Evil and deeply untrue
Greg Sheridan – The Australian – March 01, 2014
WE are living in a time of infamous lies against the state of Israel and the Jewish people. We are witnessing, even in Australia, a recrudescence of some of the oldest types of anti-Semitism. One of the worst recent examples of anti-Israel propaganda that led directly to anti-Semitic outbursts was the Four Corners episode Stone Cold Justice, purporting to be about treatment of Palestinian children in the West Bank.
The program featured as a guest reporter John Lyons, of this newspaper. I have the greatest respect for John. He has produced some outstanding journalism in his time. In the article he wrote for this newspaper on February 8, he made some of the same allegations that were made on Four Corners. I found the allegations at best unproved and generally unconvincing.
However, the Four Corners program was a disgrace, a crude piece of anti-Israel propaganda that revived some of the oldest anti-Semitic tropes. In the year 2014, are we really going to allege again, on the basis of the flimsiest non-evidence you could imagine, that Jewish soldiers systematically physically crucify innocent children? Is there a school of anti-Semitism 101 operating out there? Do you not think that before you would air an allegation like that, if you had any real sense of editorial responsibility, you would be 100 per cent sure that it was true; you would track down the people alleged to have done it and get their testimony? The Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council has produced exhaustive rebuttals of virtually all the allegations in this program and I recommend readers visit the AIJAC website. The whole program was full of uncorroborated and intensely unlikely allegations.
You could make the same kind of film about Australia if you didn’t find it necessary to prove any of your facts. In the Four Corners program, the only Jewish settler interviewed was a religious extremist who said Palestinians must never have a state of their own and that God gave all the land to the Jews and that was it.
Yet the overwhelming majority of the Israeli population favours a two state solution. If you had even one ounce of responsibility in the way you treated these issues, and given their explosive, emotive nature, don’t you think some of that context might have been relevant? Isn’t there an obligation to convey the reality of the diversity of Jewish settlers in the West Bank?
A week or two after the Four Corners program went to air, I attended a Catholic mass in a suburban church. The priest was preaching about forgiveness. Most examples he chose were taken from the news. One, he took from the Middle East. It concerned a heroic Palestinian whose family had been killed by Israel, but who still had the moral grandeur to forgive the Israelis. The priest said nothing else about the Middle East. So of all the malevolence and genuine evil in the Middle East, the only example the priest thought worth mentioning was a generic Israeli crime.
With 2000 years of Christian anti-Semitism behind him, the priest had no hesitation in presenting Israel as the killer of innocent families and the only question in the Middle East being one of the moral greatness of the Palestinians in forgiving the Israelis.
So this is what we’ve come to in 2014. The national broadcaster tells us that Jewish soldiers crucify innocent children and Christian clerics routinely portray Israel as the murderous oppressor of the Middle East. But these stereotypes are both evil, and deeply untrue. Over many trips to Israel, and many visits to neighbouring Middle East countries, I have come to the conclusion Israel has the best human rights and democratic institutions and civil society of any nation in the greater Middle East. More than that, I have tried hard to make my own investigations into two questions. Does the Israeli army routinely behave unreasonably? And what is the truth about the settlements?
Israel is not perfect. Like every nation it makes mistakes, including moral mistakes. Undoubtedly, some of its soldiers have engaged in abuses. But over the years I have interviewed dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Israeli soldiers and former soldiers, many active on the Left of Israeli politics and harshly critical of their government. I have also interviewed many Palestinians. My net judgment is Israel’s army behaves with as much consideration for human rights and due process as any modern Western army – US, Australian or European – would do in similar circumstances.
Then there is the question of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Israel took control of the West Bank because it was attacked by Jordan in a war Israel fought for its very existence. Almost no one internationally had recognised Jordanian sovereignty over the West Bank and the land there is to be negotiated. The overwhelming consensus in Israel is that the vast majority of the West Bank, perhaps 95 per cent, will go to a Palestinian state with compensating land swaps from Israel proper. A few clusters of Jewish settlements will be retained by Israel.
Bob Carr, who I think was a very good foreign minister, recently argued all the settlements are illegal. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop disagrees. On this, Bishop is right and Carr wrong. The problem with discussion of the settlements is that it is so unsophisticated and typically lumps so many different communities together. If all settlements are illegal, that means the Jewish presence at the Wailing Wall in the old city of Jerusalem, access to which was denied to Jews when it was under Arab control, is illegal. It means that the historic Jewish quarter of the old city is also illegal. It means that every Jewish household anywhere in East Jerusalem is illegal.
