Well, Iran’s nasty-minded Holocaust conference is over, with Australian socialite-turned-historian, Michelle Renouf, appointed to the steering committee to organise the next one, and it seems to have achieved exactly the result intended by wily leader Ahmadinejad – to exaggerate Iranian power by having Western leaders go out of their way to react to it, a trap perfectly illustrated, for example, by Crikey’s sophomoric editorial on the matter, and by The Australian’s snide joke that Ahmadinejad, a transport engineer, has a PhD in “traffic lights” (and Qadaffi wears a dress, etc).

You don’t need to hold any illusions that the conference was honestly intended – a Palestinian who wanted to present a dissenting view from within Islam was barred from attending – to see that it effortlessly exposes the degree to which Western values such as “free speech” are hypocritically put. The justifiable pain many feel at the Holocaust being used this way is because it’s sacred, something that should not be profaned – something to remember the next time there’s a hilarious cartoon about Mohammed.

But what’s really flummoxed a few Western commentators has been the presence of the ultra-orthodox Neturei Karta sect, one of a number of anti-Zionist ultra-orthodox groups who regard the establishment of Israel as the ultimate profanity against Jews, since it has turned them into thugs and oppressors. Easy to smear Chomsky or Norman Finkelstein or others as “secular self-hating Jews” but you don’t get more Jewish than these guys – they live by the word of the book.

They don’t pull any punches either, orthodox anti-Zionists – their website repeats the charge that WWII Zionists could have saved many more from the gas chambers if they had been less fixated on taking Palestine.

For this reason, they’ve been pretty much excluded from the range of debate on Israel. Yet the conference has made visible the paradox of who gets to speak about what.

Take global warming, for example. The proportion of global warming sceptics (and note I am not equating them morally) to proponents is probably lower than that of Holocaust deniers to Holocaust accepters. Yet the climate sceptics get a regular right of reply every time the topic comes up. You wouldn’t want the David Irving crowd to get the same access (though maybe under the ABC’s new rules they’ll have a right to it), but it begs the question of why the climate cranks should too.

Or shall we conclude that free speech depends upon who’s dealing it out?

Peter Fray

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