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Jews and Australian Politics

by Geoffrey Brahm Levey and Philip Mendes,Sussex Academic Press, 2004

By Ted Lapkin

The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists urges the media to "diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrong doing." And if this rule pertains to the hurly burly world of journalism, one would think that it might apply with redoubled force in the more slowly-moving realm of academia. Think again: at least where Drs. Philip Mendes and Geoffrey Brahm Levey are concerned.

This ethical lapse surfaces in a new anthology that is co-edited by Levey and Mendes. Entitled Jews and Australian Politics, the book features a chapter jointly written by the editors that strongly criticises AIJAC over its actions during the Hanan Ashrawi controversy.

For those unaware of this imbroglio, Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi was selected by the Sydney Peace Foundation to be the recipient of its 2003 Peace Prize. Supporters of Israel both within and without the Jewish community were appalled by the choice of a person who had made a career of using her polemical talents as an apologist for terrorism. Criticism was also directed toward the decision of NSW Premier Bob Carr to officiate at the awards ceremony.

During the preparation of their chapter, Levey and Mendes solicited information from sources as far afield as Israel. Yet they never saw fit to provide AIJAC with an opportunity for a response to the grave accusations that appear in Jews and Australian Politics. For Mendes it would even have been a local telephone call.

In a subsequent letter to the Australian Jewish News, Levey and Mendes lamely attempted to mitigate their ethical faux pas by quipping that AIJAC’s "record speaks for itself." But then the same should hold true for their other sources, some of whom have a paper trail that reveals they are cut from decidedly anti-Zionist cloth.

The Levey/Mendes tag team consulted Baruch Kimmerling, the hard Left Israeli sociology professor whom they thanked for his assistance in "clarifying certain international aspects of this affair." Kimmerling has a history of activism in Hadash, the current incarnation of the hardcore Stalinist Israeli Communist Party that opposes Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. And early 2001, Kimmerling penned an op-ed for the Israeli broadsheet Ha’aretz endorsing the Palestinian right to "rise up in violence" against the Israeli "terror state."

Thus Geoffrey Brahm Levey and Philip Mendes thought it appropriate to contact an anti-Zionist extremist half a world away who had no direct role in the Sydney Peace Prize controversy. Yet they saw no need to provide the direct object of their criticism with the opportunity to rebut their book’s polemical assault.

But speaking of paper trails, the explanation for this becomes clear when the authors’ history of political animus towards AIJAC is injected into the equation. Last year, Levey wrote a wrathful piece for the American Jewish weekly newspaper The Forward in which he assailed the decision by AIJAC’s sister organisation, the American Jewish Committee, to award its highest honour to John Howard.

Those gullible Yankees, hinted Levey, were manipulated by the puppet-meisters of AIJAC into conferring the American Liberties Medallion on a "politician whose policies are so clearly anathema" to the principles of humanitarianism. Thus the award of the Sydney Peace Prize to a veteran apologist for terrorism is just fine and dandy in Geoffrey Levey’s book. But when the Prime Minister of Australia is thanked by an American Jewish organisation for his support of Israel and the United States, suddenly all sorts of Machiavellian machinations come into play.

And Philip Mendes’ record of hurling abuse in AIJAC’s direction is equally conspiratorial and even more virulent. During the 1990s Phillip Mendes went on record to assail AIJAC as a "propagandist mouthpiece" and a "Jewish version of the new right." In the Mendes catalogue of sins AIJAC was also guilty of being "irresponsible ideologues" who "rewrite history."

But not all of us can attain the Himalayan level of ideological responsibility evinced by radical Leftist writer Antony Loewenstein. In the world according to Antony, Israel is a nation of "apartheid-like policies" that is led by an "elected, yet unindicted war criminal." And any Jew who had the temerity to oppose the award of a peace prize to Hanan Ashrawi could only be motivated by "bigotry, hatred and intolerance." Honest and honourable feelings of aversion to Ashrawi’s track record were inconceivable to the died-in-the-wool anti-Zionist thinking of Antony Loewenstein.

Yet despite such sentiments, Levey and Mendes thought it appropriate in Jews and Australian Politics to express their essential concurrence with Loewenstein’s take on the Ashrawi incident. Thus they inform their readers that Loewenstein "accurately described the [anti-Ashrawi] campaign as ‘an attempt to delegitimise the Palestinian cause.’" They seem incapable of comprehending a much more elemental explanation: perhaps AIJAC and other mainstream Jewish organisations simply thought that the Sydney Peace Prize should be awarded to someone who actually promotes peace.