It is worth noting, by the way, that Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem qualify for Israeli identity cards that allow them to live anywhere in Israel. Increasing numbers are buying apartments in West Jerusalem. But if all settlements are illegal then it is apparently illegal for Israelis, be they Jewish, Muslim or Christian, to buy in East Jerusalem.
I have spent many days visiting the settlements to try to find out what the people who live there are like. As foreign minister, Kevin Rudd told me the settlements occupied about 3 per cent of the West Bank. Since 2004, settlements have not been allowed to expand beyond existing borders. Very, very few settlers are like the sole woman interviewed on Four Corners. There are a lot of very orthodox Jews who live in settlements, but the ultra-orthodox do not serve in the Israeli army and are often not very nationalist at all. They live in settlements because it is cheap and they want to have their own neighbourhoods with very orthodox schools, cooking facilities, etc.
But most of the people I met in big, mainstream settlements like Gush Etzion and Maale Audumin, which are very close to Israel proper, were moderate, national religious types. The Jewish connection to the land historically certainly meant something to them, but they tended to vote for mainstream centre-right parties and live peaceably enough with their Palestinian neighbours. (Indeed, some 25,000 Palestinians work on settlements.) These settlers don’t make for very exciting TV interviews because they are so reasonable and unremarkable.
An Israeli friend put it to me that perhaps 50 per cent of settlers are basically non-ideological, and lived in settlements because they can get a house much more cheaply than in Israel proper. Maybe 30 per cent to 40 per cent are moderate orthodox or national religious, mainstream, attached to the land, patriotic, pretty pragmatic. Perhaps 10 per cent (of settlers, not of Israelis overall) are intensely ideological and believe all the land should stay with the Jews. And perhaps 1 per cent or less are genuinely extremist and some of them genuinely violent. That certainly accords with what I have observed over years of visits.
There are also outposts or settlements in the West Bank that are illegal under Israeli law. All serious Israeli negotiations involve the principle of repatriating a significant number of settlers back to Israel proper or to settlements Israel is definitely going to keep. Typically, the number of such postulated returns varies from 50,000 to 90,000.
Aspects of Israel’s settlement policy have been very ill-advised. But I know that settlements are not the main obstacle to peace. The main obstacle to peace is that most of the Arab world will not accept the idea that Israel as a Jewish state has a right to exist and live in peace and security. The Four Corners program did nothing to enlighten the debate and led to a shocking outburst of rank anti-Semitism on ABC websites.
I really thought we were beyond that.
Distant ‘experts’ choose to ignore Israeli realities
John Lyons – The Australian – March 08,2014
So a priest at a church Greg Sheridan attended in Melbourne said something possibly anti-Semitic, and somehow ABC1’s Four Corners and I are responsible?
It’s not even certain the priest watched the Four Corners program on Israel’s treatment of Palestinian children. But it sounds as if he didn’t need anyone to stoke his anti-Semitism – Sheridan said he spoke as someone “with 2000 years of Christian anti-Semitism behind him”.
Sadly, this is the level to which discussion about Israel has sunk.
Last Saturday, Sheridan said a program I reported for Four Corners was “a crude piece of anti-Israel propaganda that revived some of the oldest anti-Semitic tropes”.
Why can journalists put the Australian Army or federal police or US Army through the ringer, but if we investigate the most powerful army in the Middle East it’s anti-Semitism?
As a correspondent in Jerusalem my job is to report through Australian eyes. What the Israeli army does to Palestinian children systematically – such as taking a 12-year-old from his home at 2am and denying access to a lawyer or parent – would be illegal in Australia .
Four Corners showed how Israel enforces two legal systems in the West Bank, one for Jews and one for Palestinians.
For “exhaustive rebuttals”, Sheridan recommended the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council run by Colin Rubenstein, also based in Melbourne.
AIJAC is not an elected body representing the Jewish community but a privately funded lobby group with extremely hardline positions on Israel. I find it breathtaking that a journalist would recommend a private lobby group for a rebuttal of journalism.
Bob Carr recently revealed that when he was foreign minister, AIJAC “directed a furious effort at trying to block even routine criticism of settlements, as if this were more vital than advocating a two-state solution or opposing boycotts of Israel”.
