AJDS, Anti-Semitism and the Jewish Community Council of Victoria (JCCV)

Harold Zwier, former member of the AJDS Executive and AJDS delegate to the Jewish Community Council of Victoria, made the statement below at the JCCV Plenum meeting on 4 March 2013.  The AJDS Executive stands wholly behind it. It is published here in the public interest.

With what follows below in mind, we also note that the JCCV’s Policy platform includes a section on “Respect”, which —

The JCCV’s  Policy platform includes a section on “Respect”, which —

3.7.2 RECOGNISES that irrespective of the common traits that bind us as a community, Victorian Jewry is also diverse and pluralistic and that this is reflected in different, often strongly held views, on a range of issues affecting the Jewish and larger communities.

3.7.3 CALLS FOR respect for any such differences, while affirming that disagreement is only permissible in ways that do not vilify other persons or their views.

3.7.4 CALLS FOR abstention from any public or private conduct that incites hatred against, serious contempt for, revulsion, vilification or severe ridicule of, another person or group on the ground of their identity (including race, religion, colour, disability, sexual orientation, gender and national origin) or views of that other person or group.

“Address to the Jewish Community Council of Victoria (JCCV) – March 4, 2013
Harold Zwier – AJDS delegate to the JCCV

At the February 4, 2013 plenum meeting, during General Business, John Searle was reported in the minutes as having said:

“John Searle stated that the behaviour of the AJDS has caused enormous concern in the community for many years. There have been calls in the past whether the AJDS should be a part of the JCCV. If the AJDS has an issue with an organisation, or an issue with a human rights concern then there is an entitlement to raise that concern. Unfortunately the behaviour in the past has only shown to condemn organisations, Israel or Israeli organisations, not withstanding far greater human rights that have been taking place in so many other countries and are equally applicable, and has been seen to only attack and not raise serious human rights issues in the Jewish community. The real question of membership does get raised. These attacks appear to be anti-semitism, there is a difference in the way a Jewish community and Israel is treated, and one that should be given real consideration to.”

The last sentence prompted the AJDS to write to Nina Bassat the president of the JCCV requesting that the minutes be amended to remove the words “These attacks appear to be anti-Semitism…”

The issue was discussed at the 4th March plenum meeting. Nina Bassat proposed that the 6 words be removed from the minutes. These are the comments of the AJDS delegate to the JCCV.

This discussion is not about the right of people to criticise or comment on the activities of organisations in the Jewish community including the AJDS. I don’t agree with the comments about the AJDS made by John Searle at the February plenum meeting during General Business, but John [Searle] has as much right to make those criticisms – fair or otherwise – as anyone. I would not be occupying the time of this plenum if the issue was simply unfair comment and criticism. That’s not what this discussion is about.

This discussion is about 6 words uttered by John [Searle] during the course of his comments about the AJDS. Those 6 words are defamatory of the AJDS i.e. those 6 words lower or harm the reputation of the AJDS.

Not only did John [Searle] confirm saying those words, but the JCCV saw fit to publish those words in a public document – the minutes of the February plenum meeting. I have therefore been given no choice but to engage with what the JCCV has done.

Those 6 words are: “These attacks appear to be anti-Semitism” and in the context of the comments made by John [Searle] as reported in the February minutes (see above), they are quite clearly directed at the AJDS and can be reasonably understood to express the opinion of John [Searle]. John [Searle] has denied that he was expressing his own opinion. In an email he sent me last Monday (25th Feb.) he wrote: “the fact that certain matters were stated to me over the years and canvassed in plenum meetings etc is true but of course that does not mean and nor did I say that the allegations/comments/opinions/ issues raised by others were themselves factually correct.”

At first blush it may sound like John [Searle]  has explained that he is not accusing the AJDS of anti-Semitism, but in fact John has conceded something quite extraordinary. He concedes that he repeated the accusation that the AJDS engages in anti-Semitic activity without concern as to whether there was any truth to those words.

For some people who sprout the most ignorant political abuse in the letters pages of newspapers, we rightly discount the weight and value of the words they write.

But John Searle is not someone whose comments can be dismissed as having no weight – as having no value. He is the immediate past president of the JCCV, Barrister-at-law, and chairman of the Victorian Equal Opportunity & Human Rights Commission. He is a person who knows about the importance of words uttered in a public place. He knows the law and he knows about defamation.

The repetition of a defamation by someone with as high a public profile as John Searle, in both the Jewish community and wider community, lends substance to the words he uttered in a way that not many others in our community could manage.

Throughout this past week I have made extraordinary efforts to resolve this matter quietly. I have sent numerous emails to Nina [Bassat] and suggested that the matter need not be brought to the attention of the plenum if the minutes were amended to remove the offending words and re-circulated to the affiliates. Not a single concession was made. Not a single conciliatory suggestion was put to me.

Instead, after writing yet again to Nina [Bassat] late Saturday evening, I received a response from Nina [Bassat], on Sunday morning – yesterday morning – saying that she would be proposing at the Plenum meeting that the offending words be deleted from the minutes. Let me spell out for you what Nina [Bassat] proposed.  She proposed that there be no change to the minutes containing the defamatory words published by the JCCV on 22nd February and that the matter be the subject of discussion at this plenum meeting. In effect she said, “Let the plenum decide if the AJDS is anti-Semitic or not. Perhaps they will decide that the words should remain.”

I want this plenum to be aware of something very important. Throughout my comments I have not attempted to defend the AJDS against the accusation of anti-Semitism. And I won’t do so. Because if I engage with that accusation then I will give substance to it.

It is an outrageous accusation.

That a Jewish organisation and an affiliate of the JCCV can be accused of anti-Semitism makes the argument, more effectively than anything I could write, about how politicised the word “anti-Semitism” has become and how demeaned its value has become when it’s thrown around our community and beyond as a term of political abuse. John [Searle], of course, has said he is not personally making the accusation, but far from dissociating himself from the accusation, he has publicly repeated it.

There is an obvious contradiction between the accusation voiced by John [Searle] at the February plenum meeting and the lack of any action by the JCCV executive against the affiliate accused of anti-Semitism.

You can’t have it both ways. The JCCV can’t on the one hand have a senior member make an accusation of anti-Semitism, while the rest of the JCCV executive says that the accusation has no substance (i.e. it declines to take any action). That’s called dog whistle politics – because you’ve managed to get the accusation out there, while at the same time denying its truth.

Above all, the role of the JCCV in this matter has been deeply and profoundly disappointing to me personally. I believe that it would be appropriate for John Searle to apologise to the AJDS, and if he is unwilling to do so then I think an apology should come from the JCCV.

While the offending words were removed from the February 2013 plenum meeting minutes, there was no apology issued nor was there any acceptance by the executive of the JCCV that anyone on the JCCV executive had acted improperly.”

 

Note:  Anthony Lehrman has written eloquently about this issue in “Jews attacking Jews”

 

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