir of those years. And this is my wide-ranging review. The captioned pictures are my own.
The balcony of the title looks over the old City of Jerusalem and the southern Arab suburbs of East Jerusalem, once part of the Jordanian-ruled West Bank, and now annexed by Israel and indeed, part of the Jerusalem municipality. From their balcony, the family Lyons were able to look over Jewish Jerusalem at their feet, and beyond, to what was “no man’s land” before June 1967, thence, to the fabled Golden Walls of Sulaiman the Magnificent, and across the Old City – and the sacred sites of the Kotel and the Haram ash Sharif with its Dome of Rock the and al Aqsa mosque – eastwards to the Mount of Olives, and beyond to the Judean Desert and the distant mountains of Jordan, the former ruler of these contested and conflicted lands. It is a view to literally die for, although in this city, it can also become reality.
From their balcony, for six years they were able to view Jerusalem the Golden, the apocryphal navel of the world, as the city’s variegated faithful celebrate their respective religious holy days as well as its the it’s political turmoil, so often signaled by sirens, explosions, and clouds of tear gas.
When I visit Jerusalem – less frequently than I would like – I stay at that remarkable fin de siècle pile, the New Imperial Hotel, just inside the Jaffa Gate. From its rooftop terrace, one can view the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (see my mage below), the Haram ash Sharif, and beyond them, Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives. My balcony on the second floor looks out onto the imposing King David Citadel and right over the ever-busy Omar Ibn al Khatab Square. From there you can watch the comings and goings of the many tribes of this holiest of cities. Arabs and Jews, soldiers and tradesmen, priests and pilgrims from all quarters of the world. It is not as panoramic or politically eventful as the Lyons’ scenic set-up. It is more a tableau, a microcosm: celebratory gatherings young soldiers and settlers, all flags and horas; a constant promenade of Haredi families and individuals young and old passing by on Shabbat eve, enroute to the Western Wall; and processions of chanting monks and singing pilgrims on their way to and from The Church, as the basilica of the Holy Sepulcher is known. [See my post Amazing Grace – There’s Magic in the Air]
Having followed John Lyons reportage for decades with interest and approbation, I expected big things from this memoir. I came away slightly disappointed. In the words of an aquaintance who described his description of the realities of the Occupation as an eye-opener, he needed a better editor. Which itself is a disappointment too, because I worked for this publisher for many decades, and believed that my old mob could do better than this.
Whilst the book follows his posting in Israel more or less chronologically, it feels somewhat disjointed and out of balance, and in parts, frustratingly repetitious. Lyons was News Corp’s man on the spot during the seminal events of the last decade. He was in Iran to cover the failed Green Revolution, and in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the momentous days that led to the fall of Mubarak. He was in Libya to witness the fall of Gaddafi , and reported from both sides on the last Gaza war. And yet, he devotes considerably less print-space to these events than he does to his personal difficulties of dealing with the Australian Jewish lobby, Australian politicians, and his bosses at The Australian.
Whilst I acknowledge that this is a book pitched at an Australian readership, I would much have preferred less of this, and more historical background and analysis of the momentous events that he witnessed. And, indeed, more of an insight into Israeli politics and the society and culture in which he was embedded for six years.
He writes at length of his fractious relationships with pro-Israeli lobby groups outside Israel – particularly in the US and Australia, and indeed, as I have noted, lingers over-long on the latter, and with his dealings with a collection of Australian political figures, most of whom have now departed the scene. We learn that he and foreign editor Greg Sheridan did not see eye to eye on Israel – more more precisely on what Sheridan considered Lyons anti-Israel perspective in a Four Corners special report. We now know that he did not get on with – indeed, probably loathed, and still loathes Nick Cater, his one-time editor at the Australian. “He told me that ‘the Middle East is such a complex part of the world that a correspondent should spend the first 12 months learning about the area and just writing news”. Certainly, the Mideast is complex, but Lyons owed it to his readers that he tell it as he saw it, well informed or not. Many journalists, including several at The Australian, less capable and more partisan than he, expound at length on matters whereof they know little or else tailor the facts to suit their particular ideological hobby-horse (I immensely dislike Nick Cater too, “culture war” warrior, and one of the right-wing media’s more overrated attack dogs [See my polemic on this pundit: Outside Looking In]
All this detracts from the main message of his story: the Occupation and whether both Israel and the Palestinians can possibly escape from it’s destructive, corrupting grasp; the IDF, the occupying power, self-described as “the most moral army in the world”, and the highly effective PR regime that diverts world attention from some of its less than moral practices; the power of the American Jewish lobby, and to a lesser extent other influential lobbies in the Anglosphere; and the right-wing nationalists of Netanyahu’s government, the settler movement and other proponents of the Greater Israel project.
