War over peace prize

Wednesdays at 8.30am
29 October  2003 

The storm of controversy surrounding the choice of Palestinian Hanan Ashrawi for the Sydney Peace Prize shows no sign of abating. Is Ashrawi a dedicated peace activist, or an apologist for terror?

Program Transcript

Stephen Crittenden: In the past decade or so, nobody has been more successful than Hanan Ashrawi in bridging the cultural divide between the Arab world and the Western public, and communicating on behalf of the Palestinian cause. Next week, Hanan Ashrawi will be in Australia as the very controversial recipient of this year’s Sydney Peace Prize. The Prize is awarded by the Sydney Peace Foundation at Sydney University, and past winners have included Desmond Tutu, Xanana Guzmao, Bill Deane and Mary Robinson.

Now, it’s no secret that peace prizes aren’t always awarded to individuals with spotless records. Otherwise Nelson Mandela, Yasser Arafat, Menachem Begin, Henry Kissinger and Theodore Roosevelt wouldn’t have got the Nobel Peace Prize. But the campaign of opposition to this award to Hanan Ashrawi has been so virulent that the Chancellor of Sydney University, Kim Santow, has withdrawn use of the university’s Great Hall for the award ceremony. And the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Lucy Turnbull, has withdrawn the support of the Sydney City Council, prompting allegations that she was pressured to do so at a time when her husband is embroiled in a bitter Liberal party preselection in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, where so much of the city’s Jewish population is concentrated.

An international email calling on New South Wales Premier, Bob Carr, not to make the award presentation to Ashrawi has now garnered about eighteen thousand petitioners. But the Premier is holding firm.

This is not the first time that such a campaign has been waged against Hanan Ashrawi. Last year, all hell broke loose when she was invited to speak at Colorado College in the United States on the anniversary of September 11. American Zionists alleged that Ashrawi was a Holocaust denier, with a long history of celebrating Palestinian atrocities and the murder of Jews – with one magazine even suggesting that the only plausible explanation for why she’d been chosen to speak was that Osama bin Laden wasn’t available.

The Zionist Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, or CAMERA, devotes significant space on its website to giving tactical advice on how to counter the one Palestinian speaker who, in their words, “stands out above all the rest”:

Reader: Action items: Whenever Hanan Ashrawi levels her usual charges, be ready to counter them. If a newspaper has published an op.ed. by Ashrawi, write a brief letter to the editor, countering her main point. Also, let the op.ed. editor know that Ashrawi brazenly distorts and misrepresents so many facts that it’s a disservice to readers to publish her. If Ashrawi is on a broadcast that takes calls, phone in and factually challenge her assertions. Be sure to ask at the outset that she respond to your question, rather than launching into one of her patented filibusters.

Stephen Crittenden: According to CAMERA, Ashrawi’s theme of total Palestinian victimisation and denial of any Palestinian responsibility is the core of her rhetoric. CAMERA has also generated a “fact sheet” featuring a handful of key Hanan Ashrawi quotes, to show that she’s an enemy of peace and a supporter of terror. These include a statement from 1993 that Hamas is not a terrorist organisation, and an Associated Press report from November 2000, in which she’s quoted as saying that “the Israeli army of occupation and the settlers” had become “legitimate and select targets for Palestinian resistance”.

Here in Australia, a similar “fact sheet” has been published by the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council. So who is Hanan Ashrawi? Does the eloquent and unruffled debating style and the doctorate in English Literature disguise a vicious supporter of terrorism? Or is Hanan Ashrawi a moderate, and an activist for peace who works behind the scenes in dialogue with Israeli women?

Earlier this week I spoke to Yael Dayan, a member of the leftwing Meretz party in the Israeli Knesset – and daughter of Israel’s legendary General-with-a-eyepatch, Moshe Dayan.

Yael Dayan: Look, as a Palestinian, she is an activist compared to some of the others. But from my point of view, she could have done more, she could have denounced terror more – but she did carry out a dialogue with us Israeli women, which is commendable, and certainly peace-making.

