We Heard You. So What?
A feature of our democracy is that various interest groups lobby government, the press and others of influence to advance their particular viewpoint. This is generally uncontroversial, although lately, for some reason, there have been suggestions, such as the notorious paper by US academics Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, that this is a questionable practice when Jewish groups do it in support of Israel. In Australia in 2003, some supporting the awarding of the Sydney Peace Prize to Hanan Ashrawi chose to deflect criticism of that ludicrous choice by portraying it as illegitimate or dangerous that Jewish organisations opposed to the award exercised their right to protest and lobby.
The most recent example was a piece by Elisabeth Wynhausen in the Weekend Australian of June 10 entitled “Careful, they might hear you”.
Wynhausen trotted out the fallacious old line that critics of Israel’s policy are inappropriately labelled as antisemitic by Jewish leaders. She repeatedly implied that AIJAC and other groups were somehow stifling or muzzling debate in Australia about the Middle East. She tried to imply that AIJAC is unrepresentative, yet claim to represent the Jewish community.
We do not in fact claim to “represent” the Jewish community, as Executive Council of Australian Jewry President, Grahame Leonard, confirmed to Wynhausen. But our support of Israel does reflect the position of the majority of the Jewish community, as community luminary Sam Lipski explained in the article.
While not personally claiming that AIJAC routinely labels Israel’s critics as antisemites, Wynhausen quotes an unnamed Labor Federal MP who says, “On one level there’s the hardline AIJAC element. If you say anything critical of Israel they’ll use the anti-Semitism tag.” Other interviewees claim this to be a general trend in the Jewish community
This is simply untrue, however. There is no doubt that those who believe that the Jews alone are not entitled to a country in their homeland may be motivated by antisemitism. But neither we nor anyone else in the Australian Jewish community’s leadership label people as antisemitic simply because they criticise the policies of Israel’s government. Perhaps this is why Ms. Wynhausen’s article contained not a single example to substantiate such a claim.
Wynhausen’s suggestions that we are too aggressive centred on allegations that Colin Rubenstein ran an excessive and ultimately counter-productive campaign against Bob Carr for agreeing to award the Peace Prize to Hanan Ashrawi. And she threw in some unattributed allegations that Rubenstein bullies the media. In fact, we went no further in relation to Ashrawi than the elected Jewish community leadership, and while we, like the NSW Board of Deputies, called on Mr. Carr to reconsider, at no time did we directly criticise him. As for bullying the media, we exercise our democratic right to complain about inaccuracies or bias, and at times press newspaper editors or opinion editors – not to withhold articles with which we disagree, but to also run articles that provide a balance by reflecting alternative points of view.
Wynhausen commenced the article by describing the entry about AIJAC on SourceWatch, a US internet site which describes various public affairs organisations from a left wing perspective, and my unsuccessful attempts to have them edit it to more accurately reflect AIJAC’s standing. The entry claims that AIJAC “represents no-one but its own small (right-wing) membership”. By commencing her article with this point, and describing the interchange as “fascinating reading”, Wynhausen attempts to give legitimacy to SourceWatch’s slanted perspective, which reflects the views of AIJAC’s harshest Australian detractors only. The site also has a link to an article scathingly critical of an AIJAC study visit to Israel for Australian clergy, but not to an article defending the tour, even though both articles appeared side by side on Opinion Online. The entry now also has a link to Ms. Wynhausen’s article.
Wynhausen’s primary source appears to have been Geoffrey Brahm Levey, a left-wing Jewish academic who has exhibited a particular animus towards AIJAC, perhaps because of resentment that the majority of the Jewish community agrees with our views on Israel rather than his own. The article concludes with Levey’s suggestion that, “Instead of just complaining about critics being antisemitic or one-sided, Jews should be demonstrating what reasonable criticism looks like. By holding our tongues on Israel, Australian Jews do Israel, ourselves, and public debate in Australia a great disservice.”
Levey’s assumptions are fatally flawed. It is not that Jews in Australia are in the habit of holding our tongues. The lion’s share of Australian Jewry genuinely believe that, in the main, Israel acts justly in the circumstances in which it finds itself. Most would find what Levey regards as “reasonable criticism” to be unreasonable and unfair. Further, his implication that Israel’s critics would be somehow mollified if more Jews criticise Israel is absurd. Such critics would more likely conclude that if “even the Jews” are attacking Israel, then they must be right, and harsher criticism is warranted.