Lyons comes into his own in describing his family’s experience of day-to-day life in Israel, and the frustrations of dealing with the Israeli authorities, the IDF, the media, and the state and military PR machines. Particularly disturbing are his accounts of the petty injustices of the occupation, the often arbitrary and seemingly casual violence and brutality meted out by Israeli soldiers and bureaucrats. The review by David Lesor, reproduced below describes some of this in death, as does David Shulman in an article I have linked to also. See also the recent anthology Kingdom of Olives and Ash – writers confront the Occupation,
Lyons visits the city of Hebron early on in his posting. Here, he writes, “you can see the raw conflict…it’s the only Palestinian city where there is an isreali settlement in the middle of the Palestinian population”. In Children of Abraham, an account of my own visit to Hebron, I write that the city is “a fault line of faiths and a front line in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. It is a flash-point, a place where tensions between Israelis and Palestinians are usually followed by calamity’. It is indeed a microcosm of the Occupation, and there is no denying the brutality of the place. But Lyons, like most other western journalists, give readers an impression that Israel dominates this Palestinian city of some 200,000 souls. In reality, the area under military control, immediately surrounding the ancient Ibrahimi mosque, holy to two faiths, is very small. But in this pressure cooker of a ghetto reside some 700 settlers and thirty thousand Palestinians, segregated from each other by walls and wire, fear and loathing – and by two soldiers to every settler.
Lyons provides disturbing accounts of the day to day indignities faced by Palestinians living under the occupation, and the Kafka-lite frustrations of navigating the bureaucratic snakes and ladders. Yet, his story feels somewhat unbalanced insofar as he does not venture too deeply into the murky waters of Palestinian politics and society. He fails to address the difficulties facing the Palestinians in developing a united, consistent and coherent approach to the Israeli occupation and to the quest for an equitable solution to the seventy year old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nor does he consider the failure of the Palestinians’ political representatives in developing the political and economic infrastructure of a viable, independent, democratic state.
Dominated by Israel, the Palestinians are let down by their own side. More than three-quarters of Palestinians feel their de facto government, the Palestinian Authority, is corrupt. Twelve years into a four year term, the ageing Mahmoud Abbas is damaged goods insofar as he sits atop an autocratic, morally bankrupt Palestinian Authority, the government of a potentially failed non-state kept afloat by UN funds, foreign donors, and expatriate remittences and investment. It’s military, armed, dressed and trained by Israel and the US, is effectively the IDF’s security surrogate. When the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, the top pollster in the West Bank, asked people to name the biggest problem in society, a majority of its respondents choose internal ones: poverty, unemployment, corruption and the political schism between Hamas and Fatah. Just 27 percent said the occupation is their largest concern. The official unemployment rate in the West Bank is 16 percent, and roughly one in five families lives in poverty. (The actual figures are thought to be higher). [In Castles Made of Sand, I look at the Palestinian economy and the current property boom in the West Bank].
As Israeli politics and opinion move relentlessly, in Lyon’s telling, away from the two-state solution to what is increasingly a Greater Israel, it would be informative to consider the Palestinians’ perspective on these developments, the circumstances that drive Palestinian politics, and that might on one hand play into the Israelis’ hands, and on another, might confound the Israeli nationalist agenda.
Whilst the military and security establishment might believe that that Israel’s future security and survival demands an end to the occupation, the politicians and the electorate are resigned to its continuation and to the permanence and continued expansion of the settlements. Resigned to the depredations, pogroms, and land grabs, price-tag destruction of olive groves, and desecration of mosques and churches by young Jewish zealots. Resigned to a perpetual state of emergency in the West Bank policed by Shin Bet, the IDF, and an army of conscripted soldier-children (who become accustomed to their role as immature enforcers).
And resigned to an Arab population of several million people physically and spiritually controlled by walls, checkpoints, roads they cannot use, permits, demolitions, detentions (often without trial and including thousands of children – again, read the Lesor review below) and martial law, and by a corrupt, compromised, co-opted, and autocratic puppet government.
