LYNCH: Free speech and the pro-Israel lobby September 16, 2009

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by Jake Lynch -  -  15 September 2009

Have you ever had the feeling that the walls closing in? So narrow has political debate become here in Australia, over the Israel/Palestine conflict, that attempts to remind Australians of basic facts, well accepted in the global community, are falling foul of censorship – silenced by the swish of a bureaucrat’s pen.

Journalists at public broadcaster SBS are told, in a missive from their Head of News, that the station’s Ombudsman has ruled out the use of the phrase, “Palestinian land” to describe the occupied territories of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The status of these territories “remains the subject of negotiation”, the memo says, and should be described solely with reference to their geographical location, for instance: “Israeli settlements on the West Bank”.

This shows the chilling effect of the selective deafness practised by frontbench politicians in Canberra, which has, as I pointed out in an earlier column, put Australia further into Israel’s camp than any other country, including the United States. When a senior bipartisan delegation visits Israel – Labor’s Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard finding rare common ground with former Treasurer, the Liberals’ Peter Costello – and fails to mention, even once, the attack on Gaza at the turn of the year or questions over its legality, huge bites of reality fall into the ‘don’t-mention-the-war’ category: what media scholar Daniel Hallin called the ‘zone of deviancy’, outside the bounds of the legitimately controversial.

At the University of Sydney, where I work, the Students for Palestine group have been told by their Student Union that they are not entitled to form a club, and benefit from the facilities, for reasons no-one is allowed to disclose. All present at the relevant meeting have been sworn to secrecy. So they’ve called a protest rally later this month, which is also being advertised by students from other universities: universities like Macquarie, also in Sydney, whose Head of Security reportedly frogmarched several of them off the campus for the ‘crime’ of leafleting outside the library, occasioning complaints of “offensive behaviour”.

Talking of which, the steady trickle of emails I receive from supporters of Israel has grown lately, their writers now apparently feeling emboldened to more abusive and, in some cases, openly racist comment. Then there’s the latest stoush between the pro-Israel lobby and the Sydney Peace Foundation, over the decision to award this year’s Sydney Peace Prize to the journalist and film-maker, John Pilger.

Pilger is famous for many things, including his reports raising the alarm over Pol Pot’s killing fields in Cambodia during the 1970s, and his courage in smuggling himself into East Timor under Suharto, and Burma, where he brought out unforgettable pictures of slave labour being used to build roads by the Burmese military junta.

His film, Palestine Is Still The Issue, is valuable precisely because it opens by situating the conflict in the context of international law and the well-established view of the international community. The reason why the Occupied Palestinian Territories are so called is because there is an important difference between their claims over them and those of Israel: the Palestinians are their lawful owners. And the reason why, as Pilger points out, there have been countless UN resolutions condemning Israel’s occupation is because of a cornerstone of international law: the inadmissibility of territory acquired by force.

As the SBS absurdity shows, these basic facts are now regarded as ‘controversial’ in the context of Australian public discourse. It represents a triumph for Israel and its apologists here, who are thinking aloud about how best to take on the peace prize and its new laureate. “Strategist” Ernie Schwartz told the Australian Jewish News that, if professionally consulted – as some suspect he has been – he would advise the lobby to brazen out criticism that, in attacking a journalist for his journalism, they are enemies of open debate: “be realistic about the fact that we’ll always come across as myopic. That’s just the way we’re going to be cast”.

Pilger-bashing over his reporting from the Middle East has already spread to academia. First into the breach, after the announcement of the honour, was a blog, The Sensible Jew, which declared him “odious” and “a joke among the serious-minded”. It featured a post from Philip Mendes, a social work lecturer at Melbourne’s Monash University, drawing attention to his scholarly article on Pilger in the Australian Journal of Jewish Studies. It’s unusual for an academic journal – especially one enjoying the highest ‘A*’ rating, as this one does – to publish a contribution by a researcher outside his or her own field.

In it, Pilger is criticised for declaring that it is his “duty to rectify” an imbalance in western news coverage. But that is what he is supposed to be doing: Pilger makes documentaries for Independent Television in the UK, and the Office of Communication, which regulates the industry, obliges “licensees [to] ensure that justice is done to a full range of significant views and perspectives”. They need Pilger to make up for shortcomings elsewhere.

Mendes treats the question of bias, in reporting of the conflict, as if scholarly opinion on the subject is equally divided, when in fact the vast majority of research finds that frames, definitions and versions of events favoured by Israel predominate in the news. He adduces the unpublished study by BBC News management, of their own output, without setting it in the appropriate context, of their dispute at the time with the corporation’s governors.

Mendes protests that he himself is a supporter of a “two-state solution” and that, by comparison, Pilger is “a hardline extremist [whose] public writings all suggest a position favouring the dissolution of the existing State of Israel, and its replacement by an Arab state of Greater Palestine”. This is, in fact, typical of the misrepresentation of Pilger’s writing which is Mendes’ stock-in-trade: flatly contradicted by, for instance, the following sections of script in Pilger’s best-known public writing on the issue, the BAFTA-award winning documentary, Palestine Is Still The Issue (2002):

“[The establishment of the State of Israel] cost the Palestinians 78% of their country. Today, they are seeking only the remaining 22% of their homeland. For 35 years, that homeland has been dominated by Israel…

Israelis will never have peace until they recognise that Palestinians have the same right to the same peace and the same independence that they enjoy. The occupation of Palestine should end now. Then, the solution is clear. Two countries, Israel and Palestine, neither dominating nor menacing the other”.

Apparently desperate for evidence to support his claims, Mendes pounces on the concluding paragraph of a 2007 article by Pilger in the New Statesman magazine, which reports the views of the historian, Ilan Pappé, that “a single democratic state, to which the Palestinian refugees are given the right of return, is the only feasible and just solution, and that a sanctions and boycott campaign is critical in achieving this… A boycott of Israeli institutions, goods and services, says Pappé, ‘will not change the [Israeli] position in a day, but it will send a clear message that [the premises of Zionism] are racist and unacceptable in the 21st century . . . They would have to choose’.

And so would the rest of us”.

This, Mendes says, proves that Pilger has adopted an “anti-Zionist fundamentalist perspective… which is beyond rational debate, and unconnected to contemporary or historical reality”. Presumably, the right of return for Palestinian refugees is not, in Mendes’ view, part of “contemporary or historical reality”: he colludes, in other words, with efforts to exclude it from the equation. The exercise of this right has been remitted to the creation of an independent Palestinian state on the 22% of Mandate Palestine. As that prospect appears to grow more distant, however, with the continued expansion and buttressing of seized land in the West Bank, it re-opens the question of how the refugees will be able to exercise their rights. It is in this context that a single-state solution to the conflict is now being widely debated, rationally, by Pappé and many others.

That, surely, is something that a journalist is entitled to report, without thereby qualifying to be called a “fundamentalist”. To attach such a label, with the clear aim of discrediting another writer, cannot be considered a reputable scholarly practice, and contributes to the appalling narrowing of debate in Australia that is typified by the SBS directive and the bans on student groups.

When Pilger receives the award in November, from New South Wales Governor, Professor Marie Bashir, and gives the City of Sydney Peace Prize lecture in the Opera House the following evening, it will be an overdue signal that we are entitled to know what we know, and say what we want to say about it.


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