No Right of Reply in AJN to certain people?

No Right of Reply in AJN to certain people?

The article below is a reply to Michael Visontay in AJN Nov. 13, 2009, ‘The Israel Discussion’: 

The editor of AJN, Zeddy Lawrence refused to publish this reply in which I have sought to correct certain misrepresentations and misunderstandings about the nature of IAJV published in an Opinion article by Michael Visontay. Whatever one’s views of the issues concerning Israel/Palestine or of IAJV, the most significant fact about the editor’s decision is his policy of not allowing the right of reply to certain people whose views he considers are not to be made available to the readership of AJN.  

I agreed not to make Lawrence’s actual email to me public, but indicated that I would convey the gist of his remarks: His reasons for not publishing my piece were essentially that he sees his role as protecting the community from unpopular views by standing up for Israel and ensuring that Israel’s point of view is expressed. I provide my own reply to Zeddy Lawrence below the article.

IAJV and “empathy with Israel”

Peter Slezak 

It is reassuring that in his recent column (AJN November 13), Michael Visontay does not find fault with anything Independent Australian Jewish Voices (IAJV) has actually said or written but only with what he imagines we really mean. Visontay does not cite anything from the voluminous material on the IAJV website since 2007 to justify his charge of “an underlying hostility in the group’s activism.” Remarkably, Visontay also presumes to explain what “permeates everything” IAJV does without interviewing any of its founders or contributing writers.  

By inventing the stance of IAJV, Visontay neglects key features of IAJV articulated in declarations on our website. We have hundreds of signatories to various statements and several bloggers, none of whom are likely to agree with one another on anything. Visontay does not reveal that IAJV is not an organization with a membership, representatives or official doctrines at all. By analogy with the editorial role of a magazine or journal, we write: 

IAJV is not an organization or society with members or political platform. In accordance with the principles enunciated in the initial statement, we aim to widen the debate to include a range of opinions not reflected in mainstream Jewish media or official community organizations. As part of this effort, our blogs provide a forum for independent Jewish opinions that are, of course, those of their authors and not those of IAJV organizers or signatories of any IAJV petitions or statements. 

Of course, there is no doubt about our critical “editorial” orientation. However, Visontay’s charge of bias is always made against dissident opinion on the spurious assumption that the prevailing orthodoxy is somehow neutral. 

The significance of IAJV rests precisely on the fact that we are concerned to widen the public dialogue and to ensure a representation of growing Jewish opinion here and around the world that departs from the uncritical “pro-Israel” line of community leadership and official organizations.  

Toward this end, we have cooperated with other groups to bring significant people on lecture tours including internationally renowned Jewish figures such as Jeff Halper and Sara Roy. Their views are well represented in Israel itself and regularly published in Ha’aretz, and therefore it is meaningless to describe our efforts to have them heard here as hostile to Israel.  

For the record, there can be no inference from what we have published to the claim that IAJV is not “pro-Israel” unless this is interpreted to mean uncritical support for all Israeli government policies and actions. Facing uncomfortable facts about Israel is discouraged by those who, in Ed Murrow’s familiar words, confuse dissent with disloyalty. Those who voice criticism are denounced in familiar ways, or merely “characterised by a noticeable lack of empathy with Israel”. I addressed these questions in my talk to the recent Limmud-Oz festival in Sydney on Jewish Identity and Responsibility (available on the IAJV website). It is noteworthy that Visontay’s charge was precisely the one levelled against Hannah Arendt because she dared to hold Israel to universal standards. She insisted that Eichmann’s crime was a “crime against humanity” and not just against the Jewish people. In a famous admonition Gershom Scholem said that Arendt lacked ahavat Israel – love of the Jewish people. However, there can be no doubt either about Arendt’s profound commitment to her Jewishness or that she was, in Scholem’s own words, “an extraordinary Zionist”. Other commentators saw Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem as her “most intensely Jewish work, in which she identifies herself morally and epistemologically with the Jewish people.” Her answer to the charge of lacking ahavat Israel was to say “Love is not a collective matter: I indeed love ‘only’ my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons.” In this way, at the same time as Arendt emphatically confirmed her Jewishness by giving it political expression, she continued to challenge the unreflective, self-celebratory nature of group affiliations. 

It helps us to see Visontay’s complaints about IAJV’s lack of sufficient “empathy with Israel” in a wider context. It is striking that in Plato’s Republic, Socrates makes the same distinction as Arendt and admonishes Callicles for not only loving a person but also for being in love with the state of Athens. 

I have noticed that we have something in common. We are both lovers …  Besides the person I love, I am also in love with philosophy, while besides your lover, you are also in love with thestate of Athens. Now, I have noticed that, despite all your cleverness, you are unable to contradict any assertion made by your beloved …  

Israeli Jeff Halper notes that today the same “unreflexive, self-celebratory group affiliation” is deep in the heart of Jewish identity, but mainly among diaspora Jews, and not so much among Israelis themselves. However, the true friends of Israel are not those who serve uncritically as propagandists for official myths but those who stand with the many Israelis to condemn, not only the crimes of Palestinians, but also those of the State of Israel. Independent Australian Jewish voices who speak out against crimes committed in their name recognize a responsibility to the wider human community, especially Palestinians, to participate in a more balanced dialogue. In this regard, it is revealing that, of all the desperately important moral and political issues IAJV has raised, Visontay manages not to mention a single one.

