Australia/Israel Review

Noted and Quoted – February 2022

Feb 2, 2022 | AIJAC staff

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

A new Macdonald?

On Jan. 12, ABC Radio National “Breakfast” host Hamish Macdonald – who the AIR has criticised many times over the years – pushed Palestinian activist Sara Saleh to justify why a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign was “target[ing] the whole [Sydney] Festival” rather than just the Sydney Dance Company’s performance of Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin’s “Decadance,” which had received $20,000 in funding from the Israeli Embassy.

Macdonald questioned the depth of genuine support for the campaign, saying that some artists had complained they were “badgered”, “fear[ed]…being cancelled on social media” and felt “forced” to participate.

Saleh responded “I can’t control… very passionate fans who feel strongly about human rights.”

Performer Katie Noonan was named by Macdonald as an example of an artist who was harassed but ultimately didn’t support the boycott, with Saleh accusing her of giving a “platform” to “people who are known misogynists and Islamophobes.”

Saleh disingenuously asserted that “the BDS campaign has always been and is an uncontroversial appeal to universal human rights.” 

A movement that seeks to replace the world’s only Jewish state with a 23rd Arab majority state in the Middle East is hardly “uncontroversial”.

Macdonald also interviewed Israeli Embassy in Canberra charge d’affaires Ron Gerstenfeld, who accused many BDS activists of “call[ing]” for “the river to the sea,” which is code for Israel’s destruction. Gerstenfeld’s revelation that Festival organisers had approached the Embassy to fund the performance prompted further media reports, including by the Guardian Australia (Jan. 13), which corroborated his claim.

Earlier (Jan. 6), whilst co-hosting Network Ten’s “The Project”, Macdonald also suggested to boycott co-organiser Jennine Khalik that Festival funding given by the NSW Government does not mean “artists participating… support the New South Wales government or… premier.”


Missed opportunity 

On (Jan. 18), ABC TV “7.30” reporter Dan Conifer filed a story on the Sydney Arts Festival controversy.

The report featured statements from Arab acts who withdrew in protest and BDS co-organiser Jennine Khalik saying that Israel “use[s] cultural institutions… and partnerships… to whitewash its human rights abuses and its ongoing occupation and colonisation of Palestinians.” 

The Israeli Embassy in Canberra’s Ron Gerstenfeld explained that the activists “hate Israel. They want to see the destruction of Israel.” 

Conifer clearly did not grasp the subtleties of the debate. His history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not begin as it should in 1948 when Palestinian Arab leaders rejected a chance to establish their own state.

Instead, with an animated map illustrating his narration, Conifer said it began in “1967 [when] Israel… occupied Palestinian East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank.”

If Conifer had investigated what Gerstenfeld told him about BDS, maybe he could’ve asked Khalik and the others if they support the two states for two peoples formula for peace? Or, whether, like BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti, they are committed to eliminating Israel.


Not very Festive

On Jan. 14, 2GB radio host Joe Hildebrand ridiculed an apology by Sydney Arts Festival organisers to artists who joined the BDS campaign.

An incredulous Hildebrand said, “the… Festival actually approached the Israeli embassy to get this $20,000 in funding…they’re not going to give the money back. But they’ve apologised to the artists who are boycotting… costing it money… jobs and hurting its reputation. And they’ve apologised to them!”

Hildebrand revealed he was a Festival emcee in the past and no one complained when South China Airlines, wholly owned by the Chinese government, gave much larger sums of money. “I’ve never seen this level of activism, animosity, ferocity directed at pretty much any other country. I mean, not even North Korea. It seems very, very strange that it’s this tiny amount of money from this tiny country that has, you know, brought one of Australia’s premier arts festivals to its knees,” he added.


Calling BS on BDS

A letter against the boycott campaign, organised by Creative Community for Peace and signed by approximately 120 prominent local and international figures in the arts including Australian musician Deborah Conway and legendary Kiss bassist Gene Simmons, was widely covered in the media. 

In an interview with Channel 7’s “Sunrise” program (Jan. 7) ostensibly to discuss Kiss’ upcoming Australian tour, Simmons said everyone was entitled to their political views but the boycott unfairly impacted artists. 

In the Guardian Australia (Jan. 7) Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore also questioned the boycott, arguing that “there are people overseas who are angry about [Australia’s policy] on climate change… refugee[s]… our First Nations policy, but we wouldn’t want to see our Sydney Symphony or our Sydney Theatre Company boycotted for those reasons.”


