Australia/Israel Review

The Biblio File: Scholarshipwreck

Apr 29, 2013 | Jeremy Jones

Jeremy Jones

Making Australian Foreign Policy on Israel-Palestine: Media Coverage, Public Opinion and Interest Groups
by Eulalia Han and Halim Rane, Melbourne University Press, 2013, 218pp., $49.99


Did you know that “the Israel-Palestine conflict” is “the central factor in Islam-West relations”? Not one of a number of factors, not an element of a larger, multi-faceted engagement, but “the” central factor?

Readers of the latest volume in Australia’s “Islamic Studies Series” are presented with this “fact” as an attempt to justify a thin book on “Making Australian Foreign Policy in Israel-Palestine” being published as part of its catalogue.

From the earliest pages of the Introduction the authors’ biases are never hard to uncover.
Voting for the UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947, which recommended the partition of the quarter of the British Mandate for Palestine not already allocated for the Arab State of Jordan, is presented as evidence for Australia being regarded as “more pro-Israel than even-handed.” Failure to uncritically support a series of biased, prejudiced UN resolutions which do nothing to further the interests of peace is seen as proof Australia “supports Israel’s interests.”

With the authors unaware of, or not wishing to pay attention to, the history of the area currently divided between Israel, Gaza and the Palestinian Authority, the dispute is presented as one of “Israel’s interests” on the one hand against “human rights” on the other.

The authors state, without qualification, that the 29 November 2012 UN General Assembly resolution “is the most significant event in the history of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination”. After a summary of the debate within the Australian Government regarding that vote, using not a single primary source, the readers are informed that this is not a book about the Israel-Palestinian conflict per se but is “a work of political sociology in that this is a study of how certain social actions and institutions influence policy making”.

The summary of “Australia’s place in the world” and “Australia’s self-perception” manages to mangle Howard government views on Australian values, ALP views on “middle-power diplomacy” and one contemporary survey of racist views.

After a short, non-committal section on “Mass Media, Public Opinion, Interest Groups and Foreign Policy Making”, the authors belly-flop into the area of “the Israel-Palestine Conflict”, where we read of the “pro-Israel slant” of the “western media”, and of the ignoring of “Palestinians’ legitimate claims”, before we are told “In the Australian context, there has not been a detailed analysis of the Government’s policy towards the Israel-Palestinian conflict or a comprehensive analysis conducted on the role of media coverage, public opinion and interest groups in this process. This book fills a gap in the scholarly literature.”

By the time the introduction has concluded, the reader has been exposed to a series of value judgements, skewed representations of history and social theory, and an historical presentation of summaries of data, but nothing approaching “scholarly”.

From this platform, the reader is offered a four course banquet, with the appetiser on “Australian Foreign Policy on the Israel-Palestine Conflict”, an entree on “media coverage”, “Public Opinion” for the main course and “Interest Groups” for dessert.

The history of the 1940s, and the 1947 UN vote, could have been lifted straight out of a PLO propagandist’s speaking notes, with not even lip-service paid to the arguments in favour of the establishment of a state allowing Jewish self-determination in one small part of the British Mandate of Palestine. No culpability for any problems is placed at the feet of Arab leaders, controversial anti-Zionist author Ilan Pappe is treated as an unimpeachable source and the entire matter presented as wrong (Israel) versus purer than the newly fallen snow (opposition of any sort to Israel).

Barely a single paragraph in this section doesn’t merit serious criticism and even the documentation of Australia’s UN vote loses much of its value due to the lack of nuance, context, debate or analysis. That is not to say that the chapter doesn’t pretend at scholarship – footnotes appear regularly if somewhat randomly, but read them too closely and you will discover four citations of blogger Antony Loewenstein’s polemic My Israel Question and a collection of sources from which a few words have been cherry-picked while serious analysis is entirely absent.

The section on the media eschews reference to television, radio and all print media other than The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian. A compendium of data is pock-marked with comments such as “While the Berlin Wall was heavily criticised, the illegality of the wall built by Israel, which is wider and taller than the Berlin Wall, hardly receives media mention or government criticism.”

Almost 20 pages into a mishmash of observations on such topics as how many times “Gaza” appeared without explanation of how refugees came to be there and criticisms of reportage which attributes any responsibility to Palestinians, we read “the findings of this analysis suggests that there is no obvious relationship between the media and Australia’s policy toward the Israel-Palestine peace process”. Well, thank you…

The chapter on “Public Opinion” conflates opinion-polling at different times, in specific circumstances, with “public opinion” over an extended period. An especially commissioned survey, where participants were invited, on-line, to take part, with a tiny sample of 1,021 respondents, was used to justify conclusions on the attitudes of the Australian population.

That said, all the survey revealed is that the 1,021 people didn’t know terribly much about the issues and were force-fed options which meant that any subtleties in understanding could not be uncovered.

The final chapter is on “Interest Groups”. This was of particular interest to me as I was one of the interviewees.

The conversation with the interviewer, as I told colleagues at the time, was a frustrating experience. The interviewer seemed simply to not understand what I was saying when I spoke about the Jewish community’s concerns, challenged her assumptions regarding political and social processes, stressed the importance of noting the differences between organisations established to advocate a particular political position and those seeking to heighten levels of debate, or indeed anything else, for that matter.

It was nice to read “AIJAC is the most effective pro-Israel lobby group in Australia. Its staff and members are well organised, articulate, resourceful, influential and well connected in important areas of Australian society, and the organisation is well funded by private donations”. However, given the judgement and analytical skills shown throughout the book I am not sure whether or not to believe it.

In this chapter, the scholarship of Chanan Reich is lumped with the bluster of Antony Loewenstein as sources of “important insights into Zionism in Australia”. The relationship of Islam to Judaism for centuries of Jews living as powerless, disenfranchised second-class citizens is referred to as “peaceful coexistence”.

The section on lobby groups in the USA is premised on the existence of an almost supernaturally powerful “pro-Israel lobby” which “encourages the election of Congress members who are passionate supporters of Israel, while silencing and intimidating politicians, media personnel and academics who are critical of Israel’s policies and practices.” One short paragraph allows for the possibility there are influences on US policy which come from sources which are not pro-Israel, but this argument is immediately followed by a paragraph ridiculing the idea.

The chapter (and book) conclude with an overview of pro-Israel and anti-Israel (which the authors label “pro-Palestine”) lobby groups in Australia. Fact and opinion, fantasy and reality, assertion and evidence, are thrown together in a way which makes it almost impossible to disentangle what is useful from what is prejudicial to understanding.

“Zionism”, a term used many times, is not defined and readers are informed that authoritative personalities conclude that “the only justification” for Australia not to have an anti-Israel foreign policy “can be domestic consideration and the influence of the Israeli lobby”.

Former Ambassador Ross Burns “speaking of his experiences as a diplomat”, portrays sympathy for Israel as something which is directly counter to “purely Australian interests”.

Maria Vamvakinou, as an MP, is cited as saying pro-Israel influences come from “a community that attains political influence because it also has economic power” as against “justice” which is what the “Palestine lobby groups” come armed with.

The final sentence of the chapter (and book) is “we conclude that the pro-Israel lobby is the main domestic factor that influences Australia to maintain its support for Israel”.

Reading their book, I conclude that the “MUP Islamic Studies Series”, which proclaims “Books in the ISS are refereed publications that are committed to research excellence” has, with this monograph, contributed nothing to scholarship, much less “research excellence.”

Instead, it will sully the minds of students and contribute to the type of misunderstandings which lead to exactly the sort of frustration, alienation and confusion that quality scholars and people of goodwill devote serious efforts to redressing.




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