In 2003, Palestinian politician and human rights activist Hanan Ashrawi won the Sydney Peace Prize. The Zionist establishment reacted with outrage, accused her of extremism and pressured then New South Wales Premier Bob Carr to not present the award.

The campaign was a disaster and convinced large swathes of the Australian public that many Jews were intolerant of debate. I investigated the saga in my book, My Israel Question, and found a startling lack of awareness by Jewish leaders of their actions were perceived by the wider public.

Six years on, little has changed.

This year, the Sydney Peace Foundation awarded its annual prize to journalist, author and documentary maker John Pilger for “enabling the voices of the powerless to be heard”. He will receive the award in November, presented by New South Wales Governor Marie Bashir. Last year Kevin Rudd did the honours for Aboriginal leader Pat Dodson.

Jewish leaders again are on the offensive. President of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ), Robert Goot, said that, “Pilger does not promote peace, but is a polemicist, a distorter of facts and history and he promotes an extreme Palestinian narrative at the expense of Israel’s narrative and objective analysis.”

Leadership strategist Ernie Schwartz told the Australian Jewish News (AJN) this week that he would urge the Jewish establishment to present a “unified view … [and] be realistic about the fact that we’ll always come across as myopic. That’s just the way we’re going to be cast.”

But bullying organisers of the award and threatening them isn’t a perception problem; it’s how the Zionist lobby does business.

Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation Stuart Rees tells Crikey that he has received huge amounts of supportive mail from across the world in appreciation of this year’s choice. “He [Pilger] has a broad body of work that covers a wide range of countries,” Rees says, including Cambodia, Burma, Australia, America, Bangladesh, Iraq and Afghanistan. “He isn’t just about Israel/Palestine.”

Rees dismisses comments by Zionist lobbyist Colin Rubenstein that the prize is discredited and says that “we don’t think that derision is an appropriate form of commentary. When people have lost, they resort to character assassination.”

Rees says he has not yet heard of any pressure on Sydney University management to threaten funding, as happened during the Ashrawi affair, but accusatory letters have started.

The level of Zionist anger towards Pilger was displayed at last Friday’s Politics in the Pub event in Sydney. A Jewish man approached Rees after the talk and asked if the “next winner would be Hitler”.

Curiously, this week’s AJN features a letter that asks whether Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah or yours truly should win next year.

Rees argues that the reason so many Zionist leaders react as they do is because “they’re tribal. They have to repeat a certain mantra, otherwise they would be disloyal to this image.”

Former Zionist Federation of Australia president Dr Ron Weiser proved this point recently by writing, in support of illegal West Bank settlements and against Barack Obama, that the Australian Government’s position would remain blindly pro-Israel if unthinking “consensus” was maintained. Profound fear of dissent was palpable.

The question of academic freedom is central to a healthy democracy. Attempts by any lobby group to stifle it should be challenged. Witness the current moves in Israel and America against Ben Gurion University academic Neve Gordon for daring to write in the LA Times in support of a boycott against “apartheid” Israel.

President Professor Rivka Carmi condemned the article and said: “Academics who entertain such resentment toward their country are welcome to consider another professional and personal home“. In fact, academic freedom is specifically designed to allow individuals to express views without fear of retribution.

Closer to home, Associate Professor Jake Lynch, director of Sydney University’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS), tells Crikey that he rejects any accusations of bias against him or the centre for taking a strong stand against Israeli violations and Sri Lanka’s war against the Tamils.

He currently receives full university backing for his work, despite the steadily increasing number of complaints from the Singhalese and Jewish community to the institution, insisting on spurious grounds of “balance”.

The obligation of a peace centre, Lynch argues, is to get out the “voices of the subjugated”. The university’s former vice-chancellor, Gavin Brown, told Lynch during a 2008 visit by Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer that “you shouldn’t give the critics [looking for balance] any indication that they’re having an effect”.

Lynch called in May for an academic boycott against Israeli institutions due to their complicity in the occupation of Palestine. The university’s vice-chancellor rejected his overture, supported by many Sydney University academics, but he tells me he’s determined to find a way to pursue the action another way.

Lynch is keen to counter the perception that, “if you criticise Israel you’re anti-Semitic or anti-American if you damn America. The Pilger award should widen this debate. The aim of his British ITV documentary producers is to provide a perspective that is rarely heard; Palestinians are marginalised.”

Stuart Rees commented during last week’s Politics in the Pub that Pilger won the award because he was simply “doing his job [as a reporter]”.

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and the author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution

Peter Fray

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