Silent treatment

The Australian’s Nicholas Jensen reported (Jan. 22) on the silence of Federal Labor MPs on the BDS campaign against the Sydney Festival. 

Former Australian Ambassador to Israel and current Federal Liberal MP Dave Sharma was quoted saying [Federal Labor Opposition leader Anthony] “Albanese has made a big point about his opposition to the BDS movement … but this is one of the most obvious manifestations of the BDS movement in Australia we’ve seen for several years, and to have no Labor voice at the federal level come out publicly against is very troubling.”

The article said Federal Labor Arts spokesman Tony Burke who “has previously been critical of Jewish settlements on the West Bank, describing them in 2014 as a ploy to block a two-state solution” had “refused to answer questions regarding the boycott.”


Abbas goes to Israel

BDS’s moral and intellectual bankruptcy was palpable to anyone who read media reports that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was a guest at the home of Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz in central Israel.

The Australian’s report (Dec. 31) on the visit stated that Gantz had announced a package of financial measures to help Palestinians and quoted Hamas officials condemning Abbas’ visit because it “weakens” Palestinian “rejection of normalisation” of relations with Israel.

Abbas’ visit was also reported by SBS TV “World News” (Dec. 29) and the Mercury (Dec. 31). On Jan. 25, News Corp papers reported that Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid met with PA Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh.

Meanwhile, Israeli PM Naftali Bennett’s historic visit to the UAE – the first by a sitting Israeli leader – was widely covered. SBS TV “World News” reported on the visit on Dec. 13 and 14. The latter report included a odd and ignorant statement that “Israel once saw Arab countries as enemies.” 


A sperm tale

An online puff piece from ABC Middle East correspondent Tom Joyner and the ABC’s Palestinian fixer Fouad Abu Gosh (Jan. 2) reported on an old story about Palestinian terrorists in Israeli prisons who father children by smuggling vials of sperm to their wives during visits, with the wives then impregnated at Hamas-subsidised fertility clinics in Gaza.

Although the report mentioned the lengthy prison sentences of the two terrorists featured in the story, their actual crimes went unstated. 

Israel arrested Hossam Al Attar during the First Gaza War fighting for Hamas. Sherine Al Sakany was arrested for carrying out and organising terror attacks for Palestinian Islamic Jihad during the Second Intifada. 

On Joyner’s ABC webpage, the report was headlined, “The parents smuggling semen out of prisons and across borders to bring precious babies into the world.” The summary underneath similarly gushed they “put… their lives on the line to bring new life into the world.”


Embarrassing advice

Canberra Times columnist Mark Kenny (Jan. 2) called for the media to give a voice to Independent candidates who might “question… Australia’s embarrassingly uncritical support for Israel” before this year’s federal election, but failed to provide even one example of what he meant. 

Does Kenny think Australia should uncritically support the United Nations’ anti-Israel activities? As AIJAC’s Colin Rubenstein wrote in the Daily Telegraph (Dec. 28), “UN processes are often cynically exploited by undemocratic countries… for decades… Israel, the only Jewish state, has… [been] singled out and vilified out of all proportion and context. This occurs in almost every UN forum… even seemingly apolitical ones like the World Health Organisation… or… UNESCO…. Australia…has an excellent, honourable record of opposing the farcically one-sided anti-Israel votes that reappear every year.” 

Or does he oppose Australia’s recent listing of Iranian-backed Lebanese proxy Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation, which Anthony Galloway in the Age/Sydney Morning Herald (Dec. 27) said Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid welcomed? 


Carr in a spin

In the Sun Herald (Dec. 12), former Gillard Government Foreign Minister Bob Carr crowed, “we reinforced a commitment to a two-state solution in the Middle East, by voting for the recognition of Palestine in the UN General Assembly.”

Actually, Australia did not support the UN vote recognising Palestine in 2012 – a vote which has of course actually been a barrier to two-state peace by discouraging negotiations. Then PM Julia Gillard intended to vote no. A furious Carr worked the numbers to convince his Labor colleagues to force Gillard to back down and Australia abstained. 


Defective retrospectives

Age/Sydney Morning Herald Foreign Editor Michelle Griffin and Lia Timson’s 2021 retrospective (Dec. 31) said, “in mid-May… Israel began amassing troops at the Gaza Strip border following days of violence. The crisis began earlier with Israeli troops entering the al-Aqsa Mosque resulting in clashes that were condemned the world over.”

In fact, troops “amassed” only after Hamas began indiscriminately firing hundreds of rockets at Israel, and entered the Mosque when Palestinians started lobbing Molotov cocktails and rocks they had stockpiled in it. 