Stephen Crittenden: Here in Australia, the Zionists have made a lot of the fact that she’s condemned suicide bombing – she signed a document suggesting that suicide bombing is a bad thing – on pragmatic grounds, but that she hasn’t opposed the suicide bombing on moral grounds. Is that a fair criticism?

Yael Dayan: I don’t know. Look, condemnation is OK, but the fact is that Israel is also doing some immoral things, and we are doing selected shooting, targeted shooting, and none of that’s denounced. It’s a war, and the question is whether we advance the dialogue towards And this Hanan Ashrawi, like myself, we are doing – I feel that she could have done more, but she has some obstacles which we have to understand: being a woman in a patriarchal society, and being a Christian in a Muslim society, I think she’s very courageous, and she contributes quite a lot to the peace process.

Stephen Crittenden: Yael, here in Australia we are seeing a quote being used, way back from 1993, where Hanan Ashrawi back is quoted as saying that Hamas is not a terrorist organisation, the people that she has to deal with from Hamas are not terrorists. Is that fair, to use a quote that is that old?

Yael Dayan: I don’t think that this really means that she’s justifying suicide bombings or the killing of children. She made this statement, but again, one has to judge it within the context of the very tough times that we are all going through. It’s more difficult to be a Palestinian peacenik than an Israeli peacenik. And for this she has got to be commended. On the other hand, I am sorry that this award is not shared equally by an Israeli woman.

Stephen Crittenden: So you think that it would have been an indication that they understood the idea of dialogue?

Yael Dayan: Yes, I would say that this is the main thing, more than going into a detail of what she said and didn’t say and so on – which is less important now, because in the last twenty years we all said and didn’t say quite a lot of things.

Stephen Crittenden: What about her work with women? I wonder whether she is involved in dialogue with women in Israel, in ways that perhaps here in Australia we may not be aware of?

Yael Dayan: It’s very difficult to fight for women’s rights, and we’re trying to do it as much as possible. She has been really a great pusher for women’s rights, and I think this should be commended on its own.

Stephen Crittenden: Thank you very much for agreeing to talk to us.

Yael Dayan: You’re most welcome, and let’s hope for altogether a better implementation of the intent for peace.

Stephen Crittenden: Member of the Israeli Knesset, Yael Dayan, on the road, and speaking on her mobile phone – and I apologise for that line, we did our best with it.

Last weekend you may have seen the extraordinary piece by Alan Ramsay in the Sydney Morning Herald, featuring a detailed record of a telephone conversation between Professor Stuart Rees, of the Sydney Peace Foundation, and Katherine Greiner, who formerly chaired the foundation. The article includes allegations of bullying and intimidation, and speculation that senior business leaders connected with the award to Hanan Ashrawi had been warned off by even more powerful leaders in the Jewish community.

Well, it didn’t take long for the Herald’s letters page to make a connection with Dr Mahatir’s recent comment that “Jews rule the world”. So has this campaign against Hanan Ashrawi backfired and turned into a public relations disaster for the Jewish community, giving people free rein to see Jewish conspiracies? And has the Jewish community allowed itself to be used by politicians like Lucy Turnbull and Katherine Greiner?

Stephen Rothman is the President of the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies, and he joins us now.

Stephen Rothman, I know that some members of the Jewish community think this campaign against Hanan Ashrawi being given this award, that this campaign has been a success, because it’s “flushed out the anti-Semites”, as one person put it to me this week. But I want to put it to you that it’s been a public relations disaster for the Jewish community, particularly following the Alan Ramsay article at the weekend.

Stephen Rothman: Look, I don’t think either extreme is correct. I don’t think it’s been a success, and I don’t think it’s been a disaster. The Jewish community, like almost every aspect of Australian society, is one which is very different, and has views that range from one extreme to the other. There are members of the community that would oppose the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish state, and there would be those in the community who would deny the existence of Palestinians as a people. The Board of Deputies, who basically represents the Jewish community, obtains and reflects the consensus view, and there are some in the community who have expressed views other than the consensus view.

