By Larry Stillman
The ECAJ and JCCV recently condemned AJDS for encouraging people to make donations to the UN’s emergency relief appeal for Palestinian refugees in Gaza. They said that “making donations to UNRWA is reckless, given UNRWA’s own admission that Hamas hides weapons in UNRWA schools”.
Of course, there is no logic in this statement, since UNRWA has itself condemned Hamas for such activity [http://www.unrwa.org/newsroom/press-releases/unrwa-condemns-placement-rockets-second-time-one-its-schools].
Notwithstanding the condemnation of AJDS, the ECAJ and JCCV should now offer a viewpoint on the recent donation of $5 million by the Australian government to UNRWA on July 28 2014. Julie Bishop said that “Many Palestinian civilians have lost their lives along with a number of Israeli soldiers and civilians. Large numbers of people have been displaced from their homes, buildings and essential services damaged, and livelihoods jeopardised”.
If ECAJ and JCCV are to be consistent, they should also oppose the humanitarian action of the Australian government.
By Robin Rothfield
This article by AJDS Executive Committee member Robin Rothfield appears in the print version of the Australian Jewish News – July 26, 2013.
The debate at the plenum of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria held on 3 June 2013, concerning the activity of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society relating to the settlements, suggests that there may be a lack of information about the very real harm which the settlements and the occupation do to the prospects for a peaceful resolution of the Israel Palestine conflict.
In 2007 while attending the wedding in Israel of my niece, I took the opportunity to visit the West Bank accompanied by a volunteer from Machsom Watch.
Some of my observations were as follows:
a. The town of Kalkilya, with a population of 20,000, is almost completely enclosed by a concrete separation barrier 8 metres high. We stopped at the gate to a neighbouring village Ras Atiya which is also surrounded by the barrier, this time a barbed wire fence, with the villagers having limited access controlled by the army. The villagers have to go through 2 checkpoints to get to market at Kalkilya. And why is this? So that the residents of the Jewish settlement on the hill Alfei Menashe have unfettered access to Israel. The Supreme Court had handed down a ruling two years earlier to move the separation barrier so that it would lessen the disruption to the lives of Palestinians, but the ruling had been ignored and today nearly 6 years later the barrier has still not been moved.
b. The gate to the village closes in the evening and for emergency medical treatment the villagers have to shout to the soldiers who sometimes don’t come out. We saw a school age boy taking his donkey across rough ground, apparently going to fetch water for his family. Israel has taken control of all water supplies in the West Bank so that the settlers have water for their gardens and their swimming pools while many Palestinians have to travel to get water for their everyday needs.
c. A farmer, Al Rafiq was at the gate. He had brought 2000 week old chicks from the village and wanted to sell them elsewhere but the soldiers would not let his vehicle pass. He had been waiting for permission to cross with his chicks for two hours in the sun and likely to die from the heat..
d. We saw a school age child aged between 10 and 12 years waiting with some trepidation at a gate some 50 metres from the checkpoint for a signal from the soldier to proceed. Daphne, our tour guide, had words with the soldier who then allowed the child through. But Daphne explained that had she not been there the soldier would have made the child wait half an hour in the hot sun.
e. We drove along roads which only Israeli cars are permitted to use, and noted the sharp deterioration in the quality of roads which Palestinians are permitted to use. Israel does not maintain Palestinian roads.
f. Daphne told us the following disturbing anecdote. One day while driving she came across a stranded religious Jew and a Palestinian standing next to one another. The religious Jew had run out of petrol. The Palestinian, who had stopped to help the Jew, explained to Daphne that there was a settlement nearby which could sell petrol but that he, the Palestinian, would not be permitted entry. Therefore Daphne should go there and buy petrol on behalf of the religious Jew. She agreed to do this. When Daphne got to the settlement and bought the petrol, the settler who had sold it to her said, after realizing she was from Machsom Watch: “If it was for you, I wouldn’t help you even if you were dying.” Another settler said to Daphne: “A pity your family survived the Holocaust.”
g. At Elkanah we saw the house of a family of 8 Palestinians cut off from their village, Mas’ha, by the separation wall. The wall has been positioned for the convenience of the Jewish settlers below the offending house so as not to obstruct the settlers view from the hill over the valley. The family has a key to access the village through a yellow gate in the wall until 8 pm but none of the villagers are allowed to cross the wall and so the family cannot receive them as visitors. The positioning of the wall has thus made this family virtual prisoners in their own home.
h. At the Hawara checkpoint we saw the fear in the face of a 10 year old boy who had to leave his father’s car and raise his shirt to cross the checkpoint on foot.
