Facts about Israel sometimes lost in Middle East commentary
The following article has been published in The Mercury by Peter Wertheim.
Greg Barns’s diatribe against Israel and his apologia for dumped ALP candidate Melissa Parke (Talking Point, April 22) are sadly typical of the way the facts can get lost when it comes to much commentary about the Middle East.
Barns accuses Israel of foreign interference in Australia’s domestic politics and asserts the ALP has been “captured by the Israel lobby”. The claim would be laughable if it were not so insidious.
As recently as December, the ALP National Conference passed a resolution, supported by Labor foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong, calling on the next Labor government, as “an important priority”, to recognise “Palestine” as a state.
Penny Wong also announced that an ALP government will reverse, not merely review, the present government’s recognition of west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and spend an extra $20 million of Australian taxpayers’ dollars to support the Palestinians through UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees in the near east), which has been accused of allowing aid money to be diverted for terrorism.
The ALP leadership was fully aware aspects of these announcements would be criticised by most Jewish organisations in Australia. But the ALP made them regardless, making a nonsense of Barns’s claims about the Israel lobby having captured the ALP.
So what is really behind these false claims? My organisation consists of elected representatives of Jewish communities across Australia, with some 200 organisations under its umbrella. Like other organisations representing the many ethnic and religious communities, we seek to articulate the interests and mainstream views of our community on policy including education, welfare, aged care and security.
We also speak up to defend Israel whenever it is smeared because, as a recent survey showed, 88 per cent of Australian Jews say they feel a sense of responsibility to ensure the State of Israel continues to exist. Many of us have family there. This is no different to, say, the Australian Greek community speaking up about the Cyprus issue.
Yet whenever our organisation responds to false or misleading comments about Israel, we receive harassing messages warning us to stop “interfering in domestic politics”. Whether from people describing themselves as white supremacists or defenders of Palestinian human rights, the intent, and often the words, are the same. They want to intimidate us into silence. It’s despicable to suggest Jewish Australians don’t have the same rights as other citizens to participate in the political process and support or criticise foreign policy statements of our political parties and politicians. The alternative would be political censorship.
Barns criticises the Israeli ambassador for defending his country from being unfairly maligned. The ambassador of any country would surely do the same.
Emulating Parke, Barns smears and delegitimises Israel by falsely comparing it to apartheid South Africa, citing several discredited anti-Israel writers. He omits to mention that Israel just had an election in which all of its citizens, Jews, Arabs and others, had the right to vote. Ten Arab candidates were elected as members of Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset.
Some 20 per cent of Israel’s population identify as Arabs. They are fully fledged citizens of Israel with equal voting, civil and religious rights, as enshrined in Israel’s Basic Law and Declaration of Independence. The recent Nation State law has not changed that. Arabs serve in the upper echelons of the military, police, courts (including the Supreme Court) and Parliament. There have been Israeli Arab members of the Knesset since the first Israeli elections in 1949.
The Supreme Court has an Arab judge, the head of surgery in a leading hospital is Arab and Arabs head university departments. Jewish and Arab doctors and nurses work together, giving care equally to Jewish and Arab patients — unthinkable under apartheid. Israel’s Jews and Arabs use the same public transport, eat in the same restaurants, share the same beaches, theatres and cinemas, shop at the same malls, attend the same public schools and universities and work side by side in many occupations.
Immense resources have been invested to address remaining areas of inequality and discrimination. Discrimination exists everywhere, including in Australia, but discrimination is not apartheid.
Melissa Parke has been at odds with her party’s policies on immigration and asylum seekers and her support of a boycott of Israel. She does not advocate a boycott of Iran, China, Cuba or any other country, just Israel, the only liberal democracy in the Middle East. The ALP has condemned any boycott of Israel. Even the Greens have rejected it as a policy.
Parke claims to support Israel’s right to exist side by side with a Palestinian state, but simultaneously calls for a “right of return” to Israel of 5 million so-called Palestinian refugees, 99 per cent of whom are not refugees and have never fled from anywhere. This is an openly declared aim of the campaign to boycott Israel, to which Melissa Parke has lent her support. It is tantamount to a call for Israel’s destruction, not its right to exist.
As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, modern antisemitism often expresses itself “in attempts to delegitimise the right of Israel to exist, including calls for its destruction”.
Peter Wertheim AM is co-chief executive of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry.