The Australian Financial Review’s Andrew Tillett (April 14) reported that two El Al flights chartered by Israel to repatriate 500 of its nationals in Australia during the coronavirus pandemic represented “two accomplishments”.
Tillett explained, “A flight to Perth on March 24 was the first direct service between Israel and Australia, while the airline set the record for its longest non-stop flight, between Tel Aviv and Melbourne, on April 2.”
The report said it was a logistical challenge involving liaising with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australian Border Force and state authorities, as well as Kiwi officials given that some of the Israeli passengers were coming back from New Zealand – plus meeting the stringent security arrangements El Al enforces because of its history of being a terrorism target.
Israeli Ambassador to Australia Mark Sofer was quoted saying, “The Australians were absolutely wonderful. I can’t stress enough the co-operation we’ve got.”
Tillett’s story wasn’t an outlier, with Israel making many small but noteworthy appearances in a plethora of coronavirus reports.
In an April 21 report by AFR correspondent Tom Burton on the merits of forcing Australians to download a tracking app to combat the spread of communal infections, IT consultancy firm Kearney was quoted saying, ‘‘Singapore and Israel – nations that were early users of government-sponsored voluntary-adoption apps – show us that not only is a strong early push necessary to build momentum, both achieving [about] 20 per cent community adoption in the first 10 days, but that governments need to redouble efforts to push past this adoption ‘ceiling’ in weeks ahead.’’
On April 3, the paper ran a Washington Post column by Henry Olsen noting, “Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is as hated by his political opponents as Trump is by his, but 60 per cent of Israelis gave Netanyahu a good grade or better on his handling of the crisis in a recent poll. His Likud party is also gaining in recent polls.”
Secret virus business
A report in News Corp papers (April 17) said, “the secretive Israel Institute for Biological Research, which normally works on developing defences against chemical and biological threats, has been re-tasked to researching COVID-19.”
The “secretive” Israel Institute for Biological Research (IIBR), an Israeli government research institution, is no different to any other scientific organisation that carries out research into potentially lethal substances and threats and which supplies products and solutions to both government and civilian clients.
In fact, it has a mission statement to commercialise its research. Researchers from the IIBR have helped develop a polio vaccine, kits to identify explosives and a drug to treat Sjogren’s syndrome.
On April 22, ABC TV “7pm News (Victoria)” listed Israel as one of 20 countries trialling a COVID-19 vaccine.
Everything old is Jew again
The AFR (April 17) ran British historian Simon Schama’s look at past plagues and the shameful record of European countries in scapegoating Jews when they occurred.
He said, “If scapegoating was always going to be a predictable response of plague-beleaguered powers, the inevitable target of blame was the Jews. At the time of the Black Death, they were accused in some places of poisoning wells; in others it was said that they had introduced the disease out of sheer malevolence towards Christians. The consequences, even by the standards of persecution endemic in the medieval Christian world, were horrific. From Spain to the Rhineland, in Switzerland and Bavaria, Jews were the victims of massacre and, very often, burnings alive. In Strasbourg, 2000 were slaughtered; in Basel, 130 children were separated from their parents before 600 adults were burnt. In the single village of Tarrega in Catalonia, virtually the entire community of 300 Jews were killed by assault or burning… The pious and the powerful often, but not invariably, held up their hands in horror. Pope Clement VI forbade attacks on Jews and insisted that since they had suffered at least equally if not more seriously than Christians from the plague, why would they be responsible for their own suffering?”
On the ABC’s website (April 14), Executive Council of Australian Jewry Co-CEO Peter Wertheim tackled the very contemporary issue of when criticising Israel and calling for boycotts against it becomes antisemitism.
Wertheim said the internationally recognised working definition of antisemitism from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), adopted by many countries and official institutions, emphatically rejects the “belief that criticisms of Israel and antisemitism are mutually exclusive.”
Wertheim, quoting the definition’s principles, argued that when criticism of Israel “is couched in terms which employ or appeal to negative stereotypes of Jewish people generally; or denies the Jewish people their right to self-determination; or applies double standards by requiring of Israel standards of behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation; or holds Jews collectively responsible for actions of the State of Israel,” then “the line has been crossed. It’s antisemitism.”
He cited the examples of when “law-abiding Australian Jews who support Israel are accused of being more loyal to Israel than Australia… When classical stereotypes are deployed about Jews as a people having inordinate control over the media, economy, government or other societal institutions as a means of supporting Israel…When BDS supporters denigrate us as ‘the Jewish lobby,’ ‘the Zionist lobby’ or ‘the pro-Israel lobby,’ a sinister influence rather than Australians legitimately exercising the right of all citizens to promote our views, that’s antisemitism.
“According to the IHRA definition, claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour — for example, by smearing Israel as an ‘apartheid state’ — is a way of denying the legitimacy of a Jewish State and thus denying Jewish people their right to national self-determination. Israel’s detractors wouldn’t deny that right to any other people, least of all the Palestinians. It’s a double standard, and therefore antisemitism.”
All Israeli citizens, including Jews, Arabs and others, have equal voting, civil and religious rights, he noted, and BDS activists’ “skewed concept of apartheid could be applied to almost every country in the world, including Australia. Yet they only seek to boycott Israel.”
In the Spectator Australia (April 11), Australian Jewish Association Executive Director Ted Lapkin also explored the strands of legitimate and illegitimate criticism of Israel in the context of historic antisemitism.
The announcement in Israel of a new national emergency government on April 20, after 17 months of deadlock and three elections, made little more than a whimper in the local media, given the overwhelming contemporary focus on the coronavirus crisis.
ABC Middle East correspondent Eric Tlozek’s major offering was a monologue on ABC Radio National’s “Correspondents Report” (April 19) with his observations including saying Blue and White leader Benny Gantz’s decision to “throw in the towel to join an emergency government” had “allowed” Benjamin Netanyahu “to become the first Israeli prime minister in history to serve while also a defendant in a criminal case.”
Of course, Netanyahu argues he is an innocent man and has availed himself of the rights under Israel’s Basic Law passed in 1992 that lets a sitting PM under indictment remain in office until he has been convicted and exhausted all appeals.
On ABC TV “The World” (April 21) veteran Israeli commentator and AIJAC fellow Ehud Yaari described the governing arrangement as “a political structure never seen before. We will have now a prime minister and an alternate prime minister. They will have both prime ministerial residences at the same time”.
He said, “this arrangement is puzzling to Israelis. I’m sure it’s, it’s quite funny to watch from abroad.”
Asked what happens if Israel’s Supreme Court rules that Binyamin Netanyahu – who is under indictment on corruption charges – cannot lead the government, Yaari said, “they have both committed to one another in writing that if Netanyahu is not allowed to form the government, then they” will go to a “fourth round of elections.”
On April 21, the SBS TV “World News” report on the new Israeli Government was relegated to the show’s 38-minute mark, when newsreader Janice Peterson noted that both Binyamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz support US President Donald Trump’s peace plan which “involves the annexation of parts of the West Bank”. What she didn’t say was that it also gives Palestinians a chance to establish a Palestinian state.
The news item was also a convenient segue to promote an episode of SBS TV’s “Dateline” later that night looking at a grassroots peacemaking effort involving fringe but well-meaning Israeli activists who support a two-state formula for peace and honest Palestinians who talked about a preferred one-state option.
SBS reporter Ben Lewis’ story was reasonable, if lacking in context and background, but did make the faux pas of implying that Israel was only established in 1948 in response to the Holocaust, after which Jews were able to settle there. In fact, Israel was virtually a fait accompli before World War II, with a large Jewish population and proto-state already in place.
Socially distanced from the context
A Courier Mail report (April 21) on the visually arresting site of 2,000 Israelis practising social distancing at a rally in Tel Aviv, said protesters were “against what they said was a threat to democracy from ongoing coalition talks between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his former rival Benny Gantz” and “followed a call launched on Facebook by the ‘Black Flag’ movement which condemns Netanyahu’s continuing rule.”
A few more lines, such as were included in the Adelaide Advertiser’s report, would have informed readers of the important context that the group are opposed to Netanyahu because he is refusing to step down as PM whilst under indictment.
A Gaza Truth Blockade
The capacity for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to cope with COVID-19 was the focus of an ABC TV “The World” (April 6) interview with Oxfam’s Gaza-based food security manager Najla Shawa that included anti-Israel propaganda.
Host Bev O’Connor’s introduction appropriately noted that Gaza is under a “crippling blockade by both Israel and Egypt.”
Shawa said coping with COVID-19 was particularly challenging for Gazans because the territory has been suffering a “humanitarian crisis” for years due to the blockade, which has caused 47% unemployment and “close to 70%” of Gazans not “know[ing] where their next meal is going to come from.”
It is not the blockade that has created the humanitarian crisis or caused “the health system in Gaza [to be] extremely weak” but the legacy of Hamas’ decision to invest in terror tunnels and rocket production instead of civilian infrastructure over the past 13 years, as well as neglect of medical investment by the Palestinian Authority, nominally responsible for purchasing medical supplies and equipment for Gaza.
Shawa said responding to cases of coronavirus was difficult because “in, general, there is a lot of restriction of movement even within the Gaza Strip itself.”
Apart from a narrow buffer zone along the shared border with Gaza to deter would-be terrorists from entering Israel, any internal restrictions on movement are on the orders of Hamas – and this should have been made clear. But the word “Hamas” was somehow never mentioned in the interview.
Asked if there had been an easing of the blockade, Shawa acknowledged there was “some collaboration between the authorities” but claimed “there is strong restriction on medical equipment, on the devices, on even humanitarian assistance.”
This is simply untrue.
Israel’s blockade never restricted either humanitarian assistance, medical supplies, or almost any medical equipment. Certain very limited types of medical equipment, such as x-ray machines, are considered “dual-use” (x-ray machines contain radioactive material which can be used to build a “dirty bomb”) and are subject to extra restrictions, but they can still be imported with proper arrangements. What’s more, Israel has lifted almost all “dual-use” restrictions on anything considered of medical relevance since the coronavirus crisis began.
Meanwhile, Gazans needing medical treatment can still enter Israel.
The NGO Gisha, which monitors Gaza restrictions and is generally highly critical of Israel, said on April 20, “since March 8, travel to and from Gaza via Erez Crossing has been limited almost exclusively to medical patients seeking treatment unrelated to COVID-19, and their companions” and “Kerem Shalom Crossing, between Israel and Gaza, is operating as usual. Salah a-Din Gate for entrance of goods from Egypt to Gaza is also working regularly on three days per week.”
The good, the bad and the ugly all in one
On April 4, ABC Middle East correspondent Eric Tlozek’s report on Gaza and COVID-19 for “7pm News” offered greater context than Oxfam’s propaganda but wasn’t without its problems.
Tlozek noted Gaza’s capacity to cope has been affected by wars fought with Israel and infighting between Palestinian factions i.e. Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.
But Tlozek absurdly said “two-thirds” of Gaza’s two million residents are refugees, which only makes sense if you know that the vast majority inherited their refugee status from ancestors displaced during the 1948 war – which is a unique right that only Palestinians enjoy.
Whilst Tlozek did note Israel has been working to ensure Gaza’s medical needs are met, he said Israeli Defence Minister Naftali Bennett has suggested “some assistance for Gaza” could be conditional on Hamas returning the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed there in the 2014 war. While Bennett did threaten something along these lines, there is no evidence Israeli agencies have ever sought to implement this threat.
Hamas missing in action
Elsewhere, the Australian (March 31) expressed an entirely justified concern over the ability of developing nations to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, and said that “in the Gaza Strip, two million Palestinians are crammed together cheek by jowl, their only real hope Israel’s willingness to help contain the pandemic.” Although it did not blame the blockade, unfortunately there was also obviously not enough space to acknowledge Hamas’ negligence as the key reason for the Strip’s limited capacity to cope with the pandemic.
Quiet as a grave
ABC Radio National “Religion and Ethics” (April 8) reported that COVID-19 has forced the historic closure during Easter of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christians believe Jesus was buried. The story focused on Palestinian Muslim Wajeeh Nusseibeh, whose family has minded the key to the holy site for generations.
Free of the politics of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the interview gave listeners a glimpse of Jerusalem’s Old City not frequently heard on the ABC.
Nusseibeh said, “Everybody is sad to see all the shops, the souvenir, the restaurants, the streets is empty. And this time is the time for people to live in the city, to making money. No money, no work. People stay home and no people to come to pray.”
When host Andrew West asked why a Muslim family has the key, Nusseibeh said it is because Muslims believe “Jesus is one of the… holiest prophets in the world.”
West gave listeners the wider context – centuries of bickering between various Christian churches attempting to share access and control over the holy site eventually resulted in a Muslim family being entrusted with the key.
ABC Radio National “Religion and Ethics” episode on April Fools’ Day included a story by Australian-born Israeli reporter Irris Makler on Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews – known as “Haredi”, meaning “trembling” before God – who makeup only 10% of the population but were 50% of those hospitalised with COVID-19.
Makler noted that Israeli cities with large Haredi populations tend to be densely populated, making it “hard to implement” social distancing rules.
The report quoted Israel Democracy Institute’s ultra-Orthodox expert Dr. Gilad Malach, arguing, “the state has been slow to communicate with the ultra-Orthodox rabbis” about social distancing, and conceded that this is strange given Israel’s then-Health Minister Yaakov Litzman is himself Haredi and leads a Haredi political party.
The day after the episode, News Corp websites reported that Litzman and his wife had contracted COVID-19.
On March 26 and April 9, the Age reported on the flouting of social distancing rules by small groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Melbourne.