Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Media Microscope: Sense and Sensitivity

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Allon Lee

 

Federal Attorney-General George Brandis' release on March 25 of a controversial "exposure draft" of new legislation to replace Section 18 of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) spawned reactions sensible and nonsensical.

Ahead of the draft's release, AIJAC's Jeremy Jones cautioned against viewing the existing RDA solely through the experience of News Ltd columnist Andrew Bolt, whose 2011 case was widely perceived to be a principle catalyst for moves to amend the Act. He noted, "given all the hundreds of cases that have been lodged and the number that have been adjudicated... to characterise the law as if the Andrew Bolt case was somehow typical is wrong," ABC TV "Lateline" March 14.

Supporting the new draft was Bolt, who expressed sympathy for Jews who fear they "will now be unable to...gag Holocaust deniers for giving offence or humiliation... But is a law against free speech really our only and safest recourse?"

He argued that controversial Sheik Taj al-Din al-Hilali who questioned the Holocaust and in 1988 "accused Jews of using ‘sex and abominable acts of buggery, espionage, treason and economic hoarding to control the world'" was able to espouse his racism because the RDA inhibited people from exercising "free speech" to counter him until finally "media and talkback criticism finally became so much that the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils dropped him as Mufti," Herald Sun (March 26). Of course, Hilali's most notorious outburst against Jews in 1988 occurred before 18C was passed in 1995, and in fact may have helped catalyse its passage.

Journalist Gay Alcorn reported on how Holocaust denier Fredrick Toben was successfully sued under 18C by Jeremy Jones and Peter Wertheim on behalf of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry. Toben's campaign included the accusation that "Jews exaggerated the numbers murdered during World War II, sometimes for financial gain." As Wertheim explained "what is most upsetting about anti-Semitism is not that somebody writes that the Holocaust never happened. It's the smear, the insinuation about what Jews are like."

Wertheim argued the dilution of exemption clauses in 18D of the RDA would effectively give licence to Toben because "just about every instance of Holocaust denial that has ever been challenged has been sought to be excused on the basis that it's simply engaging in public discussion of an academic matter," Age/Canberra Times/Sydney Morning Herald (March 29).

Anti-Israel activist Antony Loewenstein opposed the Jewish communal leadership's support for existing federal racial discrimination legislation, accusing the Jewish community of hypocrisy, and alleging "they believe in free speech when it suits their agenda. On a lot of issues like Israel, Palestine, and BDS, boycotts, they actually want those views to be suppressed." In addition to his false claim about supposed ‘suppression' of pro-Palestinian views, Loewenstein is apparently blind to his own hypocrisy in demanding an absolute right to free speech whilst campaigning for boycotts of all Israeli scholars, ABC TV "The Drum" (March 27).

Former Fairfax Canberra Press Gallery doyenne Michelle Grattan's prediction that the government's redrafted Act will bring on "arguments ahead - as there have already been - with ethnic communities and the Jewish lobby" made former Age editor Michael Gawenda uncomfortable. "Why the Jewish community leaders were singled out...as the ‘Jewish lobby', with all the connotations that some people ascribe to that term, is unclear. The...campaign has united ethnic community leaders...and to single out the Jewish leaders as not legitimate community leaders but... part of this thing called the Jewish lobby, is not acceptable."

Gawenda also criticised Bolt for complaining that "the campaign being waged by Jewish community leaders - and the leaders of many other ethnic communities it must be remembered - demanding section 18C be retained could be seen as a campaign ‘largely for the benefit of their own highly articulate and influential community,'" Business Spectator (April 3). 

In one of its numerous editorials endorsing Brandis' redraft, the Australian (April 4) wrote, "well-meaning apologists for censorship...are on the wrong side of history. Banning anti-black, anti-Islamic, anti-Jewish, anti-gay or anti-feminist ideas or turning their perpetrators into criminals [is] tantamount to providing them with a megaphone." Except the Act creates no crime - it is a purely civil form of redress for individuals seeking relief from vilification. 

The editorial also asked why "the peak Jewish national bodies in Australia were united in opposition to plans to alter the RDA. Their stand, paradoxically, is in line with many of Israel's most trenchant critics from the left of the Australian media." Yet the same claim could be levelled at the Australian for facilitating unbalanced anti-Israel reporting courtesy of its own John Lyons and ABC TV's "Four Corners" in February.

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