By George Browning
In an interview published in last Thursday’s Australian, former Queensland Labor Premier Peter Beattie accused his NSW colleagues of embracing a “Stalinist” approach towards Israel.
His outburst is only the latest in a string of denunciations surrounding what promises to be the most controversial issue to be discussed at next weekend’s NSW Labor State Conference. Ever since a motion proposing that ALP officers not accept trips sponsored by Israeli lobby groups was made public, NSW Labor has been drawing fire from all directions.
In an interview with Sky News on 28 January, Julie Bishop called on Bill Shorten to quash the motion, decrying it as an example of “the ignorant prejudice that obviously exists within the Labor Party”.
Last Wednesday The Australian weighed in with an editorial ridiculing NSW Labor leader Luke Foley for suggesting that those participating in Israel lobby tours spend equal time visiting Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. On the same day it printed an interview with Warren Mundine, who claimed that the motion “verges on anti-Semitic”, and an opinion piece by Senior Writer Sharri Markson, who criticised Foley for insulting the intelligence of Labor MPs by “implying they are incapable of forming their own views after meeting Jewish Israelis” before (somewhat contradictorily) lampooning NSW Labor as “a mob so hopeless that they couldn’t sort out Sydney’s traffic chaos”.
Markson’s diatribe, which identified the source of the rot as “MPs in marginal western Sydney seats who weakly give up key Labor values of tolerance and fairness in order to appeal to their Muslim constituency” and ended with a brief note that she had travelled to Israel last year on tour sponsored by the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), probably revealed more about the nature of such tours than she intended.
AIJAC is a well-resourced right-wing lobby group that in 2003 led the charge against the Sydney Peace Foundation for daring to award a peace prize to Palestinian activist and feminist Hanan Ashrawi. Its tours of Israel are organised in close coordination with the Netanyahu government, which regards them as an indispensable aspect of Israeli diplomacy.
The tours begin with a business class flight to Ben Gurion Airport, where participants are whizzed through the VIP lane. Their speedy processing leaves them oblivious to the Palestinian and Arab-looking passengers who are diverted to the airport’s “Arab room”. As the guests are chauffeured to their hotel to meet their full-time guides, the Palestinians undergo a humiliating routine of waiting, repeated interrogation, being forced to unpack their bags, and are frequently deported if they are fail to show sufficient deference toward their tormentors.
As part of their tour, the participants are introduced to Israeli settlers, given briefings by “security experts” on Palestinian incitement, taken to Sderot to see rockets fired from the Gaza Strip and flown over the Golan Heights to give them a carefully-controlled thrill of danger as they look down on the turmoil in Syria.
The highlight of the tour is a pilgrimage to the Holocaust Museum at Yad Vashem, where, after being taken through a harrowing exhibition of the Nazi genocide, the guests emerge onto a veranda overlooking the Israeli-controlled Jerusalem: the logical answer to centuries of European anti-Semitism. No one will draw their attention to nearby Deir Yassin, site of the infamous massacre carried out by the Irgun militia (forerunners to Israel’s ruling Likud Party) or the ethnic cleansing of West Jerusalem, whose inhabitants were made to pay the price for this happy ending. In fact, the only image of a Palestinian in the whole exhibition is that of Grand Mufti Hajj Amin Al-Husseini, a Nazi collaborator whom Netanyahu recently accused of persuading Hitler to exterminate the Jews (he later retracted the claim).
The selection is not accidental. By associating modern Israel with the Holocaust and the Palestinians with the Nazis, by framing the conflict in terms of Israeli security rather than Palestinian human rights, by identifying Palestinian “incitement” rather Israeli occupation as the root of the conflict, the position of oppressor and oppressed, of occupying power and occupied population is reversed.
Naturally the dignitaries are driven to Ramallah to have coffee with a Palestinian spokesperson so that they can tell people they have heard from both sides, but the day-to-day reality of Israel’s occupation: the demolition of Palestinian homes, the brutality and humiliation of the checkpoints, the stoning of schoolchildren by Jewish settlers while Israeli soldiers look on, the families in Gaza living in makeshift shelters because Israel will not let in the building materials needed to rebuild the neighbourhoods it razed in 2014 are all kept studiously out of sight.
Last month Makarim Wibisono, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Palestinians Territories submitted his resignation to the Human Rights Council, citing Israel’s repeated refusals to grant him access to the West Bank and Gaza.
In December the Israeli government approved an Orwellian “NGO Transparency Law”, the purpose of which, according to Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked is “to limit the information that gets to foreign countries” by imposing heavy fines on any human rights organisation that receives funding from foreign (mainly EU) governments unless its members wear special identity tags and declare in all materials that they are “funded by foreign entities”. The main target of the proposed law is Breaking the Silence, an organisation of Israeli army veterans who collect soldiers’ testimonies of war crimes and conduct tours that show the reality of Palestinian life the Occupied Territories. Last year Israel’s defence and education ministers announced that they had banned members of Breaking the Silence from speaking to the Israeli military and school students.
AIJAC’s sponsored tours of Israel and the Netanyahu government’s campaign against human rights monitors are both aspects of the same campaign to obscure the nature of Israel’s Occupation that next year will enter its fiftieth year. It is neither Stalinist, nor anti-Semitic, nor an abandonment of Labor values of tolerance and fairness to be concerned about the unbalanced nature of these tours. Rather than being vilified by the likes of Bishop, Mundine, Markson and Beattie (who have had nothing to say about Israel’s crackdown on human rights organisations), NSW Labor should be commended for reviewing its members’ participation in such tours.