Just the facts, Maam

Ted Lapkin


(Below is the full version of a response to Louise Adler of Melbourne University Press that was posted in abbreviated form on Crickey.com on Aug. 11, 2006)

The proposition that political argument should be built on an accurate factual foundation is neither revolutionary nor controversial. Or so I thought.
But Melbourne University Publishing’s (MUP) Louise Adler seems to think that factual exactitude is a secondary issue where anti-Israel polemics are concerned. She sidesteps any real mention of the inaccuracies that pervade Loewenstein’s work, dismissing any such complaints as mere manifestations of a malign Zionist conspiracy to demean his book.  But in retrospect, Adler’s lack of critical judgement on Israel-related topics should come as no surprise.

Last year she published Jacqueline Rose’s The Question of Zion, such a shoddy book that even an ideological ally writing in an editorially sympathetic newspaper derided it as a work of “overriding shallowness.” While reviewing Rose’s book for the British Independent, self-professed anti-Zionist author Simon Louvish castigated her for a “lack of basic understanding.” Rose’s “over-reliance on certain dissident Israeli historians, and avoidance of others,” wrote Louvish, “skews the analysis.”
And in what seems to be an annual tradition at MUP, we are now presented with another flawed anti-Zionist treatise. On his only visit to Israel, Antony Loewenstein spent his time hobnobbing exclusively with that country’s far-Left radical fringe. He solicited the views of anti-Zionist firebrands like Amira Hass – who so deeply identifies with the Palestinian cause that she lives in the Arab West Bank city of Ramallah. But like Rose, Loewenstein has little sympathy for the concerns of mainstream Israelis. And while My Israel Question is not filled with the psychobabble of Jacqueline Rose, the same Simon Louvish criticism of agenda-driven superficiality can aptly be applied to Loewenstein.
When I asked MUP about the size of Loewenstein’s initial printing, I was told that it was none of my business. But on the basis of conversations with several large publishing houses, I am informed that a minimum print-run of 3,000 copies – even of a niche political title – would be needed to cover costs alone.
But meanwhile, on August 7 (a week after it went on sale), Loewenstein admitted in his blog that the second printing of My Israel Question contains “minor changes.” Thus there are only two plausible possibilities here – the first print run was atypically miniscule, as perhaps evidenced by Ms. Adler’s boast about the book selling-out after purchases of only about 400 copies. Or, there was a much larger print run, most of which is being pulped before distribution on account of the book’s serious flaws. Perhaps facts matter to Louise Adler a bit more than she lets on.
Louise Adler also expresses concern that the opportunity for serious debate on the Middle East conflict is jeopardised by the Zionist lobby’s campaign “vilification.” But like Loewenstein, she confuses valid criticism with ad hominem attacks. I have no interest in the Antony Loewenstein’s personal life. But shoddy scholarship, misrepresented professional credentials and flawed argument are all fair game.
And the current format of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival seems to belie Ms. Adler’s professions of yearning for serious debate on this topic. The primary prerequisite for a debate of any kind is a contest of opposing views. But Loewenstein’s session at the Writers’ Festival – which Ms. Adler helped organise – promises to be more an ideological echo chamber than an exchange of divergent ideologies.
According to the Festival program, Loewenstein will share the stage with QCs Julian Burnside and Robert Richter. Burnside’s pro-Palestinian sympathies are a matter of public record. By contrast, I was unable to find any public comment by Robert Richter on the Middle East conflict. This silence is all the more notable in light of Richter’s unabashed outspokenness on any number of other controversial public policy issues. His self-induced absence from the Middle East debate would indicate, at a bare minimum, that he is hardly a passionate Zionist. Thus it seems doubtful that he will present the sort of pro-Israel voice that one would expect to see on such a panel that values substantive ideological diversity.
Thus the Melbourne Writers’ Festival event is shaping up to be another one-sided affair marked by a preponderant hostility towards Israel. In fact, it seems to be much like the Festival session organised last year by Ms. Adler for author Jacqueline Rose.
Ms. Adler talks the talk of true debate, but fails to walk the walk. Her author employs ad hominem invective to deflect serious questions about the factual shortcomings of his book. And she herself can’t resist the opportunity to take a few personal shots herself, falsely accusing me of hanging up on her publicist.

This is all the more appalling in light of the fact that MUP is affiliated with, and subsidised by, one of Australia’s pre-eminent institutions of higher education, where objective scholarship is supposed to be the highest virtue. In a statement on August 10, Melbourne University Vice Chancellor Glyn Davis reiterated the need to “respect long-established practices about the conduct of scholarly debate, however impassioned.”

But two successive years of unbalanced Adler-organised forums at the Melbourne Writers Festival seem to indicate that, where Israel is concerned, the CEO of MUP thinks such respect need only be conferred upon those whose views she finds politically congenial.