Stephen Crittenden: Well, indeed. Has Ashrawi’s visit become something of a lightning rod that’s illustrated a whole range of divisions in the Jewish community, between moderates and hardliners – perhaps between community organisations and private think-tanks?

Stephen Rothman: You should come to some of our Board of Deputies meetings. There are always those divisions, and they get debated in the community, and that’s how we know what the consensus view is. I truly believe that the public relations aspects of it could have been handled much better, and were proposed to be handled much better. There were, unfortunately, those in the community who took a view that sought to put matters before the general public in a way that the community leadership didn’t.

Stephen Crittenden: The truth is, isn’t it – I mean, I’ve been speaking to people in the Jewish community; there are a substantial number of people who are appalled by how this campaign has been run – and indeed, that people are coming up to Bob Carr and ringing his office and telling him that they don’t want him to back down. I’m sure there are people who have exactly the opposite view, of course.

Stephen Rothman: Look, the position that we have is simply this: if the awarding of the Peace Prize could open up talking between, and bridges between, any representative of the Palestinians and any representative of the Jewish community, that would be an excellent achievement. If that can happen, all the better. Unfortunately, the way in which some people have handled the PR campaign, would have to be said to be one which has turned the focus of it onto the Jewish lobby – whatever that may mean – rather than the actual rights and wrongs of the Peace Prize, or what can be done to try and achieve a better understanding between the two antagonists in the Middle East.

Stephen Crittenden: Well, where is the possibility of dialogue in all of this? I know that you, on behalf of the Jewish community of New South Wales, you’ve expressed the view that Hanan Ashrawi wasn’t an appropriate person to get this award, you’ve raised the question of whether her condemnation of suicide bombings was more on tactical grounds than on moral grounds. But hasn’t this campaign turned into something else, really, not about lobbying at all – and certainly not about dialogue – but about bullying and intimidation, Stuart Rees’ personal assistant being subjected to a torrent of verbal abuse over weeks, that kind of thing.

Stephen Rothman: Well, I frankly don’t know about that. I hear what people tell me, and I’m appalled that anyone would be abused for having a view. My view of Ashrawi was that she was an inappropriate person for a Peace Prize, and I say that with all due respect to her. She has some excellent views on internal democracy within the Palestinian leadership, on ending corruption, and women’s rights. She’s also made some speeches that, frankly, do not put her in the camp of those that you would expect to get a Peace Prize.

Stephen Crittenden: Was there no confidence in Bob Carr, though? I mean, this is Bob Carr the great friend of Israel, wasn’t he always going to say something that would put her on the spot?

Stephen Rothman: I don’t, for my part – and I don’t think the community has, for its part, and I think this is an overwhelming consensus – criticised Carr or questioned his capacity for political leadership, or his ability to continue to be a friend of Israel. Bob Carr is presenting the award; no doubt he will say what he believes to be the position, and we don’t criticise his general stand on the balance in the Middle East. What we basically said was we were a little disappointed, because we think some people may take the view that the mere fact that he’s presenting the award may be an imprimatur by him and the government on some of the things that Ashrawi has said to which we object, and which are inconsistent with a peaceful resolution of the dispute in the Middle East.

Stephen Crittenden: Are groups like AIJAC, the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, groups like the Zionist Federation, actually running campaigns that are so shrill and aggressive, that they’re actually causing damage? You know, I wonder whether there’s some chance that you release anti-Semitic views in the wider community that maybe never needed to be released in the first place.

Stephen Rothman: Well, I think the use of the word “anti-Semitic” is probably over-used, but there are two different kinds of organisations that you’ve referred to: AIJAC, to which you’ve made reference, is a private think-tank, it’s not a body that is in any elected or democratic sense representative of the community. The Zionist Federation, about which you’ve asked, is a body that is representative of the Zionist organisations in the community. My understanding of the actions of the Zionist Federation is that they have not embarked on a campaign; they’ve been involved in meetings with the Board of Deputies, and those meetings have generally reached a consensus as to the way forward. I frankly don’t know all that AIJAC has done, but it’s an organisation that, as I said, is not an elected organisation, and therefore has a freedom and a capacity to have a private view that representative organisations don’t have.