On Dec. 27, Channel 10’s “The Project” year in review highlighted Palestinian suffering in Gaza during the May war, without attributing any responsibility to Hamas for starting the conflict.

In contrast, SBS TV “World News” (Dec. 26) was strictly non-partisan in describing events retrospectively, noting that, on a specific day in May, “the Israeli military says Hamas has fired around 2,300 rockets from Gaza since Monday. Israel has responded with more than 1,000 air and artillery strikes.” 


Christmas crackers

Hobart Senior Pastor Simon Clemow’s Christmas message in the Mercury (Dec. 24) said, “we are living in a time very much like that into which Jesus was born: First-century Palestine was dominated by big government oversight and control (the Romans)… and there was a systematic oppression of minorities and religious groups.”

Jesus was born in the Jewish kingdom of Judea. The first four books of the Christian Bible do not mention “Palestine”. One hundred years after Jesus died, the Romans tried to obliterate the Jewish identity of the region by renaming it Palestine. 


Arch claims

The Australian (Dec. 24) reported allegations made by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem Hosam Naoum that “fringe, radical groups” are driving Christians in Israel and east Jerusalem away, while the “growth of settler communities” and restrictions on movement are having a similar effect on Christians in the West Bank.

The AFP report included Israeli denials and noted that Israel’s Christian population increased by 1.4% in 2020 to 182,000 people. In fact, Israel is the only Middle Eastern country whose Christian population is growing. 


Shot in the dark

News Corp’s report (Dec. 18) of a Palestinian gunman shooting dead one Israeli religious student and wounding two others minimised the severity of the violence with the headline “Religious Students Shot”.

The report correctly stated that “the shooting follows a string of attacks by Palestinians on Israelis in Jerusalem and the West Bank.” However, a Sunday Telegraph follow-up report (Dec. 19) implied a false equivalence between victims of violence, stating that the past month had seen “Palestinian attacks on Israelis and the killing of Palestinians by Israeli troops during clashes.” Palestinians killed resulted from Israeli security responses to Palestinian violence, whilst Israelis were deliberately targeted for attack by Palestinians. 


Hamas says Gaza unoccupied

SBS TV “The World” (Dec. 18) reporter Claudia Farhart’s story on the above terror attack included Hamas co-founder Mahmoud al-Zahar’s admission, not for the first time, that Gaza is not occupied. 

Al-Zahar praised the attack, saying, “we have used these means in Gaza and we drove the occupation out. Negotiation can’t liberate an inch of Palestine. Only weapons can.”

Meanwhile, in the Australian (Dec. 29), Israeli Embassy in Canberra charge d’affaires Ron Gerstenfeld called for Australia to proscribe all of Hamas as a terrorist organisation.


Need, not greed 

An Age report (Dec. 23) on the huge sums needed in public funding to provide security to Jewish schools, synagogues and communal buildings in Melbourne elicited a nasty letter published in the paper the following day.

The letter writer suggested the Jewish community “is not the only one to bear the brunt of occasional and unfortunate prejudice” and receives special treatment.

But as AIJAC’s Jamie Hyams explained in a letter the Age published Dec. 27, “threats faced by Jews are vastly more serious than the prejudice confronted by Greek, Italian or Lebanese communities.”

He noted “the numerous deadly attacks on Jewish facilities overseas” and the “many instances of anti-Semitic violence” in Australia, before adding that the Jewish community contributes millions of dollars of its own on security, which it wouldn’t do “if it wasn’t necessary.”


Ugly Incidents

December/January saw a slew of media reports of the perennial challenge posed by antisemitism.

On Dec. 15, the Courier Mail reported the trial of a man who flew a Nazi flag above a Brisbane synagogue. On the same day, the Age reported that Scouts Victoria had suspended three boys who allegedly made antisemitic comments to fellow scouts who were Jewish, including telling them they should be gassed. 

On Dec. 10, the Australian reported the terrifying experience of a rabbi trying to book a venue at Melbourne’s Crown Casino who was confronted by a man shouting “you’re one of those who Hitler didn’t finish.”

News Corp papers reported on Dec. 22 that a teacher in the US ordered eight and nine-year-old Jewish students to re-enact scenes from the Holocaust.


Too, too much

Coverage of South African anti-apartheid fighter Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s passing included his vocal support for Palestinians.

The Age/Sydney Morning Herald (Dec. 27) said Tutu “spoke out on… Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.” 

The Australian’s obituary (Dec. 28) said “he… condemned… Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.”