In one of several important observations, derived from his many conversations in Israel, Lyons notes that the existence of the Occupation has become normalized in the minds of very many if not most Israelis – a disturbing but manageable fact if life, much like the the policing of a violent and troublesome city suburb. He notes that the once vibrant peace movement that coalesced around Yitzak Rabin prior to his murder at the hands of a nationalist zealot has all but disappeared as the left and centre of Israeli politics and opinion put their reluctant support behind a policy of security first and foremost. The impetus for this came with the second Intifada of 2000-2004 in which the violence was brought over the pre-1967 Green Line to the bus stops, cafes and pizzerias of Israel. Over four thousand souls perished, and so many Israelis were wounded or murdered that few families and communities were untouched by the violence. This left lasting teeth marks in the Israeli national psyche. It was this that led directly the enfeeblement of the “peace now” movement and to the slow but steady Israeli withdrawal from contact with the “other side”.
The hatred, the racism, the distrust, the invisibility of one to the other, the deeply held belief that each wants to destruction the other’s right to exist as a people, as a nation state, has been commented on before and often. Quite recently and cogently by David Remnick in The New Yorker magazine. Quoting retired IDF general Gadi Shamni, Remnick recounts: “There is a generation in Israel who never had any kind of positive interaction with Palestinians. They see them coming to work in Israel or on TV when there is a stabbing or a suicide bomber. For children at the age of twenty in Israel, most of what they know about Palestinians is what they see on TV. The first time they meet Palestinians is while they are serving in the IDF, if they serve in the West Bank, in Judea and Samaria”.
Today’s Israelis don’t “see” the Palestinians – they have become almost invisible. Very many Israelis have never lived amongst Palestinians or interacted with them as Israelis did in the past. Most don’t see or experience the Occupation – and are reticent to even refer to it as such. As Shamni said, many young people’s experience and knowledge of Palestinians comes from their military service in the West Bank, and all that this entails physically and psychologically. Hence the very idea of the Occupation is normalized, sanitized even, regardless of what it might be doing to Israel’s international standing and indeed, Israel’s “soul” (if a country could be said to have such). It is a concept that Israeli author and journalist Avi Shalit elaborates upon in his challenging memoir My Promised Land.
Separation, meanwhile works, both ways. Since June 1967 and up to some twenty years ago, Palestinians could travel across the old Green Line for work or leisure (including the pleasure of going to the seaside). Many Israelis and Arabs worked together and mixed socially. Since the second Intifada and the construction of the Separation Barrier Palestinians who do not hold resident status in east Jerusalem or one of the many kinds of permits that Lyons lists sardonically, Palestinian are literally and figuratively walled in. The work that Palestinians crossed into Israel to perform is now done by thousands of South and East Asians – just like in the Arab Gulf states (whilst Israel, like most advanced economies, has attracted tens of thousands of illegal migrants). Most young Palestinians have no experience of or relationships with ordinary Israelis – except for the young soldiers they encounter on roads, at checkpoints, and in protests.
Meanwhile, several generations of Palestinians have come through a school system that has inculcated an intellectually quarantined youth with ignorance of and hatred for Israelis in particular and generally, often through the medium of teachers and textbooks paid for and published by UNRWA with donor dollars. In some perverse dialectic, many Israeli school children are also taught to fear and villify their Arab neighbours. And so, two peoples that were after 1948 and 1976 forced to interact and ‘deal’ with each other are pushed further and further apart.
Israelis cannot just bury the Palestinians behind a wall, as many appear content to do, or keep them caged up Gaza, in what commentators, including Lyons, call “the largest open prison in the world” (hyperbole, perhaps – it fails to explain the fact that that this much-bombed, deprived city, and its shattered environs contain luxury apartment blocks and five star hotels, and that many Hamas’ leaders are billionaires – but that’s another story for another time).
