Some points everyone should understand about John Lyons’ new booklet, “Dateline Jerusalem: Journalism’s Toughest Assignment”
Oct 25, 2021 | Allon Lee, Tzvi Fleischer
The checklist below highlights only a few of the more egregious claims made about AIJAC and the “Israel Lobby” by John Lyons, the former Middle East correspondent for the Australian and current ABC Executive Editor of News and Head of Investigative Journalism, in his new booklet “Dateline Jerusalem: Journalism’s Toughest Assignment”.
• The Core Conspiracy Theory
John Lyons’ 84-page booklet “Dateline Jerusalem: Journalism’s Toughest Assignment” is a polemic rooted in a conspiracy theory.
In it, Lyons contends 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), in 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).
Throughout the booklet Lyons repeatedly refers to an amorphous “pro-Israel lobby” that he defines for his purposes as “the Israeli Embassy in Canberra, several of the formal lobby groups, and several individuals who are affiliated with these groups” (pg. 6). The implication of Lyons’ contrived definition is that Israel’s supporters in Australia are guilty of collusion with Israel at the expense of Australian national interests.
This definition that Lyons employs masks the essential difference between embassies and lobby groups. Embassies not only obviously exist to represent the foreign country itself but also to promote the policies of that foreign country’s sitting government of the day.
In contrast, lobby groups, including pro-Palestinian lobbies and certainly pro-Israel lobby groups in Australia, are independent bodies of concerned Australians who articulate and promote their own views that do not necessarily reflect the foreign country’s government. Lumping together the actions of Australian groups and the Israeli Embassy is not only immoral, but deceitful.
• Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “blindingly simple”
Central to the booklet’s agenda is the charge that Israel and its supporters have successfully pulled the wool over people’s eyes.
On pg.15, Lyons states that the Israel lobby claims “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 that he never questions throughout the whole booklet – Lyons tries to portray Australian pro-Israel advocacy organisations as working to hide this truth.
On pg. 25, he explains he knows this because he went to Israel on a trip organised by the pro-Israel Lobby when he was editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. (In the booklet, Lyons says he went in 1997 but contemporary media accounts prove it was actually 1996. That trip was organised by the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, though Lyons does not say so in the booklet. In a webinar with veteran Australian journalist Stan Grant on Oct. 6, Lyons falsely claimed it was a “Board and AIJAC” trip. In fact, AIJAC was not involved).
In the booklet, Lyons writes “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.”
No one ever said the occupation is normal and it is an absurd claim to make. Even more absurd is his failure to note that 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 nowhere in the booklet does Lyons concede that Israel has ever done anything to genuinely try to make peace and reach an end-of-conflict two state resolution. 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 “blindingly simple” – a claim no serious scholar of the conflict would make – is to omit vital information about the conflict’s history and the realities 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 the complexities of the conflict.
Participants on AIJAC study tours always meet with representatives from the Palestinian Authority, visit Palestinian 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 would quickly realise that a Lyons-like 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 refusal to vacate it leads him to omit basic inconvenient truths that contradict this simplistic narrative.
This includes the fact 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 not mentioning the Oslo Accords, Lyons also does not explain 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.
In fact, there is no reference to any Palestinian terrorism anywhere in the booklet – except a complaint on p. 56 that an Adelaide newspaper ran a “three-year-old article about female suicide bombers… complete with a picture of a Palestinian woman with an explosives vest standing next to a child.” (Contrary to Lyons’ claim, the article was actually only six weeks old.)
Nor does Lyons explain that US mediated talks were 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.
Since then, Hamas has remained firmly in control of Gaza and committed to keep adding to the tens of thousands of rockets and missiles it has already fired at Israel’s civilian population, instead of making peace. The booklet contains no mention of Hamas’ missiles, its terrorism or its commitment to Israel’s destruction – and only a single fleeting reference to its control over Gaza on pg. 16.
All of these indisputable facts which complicate Lyons’ claim that the 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
In defiance of what AIJAC actually is, 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.”
On pg. 24, Lyons doubles down on this claim, saying that “AIJAC’s far-right position has become more and more obvious.”
