Biblio File: A polemic rooted in conspiracy theory
Oct 29, 2021 | Allon Lee, Tzvi Fleischer
Dateline Jerusalem: Journalism’s Toughest Assignment
by John Lyons
Monash University Publishing, 2021, 91 pp., $19.95
The new 84-page booklet Dateline Jerusalem: Journalism’s Toughest Assignment by John Lyons, the former Middle East correspondent for the Australian and current ABC Executive Editor of News and Head of Investigative Journalism, is a polemic rooted in a conspiracy theory.
In it, Lyons insists that Australians are being denied the opportunity to learn about Israel’s deliberately cruel policies towards Palestinians, and its determination to stymie the creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, so the dream of “Greater Israel” (see pg.18) can be achieved.
The booklet’s argument centres on the supposed responsibility of the “pro-Israeli lobby”, particularly the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), for creating this purported information black hole. Lyons claims AIJAC and others use the “deliberate tactic[s]” of bullying, intimidating, accusations of antisemitism and exerting illegitimate pressure on the media, to convince news rooms to think “it is simply not worth running” critical stories about Israel “as it will cause more trouble than it’s worth” (pg. 5).
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “blindingly simple”
On pg.15, Lyons claims that the Israel lobby says, “Israel’s dispute with the Palestinians is complicated”, but “It’s not. It’s blindingly simple.” He then explains that the whole story is that in 1967 Israel occupied land set aside by the UN for a Palestinian state – and by implication, should simply get out.
Having established to his own satisfaction that Israel is the side wholly responsible for the lack of peace – an assumption never questioned throughout the whole booklet – Lyons tries to portray Australian pro-Israel advocacy organisations as working to deliberately hide this truth.
On pg. 25, he explains he knows about this because he went to Israel when he was editor of the Sydney Morning Herald (in the booklet, Lyons says it was 1997 but he is incorrect, contemporary media reports show it was 1996. That visit was organised by the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, and was not, as Lyons falsely claimed in a webinar interview with Stan Grant on Oct. 6, a “Board and AIJAC” trip). He writes of that trip, “the general line of the trip was that Israel tries so hard to make peace with the Palestinians, and if only the Palestinians were reasonable then there could be a solution.”
Lyons proceeds to attack that “general line”, claiming in hindsight it was “wall-to-wall propaganda, choreographed to portray the occupation of the West Bank as normal.”
1996 was only two years after the Palestinian Authority was established by the Rabin Government as part of the Oslo Accords in an effort to pave the way to peace, so it would not have been hard to portray Israel as seeking peace.
Yet Lyons never concedes anywhere in the booklet that Israel has ever done anything to genuinely try to make peace. Oslo and Rabin are not mentioned – nor is the Palestinian Authority, which has controlled the daily lives of most West Bank Palestinians since then.
Of course, the only way the booklet can justify the claim the conflict is not complicated – a claim no serious scholar of the conflict would make – is by omitting vital information about the conflict’s history and the reality on the ground.
It is precisely because the conflict is anything but simple that pro-Israel advocacy groups, including AIJAC, organise short study visits to Israel and the West Bank for Australian politicians, opinion makers and media professionals to gain a more nuanced understanding of those complexities of the conflict that Lyons insists do not exist.
Participants on AIJAC study visits always meet with representatives from the Palestinian Authority, visit refugee camps on the West Bank and are free to go wherever they like and speak to whomever they want.
And most study visit participants quickly realise that the Lyons view that the conflict is “blindingly simple” is obviously wrong.
Omitting what does not fit the narrative
Lyons’ claim about the conflict being about Israel’s seizure of Palestinian land in 1967 and refusing to vacate it leads him to ignore and omit anything that contradicts this simplistic narrative.
These include the facts that there was no Palestinian state prior to 1967; that the West Bank and Gaza, which Israel captured in a defensive war, had been occupied since 1948 by Jordan and Egypt respectively; and that in 1967, virtually no one was calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state in these areas, including even the PLO.