Stephen Crittenden: Can I ask you about the Alan Ramsay article? It painted a picture of powerful business leaders, in fact, being leant on by even more powerful people in the shadows. What do you think the fallout of that article has been?

Stephen Rothman: I think, frankly, that Alan Ramsay’s article is incorrect. My understanding of the attitude of people who are in leadership positions in business, and who are members of the Jewish community, is that if they have been involved in this at all, they have been involved in it in a way which one would expect – that is to say, we think some of the more shrill expositions of position have been counter-productive.

Stephen Crittenden: Finally: there must be many Jewish people, and indeed many people in the wider Australian community, who are deeply distressed about the intractable nature of the road map to peace that doesn’t ever seem to lead to peace, who must be thinking what can we do – what can we do as Australians, what can we do as diaspora Jews – to contribute in some real, meaningful way to a different kind of conversation? What do you say to those people?

Stephen Rothman: There are two, or a number of aspects; you probably don’t have time to hear them all. Can I say this: I think Australia, and Sydney in particular, and its multicultural nature, is uniquely placed to be of assistance in the resolution of a number of issues that involve the Middle East. Because on the one hand, we are a little more detached than the direct participants, and on the other hand, there are still those that harbour the interests of the people in the Middle East on both sides.

The fact is that there are Palestinian advocates in Sydney, and Jewish advocates in Sydney, who are extremely friendly, and indeed get on very well. The public perception that there’s this almighty fight is probably wrong. It occurs when something like this happens, and there are differences of view. The fact is that there is general consensus, I think, throughout the world, that there needs to be a two-state solution for two peoples, that it has to be based broadly on the 1967 borders, that Jerusalem has to be negotiated and has to have special arrangements. That’s a given. Unfortunately, in the end it’s going to have to be negotiated by those people in the Middle East.

But the fact is that Australians – and that includes members of the Jewish community – have been involved in assisting the Palestinian cause. For my own part, for example, as far back as 1967 I was arguing for a two-state solution. Australians and members of the Jewish community – Marcus Einfeld, myself and others – have been involved in seeking to assist in the establishment of the judicial process in the Palestinian territories. And that occurs on a daily basis. It gets little or no publicity, and of course the publicity focuses instead on those areas in which we differ. And largely, we don’t even differ then. What we’re differing on, in the Hanan Ashrawi issue, is: the Jewish community sees, for example, her speech in Durban, and says “this is not a person who is appropriate for a Peace Prize”; the Palestinians and Ashrawi say “no, that’s not my position. My position is in favour of a two-state solution”. Well, if that’s the end effect, if the end effect is the establishment of a consensus for two states for two peoples, and an end to suicide bombing and violence, then we’ve achieved something. And we’ve achieved something because we’ve focused both communities on the fact that we’re both, in fact, arguing for the same thing – perhaps in a way which focuses attention on different aspects of it.

Stephen Crittenden: That assumes, of course, that the object of a campaign like this is dialogue, as opposed to closing the whole conversation down. I mean, it’s a week from now that Ashrawi will be in Sydney to receive this prize; do you expect this campaign just to keep on cranking up and up and up, between now and then?

Stephen Rothman: Well, I have to say I think the thing that’s cranking it up the most is the media. But the case of Ashrawi, I met Ashrawi on the last occasion that she was here, I spoke with her about a number of issues, I wasn’t happy with all of the answers that I received. If I was invited to meet with her privately, I’d prefer to do it outside the gaze of the media – but if I was invited to meet with her privately, I would do that. I don’t object, and couldn’t object, to the Premier of the state meeting with Ashrawi; I would encourage that. What I have said, and what the community has said, is that it’s one thing to meet with Dr Ashrawi, it’s another thing to give her a Peace Prize.

Stephen Crittenden: Great to talk to you. Thanks for joining us.

Stephen Rothman: Thank you, Stephen.

Stephen Crittenden: Stephen Rothman, the President of the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies.

Guests on this program:
Yael Dayan
Israeli Meretz MP
Stephen Rothman
President, NSW Jewish Board of Deputies

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