Greg Barns writes:

Michael Backman has reason to feel aggrieved at the way he has been treated by senior editors at The Age this week. The Age succumbed to the precious, hectoring and arrogant conduct of the all too powerful pro-Israel lobby in Australia.

The column by Mr Backman, “Israelis are living high on US Expense Account“, was published in last Saturday’s Age. Colin Rubenstein and Mark Leibler, two of the most zealous Israeli lobbyists in Australia went ballistic, hammered The Age’s editor Paul Ramage, and the result was a groveling apology by the newspaper which said the column was published in “error”.

This was an over the top reaction. The column by Backman contained much that is true, or at least arguable by way of serious proposition. It might have been expressed a little clumsily in part, but that is not a crime.

Backman says about recent terrorism events like 9/11 that “it is Israel — or more correctly the treatment of the Palestinians — that is at the nub”. Well that is the way many on Arab streets think, and who can blame them, given the events of the past 60 years, where the west props up Israel, turns a blind eye to its excesses and human rights abuses, and refuses to accord justice to the Palestinians? Backman’s remarks about how Israel’s treatment of Palestinians has bred hated and violence breeds yet more violence is simply a fact.

And what of this passage from the Backman piece?

Trekking in Nepal is fashionable among young Israelis. So much so that many shops in Kathmandu and Pokhara have signs in Hebrew. But once you get on the trekking circuit and speak with local Nepalese guides and guesthouse operators you soon discover how disliked the Israelis are. Many guesthouses in this poor country will even tell Israeli trekking groups that they are full rather than accept them. This has nothing to do with religion or politics: Nepalese people are some of the warmest, most hospitable in the world. Rather, they say that the young Israelis are rude, arrogant, and argue over trifling amounts of money even though they clearly have means.

It is okay for all of us to talk openly about the ugly American tourists, or boorish Australians in Europe. We used to speak with contempt about the arrogance and pigheadedness of the Afrikaners who trod for centuries on Black South Africans. But let’s not say a word against the conduct of young Israeli tourists.

Michael Backman is the victim here. His column was tough and raw — but it was assertion backed by examples and facts. The Age should never have allowed itself to be bullied by the one lobby group that seems to think that it has the right to censor our media — the well funded and slick Israeli lobbyists.

The stranglehold the pro Israeli lobby has over public life in Australia was not only evident in this case, but in the self censoring of politicians like Kevin Rudd who still refuse to condemn Israel for its war crimes and use of white phosphorus in the Gaza Strip. It is time to treat the Leibler’s and Rubensteins of the world as you would any other group — no more special favours or succumbing to their arrogant demands.


Meanwhile, Michael Potter writes:

I congratulate Margaret Simons on her informative and somewhat forensic contributions this week in Crikey explaining, as she sees it, the background and some of the fallout regarding The Age‘s Michael Backman Op/Ed piece. Her piece yesterday might interest real insiders with ink in their veins but Wednesday‘s was more revealing. However in the first article Simons, like most of the media I feel, fails to differentiate between what is Jewish and what is Israeli. Her failure to do so plays neatly into the hands of the highly skilled Israel-Jewish communication apparatus whose point men are Colin Rubenstein and Mark Leibler.

The technique is well established: When possible, elevate very quickly a major criticism of Israel to one of criticism of Jewish people per se. This does two things — it stimulates fear and a siege mentality within the Jewish community and importantly it widens the “debate” and provides Colin and his mates with many more opportunities to wheel out the tried but, I suggest, increasingly tired strategy of labelling such criticism as racially, ethnically or religiously based while slipping in other reminders of past wrongs. A battery of letter writers swings into action while another platoon hits the airwaves and before you know it you have mainstream media running with that.

I suggest any careful reading through Backman’s piece will reveal the whole thrust of his treatise is a criticism of Israel not the Jewish people as such. His few mentions of the Jewish people are within the context of historic relationships involving Christian and Muslims: “When Catholic Spain and Portugal expelled its Jews Ottoman sultan in Istanbul invited them in ” etc. It is the media that has taken the bait as was intended and run on the racist card.

I suggest this media approach is seriously flawed. Put in its simplest form all (or most) Israelis are Jews, but not all Jews are Israeli and that’s the fundamental difference.

It’s a difference the media and all thinking people should consider. It’s a difference that an increasing number of Jewish Australians are beginning to state as they distance themselves from Israel — for example, the recent open letter to media signed by a number of prominent Jews critical of Israel.

While I acknowledge that Israel is the spiritual home for the Jewish people and the bonds are strong, I am sure there are many Jews in Australia who would disagree with that nation’s recent actions against Palestine compounded by its consistent and blatant public lying to the international community.

Even Backman’s criticism of Israeli tourists in Nepal was distorted to being something anti-Jewish. He was commenting on Israelis, not, for example, Jewish students from Australia. If Irish tourists were criticised for drinking too much, should all Catholics or Irish feel offended?

It is not just Backman writing from afar who has come across Israelis behaving badly. Last week it was reported in New Zealand that a popular tourist cafe in the South Island refused to serve some Israelis in protest at Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, but also because of their general behaviour and arguing over bills. It was NZ of course who kicked out some Israeli spies some years back, no mean feat when up against Mossad, but then again the Kiwis have had some frontline experience dealing with spies ala the French and the Rainbow Warrior.

It’s time Australian mainstream media took a more analytical approach in its dealings with the hardliners in the Jewish community. Are sections within that community seriously suggesting The Age should not print material critical of Israel? Are they seriously suggesting Australians should be denied a press free from sectional influence?

The Age owes no apology in my view to Israel nor to the Jewish community here. It is a pity Paul Ramadge felt obliged or threatened to do so. It is Colin Rubenstein and Mark Leibler who are painting Jewish Australians into an Israeli corner and fanning the flames of racism — not The Age.

If they try to take action against the Age it will be, in my view, on paper thin grounds, excuse the pun, something an eminent lawyer like Mark Leibler I’m sure appreciates.

Peter Fray

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