Another important observation that Lyons makes is how many interested parties have a vested interest in the perpetuation of the occupation. Firstly, the obvious suspects: the settlement movement and its boosters on the nationalist and religious right – the shock troops of the Greater Israel project – and their supporters in the diaspora. Secondly, the Palestinian Authority, UNWRA and the NGOs, for whom the occupation is a political and economic raison d’etre, the mother-lode of funds, jobs, weapons, patronage, favours and protection rackets. And thirdly, hiding on plain sight, those old villains the international, but most particularly US and Israeli arms and security industries. Surrounding all this like a carapace, an impenetrable shield of money, influence, blackmail and connections, are the various Jewish support lobbies across the globe – but most notably in the Anglosphere, especially in the US – and an impressive PR, perception management machine nonpareil that ensures a narrative that supports Israel’s interests and agenda and stifles any negative reportage. It is something, Lyons argues, that the Palestinians, for all the Arab funding, UN bias and left-wing support throughout the world cannot even begin to match. And fourthly, the support that the messianic, Pentecostal US Christian lobby gives to Israel, in lock step with the nationalist Greater Israelites if only to realize biblical prophecies and bring Armageddon closer.
Meanwhile Israel becomes more and more isolated on the international stage, shielded by its fixers and spin doctors, and the political support of its overseas supporters and an uncritical diaspora, unable to perceive itself as others do. But, “in a social media world, when every Palestinian death, everyday protest, every home demolition can be captured on a mobile phone, the best PR are in the world, the best media management, the best connections in the corridors of foreign powers cannot maintain damage control, and prevent Israel from being viewed increasingly as a pariah state, devaluing its credentials as the only democracy in a region of terror and tyranny, anarchy and war, and destroying the reputation of what it believes – and its supporters believe is the most moral army in the world”.
“Israel’s government has unprecedented power. It can resolve one of the regions most destabilizing conflicts, one that has dragged on for seventy years. Like a couple trapped in an abusive marriage, and unable to agree on the terms of the divorce, two people’s with reasonable claims to the family home are unable to figure out what to do”.
Netanyahu, Lyons writes, has skillfully played the long game. He is “the shrewdest politician I have ever seen”. He has killed off all prospects of peace based on an equitable solution, and the Israeli electorate and its supporters abroad have become resigned to this reality. Moreover, the realities of modern Israeli politics and society do not engender goodwill, fair-mindedness, and the willingness to compromise. Chemi Shalev, Ha’Aretz correspondent wrote recently (19 Sept 2017): “A disgruntled prime minister who excels at spreading poison, along with a corrupt government, embarrassing parliamentarians, shallow discourse, overbearing religion, growing nationalism, flourishing racism , diminishing tolerance , a democracy fighting for its life, and the collective denials of fifty years of occupation and disenfranchisement of the Palestinians. All these have made pride a rarity and shame seem completely routine”.
Lyons’ prognosis is not an optimistic one. Israel will suffer the consequences of Netanyahu’s “sacrifice of peace on the altar of Greater Israel”. The settlements are here to stay. The two-state solution is dead in the water. The Palestinian state is still-born. The oncoming train of the “one state” solution is about to hit, and Israel will have to chose between giving up being a Jewish state by absorbing the Palestinian population and giving up being a democratic one denying full voting rights to the Palestinians. In this devil’s bargain, does Israel relinquish the Zionist dream of a Jewish democratic state, or become one state for two peoples?
Sooner or later, Lyons, believes, the status quo will explode. It won’t hold. “Either the Palestinians will explode or the international community will explode and say ‘No more apartheid’ and they will sit on our necks”. Or, as Avi Shalit prosaically puts it: “…we hold them by the balls, and they hold us by the throat. We squeeze and they squeeze back. We are trapped by them, and they are trapped by us”.
As Israel becomes more isolated from in western eyes, many Israelis want to cut contact with those who challenge what their government is doing in the West Bank.
“If the whole world could see the Occupation up close, it would demand that it end tomorrow…The only reason Israel is getting away with it is because it has one if the most formidable public-relations machines ever seen, and enormous support from its diaspora communities. But while this worked for the first few decades of the occupation, now virtually every incident between an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian is filmed by a mobile phone. Military occupations look ugly because they are ugly. Israel’s reputation will bleed as long as its control over another people continues”.
Lyons predicts that history will catch up with Israel, and that the longer it takes, the more tragic it will be. You can’t deny nearly three million people all civil rights for fifty years without dire consequences. Or two million people in Gaza locked up forever in the world’s largest open-air prison. “one day those five million people will rise up”. As Bruce Cockburn memorably sang in Santiago Dawn, it takes more to keep a people down “than a strong arm up your sleeve”. The problems will not go away with either continued occupation or annexation. They will continue “rising like grass through cement” (Bruce again).