I was spared the more gruesome episodes of settlers burning down olive trees and committing acts of violence against the villagers but saw enough to convince me that the settlements must go if there is to be any chance of a peaceful outcome of the Israel – Palestinian conflict.
Open discussion is an important aspect of any community. When the AJDS launched its ‘Don’t Buy from the Settlements’ Campaign in Pesach this year, we did so with the aim of being part of an ongoing, world-wide discussion about the ways that everyone who cares about Israel/Palestine can be a part of helping to shape a new future for that part of the world and its inhabitants. While many people from all sorts of communities have supported and taken part in the campaign, the campaign has been criticised by some. This is inevitable in any political campaign.
But there has also been a lot of confusion about what the campaign is and what it means. In particular, a lot of people have been confused about what distinguishes this campaign from BDS, and there are many within the Jewish communities in Melbourne who have criticised the campaign because of that.
The different members of the AJDS executive have had a range of experiences since the campaign was launched, and have many opinions regarding the different issues involved.
In particular, there are a variety of opinions within the AJDS Executive and former exec about the Palestinian-led ‘Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions’ movement – more commonly referred to as BDS. This coalesces around questions of what BDS is and what its relationship to the Zionist community and Israel is, as well as how this positions relations between Israelis and Palestinians. While we have these differences, AJDS’s ‘Don’t Buy from the Settlements’ Campaign emerged after several years of internal discussion which was informed by, but quite separate to, anything proposed by what is known as the BDS movement.
While we have these differences about how to consider the BDS movement, we believe it is important to share them. This is because we recognise that many of the issues raised by proponents of BDS are part of a progressive concern for justice, peace and reconciliation. However there are inevitably some differences that are felt by some of us, and these need to be explained. In fact, these various viewpoints also overlap. Thus, we also make it clear that there is no ‘split’ in AJDS; there are simply different opinions on a complex ‘movement’. This is a movement which is unfortunately often seen as monolithic and universally evil by some members of the Zionist Jewish community and its allies, but is recognised as quite heterogeneous by many of those outside of it. This difference in perceptions about the BDS, the volatile nature of the relationship between Israel and Palestine, and the existence of diverse political opinions are some of the reasons why it has been so difficult to develop any consensus position in AJDS, and why we recognise that consensus positions on this issue are not necessary.
There is nothing more important than being able to speak and talk openly about our differences, rather than be subject to the strident and dishonest criticism which comes from some quarters in the Jewish community. The recent condemnation of AJDS by affiliates of the JCCV is an unfortunate example of this problem.
We hope that you will read the pieces that come from four members of our executive – Jordy Silverstein, Larry Stillman, Dennis Martin and Jemima Light – in the open spirit in which they were intended: to tease out some of the difficulties and the ambivalences, as well as some of the certainties, in grappling with these issues.
By former AJDS Executive Committee Member Harold Zwier
On November 29, 2012, the General Assembly of the United Nations voted to upgrade the Palestinian status to a non-member observer state. The UN adopted the resolution by a majority of 138 in favour to 9 against with 41 abstentions. Australia was one of the abstentions.
Since then, the Australian Jewish Democratic Society (AJDS) has managed to remain in the firing line of the peak bodies of the Jewish community – the Jewish Community Council of Victoria (JCCV); the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) and the Zionist Council of Victoria (ZCV).
The AJDS journey began with a letter sent to Australia’s Foreign Minister in December 2012 and ended with condemnation at a JCCV plenum meeting in early June 2013. I think the various events that occurred during that period reinforce the stereotypical image of the Jewish community as being quite intolerant of dissent. You can be the judge of whether that accusation is reasonable.
The background to these reflections can be found in the timeline.
