Distant ‘experts’ choose to ignore Israeli realities
JOHN LYONS The Australian March 08, 2014
SO a priest at a church Greg Sheridan attended in Melbourne said something possibly anti-Semitic, and somehow ABC1’s Four Corners and I are responsible?
It’s not even certain the priest watched the Four Corners program on Israel’s treatment of Palestinian children. But it sounds as if he didn’t need anyone to stoke his anti-Semitism – Sheridan said he spoke as someone “with 2000 years of Christian anti-Semitism behind him”.
Sadly, this is the level to which discussion about Israel has sunk.
Last Saturday, Sheridan said a program I reported for Four Corners was “a crude piece of anti-Israel propaganda that revived some of the oldest anti-Semitic tropes”.
Why can journalists put the Australian Army or federal police or US Army through the ringer, but if we investigate the most powerful army in the Middle East it’s anti-Semitism?
As a correspondent in Jerusalem my job is to report through Australian eyes. What the Israeli army does to Palestinian children systematically – such as taking a 12-year-old from his home at 2am and denying access to a lawyer or parent – would be illegal in Australia .
Four Corners showed how Israel enforces two legal systems in the West Bank, one for Jews and one for Palestinians.
For “exhaustive rebuttals”, Sheridan recommended the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council run by Colin Rubenstein, also based in Melbourne.
AIJAC is not an elected body representing the Jewish community but a privately funded lobby group with extremely hardline positions on Israel. I find it breathtaking that a journalist would recommend a private lobby group for a rebuttal of journalism.
Bob Carr recently revealed that when he was foreign minister, AIJAC “directed a furious effort at trying to block even routine criticism of settlements, as if this were more vital than advocating a two-state solution or opposing boycotts of Israel”.
After reading Carr’s comments, prominent Israeli Alon Liel wrote: “Who are you ‘Israeli lovers’ of the Australia-Israel Council? Who authorised you to put pressure on the Australian government ‘on my behalf’? Especially regarding a matter that affects my family’s future? Why are you trying to ruin my country, pretending you are ‘pro-Israeli?’ “
Liel, a former Israeli Foreign Ministry chief, wrote: “What would you do, dear Jew, if the risk of such isolation was hovering over the head of Australia, France or Canada, countries whose passports you hold?”
He echoed Breaking the Silence, 950 current and former Israeli soldiers who reported on Palestinian children, including one soldier saying a colleague put children against a wall and made them sing Israel’s national anthem – if they didn’t sing in time, he’d hit them.
Another said his commander beat a child “to a pulp” and put a gun in his mouth, saying: “Don’t annoy me.”
When Melbourne Jewish leader Danny Lamm alleged “crude propaganda”, 15 former officers condemned “Lamm’s armchair Zionism, pontificating from afar while true Israelis put their lives on the line”.
Sheridan repeated AIJAC’s claim about settlements not growing – year after year AIJAC says this while construction booms, even outside existing settlements.
US President Barack Obama this week referred to “aggressive settlement construction”.
Israeli statistics show settler housing more than doubled last year, and in the first half of 2011 grew 660 per cent. Outposts are also surging – these are illegal under Israeli law, yet Israel tolerates them.
Having visited the West Bank hundreds of times, I am astonished that Melbourne-based people such as Sheridan and Rubenstein portray themselves as experts yet ignore reality.
Last week Amnesty International said Israeli forces had displayed a “callous disregard” by killing dozens of Palestinian civilians, including children, over three years with “near total impunity”.
Last year, Unicef said ill-treatment of Palestinian children appeared to be “widespread, systematic and institutionalised”, and “children have been threatened with death, physical violence, solitary confinement and sexual assault”.
In 2012, a delegation of British lawyers led by former attorney-general Patricia Scotland, found Israel had breached six articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Geneva Conventions.
There are also now big issues for Australia relating to the Geneva Conventions, under which Israel’s settlements are widely considered illegal. Yet Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has cast doubt on whether Australia accepts the Geneva Conventions in that regard. Her new policy may have serious implications for Australian soldiers overseas – the conventions govern not only how civilians under occupation should be treated but captured soldiers.
It was after two world wars with their collective death toll of about 80 million that postwar leaders signed up to the Fourth Geneva Convention.
The danger of Bishop cherry-picking the Geneva Conventions could expose Australian soldiers who currently have protection.
Sheridan ignores the fact Israeli spokesman Yigal Palmor told Four Corners soldiers were not appropriately trained to detain children. AIJAC criticises me for interviewing “extremist” settler Daniella Weiss – if she is an extremist then so are key members of Israel’s cabinet who share her views. Weiss planned settlements with Ariel Sharon to forestall a Palestinian state.
Leaders of Australia’s Jewish community visiting Israel often approach me for a coffee. One opposed the occupation, saying it was against Jewish teachings to rule over others. Another, from Sydney, wanted the occupation to end. When I asked why he never said that publicly, he replied: “Are you serious? And have the Melbourne guys declare a fatwa against me?” This denial – or fear – does not help Israel.
The film The Gatekeepers, which interviewed six former chiefs of intelligence service Shin Bet, warned about Israel’s future. One, Avraham Shalom, said of the Israeli army: “We have become cruel.”
But one Melbourne Jewish leader told me the Shin Bet chiefs were “all left wing”.
An insight into the attacks on journalists covering Israel comes from Clyde Haberman, an Orthodox-raised American Jew who has just retired after 37 years with The New York Times. For decades, he says, the paper has had correspondents who, no matter how different or good, were branded anti-Semitic or self-hating Jews.
He says correspondents in Israel could expect “to have your integrity hurled back in your face every single day”.
But he thought of a solution: “If I didn’t want to be accused of hating Israel, I should start every story with: ‘Fifty years after six million Jews died in the Holocaust, Israel yesterday’ did one thing or the other.”
Obama told Israelis their occupation was unfair.
It is possible that Obama, Unicef, Amnesty International, 950 soldiers, Shin Bet chiefs and others are wrong and that Sheridan and Rubenstein are right.
But I don’t think so.
John Lyons is The Australian’s Middle East correspondent