Jennifer Loewenstein interview, by Milena Rampoldi, ProMosaik e.V.
My interview with the journalist Jennifer Loewenstein, who has been writing for years on the Middle East, first an introduction:
“This year I’ve been working on Iraq and Syria more than anything else. I’ve never stopped following the crises in Gaza and the West Bank, however. There are some ties between the two – not obvious or ‘conspiracy’ oriented. As you may know, I’ve lived in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Beirut. I’ve traveled in Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and Israel. I’ve also worked a lot on refugee issues. (I lived in the refugee camp of Bourj al-Barajneh in Lebanon for 3 summers, though that was a while back now – 1999-2002 – but return almost every year to visit friends.) I haven’t been able to get into Gaza since 2010, but I follow events there closely and keep up with my contacts there. I think an important issue is how the media focus has been taken off Palestine as the Syrian Civil War continues. Both deserve a lot of attention, however. US foreign policy in the region continues to trouble me, to say the least. It deserves a lot of attention and clarification.”
Milena Rampoldi: You have been a lot in the Middle East. Which is the main peace obstacle there?
Jennifer Loewenstein: Unrestrained US military involvement in the Middle East and the US’ simultaneous refusal to put pressure on its client states to seek non-military resolutions to their conflicts poses, in my view, the greatest obstacle to regional stability to say nothing of real peace. It is impossible to single out one of the many wars and conflicts raging across the Middle East today as being the ‘worst’ situation in the region (now or in the past). Each is related to the Middle East order created by the colonial powers, Britain and France, at the end of the First World War and, subsequently, exploited by them.
After the end of the Second World War, as the British and French empires receded, the United States filled the void left by these powers with its own imperial influence, economic interests and political objectives, strengthened, I should point out, by the Soviet Union’s equally genuine competition for regional influence. Cold War politics should not be uncritically deferred to as the guiding framework for superpower competition, however. The fear and propaganda generated domestically in the US against “communism” and an “Evil” Soviet empire proved a powerful tool for recruiting people to fight in US wars in the Middle East and elsewhere around the globe. Much of what we were taught about the designs and power of the Soviet Union, however, was overstated or simply false. Much was omitted with regard to our own alleged allies. It is crucial to understand this in the context of Vietnam and US military involvement in southeast Asia as well. The Middle East was of particular importance, and has been ever since, because of its strategic location, its oil and natural gas reserves, and because of regional instability deliberately cultivated by those powers that had sought to control parts of it in the past. Until 1967, when the US’ “special relationship” with Israel began seriously to be cultivated, no single Middle Eastern nation was allowed to dominate the region – least of all one with close ties to Moscow.
MR: How to deal with Zionism? What does Zionism mean to you?
Jennifer Loewenstein: Modern Zionism may end up dealing with itself if it continues along what has become an increasingly self-destructive and globally alienating path. It is widely understood by most people (outside the US) that the only thing keeping Israel from becoming a global pariah state is the unconditional support it receives from the United States and, to a lesser extent, the EU. This is one reason why mobilizing world public opinion is so important where Israel and Zionism are concerned. The boycott, divestment, and sanctions’ (BDS) movement has had an effect on how Israel is perceived in the West, but it has a long way to go and must navigate some dangerous political waters carefully. Most Americans still view Israel in a more positive light than the Palestinians and their Arab neighbors, thanks in part to the continual demonization of Arabs, Muslims, and Islam in US domestic civil society: schools, universities, civic organizations, churches, synagogues, conservative and liberal “think tanks,” state, local and national governing institutions, the entertainment industry, and, of course, the news media (including social media and the speed with which information can be processed, spun, and disseminated) all play a very large role in manipulating fear, xenophobia, and ignorance. Political lobbies, primarily AIPAC, have often been blamed for determining America’s “pro-Israel” stance and they do, indeed, play a forceful role. This role is significantly diminished, however, when juxtaposed to the giant oil and natural gas cartels, highly profitable corporate enterprises designed for the benefit of ourselves and our allies, and the overwhelming role of the US armaments industry in selling advanced weaponry and spreading, stoking and assuring war.Zionism has become one of the most unfortunate manifestations of modern nationalism (in this case Jewish nationalism). Over the years it has become chauvinistic, dangerous, and sadistic – especially toward non-Jews living in Israel or in territories illegally occupied and annexed to Israel over the years. What makes Zionism a particularly pernicious form of nationalism is that it is a form of settler colonialism. In order to create a Jewish state, Zionism (as it has developed) required more and more land, resources, external financial and military subsidization, and Jewish people in order to flourish. What we are seeing today is a logical conclusion of this project: the need to remove, chase out, terrorize, isolate into densely populated but unconnected islands of territory – including squalid urban settings, torture, or kill off, those people who stand in the way of this project. Were the eyes of a good part of the world not already focused on Israel, it would be frightening to see how its future would unfold. This underscores the need for people to educate and mobilize public opinion around what is happening in Israel and its illegally held territories. Even with broad based activism against Israel’s self-declared “manifest destiny” its political and military leadership continue to act with impunity and to be held unaccountable for repeated acts of aggression, mass murder and destruction against the people and land of Palestine.