Israeli academic and activist David Shulman, writing in the New York Review of Books, reviews a suite of books published in this fiftieth anniversary year. It is well worth reading. Shulman shares Lyons’ pessimism: “If I had to guess, I’d say the occupation will eventually collapse under the cumulative weight of wrongdoing, misery, and existential peril that it entails, maybe even in our lifetime—not, however, with a whimper”
Commentators have asked whether the current and ongoing Intifada Saki-niyeh (the Knife Intifada), the Intifada Siyara-t (the Car Intifada), and ‘lone wolf’ murder of soldiers and settlers, and the IDF’s lethal treatment of actual, attempted, and suspected perpetrators, are indeed preludes to a third and more violent uprising, another “on-coming train”, to use Lyons’ words.
Can there be a way forward that doesn’t involve “fauda” or chaos (the title of successful Israeli television thriller, and the subject of David Remnick’s article quoted above) or carnage? Lyons quotes author and activist Amos Oz. The conflict is “a clash of right and right”. “Tragedies are resolved in one of two ways: the Shakespearean Way and the Anton Chekhov Way. In a tragedy by Shakespeare, the stage at the end is littered with dead bodies. In a tragedy by Chekhov, everyone is unhappy, bitter, disillusioned and melancholy, but they are alive. My colleagues in the peace movement and I are working for a Chekhovian not a Shakespearean conclusion”.
© Paul Hemphill, September 2017. All rights reserved
David Leser, The Weekend Australian 7th August 2017
John Lyons is no stranger to controversy. When I first met him on this newspaper 33 years ago, the debate around him, at least among some of his older colleagues, was whether, at the age of 24, he had the maturity to serve as chief of staff for the country’s national daily.
To no one’s great surprise he proved he had both the mettle and the brains for the job, and over the past three decades he has gone on to an impressive career in Australian journalism: editor of The Sydney Morning Herald at 33, national affairs editor at The Bulletin at 37, executive producer of the Nine Network’s Sunday program at 42. And in between New York correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and Washington correspondent for The Australian.
In the process he has earned numerous accolades, including three Walkley Awards and, in 1999, the Graham Perkin Award for his “groundbreaking and outstanding reporting on national affairs”.
Along the way this Catholic-born son of a working middle-class Melbourne family has frequently created a storm — sometimes in a teacup but more often than not of the kind that roils the atmosphere and creates outbursts of feeling that never quite dissipate.
In the late 1980s supermodel Elle Macpherson made herself look like a super chump in the pages of Good Weekend when she told Lyons, “I never read anything I haven’t written myself.”
A few years later in a profile of Malcolm Turnbull, Lyons incurred the wrath of his subject — not hard to do, mind you — by dissecting the menace behind the young lawyer’s charm. “My tentacles spread to New York,” Turnbull told Lyons, smiling, just before Lyons moved to that city where, soon after, at a gala dinner he almost came to blows with Richard Butler, Australia’s then ambassador to the UN. (Butler was incensed by a story Lyons had written.)
Nick Whitlam, son of former prime minister Gough Whitlam, sued Lyons and Nine over an interview Lyons did with him for the Sundayprogram — an interview that, in 2001, won Lyons one of his Walkleys.
Four years later Paul Keating was enraged when Lyons penned a piece for The Bulletin in which he cast the former PM as a foul-mouthed, embittered and at times unhinged recluse.
Lyons often courts argument the way game hunters pursue their next kill. The bigger the better. I know this because, as a friend and colleague over the past three decades, I have watched, sometimes with a mixture of wonder and astonishment, as he takes on his next out-size target.
Now, even by Lyons’s own headline-grabbing standards, he has managed to outdo himself. In his new memoir, Balcony Over Jerusalem, based on his six years (2009-15) covering the region, Lyons has achieved the uncommon feat of not only excoriating the state of Israel for its brutal treatment of Palestinians but also one of the most powerful lobby groups in Australia, the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, and one of his own former senior colleagues as well.
Let’s start with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has raged on and off for the past century. For exactly half this time, since the 1967 Six-Day War, the Israelis have ruled over the lives of millions of Palestinians on the West Bank of the Jordan River, aided and abetted by successive Israeli and American administrations, pro-Israel lobby groups and billionaire political donors such as American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, all in defiance of international law and expert opinion.