On Dec. 31, the Guardian Australia ran a paean by former Guardian Middle East and South Africa correspondent Chris McGreal who said Tutu attracted the ire of “Israel’s most unrelenting supporters” by likening its “rule over the Palestinians to apartheid and then refus[ing] to back off in the face of an onslaught of abuse.” McGreal dismissed accusations that Tutu was antisemitic. 

Yet unlike anti-apartheid colleagues such as Nelson Mandela – who wasn’t accused of antisemitism when criticising Israel and supporting Palestinian aspirations – Tutu frequently resorted to crude antisemitic tropes when talking about Jews and Israel.

In 2002, at the height of the Second Intifada when Palestinian suicide bombers were killing Israeli civilians, he denounced the “Jewish lobby” as being “powerful – very powerful” and said it should be defeated just as “Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pinochet, Milosevic, and Idi Amin” were. He called Jews “a peculiar people” who “can’t ever hope to be judged by the same standards which are used for other people” and accused Jews of “think[ing] they have cornered the market on suffering.” 

In 1987, Tutu threatened that “South African Jews will be punished if Israel continues dealing with South Africa.” As US academic Edward Alexander noted, despite Israeli trade with South Africa being only 7% of America’s, and less than a 10th of Japan’s, Germany’s or England’s, “Tutu never threatened South African… citizens of Japanese, German or English extraction with punishment.”


Out of Parliament

Minister for Communications, Urban Infrastructure, Cities and the Arts, Paul Fletcher (Lib., Bradfield) – Jan. 21 – opinion piece in the Australian: “The [BDS] collective’s views about Israel are, to put it politely, difficult to reconcile with reality. 

“When Australians look at Israel, what they see is the only multi-party democracy in the Middle East – not an ‘apartheid state’. They see an ally and friend: a country with which Australia has excellent diplomatic relations and longstanding cultural and people-to-people ties.

“The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign is not supported by either of the major political parties. The principal cheerleader for this boycott has been Hamas, which is proscribed by the Australian government as a terrorist organisation.”

Senator Eric Abetz (Lib., Tas.) – Jan. 12 – Statement: “The boycott adds nothing to the immensely complicated situation between Israel and Palestine. It displays ignorance of Israel and its people and what the Sydney Festival performance can achieve, including bringing people together from different nations and cultures.

“Israel has a distinguished record of being a light in the [Middle East] for democracy, the rule of law and human rights. The boycotters would be well served to honestly recognise these facts. The boycott is a regrettable distraction from, and a profound ignorance of, the real efforts to bring peace and stability between Israel and Palestine.”

Dave Sharma (Lib., Wentworth) – Jan. 10 – Opinion piece in the Australian: “The idea that a boycott of the Sydney Festival is going to have any influence whatsoever on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is fanciful. But the discredit it does to its proponents is substantial. They have chosen to jump on a bandwagon and endorse a fiction that the immensely complicated Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a simple solution, and that one side alone is to blame for its continuation. And the damage it threatens to do to Australia is real.”

Senator Mehreen Faruqi (Greens, NSW) – Jan. 10 – Twitter: “My full support to the courageous artists who have withdrawn from @sydney_festival due to its partnership with the Israeli Embassy, especially given how hard they’ve had it in the pandemic. Solidarity with everyone standing against artwashing apartheid. Justice for Palestine!”

NSW Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, the Arts and Regional Youth Ben Franklin MLC (Nat.) – Jan. 8 – Facebook: “It was a real privilege to attend the opening of Ohad Naharin’s Decadance, performed by the Sydney Dance Company, two nights ago… Sadly though, the piece has been caught up in controversy surrounding the Israeli Embassy’s sponsorship of the Festival to help fund its staging. Other acts have been encouraged to boycott the festival in response and a small number have agreed to do so… I do have significant concerns about trying to shut down specific creative voices simply on account of their nationality.”

NSW Shadow Minister for the Arts and Heritage, Police, Counter Terrorism and the North Coast Walt Secord MLC (ALP) – Jan. 9 – J-Wire: “Put simply, I believe that if an organisation takes the decision to institute or support a boycott of Israel, that is their prerogative – but then it should not expect to receive any State government funding. This is a minimalist approach when compared to overseas laws…

“Unfortunately, I fear that the 2022 Sydney Festival experience will see NSW arts groups reluctant to invite Israeli performers and artists to our shores – or refuse to stage Israeli or Jewish-themed plays. This will also inhibit important cultural exchanges. And ironically, a boycott of Israel is utterly counter-productive. It hurts not just the Israeli government, but Jewish and Arab citizens, and the Palestinian people too.”


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