In their book, Levey and Mendes make an effort to cloak their hostility towards AIJAC behind a prima facie veil of restrained academic prose. In a telephone interview with this writer, Philip Mendes commented that he doesn’t "view the book as an attack on AIJAC at all. The overwhelming majority of the book deals with other matters and the critical references to AIJAC are only a small component of one chapter." But the vehemence of their political ill-will towards AIJAC, as well as its well-spring, became fully apparent in a letter they submitted to the Australian Jewish News in defence of their chapter on the Ashrawi incident.

In this letter, Levey and Mendes complain that AIJAC lacks "accountability," an argument so presumptuous as to make it silly. As the authors concede, the Council is a privately funded think-tank. Thus it is only reasonable that AIJAC should be accountable to, and reflect the vision of, the people who see fit to support it. It is rather inane for people who spend years sniping from afar at an institution to have any real expectation that they might influence that organisation’s policy.

But it is the fringe political views of Levey and Mendes that render their complaints of AIJAC’s "overt conservative political bias and myopic view" ludicrous, as well. National AIJAC Chairman Mark Leibler has just been appointed to chair the World Board of Trustees of the United Israel Appeal, one of the foremost positions in world Jewish life. And the Council’s Editorial Board and Board of Directors benefit from the presence of prominent ALP activists and top echelon activists from major Jewish community organisations. Their active participation in AIJAC’s governance demonstrates that the Council’s advocacy on behalf of the mainstream Jewish communal agenda attracts support from both sides of the partisan divide.

When Israeli political scientist Dr Gerald Steinberg initiated and drafted a petition urging Premier Bob Carr to abstain from the Peace Prize ceremony, that document was signed by over 25,000 people. Joining AIJAC Executive Director Dr. Colin Rubenstein in affixing signatures to this petition were former Presidents of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the President of the Zionist Federation of Australia, the Presidents of the NSW and State Zionist Councils of NSW and Victoria, as well as executive members of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies.

This wall-to-wall support for the Steinberg petition belies the claim by Levey and Mendes that AIJAC’s "overzealous methods" sowed the seeds of intra-Jewish division. Even the Australian Jewish News initially editorialised against NSW Premier Bob Carr, accusing him of "endorsing her [Ashrawi’s] track record" by officiating at the award ceremony. In fact, the sole example that Levey and Mendes adduced in the book of a "less restrained" Jewish organisational response emanated, not from AIJAC, but from the Jewish Community Council of Victoria.

In a telephone conversation with me, Geoffrey Brahm Levey supported his assertion that AIJAC sowed the seeds of intra-communal division by citing an opinion piece by Colin Rubenstein that appeared well after Hanan Ashrawi had come and gone. On 14 November 2003 Michael Danby MP penned an attack on AIJAC’s handling of the Ashrawi affair in The Forward newspaper of New York. In response, Colin Rubenstein wrote an article in that same weekly journal that criticised Australian Jewish leaders who engaged in "scapegoating other Jewish organisations" rather than repudiating the canards of Sydney Peace Institute Director Stuart Rees. Given that the Rubenstein op-ed was a direct rejoinder to a prior polemical assault by Australia’s only Jewish Federal parliamentarian, one wonders why Levey found AIJAC’s reaction, rather than Danby’s preceding action, to be an act of internecine divisiveness.

Geoffrey Brahm Levey also cited the fact that AIJAC disseminated a "so-called fact sheet" on Ashrawi during the early stages of the campaign against the Sydney Peace Prize award. But this reveals that Levey harbours a profound misunderstanding of AIJAC’s function in the Jewish community. Because AIJAC is a think-tank, one of its roles is to conduct research and provide advocacy material to the other Jewish organisations that lack such an analytical component. Thus AIJAC was simply doing the job it was founded to do when it prepared informational material to parties interested in the Ashrawi controversy. Rather than evidence of any gratuitous aggressiveness by AIJAC, the Ashrawi fact sheet demonstrated that the Jewish communal system worked as intended.

