The community strikes back

As if the Jewish community’s internal politics weren’t already confusing enough.

Earlier in the week, a group calling themselves Independent Australian Jewish Voices, styled on the UK’s Independent Jewish Voices group, issued a declaration and petition arguing that dissenting Jewish voices about Israel should not be stifled by community bodies.

We feel there is an urgent need to hear alternative voices that should not be silenced by being labelled disloyal or “self-hating.” Uncritical allegiance to Israeli government policy does not necessarily serve Israel’s best interests.

This earned a predictable smack-down from the ever-consistent Colin Rubinstein, Executive Director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (an independent think tank, not an official community representative). This spat was of course reported widely by the ABC/Fairfax socialist collective end of the media, as were the poorly chosen words of Melbourne University Press CEO Louise Adler, comparing the Jewish community to the Third Reich. Oops.

Things only got more confusing today when another group of Jews published a statement sticking the boot into the AIJV mob, which was also well reported. But this new group of people are not the usual suspects . . .

One of the factors that helped the UK IJV group get so much publicity was the presence of honest-to-goodness famous people like Harold Pinter, Stephen Fry and Mike Leigh. The Australian branch is a bit lighter in the celebrity department and the most prominent names on the list are hard-left, soi-disant dissidents of the Peter Slezak and Antony Loewenstein variety (inclduing messrs Slezak and Loewenstein, of course). In other words, people who spend more time complaining – and receiving endless coverage in the Jewish News and the left-leaning press – that their views aren’t being heard than actually expressing any coherent views.

But the extreme nature of these views, whatever they are, is mostly what this new group has against the AIJV, of course.

We object to and wish publicly to dissociate ourselves from disingenuous and misleading aspects of the IAJV petition. The statement pretends that Israel’s mainstream has not yet acknowledged Palestinian aspirations for a homeland. We object to its saying nothing about either the rejection of Israel’s legitimacy by Arab parties to the conflict or the role of Islamist terror.

In our opinion, an Arab-Israel peace will not be achieved by attempting to impose pariah status on Israel. Some of the key organizers of the IAJV petition have a long record of one-sided, Israel bashing. The anti-Israel bias evident in the omissions of the IAJV petition forms part of that record and it is not a constructive step towards the peaceful solution of the conflict. [my emphasis]

To be honest, this sounds a lot more like nitpicking than substance. It is a fairly harsh and contentious interpretation to say IAJV’s statement “pretends Israel’s mainstream has not yet acknowledged Palestinian aspirations for a homeland”. And it seems it’s never enough to say violence and terrorism are bad . . . you have to say terrorism is really bad – otherwise you hate Israel.

But the really interesting thing about this new group is just who signed the statement. No Leiblers or Rubinsteins. Almost no one from the Zionist Federations or Boards of Deputies or Executive Councils. Instead, some prominent politicians, lawyers and academics and a couple of other interesting names such as Sandy Gutman, formerly known as comedian Austen Tayshus.

However, the name that caught my eye was Dr Philip Mendes, senior lecturer at Monash University’s department of social work and a frequent commentator on Israel and Jewish community issues.

I’m old enough to remember the late 80s and early 90s, when Mendes (with support from the indefatigable Norman Rothfield) was the Antony Loewenstein of his day, a brash young intellectual complaining at great length that dissenting voices in the Jewish community were stifled by the establishment.

But it’s not as simple as the stereotype of someone who used to be a dissident selling out and becoming part of the establishment he used to fight against (though Mendes is, or at least has been, a member of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria).

This new group, who should have the good grace to give themselves a catchy name, sit somewhere between the official Jewish community line and the views of AIJV. And some of its members have their own reasons to be displeased with the community establishment, as Michael Danby did in the last federal election when the (also Jewish) Liberal candidate for Danby’s seat of Melbourne Ports exploited Labor left’s anti-Israel (or at least pro-Palestinian) bias – and tarred Danby with the same brush, thus gaining the Libs a majority of the Jewish vote.

Nonetheless, this new group still seeks to paint AIJV as being anti-Israel and, if not exclude them from the debate, delegitimise their views.

Only a tiny minority of Australian Jews reject the fundamental role that Israel plays in Australian Jewish life and identity and the need to ensure the security of Israel and we believe that this minority who condemn Israel have a right to express their views.

Nevertheless, the views of the large majority of Jews who support Israel’s legitimacy and security are of greater significance in any debate. Nor should a vocal minority be given special dispensation from community debate, scrutiny, and rational criticism.

What can you make of this in light of Mendes’ article of a couple of years ago in which he complains how groups like the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council often speak for the Jewish community even when they shouldn’t?

The Australian community is generally aware that elected politicians rather than party think tanks speak on behalf of political parties. In contrast, many Australian policy makers and journalists seem to erroneously think that AIJAC is the official representative of the Australian Jewish community. This was apparent during the Hanan Ashrawi Sydney Peace Prize debate when a number of media outlets sought the opinions of AIJAC spokespersons rather than those of the elected leadership of the community.

And even more apparent in the current debate, where the only person presenting the “community” view in the media, until now, has been Colin Rubinstein.

Mendes’s article goes on to list a series of recommendations for Jewish community representatives such as being democratically accountable to the community, not exploiting security fears, representing a diverse range of views and lobbying to the undecided outside the community rather than the converted within.

So . . . confused yet? I am. I’m intrigued at the emergence of a third-way moderate group who seek to represent a broader range of views than the tunnel-vision, rah-rah-Israel community cheerleaders. I think Mendes is on to something with his ideas about community representation, although his ideas of having a single authorised media source for the Jewish community – democratically elected or not – sound a bit too much like TASS for my liking.

But I’m also concerned that this group directs all its bile at the AIJV chaps – and the media for giving them too much airtime – while not directing the same criticism at the community AND the media for turning to Colin Rubinstein, who is likewise extreme and not representative, for the opposing view. Nu, what are you waiting for?

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5 thoughts on “The community strikes back

  1. They seem to be a bit behind the times down in Melbourne. Today’s Age had a point-counterpoint piece from IAJV-ite Dennis Altman vs . . . you’ll never believe it . . . Colin Rubinstein. Col mate, just because of majority of people believe something doesn’t make it right!

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