Not happy

“Jews–the new Nazis”
Slogan spray painted on the footpath in City Rd, Darlington, outside Sydney University.

I bought a copy of Margo Kingston’s Not Happy, John at the Parliament Shop at parliament house in Canberra. I thought, surely our democracy still works if a subversive book like this can be sold right under the PM’s nose. “She isn’t interested in the old, outworn left-right rhetoric,” the blurb proclaims. And the book mostly lives up to its promise . . . for the first 12 chapters.

As a keen follower of the debates on the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Webdiary surrounding last year’s Sydney Peace Prize, I was greatly impressed with the civilised discussion and variety of opinions that came to light. There were problems, which I’ll go into later, but there were also a lot of voices that don’t normally get heard.

In the book, that all goes out the window. There is no conciliation, no discussion of alternative viewpoints, just Kingston and fellow Webdiarist Antony Loewenstein laying down the law as they see it, and a big fuck you to anyone who disagrees.

The book does not countenance the suggestion that it’s legitimate to lobby for the interests of Israel. It contains not even a single sentence explaining the pro-Israel lobbyists’ objections to the Sydney Peace Foundation awarding the prize to Hanan Ashrawi. It was just the little guy Loewenstein and the Forces of Good against the evil, all-powerful, sinister Jewish lobby.

The hypocrisy is breathtaking.

In chapter 13, Kingston and Loewenstein lambast the Jewish community for lobbying. In chapter 14, Kingston decries the Government’s attempts to nobble NGOs, describing it as a campaign to prevent lobbying and a threat to democracy. Well Margo, is lobbying good or bad? Or is lobbying good when it’s done by groups you approve of and bad when it’s done by someone you don’t agree with?

Kingston makes a lot of noise in the book about Voltaire’s principle of defending to the death someone’s right to express an opinion, even if you disagree with it. Pauline Hanson, somehow, is a sign our democracy works. Pro-Israel lobbying is a sign that it’s broken. Please explain.

Another example, you will remember how Dick Honan helped his ethanol company Manildra get millions in government subsidies through judicious application of donations to the Liberal party, and the PM lied to parliament about it. There was enormous discussion on Webdiary at the time. This issue rates an entire paragraph in the book, but a community group lobbying unsuccessfully to change the awarding of a politically contentious peace prize warrants a whole chapter.

Which, honestly, is the bigger threat to democracy?

I was fascinated by a recent report in Crikey about the growing rift between what the editors of the Herald would like the readership to be, and who the readers really are, as demonstrated by the shoddy treatment the Herald has shown Kingston in recent months.

However, I can’t help but wonder if Kingston is drifting leftward at approximately the same pace as the paper is drifting rightward.

Kingston and Loewenstein’s diatribes against Israel and the Jewish community are akin to much of the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish rhetoric emanating from the extreme left in this country. Perhaps Kingston is alienating readers (and editors) the same way the anti-war protest organisers last year alienated a large proportion of protesters. The protests started out being all about the war, but the organisers insisted on gradually slipping in more anti-Israel and anti-US messages and all sorts of other ancillary lefty causes. Many people began to wonder what was the point of attending protests if their presence was being used to push all sorts of issues they weren’t sure had anything to do with their objections to the war.

As always, Kingston and friends can fall back on the indignant claim that anyone who criticises Israel is called anti-Semitic by, you guessed it, the Zionist lobby. This is manipulative nonsense. The act of criticising Israel is obviously not innately anti-Jewish. That doesn’t prove criticism of Israel is not motivated by anti-Semitism. Nor does it prove that anyone who objects to racist criticism of Israel is part of the conspiracy.

It’s not anti-Semitic to disagree with the current Israeli Government. I do. It’s not anti-Semitic to support Palestinian rights. I do.

However, it is anti-Semitic to say Israel has no right to exist. It’s anti-Semitic to say Israel’s only reason for existence is that Jews played on the world’s guilt about the Holocaust. Comparing Jews to Nazis is, you guessed, anti-Jewish; it’s also in very, very bad taste. And I’m sorry, it is anti-Semitic to talk about “the Jewish lobby” as if it’s some shadowy Jewish conspiracy to influence world governments. But that’s exactly what Kingston and Loewenstein, to varying degrees, do in Not Happy, John.

Let’s not forget Loewenstein’s Israel bashing takes place almost entirely in front of sympathetic lefties, who call him “brave” for taking on the Jewish community. How brave is it to stand in front of a bunch of people who hate Israel and say “Israel sucks”? It would be a lot braver to say to either side “actually, there are valid points and problems with both sides of the argument”, but it would take a much bigger person than Antony to do that.

The book sets up a great moral victory where the forces of good managed to take on the all-powerful Zionist lobby and prevent its evil meddling in the totally justified and unquestionable awarding of the prize. There are no ambiguities in the book’s account, just propaganda.

Loewenstein tries to make his victory all the more astonishing by portraying the Jewish community as a monolithic Zionist front that will not accept any views but the total unquestioning support of Israel. Those pro-Israel lobby groups within the community such as the Zionist Federation of Australia and the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council are, in Loewenstein’s mind, the only voices that are accepted, and they are of course part of the sinister Zionist lobby we keep hearing so much about.

But how influential is this Zionist lobby, anyway, if it can’t even get the Sydney Peace Foundation to change its decision?!

These groups operate within the Jewish community, but they don’t represent the community in its entirety; I’m not even sure they claim to. Perhaps Loewenstein should look harder for members of the Jewish community who support peace and Palestinian rights, rather than airing his feelings of alienation. And perhaps those members of the community should be better organised and more vocal than they are.

In the peace prize debate, grave concerns were expressed about the language used by some participants. “Zionist” was frequently used to imply “scumbag oppressive right-wing land grabber” or similar. The “Zionist lobby” was a “shadowy group of wealthy, influential Jewish powerbrokers”. And so on. This kind of language is grossly inappropriate because of its obvious racist undertones.

At the time, Kingston failed to address, and possibly even to understand, these concerns. Whatever Kingston or Loewenstein’s motivations, their use of loaded language in Webdiary and the book, and the hypocritical and unbalanced way in which they have approached this issue, have contributed to anti-Semitism becoming a more acceptable part of Australian political discourse. And far from eschewing left-right politics, Kingston and Loewenstein serve as a mouthpiece for tired old far-left bigotry.

Kingston talks a lot about discarding our outdated left-right prejudices to address a much greater threat to democracy. How about leading by example, Margo?

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