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Why are Australia and its media so afraid of a debate about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians? | Louise Adler

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R.Recently, 700 journalists and writers signed a petition calling for greater media coverage of the plight of the Palestinians. The coverage of the Middle East has long been controversial. For Zionists, the Australian media is a hot bed of prejudiced left wing hostility; for Palestinians, the lack of a fair hearing and accurate reporting is a given.

The petition caused a sensation when media owners and their editors were asked to self-censure. There is a tacit consensus in newsrooms across the country that it is not worth the trouble to attempt objective reporting and honest analysis. Both implicitly and explicitly, there is agreement that issues are best avoided: the daily life of the Palestinians, the ceaseless growth of settlements in the Occupied Territories, the accompanying moral erosion of Israeli polity, and the complexities that exist within the Palestinian and Israeli politics plays.

If the media is to remain loyal to the public, it must be clear about how influence is exerted

Convinced that it is in the national interest to publish an evidence-based report on the challenges the media faced in reporting on the region, I commissioned John Lyons, Dateline Jerusalem: Journalism’s Toughest Assignment to write. Lyons is a seasoned newspaper editor who spent six years as a foreign correspondent in Israel and is now the director of ABC Investigations. The task was to investigate the impoverished coverage of this sleepy region. Twenty-three editors, senior journalists and reporters confirmed on record that the problem was the Israel lobby.

The fact that a lobby group is trying to influence the government, the media and the community is neither inappropriate nor surprising. Junkets, freebies, duchessing are not new. There is also a lack of transparency. But the influence of lobby groups needs to be recognized. If the media is to remain loyal to the public, it must be clear about how influence is exerted.

When Israel’s policies are criticized in public, the knee-jerk charge is anti-Semitism. The defenders of Israel “right or wrong” share with anti-Semites the conviction that the actions of the state are inextricably linked with Judaism. This ensures that Zionism and anti-Semitism remain at the center of the debate and the problem of Palestinian suffering under illegal occupation is practically ignored. Until we can have a public discussion beyond this impasse, it seems inevitable that Palestinian voices will not be heard.

Merging anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is a long-term strategy and the impact on the Australian media is evident. It is a best practice to silence critics, make sure questions go unanswered and media coverage is muted. The excessive and defensive reactions to Dateline Jerusalem prove the point. It is clear that if one does not want to endure the endlessly orchestrated letter campaigns, the complaints, the phone calls up and down the management hierarchy, it is best to leave the subject of Israel alone, which of course is not in the public interest.

Years ago I published Antony Loewenstein’s My Israel Question, which was about understanding the Israel lobby. The response was completely disproportionate. One would have thought that community leaders would involve Loewenstein in constructive discussions in order to “get him on the right track”. Instead, the Australian Jewish News ran a relentless smear campaign against the author and his publisher. Michael Danby, then a politician, wrote to Melbourne University Vice Chancellor Glyn Davis demanding that I be fired and that the book be crushed. Despite attempted intimidation, the Vice Chancellor continued his 14-year unwavering commitment to MUP’s editorial independence.

In a review of a new book by Edward Said, I briefly pondered my own idealistic arrival in Israel at the age of 17, anticipating a socialist utopia and dancing the hora on the asphalt. Instead, I met Ashkenazi Jews who stamped my passport, Sephardic Jews swept the floors, and Palestinians cleaned the toilets. It was a depressing introduction to a society mired in racial and class differences. My memory of the experience in a book review prompted a personal visit from the Israeli ambassador, who asked me to “do the community’s dirty laundry in public.” The AJN routinely proclaims “One People, One Voice” on its front page – and gets to the heart of the problem.

Why are local foot soldiers so afraid of debates, of keen reports on the conditions of Palestinian life, of observations that the often touted “only democracy in the region” discriminates against Israeli Arabs, of demands for Palestinian self-determination and criticism of the military occupation who radicalized successive generations of Palestinians?

The right to live in peace and justice, tragically, continues to elude Palestinian and Israeli citizens. It is a truism that diversity of opinion cannot be suppressed in Israel. The question of why the same diversity of opinion is not tolerated in Australia should be the start of an important conversation. Let the debate begin.

Louise Adler is the Vice Chancellor’s Professorial Fellow and Curator of In the National Interest at Monash University and general publisher for Hachette Australia

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