In addition to never mentioning the Oslo Accords, Lyons also never acknowledges that in the years following his 1996 trip, Israel made three credible offers of statehood to the Palestinians that were rejected – in 2000, 2001 and 2008.
Also not mentioned is how the rejection of the highest profile Israeli offer in 2000 by then Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, was followed by the deliberate launching of a mass terror campaign, the Second Intifada, that lasted five years and resulted in the murders of more than 1,000 Israelis, with thousands more injured, as well as many casualties on the Palestinian side.
In fact, there is virtually no reference to any Palestinian terrorism anywhere in the booklet.
Lyons does not even mention the US-mediated talks held in 2013-14 – when Lyons was actually based in Jerusalem – where a similar deal was reportedly discussed.
Nor does the booklet discuss Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, or how it was followed by the Islamist terror group Hamas, committed to Israel’s destruction, launching a successful coup there against the Palestinian Authority in 2007, and since then using Gaza to launch thousands of missiles and rockets at Israel’s civilian population.
All of these indisputable facts which complicate Lyons’ claim that the whole conflict is a “blindingly simple” story of Israel conquering Palestinian land and brutally ruling Palestinians are airbrushed out of the picture in this booklet.
Pro-Israel advocates are ipso facto far right extremists
On pg. 23, Lyons nonchalantly accuses AIJAC of “hold[ing] hardline positions”, of being “aligned to the far right of Israeli politics” and being in support of a “greater Israel”.
He offers no justification or evidence for any of this name-calling, other than an ambiguous quote from former Australian newspaper editor Chris Mitchell, in which he doesn’t call AIJAC “far right” or anything resembling it.
In reality, of course, AIJAC is an Australian advocacy group whose views align with the mainstream Australian Jewish community. It is not aligned with any Israeli political grouping and regularly hosts Israeli guests and speakers from across the political spectrum and works with Israelis of all political stripes.
For instance, over recent years, AIJAC has hosted numerous Israeli Labor Party lawmakers including current party leader Merav Michaeli, then party Secretary-General Hilik Bar, former Labor PM Ehud Barak and former Labor leader, and current President of Israel, Isaac Herzog.
Furthermore, AIJAC has criticised decisions and policies of Israel’s governments and unacceptable comments made by Israeli politicians on numerous occasions.
In fact, ever since the Oslo peace process began in 1993, AIJAC has been a vocal and consistent supporter of the principle of Israelis and Palestinians making peace through a negotiated settlement of outstanding issues, in the form of two separate nation states – one for Jews and one for the Palestinians. Virtually all of AIJAC’s significant public statements on the Israeli-Palestinian issue make this clear.
Yet, despite AIJAC’s repeated commitments to a two-state outcome, Lyons says of AIJAC, “they may occasionally talk about a two-state solution, but in my view this is purely lip-service. If they genuinely wanted a two-state solution they would push not just for an end to new settlements but for the winding back of existing settlements.”
No Israeli Zionist party, even those on the left, advocates the immediate dismantling of settlements, as Lyons demands AIJAC must do here.
So in Lyons’ worldview, in order to not be “far right,” a Jewish group must be more radically left-wing than any Israeli Zionist political party.
Claims about pro-Israel lobby pressure
Lyons claims that Middle East correspondents and their outlets face extraordinary pressure from pro-Israel organisations to censor what they see in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
Yet there is not one single example in the booklet of AIJAC or any other Jewish group directly causing a media organisation to withdraw or refuse to run a story critical of Israel.
Perhaps this is why Lyons argues that media outlets self-censor.
Even then, his examples are ridiculous.
Pg. 74 of the booklet claims that “many media outlets – including my own organisation, the ABC – largely ignored” the April 2021 Human Rights Watch report – which Lyons wholeheartedly endorses – that scurrilously and untruthfully accused Israel of having crossed the threshold into Apartheid.
In the webinar with veteran Australian journalist Stan Grant (Oct. 6), Lyons was even more emphatic about the alleged failure to cover the report, saying, “not a peep. You know front page Washington Post, New York Times, BBC. All around the world. Huge play. It’s a big story…barely a peep in Australia. I could not find a single story on it anywhere.”