During that time the number of Jewish settlers, fired by a messianic belief in their right to settle ancient Israel, or the “Promised Land”, not to mention cheap housing subsidies from the Israeli government, have grown from a few hundred early pioneers to more than 420,000 and counting — and that’s not including the more than 200,000 Jewish settlers in largely Arab East Jerusalem.
It is this ceaseless military occupation and land grab, together with the daily humiliations, large and small, meted out by Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers to a desperate people, that Lyons directs his considerable firepower towards.
If the whole world could see the occupation up close, it would demand that it end tomorrow. Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians would not pass muster in the West if the full details were known. The only reason Israel is getting away with this is because it has one of the most formidable public-relations machines ever seen, and enormous support from its diaspora communities.
Lyons’s memoir is not solely concerned with the perpetual entanglement of Abraham’s children. He also ventures to Libya and Egypt during the height of the Arab Spring (where in the latter case he finds himself blindfolded and interrogated by Egyptian soldiers); Iran during the rigged elections of 2009; Syria before and after the catastrophic civil war erupts in 2011; and Iraq briefly in the summer of 2014. He does all this with a fearlessness and derring-do that have become his hallmark.
But after arriving in Jerusalem in 2009 with his wife, Sylvie Le Clezio (whose arresting photographs feature in the book), and their eight year-old son, Jack, it is Israel’s vice-like grip on the West Bank that absorbs much of Lyons’s attention.
Early on we share his distress as he witnesses an elderly Palestinian woman with a trolley overloaded with belongings waiting at a military checkpoint to cross into Israel from Jordan. An Israeli security guard walks by and kicks the trolley, causing the contents to spill.
In another incident Lyons is shocked when an old Palestinian man in a wheelchair, his leg bleeding from a recent car crash, is denied medical help at the same security crossing. Lyons intercedes on the man’s behalf and has his journalist’s visa revoked soon after. (His work status is later restored.
It gets worse. Lyons then revisits a story he wrote for The Australian,and later in a joint investigation for the ABC’s Four Corners (titled Stone Cold Justice). Palestinian children, some as young as 12, are arrested in the middle of the night, taken away for interrogation, and in some cases tortured into making false confessions.
“If police or soldiers in Australia took Aboriginal children from their beds at three in the morning and did what Israel does there would be uproar,” Lyons writes now.
The Four Corners report, which won the 2014 Walkley for investigative journalism, incurred the wrath of Australian Jewish leaders, as well as The Australian’s foreign editor Greg Sheridan. “I have the greatest respect for John,” Sheridan wrote later. “He has produced some outstanding journalism in his time … However the Four Corners program was a disgrace, a crude piece of anti-Israel propaganda that revived some of the oldest anti-Semitic tropes.”
Lyons hit back: “Why can journalists put the Australian Army or federal police or US Army through the ringer, but if we investigate the most powerful army in the Middle East it’s anti-Semitism?”
Lyons continues this theme in Balcony Over Jerusalem, setting out the confronting nature of what is one of the longest-running military occupations in modern history. He looks at the unlawful seizure of Palestinian land, the growth of Jewish settlements, the constant intimidation of Palestinians by armed settlers, the demolition of Palestinian homes, the encircling of Palestinian villages, the security wall that has severed Palestinians from their land (and each other), the indefinite imprisonments, curfews and deportations. The constant indignities.
He also details an “apartheid-like” system in which Palestinians are subject to 101 types of permits so that their movements can be identified, monitored and, ultimately, restricted.
“There are business permits, permits for religious purposes and permits for spouses of Palestinians who live in Jerusalem,” he writes. “There are permits for hospital visits, permits that a doctor needs to travel and permits to escort sick people in an ambulance. There are permits to travel to a wedding and permits to attend a funeral, permits for work meetings and permits for court hearings.”
At one military checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, Lyons’s wife sees an old Palestinian man carrying a pink bag containing hot food that he is hoping to share with his daughter in Jerusalem. “The soldier said he couldn’t pass,” writes Lyons. “A valid permit didn’t make any difference: the soldier had decided no, and in a military occupation the soldier is the law.”