Personally I have no stake in Zionism whatsoever. I come from a long line of anti-Zionists (reaching back into the 19th century) and am increasingly appalled by what I’ve seen and experienced in Palestine and in places such as the Palestinian refugee camps of South Beirut as the direct consequences of Israeli state policy. No state — ethnic, religious, or otherwise — can truly be secure until people within and outside its borders learn to accept each other as humans first and as beings whose collective future depends upon extensive cooperation, universal human rights, the need to share the earth’s land and resources, and respect for the earth itself. This may sound idealistic. It is increasingly clear, however, that it is becoming a necessity if human life is to continue.
MR: How are all the conflicts in the Middle East connected one with another?
Jennifer Loewenstein: To do this question justice, I would have to write a book. Many of the conflicts (such as in Syria and Iraq) are directly connected to each other. They are also influenced to a large degree by an apparent need for regional hegemony by the strongest military powers. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are heavily involved in the Syrian and Iraqi Civil Wars, as are Turkey and Iran. Other states, such as Yemen, have become the unwitting victims of the treacherous game of chess being played out across the region. There is no question, however, that the wars and conflicts that have raged and are raging in the Middle East are another direct result of US intervention since, above all, the end of the Second World War. Soviet and Russian power, along with European great power intervention have exacerbated the conflicts within the Middle East but none have done so on the scale of the United States. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be seen as an extension of US meddling in the region, which has done so much to destabilize it already. Israel is an arm of US power and, as such, acts with the knowledge and complicity of its master. That these two countries have differences has not challenged the status quo since the special relationship between Israel and the United States began in the aftermath of the 1967 June War. Right now, that status quo is not in jeopardy, and this should give us all pause to think about ways this can change.
MR: What does it mean to you to be a journalist looking for truth?
Jennifer Loewenstein: It means celebrating when other journalists and people work together with you to seek it, write about it, and to educate people to think for themselves. It also means bracing yourself for the worst possibilities when individuals, institutions, or states begin to find your work threatening.
MR: How can we as writers, journalists, and bloggers help to promote peace in the Middle East?
Jennifer Loewenstein: We have an obligation to inform and educate people without imposing our personal views on them. This can take place in schools, universities, in the arts, in political forums and neighborhood organizations; in churches, mosques, synagogues, in grocery store conversations; at the dinner table; in local or national demonstrations; in letter writing campaigns; in call-ins and sit-ins; in non-violent direct action; in reading world newspapers; in taking the initiative to speak to people in our cities and towns who come from other parts of the world; in initiating activities that we’re all waiting for someone else to do. We have another obligation to be patient and not to expect to see change overnight. Some of us may never see the kinds of things we have worked so hard to attain. We have got to learn how to organize effectively without falling victim to petty, divisive infighting among the people working with us. We have to get it across to people that problems do not resolve themselves. On the contrary, left untouched, such major problems will only worsen.
MR: Tell us about your experience in Gaza.
Jennifer Loewenstein: This would take an entire memoir, which I hope to write someday. Suffice to say, it has been the resilience of the people of Gaza, above all, that has kept me going even at my darkest moments.
Jennifer Loewenstein was Associate Director of the Middle East Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Last August she moved to Penn State University. She is politically active, and writes as a freelance journalist. Her work has been featured in scholarly publications such as The Journal of Palestine Studies, and she is a regular contributor to CounterPunch magazine. Loewenstein is a member of the USA board of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and founder of the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project.