Denigrating Critics of Israel


As today’s column will provoke accusations of anti-Semitism, let me begin with a few words in my defence. A classic philo-Semite, I’ve long been described as a Jew lover by the anti-Semites in organisations such as Frederick Tobin’s Adelaide Institute. I’ve been dragged before the Press Council by the abominable League of Rights and am proud to say I’m regularly attacked in the hate pages of neo-Nazi organisations.

I’m on the receiving end of stacks of hate mail, up to and including death threats. My home was attacked by an anti-Semitic group that spray-painted racist obscenities all over it, then tried to sledgehammer their way in.

My children grew up in a home with a mezuzah, which consecrates it, on the doorpost. They were taught to respect the extraordinary contribution of Jews to science, philosophy, philanthropy, ethics, civil rights and the arts. My first daughter, named Rebecca, renounced her father’s atheism and converted to Judaism. And I’ve lost count of the occasions when I’ve launched books by Jewish authors, opened exhibitions by Jewish artists or spoken at Jewish fundraisers or at Holocaust exhibitions or museums.

Yet, with growing frequency, I get letters branding me an anti-Semite. Worse still, I’ve lost close friends in the Jewish community. Why? Because in recent years I’ve found it impossible not to criticise Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians.

It is not anti-Semitic to disagree with Israel’s behaviour in the Lebanon or the disputed territories. It is not anti-Semitic to regard Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as equally culpable with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the present mess. And it is not anti-Semitic to protest long and loud against the attempts to denigrate Hanan Ashrawi and those who would honour her.

The behaviour of the so-called Jewish lobby over the Ashrawi issue is not only appalling but extraordinarily stupid. Once again, in its efforts to suppress and censor, the lobby challenges the efforts of its worst enemies to become its own worst enemy.

Take the case of the diabolical David Irving. Australian Jewry succeeded in banning him from entering Australia–the classic Pyrrhic victory. It did not hurt Irving’s cause. Rather, it made him a martyr to his deranged supporters while providing the oxygen of publicity for his books, videos and website.

Far better to have let him into the country and to confront him. The demolition job done on Irving in the London libel trial shows his vulnerability to scholarly attack. Whereas shutting him out in an attempt to shut him up gives the ill-informed and uninformed the impression that his opponents have something to hide.

If the campaign to keep Irving out of Australia was counterproductive, the attack on Ashrawi–and those of us who admire her–is worse.

I’m one of many who regard themselves as simultaneously pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian, in the sense that we want a negotiated settlement, some sort of two-state solution. Of course we want the suicide bombings to end. But we also want the building of that monstrous wall to cease. And we want to recognise the immense efforts of those, on both sides of the fence–of the wall, of the political abyss–who’ve spent their lives trying to negotiate a workable and equitable solution.

I’ve known Ashrawi for many years. The last time we spoke she’d just celebrated her daughter’s marriage, the festivities clouded by the explosions of Israeli missiles. Her response was characteristically measured and modulated. She has, after all, spent a lifetime in the firing line, working as a top negotiator between her people and the Israelis, within the maelstrom of Palestinian politics. I’ve had dealings with hundreds of the most prominent people in public life, not only in Australia but across the world. Their ranks have included quite a few who have won the Nobel Peace Prize. But I’ve met few I admire as much as Ashrawi.

Now there are attempts to deny her the Australian Peace Prize. First the University of Sydney was cowed into slamming the door of the Great Hall in her face. Then it was Sydney Town Hall, with Lord Mayor Lucy Turnbull’s behaviour, calling into question not only her courage but her judgment.

Which brings us to Sydney councillor Kathryn Greiner’s attack on the Sydney Peace Foundation, which she’d chaired for four years. Her attempts to have the award to Ashrawi overturned were uncharacteristically craven.

Yesterday, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer bought into the issue, tut-tutting Ashrawi’s award. Odd, given that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade paid for Ashrawi to attend, and address, the Festival of Ideas in Adelaide.

Everyone, it seems, is running scared. At least NSW Premier Bob Carr has refused to back off. Equally admirable, the behaviour of Stuart Rees, director of the SPF.

As a consequence of their bitter experiences over the centuries, Jews have stood at the forefront of human rights and civil rights issues across the world. To be so wrong-headed on this occasion is, therefore, doubly disappointing.

The campaign smacks of an attack on free speech in this country and, yes, on free assembly. And it plays right into the hands of the true anti-Semites.

PHILIP ADAMS writes for the Australian, where this column originally appeared.

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