Lyons did not look very hard. The SBS website and its TV news bulletin, the Age and Sydney Morning Herald print editions and multiple websites, including the Guardian Australia, as well as news.com.au and its many subsidiaries – the Australian, Herald Sun, Daily Telegraph etc. – all covered the HRW report.
Lyons’ claims about New York Times and Washington Post “front page” coverage are also false. The New York Times covered the report on pg.12, the Washington Post ran an analysis in the world section and an opinion piece.
The antisemitism furphy
According to Lyons, groups like AIJAC shut down critical media reports on Israel with accusations of antisemitism.
On pg. 27, he writes, “I find it disturbing that the claim of anti-Semitism is frequently made against critical reporting of Israel” and on pg. 81 he says, “the accusation of anti-Semitism cannot be used to shut down debate.”
Yet the booklet fails to cite even one bona fide example of AIJAC or any other Jewish group ever making such a claim about a report.
In essence, Lyons demands readers accept his word that pro-Israel lobby groups are shutting down critical coverage of Israel by making accusations of antisemitism without offering a single example.
Two blatant misrepresentations regarding AIJAC’s Colin Rubenstein
On pg. 18, Lyons makes the extraordinary claim that AIJAC has “unadulterated power” and “there are only three people who can tell the editors of The Australian what they can or can’t use: Rupert Murdoch, Lachlan Murdoch and [AIJAC Executive Director Dr.] Colin Rubenstein. Only one of them doesn’t have Murdoch as his surname. That’s power.”
Lyons selectively quotes, and then completely misrepresents, an email from Colin Rubenstein to substantiate his claim that Rubenstein is so powerful that he could tell the editors of the Australian newspaper what they could and could not print, and they would cravenly comply.
In fact, the Rubenstein email merely mentioned in passing the agreed ground rules of an off the record media conference organised by the Israeli Embassy, not AIJAC, that had already taken place. He didn’t, as Lyons claims, tell the editors what they couldn’t publish. Lyons omits the part of the email noting that the briefing had been off the record.
A detailed rebuttal exposing the blatant misuse of the email – including its full text – can be read in a blog post on AIJAC’s website.
A further example of Lyons egregiously misusing primary sources to smear AIJAC is found on pg. 46 where he selectively quotes from a speech Colin Rubenstein delivered on the steps of the Victorian Parliament at a pro-Israel rally during the 2014 Israel-Hamas war.
Lyons accurately quotes Rubenstein saying “Israel does more than any other country to avoid killing civilians.”
But Lyons omits mentioning Rubenstein’s words immediately afterwards, listing the measures the Israeli military used to avoid civilian casualties, including “phone calls, texts, leaflets and the knock on the roof to warn civilians, even if that means it loses some military advantage.”
Instead, Lyons implies Rubenstein was disrespecting the Australian military, writing, “Rubenstein had said that a foreign army conducted itself with higher moral standards than the army of the country of which he was a citizen,” adding numerous “leaders of Australia’s Jewish community have echoed the same view.”
But Rubenstein never said anything of the sort. It is insidiously implied that Rubenstein and other Jewish leaders perhaps have greater emotional loyalty to Israel than their own country.
All the above raises serious questions about the propriety of a senior ABC News and Current Affairs executive essentially seeking to delegitimise the activities of one segment of Australian society – especially on the basis of factual errors, misrepresentations and blatant misuse of sources (of which there are too many in the booklet for this article to address).
Lyons’ name-calling, browbeating and factual distortions appear designed to delegitimise efforts like AIJAC’s to expose one-sided, distorted or historically illiterate media coverage wherever it may come from – without ever addressing the substance of any of it, something he never does in the booklet or anywhere else.
AIJAC has a democratic right to offer constructive criticism to the media, and a right to expect media reporters, editors and decision-makers will consider any such criticisms on their merits, as they would with any other community group.
There should be no place in a democratic multicultural Australia for Lyons’ contention that one sort of community group – Jewish pro-Israel ones – are too dangerous to have their voices heard and considered.
(Read an extended version of this article, addressing a number of additional serious errors and problems in Lyons’ booklet.)