Sunday, January 25, 2009
Backman turnoff overdrive: Free speech and the Australian Israeli lobby
Paul Ramadge, editor of The Age, has badly damaged his reputation for editorial independence over his role in the Backman affair. The story began a couple of weeks ago when freelance journalist Michael Backman wrote an article in the Melbourne broadsheet heavily critical of Israel’s actions in Gaza. The Australian Jewish lobby publicly attacked it as "offensive to Jews". Within days, The Age editor issued an apology for the article (and incorrectly blamed a lack of supervision over the holiday period for publishing it). Backman also apologised to the Jewish community for any hurt caused. He subsequently removed the offending article from his own site but the text can be still be retrieved thanks to the ever reliable Google cache.
The fact is that Backman has nothing to apologise for. His issues about Israel need to be discussed and not thrown out of the public space. Backman does not deny Israel's right to exist, but his is an angry thesis bristling with frustration about the way it is treated with kid gloves in the western world. Like most things written in anger, it is far from perfect. His comparison between Israel/Gaza and Melbourne/Bendigo was hilariously bad and was deservedly lampooned by right-wing commentators such as Tim Blair. And his allegations about rude Israeli backpackers in Nepal were totally unsubstantiated.
Nonetheless, many of his statements in the article about the state of Israel are absolutely true and well worth repeating:
“Israel's utter inability to transform the Palestinians from enemies into friends has imposed big costs on us all.”
“The enmity many Muslims now feel for Israel has nothing to do with religion.”
“Hamas did not enjoy the support of all the people of Gaza. It does now.”
“Israel needs to change.”
And Israel does need to change. Ever since its birth, the country’s consistently hawkish attitude towards any kind of a negotiated settlement means that the Palestinian question continues to be one of the world’s most intractable problems. Palestinians still call 1948 “Al Nakbah”. In English it is “the catastrophe” from which they have never recovered. It is also a catastrophe that Israel has never acknowledged.
Its treatment is in stark contrast to what the nation deems as its own catastrophe: the Holocaust. But the Holocaust does not belong to Israel and its treatment of survivors has not always been impeccable. According to Jewish Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, during the war Zionists were more worried by the threat of Palestinians than the fate of European Jews and were selective about which Jews could enter the country (they wanted only the fittest). And afterwards, only ten percent of the three million Holocaust survivors went to Israel (the vast majority preferred to flee to America). Those that did arrive were initially hated by the Zionists who were already there before the war. The newcomers, like the many Arab Jews who also migrated to Israel after 1948, were housed in camps that must have given many of them uncomfortable reminders of what they left behind.
Pappé also says Israelis refer to the Holocaust as “the other planet”. The wording is important as it means the incomprehensible acts of that other planet could not possibly be imagined in theirs. However since 1948, Israel has treated Palestinians ("unpeople") with exactly the same disrespect as Germany treated its unwanted minorities ("untermenschen"). To get round these inconvenient arguments, Israel claimed patrimony over the Holocaust. The Shoah was conflated with the notion of Israel in order to serve the national ambitions of successive Israeli governments. Pappé suffered death threats for his ideas and was forced to leave Israel.
Whenever anti-Israeli ideas such as Pappé’s and Backman’s appear, the Holocaust and associated shibboleth of anti-semitism can be used to stop them. It works particularly well in Australia. While hard hitting criticism similar to Backman's are published as a matter of record in the vibrant Israeli press, they were deemed too potent for our media. Not for the first time the ever watchful Israeli government lobby got their way and extracted grovelling apologies from all concerned. The effect is to muzzle effective debate about Israel in this country.
The Australian architect for this strategy is Colin Rubinstein. For the last ten years, Rubenstein has been the executive director for Australia’s most powerful Israeli lobby group, the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC). Based in Melbourne and funded by private donations, AIJAC is a high profile and assertive lobby group. It was Rubenstein and the AIJAC who were the most aggressive lobby group against the awarding of the Sydney Peace Prize to Hanan Ashrawi. Although their bullying tactics were exposed by Antony Loewenstein’s "My Israel Question", they continue to have a chilling effect on the Israel debate in this country. They do this by consistently attacking any public suggestion Israel is in the wrong or might need to compromise, and then use their considerable muscle, and manufactured shame over the Holocaust to close the argument down. It is usually easier for a journalist or an editor to self-censor than to take them on.
And so when Rubenstein saw Backman’s article, he did what he always does when confronted with an anti-Israeli polemic and went for the jugular. Rubenstein arranged to meet with Age editor Paul Ramadge twice last week. Meanwhile the Australian Jewish News reported unnamed “critics in the Jewish community” (they were Jewish Community Council of Victoria president John Searle and Zionist Council of Victoria president Danny Lamm) calling Backman’s column “blatantly anti-semitic” and “hate speech against the Jews”.
Of course it was neither, There is no evidence of anti-semitism in the article. It is not hate speech against the Jews but rather hate speech against the Israeli government. That might not be appealing to some, but it is not unreasonable to publish such an attitude. It is also protected under the “fair comment” provisions of our libel laws. But it didn't take long for the lobby group pressure to bear. Paul Ramadge caved in to Rubenstein and cravenly removed the piece.
On his website Michael Backman proclaims “truth belongs to the people; not the government”. But in this case, as in many others related to reporting of Israel in Australia, truth belonged to neither. It was the power to influence that took truth off the agenda. It is not a matter of whether you agree with Backman or not, the default position is you cannot even say what Backman said and have it published in a leading newspaper. Like it or not, Colin Rubenstein remains one of the Australia’s most powerful gatekeepers of opinion in the public sphere.