Email To Editor of AJN, November 21, 2009

Dear Zeddy, 

Thanks for your lengthy reply and for explaining your reasons for rejecting my article. 

I confess that I am rather shocked by the reasons you give, especially because, on your own account, clearly it’s nothing about the content of what I have written that is the ground for your decision. 

You refer to your responsibility to the Jewish community as editor which you evidently conceive as not allowing the right of reply to direct criticism. I’m sure that even people in the Jewish community who strongly disagree with my views would not support your position in preventing them being heard in the community newspaper. Even if they did think that I should not be heard, it’s rather more astonishing that you, as editor, should take such a stance. 

Your position is all the more remarkable because you have not objected to anything I have written. My article is surely unremarkable and mild. I have mainly sought to correct Visontay’s misrepresentations about the nature of IAJV and put his criticisms in a larger intellectual context by citing distinguished intellectual figures and universalized ethical principles that are also central to the venerable Jewish tradition. As I mentioned in the article, these were views I had articulated at the Jewish Limmud-Oz festival and this makes your other reasons equally inappropriate where you suggest, by comparison with the British IJV that I am somehow  to be regarded as setting up my tent outside the Jewish community. You must recognize that this is not our own view of ourselves but an effort to quarantine certain members of the community whose views you don’t share – in this case many hundreds of distinguished and ordinary Jews. Furthermore, this is deeply offensive not only to me personally but an affront to the entire community that you claim to be acting on behalf of. My 84 year-old mother is a survivor or Auschwitz and your idea that I must be somehow excluded from the Jewish community is to treat your community with disrespect by presuming to decide whose views they may be permitted to hear in your AJN pages. When this goes so far as to prevent the right of reply to direct criticism and misrepresentation, it really does raise questions about how you understand your role as editor. Evidently, this means that Visontay may discuss IAJV and make misrepresentations, but I am not permitted to reply because of who I am in some unclear sense, even when I make the mildest responses to which you seem to have no substantive objection. You may not know that AJN has in the past not rejected articles and letters from me speaking even more explicitly and strongly about controversial questions regarding Israel and the Jewish community. Your policy as you describe it is now a serious departure from this openness that the AJN had admirably followed in accordance with the most elementary principles of fairness and journalistic standards. In effect, you have said that the AJN must protect the wider Jewish community from hearing certain views of some of its own members who are, after all, respectable and informed. Worse still, these very views are widely available in the public media in Israel itself, as you well know. This is a conception of a censorship that is quite shocking to me and would be to many members of the Jewish community who would not agree with my views. The most dictatorial regimes permit a free press to the views they agree with. The test of editorial and journalistic principles is whether you permit the expression of views that you or the community may not share. 

I’m afraid that even from your own point of view, you fail to recognize the harmful effect that your decision and attitude will have for AJN and the Jewish community you claim to support. You may recall the bad press in the mainstream media that AJN received on an earlier occasion when an advertisement placed by Jewish community members was censored. Such efforts to prevent respected people being heard is hardly to advance the very aims you express in support of the Jewish community or Israel. You don’t seem to understand or accept the point I made in my article that I and IAJV sympathizers are also supporters of Israel. I have close family in Nahariya and Tel-Aviv and close friends who are Israelis. You don’t advance the cause you support by so explicitly admitting to acting in the patronizing way towards the Jewish community by deciding which Jews they may be permitted to hear. 

I had a large and respectful audience at Limmud-Oz where I presented my talk, though most did not agree with my views. They knew who I am and came in the best spirit to hear what I had to say and to argue with me. We had a vigorous and mutually respectful and even enormously friendly discussion, with many strongly opposed people getting in touch with me afterwards to continue the discussion. This is the spirit in which I had expected the AJN might serve its important role in the community. Surely, this is how it should be, and there was no hint that I was somehow unwelcome or inappropriate as a member of the Jewish community presenting at a community festival. Your effort (not ours) to somehow exclude me and other supporters of IAJV from the Jewish community is a very disappointing and frankly offensive position to adopt. 

I had naively imagined that my mildly expressed article and my explanation about the nature of IAJV would indicate that IAJV is far from being hostile to Israel or the Jewish community as you appear to think. On the contrary, I had expected that you would recognize that we may disagree about various substantive questions but that we are trying to foster the dialogue where we disagree. So, you respond, not by taking up the well-meaning concern to engage in respectful, informed dialogue, but by preventing me being heard – and not even because you object to anything I have actually said! 

Let me conclude by asking you to reconsider your decision and to publish my piece – as AJN has done in the past. This would be an important, constructive step towards engaging with those many respected, informed members of the community who care as much as you do about their Jewishness and about Israel. It’s precisely the fact that we disagree that provides the reason to engage with each other in the pages of AJN. 

I look forward to hearing from you again. 

Best and cheers for now, 



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