There have always been claims that the leadership of the Jewish community tries to silence critics – whether they are critics of Israel or the Jewish community. But I disagree. There is a variety of media outlets available for the dissemination of opinions across the political spectrum and no way to effectively stifle differing viewpoints or prevent them from being published.
There is however the time honoured political tactic of delegitimisation. It is a tactic shared across the political divide. It is used to great effect by some leaders in the Jewish community in order to undermine and marginalise their opponents – inside or outside the community.
The JCCV claim that the AJDS did not have the right to refer to its JCCV affiliation in its letter to Senator Carr is strange indeed. By its own admission the JCCV agreed that it is unable to cite a rule, policy, or written understanding to support its Orwellian assertion. By its own admission it agreed that the reference to the AJDS affiliation was factually correct – how could they do otherwise??
No credible public body in an open liberal democracy such as Australia, which espouses the principles of inclusiveness, diversity and pluralism could claim that its affiliates have no right to refer to their affiliation in any material produced, letters written, statements released, or other public pronouncements. Yet this is what the JCCV requests of its affiliates. In pushing its argument with the seriousness of a school principal chastising a misbehaving student, the JCCV only succeeded in looking like a bully.
As a political tactic it was effective, but for those of us who have a more balanced view of the role of the JCCV – to provide an inclusive and pluralistic environment that allows the diversity in our community to flourish – the JCCV has acted appallingly.
The JCCV’s objection to the letter sent by the AJDS to Senator Carr has to be understood in the context of the ECAJ’s objection to Australia’s abstention on the UN resolution. A media release from the ECAJ, dated November 27, says in part, “It is disappointing that the Australian government has decided to abstain, rather than vote ‘no,’ in the (UN) General Assembly on the proposal to grant the Palestinians Observer State status…”.
From the ECAJ perspective the AJDS letter essentially dampened the impact of the ECAJ statement by making the point to Australia’s foreign minister that the Jewish community was not monolithic in its opposition to the decision to abstain on the UN vote.
The AJDS is indeed a small voice when expressing its views to government. However, the fact that a Jewish community organization, which is an affiliate of the JCCV, made what is after all, a fairly uncontroversial point – that there is a diversity of views in our community – cut across the message the ECAJ wanted the government to hear. That the ECAJ then wanted the JCCV to bring the AJDS into line is certainly plausible – especially since the mechanism chosen by the JCCV was to forbid the AJDS from making reference to its JCCV affiliation in correspondence.
The JCCV in effect said, “You can make any representations you want to anyone. You can tell them that you are a voice in the Jewish community. But we forbid you from telling them that you are an affiliate of the JCCV without getting our explicit permission.”
The argument, of course, runs both ways. Many people believe that the AJDS deliberately referred to its JCCV affiliation as a way of bolstering its own status. The AJDS however (and I was one of the authors), says that the focus of the letter to Senator Carr was in its content, and the reference to affiliation was to establish the AJDS as being a voice from within the Jewish community.
It is worth keeping in mind that on the issue of the UN vote, the ECAJ was using its status as representative of the Australian Jewish community to make a political point. Moreover it was a political point that represented the views of many, but not everyone in our community. Rather than being concerned by the letter from the AJDS, the ECAJ should have welcomed it. Political diversity is not something to fear in the Jewish community.
My final point is about the AJDS campaign against settlement products. The campaign to not buy settlement products was always going to be controversial. Its aim was to provide information to the Jewish community about the Israeli settlement project; how the settlements are an obstacle to negotiating an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and how we can all play a small part in opposing the settlement project by not buying its products.
But it also needed to be sensitive and balanced in its presentation. Encouraging people not to buy settlement products could have been balanced by suggesting they instead buy other Israeli products ie. to reinforce the message that the focus was on the settlements – not on Israeli products in general.
As other political commentators have observed, if the public effect of a campaign is to focus attention on the actions of the organisation running the campaign, rather than to focus attention on the substance of the campaign, then the outcome is likely to be counter-productive. And so it has proved.
At the JCCV plenum meeting of 3rd June, the AJDS could have used the opportunity presented by the debate, to publicly argue in favour of its campaign, to explain its purpose, and to forcefully separate itself from the global BDS campaign for a blanket cultural, economic and academic boycott of Israel. Instead, it essentially remained silent.