After reading Carr’s comments, prominent Israeli Alon Liel wrote: “Who are you ‘Israeli lovers’ of the Australia-Israel Council? Who authorised you to put pressure on the Australian government ‘on my behalf’? Especially regarding a matter that affects my family’s future? Why are you trying to ruin my country, pretending you are ‘pro-Israeli?’ “
Liel, a former Israeli Foreign Ministry chief, wrote: “What would you do, dear Jew, if the risk of such isolation was hovering over the head of Australia, France or Canada, countries whose passports you hold?”
He echoed Breaking the Silence, 950 current and former Israeli soldiers who reported on Palestinian children, including one soldier saying a colleague put children against a wall and made them sing Israel’s national anthem – if they didn’t sing in time, he’d hit them.
Another said his commander beat a child “to a pulp” and put a gun in his mouth, saying: “Don’t annoy me.”
When Melbourne Jewish leader Danny Lamm alleged “crude propaganda”, 15 former officers condemned “Lamm’s armchair Zionism, pontificating from afar while true Israelis put their lives on the line”.
Sheridan repeated AIJAC’s claim about settlements not growing – year after year AIJAC says this while construction booms, even outside existing settlements.
US President Barack Obama this week referred to “aggressive settlement construction”.
Israeli statistics show settler housing more than doubled last year, and in the first half of 2011 grew 660 per cent. Outposts are also surging – these are illegal under Israeli law, yet Israel tolerates them.
Having visited the West Bank hundreds of times, I am astonished that Melbourne-based people such as Sheridan and Rubenstein portray themselves as experts yet ignore reality.
Last week Amnesty International said Israeli forces had displayed a “callous disregard” by killing dozens of Palestinian civilians, including children, over three years with “near total impunity”.
Last year, Unicef said ill-treatment of Palestinian children appeared to be “widespread, systematic and institutionalised”, and “children have been threatened with death, physical violence, solitary confinement and sexual assault”.
In 2012, a delegation of British lawyers led by former attorney-general Patricia Scotland, found Israel had breached six articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Geneva Conventions.
There are also now big issues for Australia relating to the Geneva Conventions, under which Israel’s settlements are widely considered illegal. Yet Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has cast doubt on whether Australia accepts the Geneva Conventions in that regard. Her new policy may have serious implications for Australian soldiers overseas – the conventions govern not only how civilians under occupation should be treated but captured soldiers.
It was after two world wars with their collective death toll of about 80 million that postwar leaders signed up to the Fourth Geneva Convention.
The danger of Bishop cherry-picking the Geneva Conventions could expose Australian soldiers who currently have protection.
Sheridan ignores the fact Israeli spokesman Yigal Palmor told Four Corners soldiers were not appropriately trained to detain children. AIJAC criticises me for interviewing “extremist” settler Daniella Weiss – if she is an extremist then so are key members of Israel’s cabinet who share her views. Weiss planned settlements with Ariel Sharon to forestall a Palestinian state.
Leaders of Australia’s Jewish community visiting Israel often approach me for a coffee. One opposed the occupation, saying it was against Jewish teachings to rule over others. Another, from Sydney, wanted the occupation to end. When I asked why he never said that publicly, he replied: “Are you serious? And have the Melbourne guys declare a fatwa against me?” This denial – or fear – does not help Israel.
The film The Gatekeepers, which interviewed six former chiefs of intelligence service Shin Bet, warned about Israel’s future. One, Avraham Shalom, said of the Israeli army: “We have become cruel.”
But one Melbourne Jewish leader told me the Shin Bet chiefs were “all left wing”.
An insight into the attacks on journalists covering Israel comes from Clyde Haberman, an Orthodox-raised American Jew who has just retired after 37 years with The New York Times. For decades, he says, the paper has had correspondents who, no matter how different or good, were branded anti-Semitic or self-hating Jews.
He says correspondents in Israel could expect “to have your integrity hurled back in your face every single day”.
But he thought of a solution: “If I didn’t want to be accused of hating Israel, I should start every story with: ‘Fifty years after six million Jews died in the Holocaust, Israel yesterday’ did one thing or the other.”
Obama told Israelis their occupation was unfair.
It is possible that Obama, Unicef, Amnesty International, 950 soldiers, Shin Bet chiefs and others are wrong and that Sheridan and Rubenstein are right.
But I don’t think so.
John Lyons is The Australian’s Middle East correspondent