The decision by a German pope to rehabilitate a bishop who is an avowed Holocaust denier (re. “Forget Backman — meet the Pope’s anti-semite” (yesterday, item 5)) has, not surprisingly, caused outrage in the global Jewish community.

As a baptised, church-going Roman Catholic, I’m not the least bit uncomfortable about the outpouring of anger we have seen from many Jewish leaders, and I don’t for a single second see their criticism of the pontiff as a sectarian slur against Catholics in general. Like them, I think Pope Benedict’s decision is grotesquely insensitive, and while I am incensed at what he’s done, I don’t feel in any way under siege or fear that I will be branded an apologist for his actions simply because I belong to the same faith.

Why then do we hear cries of anti-Semitism when someone launches into a strident attack on Israel (and not on Jewish people per se) for the outrage committed by the Israeli government and military in Gaza?

Before I go on, let me make it clear that I don’t believe The Age should have run Michael Backman’s tirade against Israel, at least not in the form he submitted it and certainly not in the finance section of the paper.

As Margaret Simons has so eloquently pointed out, the publication of Backman’s column on January 17 was a failure of editorial control — the sad evidence of a once great news organisation hopelessly under stress because of cost cutting by a management that seems completely clueless about the business it’s in.

With some judicious sub-editing, including a demand for the writer to substantiate some of his claims, Backman’s piece would have been entirely appropriate on the main opinion page of the paper. Yes, it would have been provocative, but what is the point of an opinion page if it doesn’t provoke debate?

However, while there might be much to criticize about Backman’s column and its absurd misplacement in the finance section, the one thing it wasn’t was anti-Semitic.

Sure, Backman was resorting to over-the-top polemics in making the unqualified statement that Israel was to blame for terrorist attacks against Western targets. However, there is nothing at all radical in the idea that the failure to resolve the Israeli/Palestinian conflict has been a source of deep resentment throughout the Islamic world. Long before Israel’s latest onslaught in Gaza, the ongoing denial of proper sovereignty for Palestinians has been the one unifying grievance for Muslims everywhere, and the grievance cited time and time again by lunatic Islamists in their pleas to young Muslims to take up violent Jihad against the West.

While Backman might have been wrong to describe Israel’s treatment as “the nub of the problem”, it is undeniably a major factor in driving terrorism. Anyone who refuses to acknowledge that is dangerously in denial.

Backman brought none of his specialist knowledge as a finance journalist to his column. Had he done so it would have an appropriate piece for the finance pages. For instance, he complained about the huge amount of aid the U.S. was giving to Israel but failed to provide a figure. For the record, the latest numbers available from the U.S. Congressional Library put the cost at just over $US2.5 billion for 2007. That’s peanuts compared to the hundreds of billions the U.S. is throwing at the banks right now but it could fill a lot of pot holes in Obama’s promised program to put America on the road to recovery by fixing its broken infrastructure.

While Backman failed to use any of his finance smarts to support his argument, his extensive experience reporting in Asia has provided him with an insight into how Muslims a long way from the Middle East think about Israel.

Take this observation about Malaysia:

Every citizen of this outpost of Islam has printed in his or her passport that the passport is not valid for Israel.

And given that Malaysians are not allowed to hold dual citizenship, this essentially means that every Malaysian citizen, including the 40% who are not Muslims, are banned from visiting Israel.

“When will Malaysia recognise Israel?” I once asked the then finance minister. “Once Israel treats the Palestinians better,” was his reply.

How would he determine that? “When the Palestinians tell us,” he said.

Backman came in for most criticism for his comments about Israeli tourists behaving badly abroad. This is where he was in desperate need of some solid evidence beyond his own musings. Strangely, several days after the offending article was published in The Age, Backman provided this link on his website to an article by an Israeli travel writer which provided strong support for his argument in prose that would make even the most hardened Israeli bater blush. (Margaret Simons says Backman found the link on her blog.)

Yehuda Nuriel, in an article published on the very mainstream Israeli news website, Ynet, made the same accusations Backman did about Israeli travellers but in much blunter terms:

The Israeli, any Israeli, has become an icon of evilness, ugliness, corruption and exploitation. There is no use searching for ways to change the behaviour of Israelis abroad. This is a lost cause.

In an exchange via Facebook on Monday, Nuriel told me that he had originally written the article in Hebrew and he regarded the English version as a “quite accurate translation”. He didn’t retract any of the statements made in the article.

It has to be said there is nothing new in what either Nuriel or Backman have to say about Israeli travellers. I have had various accounts about their antics related to me only recently, including by a friend in London, a BBC journalist who just happens to be Jewish himself. The Israelis’ bad reputation is not dissimilar to that of loud Americans, overbearing Germans, sun-fried and oafish English backpackers or booze-addled Australians crashing their way through exotic places.

The essential point missing from Backman’s piece and what would have made it relevant to the Gaza situation was that the Israeli tourists renowned for causing so much grief abroad are young people recently released from the army.

Nuriel makes the connection to military service explicit in his article. To him the bad behaviour of Israeli travellers serves as a timely metaphor and reinforces a negative stereotype of Israel as a whole:

Look at them and see us: a violent horde that treats the world as yet another policing mission, a destination that needs to be conquered and subdued.

Those who accuse Backman of anti-Semitism should look at what some Israelis are saying about their own government and what its actions are doing for the nation’s reputation.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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