He offers no justification or evidence for any of this name-calling, other than an ambiguous quote from former Australiannewspaper editor Chris Mitchell, in which he doesn’t call AIJAC “far right”.
In fact, many of Mitchell’s recent columns on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Australian, express similar sentiments to AIJAC’s – see his comments on the Netanyahu visit to Australia in 2017; the proposal to move the Australian Embassy to Israel to Jerusalem in 2018; and a searing indictment of the mass media’s anti-Israel coverage during the recent May 2021 fighting between Hamas and Israel.
• What AIJAC believes and what it does
AIJAC is an Australian advocacy group whose views align with the mainstream Australian Jewish community. AIJAC is invested in supporting better relations between Australia and Israel and promoting a better understanding of the challenges Israel faces.
AIJAC 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 leader Merav Michaeli, party Secretary-General Hilik Bar, Michal Biran, and Yossi Yona, as well as former Labor PM Ehud Barak and former Labor leader, and current President of Israel, Isaac Herzog.
Furthermore, AIJAC has often criticised and will continue to criticise decisions and policies of Israel’s governments and unacceptable comments made by Israeli politicians. For instance, AIJAC was critical of aspects of Israel’s 2018 Nation State Law, of the 2017 Settlements Regulation Law, and of then Israeli PM Netanyahu’s controversial 2015 election eve comments regarding Arab voters.
On domestic issues, AIJAC has played an oversized role in defending Australia’s unique and highly successful model of multiculturalism which is based on a balance between citizens having both rights and responsibilities. AIJAC has also advocated for the important role that racial vilification legislation plays in protecting the rights of individuals who are discriminated against because of their ethnicity.
In addition to the “far right” slurs, Lyons’ booklet also misstates other facts about AIJAC’s operations, structure and funding.
• AIJAC and a two-state peace
Pg. 25 makes it clear why Lyons feels justified in smearing AIJAC as “far right.”
According to Lyons:
“nothing matches the fury of the right-wing supporters of Israel, who are often bundled together and described as ‘the pro-Israel lobby’. When I refer to ‘the pro-Israel lobby: I include the Israeli Embassy in Canberra, several of the formal lobby groups, and several individuals who are affiliated with these groups – activists who support the continuing expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.” [emphasis added].
This is an absurd, narrow and warped definition of what the pro-Israel lobby is about and what it does – it amounts to any group which opposes the simplistic picture of the conflict he wants to paint, and his implicit call for the Australian government to punish Israel for its supposed sins.
AIJAC does not and has never promoted the “expansion of Israeli settlements” – but Lyons’ definition of promoting “the expansion of Israeli settlements” seems to amount to not opposing them as strongly as John Lyons does.
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. For just a few recent examples, see here, here and here.
Yet, despite AIJAC’s repeated commitment to two states, 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.
So in Lyons’ worldview, in order to not be “far right” and in favour of “greater Israel” a Jewish group must be more radically left-wing than any Israeli Zionist political party.
• Lyons’ claims about pro-Israel lobby pressure
Lyons claims that Middle East correspondents face extraordinary pressure from pro-Israel organisations to censor what they see in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
On pg. 5, Lyons says those who do report the truth are “trolled and abused,” claiming that former New York Times correspondent Jodi Rudoren was “branded” a “Nazi bitch” by “a prominent US-based pro-Israel lobby group.”
Lyons does not name the lobby group nor does he provide a citation and there is no reference to it on internet searches.
In fact, Rudoren herself says she has no recollection of the slur nor the purported conversation with Lyons.
On Oct. 9, 2021, AIJAC’s Ahron Shapiro asked Rudoren to confirm this slur occurred and she replied: “I don’t know the specific instance John is referring to; I’ve asked him, and he is going back to his fact-checking to find it. I myself don’t remember being called that…Sorry not to be more helpful. Will let you know if I hear back from John.”
AIJAC has received no update from Rudoren since Oct. 9.
Lyons’ discussion of Rudoren in the booklet also mispresented other criticisms she received when she took over as New York Times correspondent, as James Kennard has documented.
• No evidence of censorship in media coverage of Israel
There is not one single example in the booklet of AIJAC 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 appears to wholeheartedly endorse – that scurrilously and untruthfully accused Israel of having crossed the threshold into Apartheid.