The text of the Steinberg petition included a single infelicitous reference to Bob Carr, and this was seized upon by critics of the anti-Ashrawi campaign as "proof" of AIJAC’s "intemperate" actions. Yet AIJAC had no role in drafting that document. And if Levey and Mendes wish to use that document as ‘Exhibit A’ in their effort to prove AIJAC’s irresponsibility, then for consistency’s sake they must direct the same criticism towards every other petition signatory. But they refrain from casting aspersions against the many other organisational luminaries of Australian Jewry who signed the petition. The selectivity of Levey and Mendes’ obloquy is curious, to say the least.

These mainstream Jewish leaders are quite representative of Australian Jewry’s communal consensus. Levey and Mendes note in the book that "on almost every available measure – visitation, resident relatives, emotional attachment and philanthropy – Israel figures centrally in Australian Jewish identity." And in his chapter in the book on Jews and the Left, Mendes concedes that even the most active Jewish Leftist organisations are miniscule in number and marginal in community status. Thus even by Mendes own measure, AIJAC is far more reflective of Jewish community values than the smattering of hard core Leftists that Levey and Mendes adduced to support their claim of community dissension.

And that’s the rub. Stripped of all the window dressing, the essence of the Levey/Mendes grievance about AIJAC’s purported "political bias" stems from the fact that the partiality in question isn’t theirs. Like many Jewish Leftists, Levey and Mendes resent the fact that their worldview places them far outside the ambit of the community’s political common denominators. They are frustrated that the inherent extremism of their politics consigns them to the status of bit players on the Jewish communal stage.

Even more obnoxious is the tack that Levey and Mendes steer when they attempt to explain what to them is fundamentally inexplicable: the extremely high level of Zionist enthusiasm that pervades Australian Jewry. The Jews, you see, have been so traumatised by the Holocaust that they suffer from a "disjuncture" between their "self-perceptions and how they are perceived by the wider community." If only the Jews could get over this irrational Shoah obsession, Levey and Mendes imply, then the Jewish community would not be so inclined to make mountains out of molehills.

So what if Sydney Peace Institute Director Stuart Rees evokes classic antisemitic themes when he complains about "being threatened by members of a powerful group who think they have an entitlement to tell others what to do?" And who cares if Rees completes the ‘Protocols of Zion’ imagery with his comment that his critics over the Ashrawi affair "are ‘they’ and ‘them’, invisible but powerful people?" Levey and Mendes hint that the Jews should loosen up a bit. And if a major public institution honors an unrelenting supporter of terrorism and Israel’s eradication as a Jewish state; no worries, mate! Let’s throw a few knishes on the barbie, twist the lid off a stubbie, kick back and relax! In the immortal words of MAD magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman: "What, me worry?"

The annoyingly plaintive tone that pervades the Levey/Mendes chapter on Ashrawi is only slightly ameliorated by the inclusion in the book of a more balanced essay on AIJAC. Unlike Levey and Mendes, Israeli political scientist Chanan Reich took the trouble to interview Executive Director Dr. Colin Rubenstein for his essay "Inside AIJAC – An Australian Jewish Lobby Group." But even this largely positive ‘history’ of AIJAC is marred by shoddy research that produces several notable errors of fact. For example, Australia/Israel Publications opened its Melbourne offices in 1974, not 1977 as Reich asserts. And Reich conveys the impression that the highest evolutionary format of The Review is that of a "glossy twelve page magazine." But readers of this journal are obviously aware that; in fact, the journal is 300% larger, featuring 36 pages of photographs and text.

The chapter submitted by Suzanne Rutland of the University of Sydney provides a useful taxonomy of the "Principal Governing Bodies" that represent the communal interests of Australian Jewry. She describes in detail the origins, structure and functionality of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) and the Zionist Federation of Australia. Similarly useful are the essays by Sol Encel on "Jews and the Australian Labour Party," by Peter Baume and William Rubinstein on Jewish affiliation with the Liberal Party and political conservatism respectively.

Many of the essays that make up Jews and Australian Politics are respectable works of scholarship. Yet the book is seriously marred by the slipshod and lacklustre chapter jointly written by its editors on the Hanan Ashrawi controversy. But the essay by Levey and Mendes can be seen to serve its own indirect didactic purpose: it ironically serves as a cautionary tale about the pitfalls that emerge when political animus and partiality muddy the waters of what should be unbiased academic analysis.

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