The 2003 Sydney Peace Prize fracas reveals how a powerful minority of Jews stifles debate,
reports Elisabeth Wyndhausen
"Jews are the new Nazis" reads the perfectly stencilled graffiti appearing on walls across Sydney in recent months.
Colin Rubenstein's response to such an offensive message is surprisingly mild. "That's rather worrying, isn't it," says the Melbourne-based executive director of the Australian/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council who has led the charge against the decision to award the 2003 Sydney Peace Prize to Palestinian activist Hanan Ashrawi.
This is the sixth annual peace prize awarded by the Sydney Peace Foundation at the University of Sydney. Previous recipients include former UN commissioner for human rights Mary Robertson, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Timorese leader Xanana Gusmao But with the exception of a few media queries about Gusmao's time as a guerrilla, no one took much notice, says foundation director Stuart Rees.
The selection of Ashrawi changed that when representatives of the Jewish community declared her unworthy. And the controversy has remained in the headlines since Sydney Lord Mayor Lucy Turnbull told Rees that the City Council, a sometime sponsor of the peace prize, would boycott the presentation and the lecture given by Ashrawi — a backflip some cynics related to the fact that Turnbull's husband, Malcolm, is seeking preselection for the seat of Wentworth in Sydney's eastern suburbs.
In the NSW parliament, after discussing it with Rubenstein, whom he says he talks to all the time, Liberal member for Vaucluse Peter Debman asked Premier Bob Carr not to present the prize to Ashrawi.
Taking the principled stand, conveniently also the politically astute one, Carr has refused to buckle. "That section of the Jewish community that has chosen to campaign has to think: 'Are these the best tactics?'" he says.
Now even community leaders who appealed to Carr not to present the prize appear to be repositioning themselves. "The actions taken by some members of the community have blown up in the community's face," says barrister Stephen Rothman SC, president of the Jewish Board of Deputies and a moderate. "The approaches that have caused the fuss have predominantly come out of Melbourne."
Walter Secord, a spokesman for Carr, is more specific. "The international petition against awarding the peace prize originated in Jerusalem. But the second signature on it is from Dr Colin Rubenstein, of Melbourne.
Rubenstein denies his tactics have backfired. "The tactics are simply to expose Dr Hanan Ashrawi," he says. "This notion that there's a division in the community is frankly scaremongering."
Others point to divisions that run along party lines. While the past three presidents of the board of deputies have been identified with the Labor Party, the Melbourne-based AIJAC, a private think-tank is identified with the Liberal Party.
Online magazine crikey.com.au reveals that after federal Health Minister Tony Abbot gave a speech at the annual general meeting of the State Zionist Council last week, he joked about the fact that Rubenstein had vetted it, saying: "Did I get anything wrong? Colin, you better correct it so I get the script right." Abbott told The Australian that he "asked Colin to have a look at the speech on the Middle East because he's an expert in a way I'm not". Whatever Rubenstein's influence, however, some suggest that he and his fellow hardliners have overplayed their hand.
"It would have been a one-day wonder," says former federal Labor minister Barry Cohen. Although opposed to giving Ashrawi the peace prize, Cohen has no doubt that the furore about it has been damaging, creating an "opportunity for all the Israel-haters to come out of the woodwork".
The whole thing has "spun out of control", agrees Vic Alhadeff, editor of the Australian Jewish News. "The Jewish community has become the focus of this issue rather than whether or not Dr Ashrawi is a worthy recipient. it looks like the Jewish community is anti-free speech when the reverse is true.
"Australia's 84,000 Jews make up about 0.5 per cent of the population, or less than one-third of the number of those of Arabic-speaking descent. Only one or two electorates in Australia can be swayed by the Jewish vote. So why do a handful of representatives of a tiny section of the population have so much political influence? To answer money, or political donations, often gets you labelled as anti-Semitic.
Indeed, after a couple of backbenchers criticised the Israeli Government, Opposition Leader Simon Crean hastened to reassure the Jewish community that he was a staunch supporter of Israel.
"The pressure to toe the party line is even stronger within the Jewish community because it feels perpetually besieged. Some relate this to the high proportion of Holocaust survivors among Australian Jews. In reality, a small unrepresentative group of hard liners from AIJAC and the Zionist organisations have hijacked most debates, outflanking the moderates and positioning themselves as the voice of the Jewish community in Australia. Dissenters are often stifled.
"We are very quickly disowned by the community if we speak out," says union organiser Angela Budai of Jews Against the Occupation. "If we don't support everything the Israeli Government does, we're labelled as self-hating Jews or anti-Semites.
The issue of the right of the worldwide Diaspora to dissent from the official line blew up several months ago when Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress, wrote to US President George W Bush asking him to put pressure on Israel over the construction of the so-called security fence — the 8m-high steel and concrete wall enclosing Gaza and the West Bank. its construction involves a de facto annexation of tens of thousands of hectares of Palestinian land, and The Guardian Weekly reveals that the Israeli military ordered thousands of Palestinians living near the wall to obtain special permits to stay in their homes. Nonetheless. Bronfman was quickly attacked by his own deputy Isi Liebler, formerly of Melbourne, whose brother Mark is a principal of AIJAC.
In this instance, the cudgels were taken up by the Zionist Federation of Australia, which claimed there was a "longstanding understanding within the Jewish community [that] responsible leaders in the Diaspora" did not comment on Israeli security issues.
Those who do so may be subject to a frenzy of emails, letters and phone calls. This brutalising use of free speech to inhibit free speech is a tactic perfected by the Christian Right in the US.
Sources in the Jewish community say the electronic barrage comes from individuals apparently inspired by the Zionist organisations.
Bombarded with messages after she called Israel a rogue state — a remark she says she now regrets — federal Labor backbencher Tanya Plibersek recently launched a book about Israeli politics with the initial declaration that she opposed suicide bombings, believed in Israel's right to exist and deplored racism. "It seems bizarre to have to say this," she says. "For me, it's like starting a speech: 'I must just put on the record that I am not a pedophile [or] a swindler.' But I have found, to my dismay, that anyone who criticises Israel is labelled either anti-Semitic or an apologist for suicide bombers.
"Says the Sydney Peace Foundation's Rees: "[However many times] I try to explain why we made the award to Ashrawi, our critics come back with the same questions: Am I an apologist for Palestine? Am I against the Jewish community? I've taken stands on issues before and got some static, but not this onslaught, bullying and intimidation."
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