On ABC Radio National “Breakfast” (Oct. 5), Lyons raised the HRW Report, claiming that there was “barely a mention” in the media.
In the Oct. 6 webinar with Stan Grant, Lyons was even more emphatic, 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 – theAustralian, Herald Sun, Daily Telegraph etc – all covered the HRW report.
Similarly, Lyons’ claims about the 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 media reports critical of 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 here too the booklet cannot cite one bona fide example where AIJAC ever made such a claim about a report – nor one from any other Jewish or pro-Israel group.
In essence, Lyons demands readers accept his word that pro-Israel lobby groups are shutting down critical coverage of Israel by raising accusations of antisemitism without needing to provide a single example.
• Misrepresenting Colin Rubenstein’s correspondence with the Australian
On pg. 18, Lyons makes the extraordinary claim that AIJAC has “unadulterated power” and “Having worked at News Corp for seventeen years, I know 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.”
But 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 omitted 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 separate blog post on AIJAC’s website.
• Misrepresenting Colin Rubenstein’s speech from 2014
A further example of Lyons blatantly 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.”
According to Lyons, this “highlighted to me the disparity between the reality in Israel and what lobbyists try to convince journalists to write.”
But Lyons omitted Rubenstein’s words immediately after, which listed 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 describes personally witnessing Israel using white phosphorous during the 2009 Gaza war, which caused chemical burns when it came into contact with Palestinians living there.
Lyons asserts in the booklet that this was the use of a “chemical weapon” and “a war crime”.
This is substantially different to what Lyons wrote about white phosphorus use during the 2009 war for the Australian (January 6, 2009):
“As soldiers massed on the edges of Gaza City, Israel was suspected of screening its assault with white phosphorus – a substance that causes terrible burns but is not illegal when used as a smokescreen. Israel used white phosphorus in Lebanon in 2006, and British and US troops have used it in Iraq.”
Lyons’ misrepresentation about white phosphorous use and legality is also at odds with the booklet’s footnote linking to a 2009 New York Times article on the subject as a source which also states: “White phosphorus is a standard, legal weapon in armies, long used as a way to light up an area or to create a thick white smoke screen to obscure troop movements.”
After misleadingly accusing Israel of using chemical weapons, Lyons returns to attacking Rubenstein 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. Nevertheless, it is insidiously implied that Rubenstein and other Jewish leaders have greater emotional loyalty to Israel than their own country.
• Misrepresenting pro-Israel viewers’ right to complain
Another example of misrepresentation in the booklet is Lyons grumbling on pg.4, that the ABC had been unreasonably inundated with complaints even before a highly problematic episode of “Four Corners” he produced in 2014 had aired.
“Although I was expecting attacks, I was surprised that they began even before the story was broadcast,” he writes.
Lyons has repeated the claim in interviews promoting the booklet.
The focus of that Four Corners episode, titled “Stone Cold Justice”, was on the fact that West Bank Palestinians, including minors, arrested by Israel for alleged crimes are dealt with by Israeli military courts, while Israeli settlers, including minors, face Israel’s civilian justice system – but the report had numerous problems in terms of factual misrepresentations and one-sidedness and failed to provide essential context.
More importantly, Lyons failed to inform his audiences that international law compels Israel to apply military law, not Israeli law, to the West Bank. Applying Israeli law to West Bank Palestinians would be tantamount to annexation – and likely condemned as such.
The reason this is different from what happens to Israeli civilians, mainly settlers, in the West Bank is that the basic assumption which has guided Israeli authorities was that, as a rule, civilians should be subject to civil law and tried before civil courts. The Palestinian residents of the West Bank are the exception to the rule and are under military rule because international law requires them to be.
However, it is important to note that, 95% of West Bank Palestinians are under the jurisdiction of Palestinian Authority civilian criminal courts for almost all normal criminal matters. It is only when they are involved in terrorism or violence against Israelis that they are liable to be arrested by Israeli forces and subject to Israeli military courts – which operate in full accordance with international law.
Meanwhile, in the booklet Lyons fails to explain why the ABC might have received advance complaints about “Stone Cold Justice”.