Le Clezio watched the old man shuffle away with his pink bag, causing Lyons to observe: “This incident made me realise that the tyranny of the occupation comes through the power of 18 or 19-year-old soldiers. These checkpoints are daily incubators of hatred, generation after generation. As long as there is occupation there will be hatred. And in some cases a desire for revenge.”
The Australian Jewish lobby didn’t much like Lyons’s reporting when he was based in the Middle East, and will certainly not like what he unleashes now. In a chapter titled The Lobby he paints a picture of sustained criticism, and at times flagrant interference, by AIJAC, among others, while he was covering the region.
This reached its apogee when Colin Rubenstein, the head of AIJAC, sought to circumvent The Australian’s then editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell after he refused to take his calls. As Mitchell would later tell Lyons: “Sometimes with Colin Rubenstein I’d say, ‘Send a letter or write a column’, but other times if I wouldn’t take his calls he’d go behind my back to Nick Cater [then editor of The Weekend Australian]. I got upset with Colin when he rang me and attacked [the late] Australian reporter Elisabeth Wynhausen as a ‘self-loathing’ Jew. I thought it was inappropriate for him to be making that kind of comment about one of my staff. For some time after that I stopped taking his calls.”
And while Mitchell stopped taking Rubenstein’s calls, Cater stopped running Lyons’s stories. As Lyons writes: “He [Cater] told me that ‘the Middle East is such a complex part of the world that a correspondent should spend the first 12 months learning about the area and just writing news’.” (Lyons says Cater declined to be interviewed for his book.)
It is this writer’s opinion that Cater has a point. Not that a correspondent should refrain from writing features and analysis pieces until he has absorbed a year’s worth of knowledge, but that the Middle East is a hellishly complex place. Every aspect of history is contested. Every word is loaded.
I’ve reported on this conflict on and off for 40 years, including in the pages of this newspaper in the late 1980s. As a journalist — and as a Jew — I’ve anguished endlessly over Israel’s subjugation of the Palestinians and deplored the way the pro-Israel lobby sometimes sides with the most politically conservative elements within Israel, while all too readily dismissing Israel’s critics as “anti-Semitic”.
I’ve argued with family members over this issue, and lost Jewish friends in the process — all because I believe, like Lyons, that the occupation is a moral stain on both the Jewish state and the Jewish soul.
I have discussed this issue with Lyons for more than 30 years and I admire his nerve — indeed his audacity — in taking on this subject with such passion and determination. My concern is that for all the rush of understandable anger he directs at Israel, his book is mostly devoid of sympathy for the multiple internal problems and frailties that Israelis face, not to mention the wild diversity of the country’s immigrant survivor population.
“I’d always found it strange,” he writes, “that a country exercising military authority over 2.9 million Palestinians in occupied territory could be a victim. This would make Israel simultaneously an occupier and a victim.”
That’s right. Both are true at the same time and Lyons fails, in my opinion, to handle this with the subtlety and moral poise it deserves.
Throughout history Jews have been despised, displaced, vilified, persecuted and, ultimately, exterminated for the fact of their Jewishness, and they have carried this collective trauma — this epigenetic inheritance — into a murderous neighbourhood where they are both a minority and majority at the same time. A tiny minority among hundreds of millions of (mostly) Muslim Arabs and a majority when it comes to the Palestinians.
That, along with countless wars and acts of terrorism over the past 70 years, is what has driven the psychopathology of victimhood and its inevitable — and terrible — consequence: oppression.
The Israelis have needed a powerful lobby group (as have the Palestinians, although the latter is no match for the former) because both sides are historical victims — victims who have suffered at the hands of outsiders, and at the hands of each other. That is the deadly chemistry, the fire and kerosene.
Lyons could also have captured better the warmth and candour of Israelis, something I know he feels, as well as the redemptive roar of secularism that rises up in a city such as Tel Aviv, in defiance of Israel’s past, its fate and its perilous condition, particularly now that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to have killed whatever slim chances for peace once existed.
That being said, Balcony Over Jerusalem is a potent, fast-paced rendering of a region in convulsion, as well as a jeremiad against Israel, designed and programmed for maximum effect.
Lyons should brace himself for the storm that’s coming.
David Leser is a journalist and author. He is a former Middle East correspondent.
Balcony Over Jerusalem: A Middle East Memoir, by John Lyons, with Sylvie Le Clezio, HarperCollins, 374pp, $34.99