Namely, two days before the program aired, the Australian newspaper ran a highly inflammatory accompanying article by Lyons – which was itself a rehash of an earlier widely criticised piece on the same topic he wrote for the paper in 2011 – and promoted the “Four Corners” episode, so people knew about the program’s content.
Lyons also petulantly impugns viewers who had the audacity to exercise their democratic right to lodge formal complaints to the ABC’s internal complaints unit and then on appeal to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).
• Independent assessments of Lyons’ claims about AIJAC and media self-censorship
It is important to note that the booklet’s claims have not gone unchallenged by Lyons’ own peers in the media.
Veteran editor and journalist Peter Fray, who is the current editor-in-chief of Crikey and enjoyed senior editorial roles with the Sydney Morning Herald, Canberra Times, Sunday Age, and Australian, reviewed Lyons’ booklet and questioned most of the essential claims made about pro-Israel advocacy groups.
“Are Rubenstein and a few other Zionist radicals, mainly from Melbourne, basically running the joint? It’s here where Lyons stretches credibility and the limitations of my willingness to go along with his critique.
“Are editors aware they will upset the pro-Israel lobby from time to time? Yes.
“Does the threat of being called an antisemite or worse lead to widescale mis- or non- reporting, to self-censorship? No, not in my experience.
“Do they say ‘no to Colin’? Well, yes, I have on numerous occasions — and I am sure I am not alone.
“What about the reporting?
“For a start, Lyons largely ignores the scores of hard-nosed reporting done from and about Israel by the likes of Paul McGeough (SMH/Age), Sophie McNeill (ABC) and, of course, himself, just to name three.
“…. Most examples cited by Lyons as pro-Israel lobby interference are post-publication… if the editors were so scared, you wouldn’t see such pieces at all.
“The fact that the reaction to pieces…is so fierce doesn’t mean such pieces are not being published. They are.
“Much of the essay relies on anecdotes. That is Lyons’ call. But a few more facts wouldn’t have gone astray.”
In an earlier review of the booklet for Nine Newspapers (Age and Sydney Morning Herald), former Age editor Michael Gawenda, shared views similar to Fray’s, writing:
“The incontestable fact [is] that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians gets more newspaper and television coverage than virtually any other international conflict.
“These are serious charges and if they are to be made, then evidence surely is required. Some examination of the way, for instance, that Australian journalists and their editors and executive producers covered the recent war in Gaza. And how the Lobby nobbled that coverage. Nothing to see here in this booklet. Nothing on any of the coverage except vague generalisations. No examples of compromised reporting, of doing the bidding of the Lobby. And so this is a smear really against unnamed editors and journalists.”
In a radio interview on ZZZ (Oct. 13), Gawenda added, “What was deeply troubling to me” was that Lyons’ claims about the pro-Israel lobby distorting Australian media coverage of the Israel/Palestinian issue were made “without providing significant evidence…I think on its face… it’s an absurd proposition and… it is based on a view of Jewish power that I think is nonsensical, to say the least.”
Neither editor was approached for comment by Lyons, perhaps for good reason.
It is obvious that these two hardnosed veterans, who dealt with both representatives of the Israel lobby and ordinary readers, are of the opinion that Lyons’ lurid claims do not pass the smell test.
Meanwhile, veteran media commentator Gerard Henderson has reviewed Lyons’ claims and concluded , “Dateline Jerusalem gives an insight into what passes for professional journalism at the contemporary ABC – exaggerations, unchecked errors, anonymous sources, gross exaggerations and the failure to get both sides of the story.” (See also Henderson’s follow-up clarification here.)
• AIJAC’s past criticisms of Lyons
It is true that, over the years, when AIJAC believed that Lyons’ reporting on Israel and the Middle East was sloppy, unprofessional, one-sided or failed to include vital context, we released detailed, sourced material to point out the problems.
Lyons’ response has always been to ignore the substance of AIJAC’s arguments and instead insist, as he does in this booklet, that the very act of being criticised amounts to him being “targeted”.
We invite readers to review for themselves our criticisms of some of John Lyons’ journalism, most of which is collected on this webpage, and judge whether they amount to some sort of improper “targeting” or, as we believe, reasonable and legitimate critiques.