The AJDS has a vital role to challenge and inform the Jewish community about a range of issues, and to throw light on areas that are quite deliberately avoided by some of the Zionist leaders. But it can only be effective if it can engage with the community and articulate a position that demonstrates a balanced understanding of complex issues. For all of the political machinations of the leaders of the Jewish community in the last 6 months, I think the AJDS too needs to lift its game and remember its voice.
By AJDS Executive Committee Member Larry Stillman
For reasons of space this is a summary of a much longer analysis which is appended here.
The Jewish Community Council’s condemnation of the AJDS for alleged sins and crimes brings forth the big question—so just what is BDS? What the bulls, bullies and others in the Lobby present is something far different from the reality. It is hard at times to know what is fact, impression, or interpretation. This is what makes it difficult for a number of us at an Executive level to come to a consensus position because we all see the BDS movement differently.
In my opinion, any analysis of the BDS movement inevitably brings to account beliefs (or prejudice) on a whole range of issues, such as Zionism, Israel as the State of the Jews, the Right of Return and so on. These are views I have written a lot about over the year in places like Galus Australis (search under my name).
BDS is not so much movement or clear platform as a loose and leaderless coalition that has grown from an original statement (the Palestinian BDS National Committee call in 2005 by a host of organisations that has a sort of canonical status), resulting in many different tendencies. However, because it does not represent a political party’s position, but rather a “call”, it has become scattershot, resulting at times in a political extremism that bears no relation to the conduct of international affairs. This is the position also taken by Norman Finkelstein.
I know that there are many individuals and organisations that do not take on any of the positions I criticise below. They take a more objective and less emotive human rights approach. They focus on targeting action that is meant make a clear statement about the Occupation, without confusing it with other, often more controversial, complex, and ambiguous agendas. Such work as far as I am concerned is commendable and should be supported.
By wanting to take on everything, elements in BDS, with a stated agnosticism about the future, key proponents are being disingenuousness and irresponsible and can’t say that it is up to Palestinians to figure out the solution. On the other hand, the BDS movement also has a dogmatic one-stater stream that as far as I am concerned has little comprehension of inter-communal complexities.
Thus, one only needs to read accounts of the tortuous negotiations that went on in South Africa to realize how little commitment there is to building a mutual coalition for conflict resolution in some elements of the BDS movement. The refusal or reluctance (your choice) to engage in what might be called “ lobbying in suits” amazes me. Yet from personal experience I know that parliamentarians are desperate for information on alternatives. This is not the same as sloganeering. The incapacity to sit down with people on the Left who share some but not all your opinions additionally appears to be to be a fundamental strategic mistake.
The hard-line that has developed in regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (particularly with regard to the “legitimization” issue or the wish to change the goal posts to 1948 or even before that) is reminiscent of positions of decades ago, rather than an accommodation to practical politics. It was believed that Zionism would somehow magically wither away. This is not the real world. The BDS movement has consequently over-played its hand strategically by obsessively turning on Israel, as distinct from the Occupation, and strong human rights agenda for Israel proper. It has left itself open for accusations of hypocrisy for not looking at human rights violations by other countries, or ethno or religiocentric constitutions in other states.
There is also a tendency to dogmatism including a global anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist agenda that goes well beyond the problem of Israel. There is a fetish about not privileging what is seen as the voice of the oppressor (that is Israelis), because admitting that Israel even exists as a state entity, is a concession to its colonial past (while completely downplaying the tragic circumstances which simultaneously made it a haven for Jews). Independent action by Palestinians to redeem their stolen rights is viewed as the sacred and sole foundation on which to solve the problem. In the particular circumstances of the Israel-Palestine conflict – this cry of injustice and need to prove the legitimacy of one’s existence results in political fantasy, as much as it was in South Africa to believe that the oppressors could be excluded from the solution.
But to say that the BDS movement, because of the anger over what happened to Palestinians is inherently anti-Semitic, is way off the mark. However, it is true that anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists have aligned themselves, whether they come from Western countries or Islamist causes and the BDS movement suffers from this pollution though when identified, I see that people are expelled from local organisations. But then we see the same element of racism occurring in Zionist activity such as the settler movement (who don’t get expelled).
Despite these problems, many of the issues that BDS highlights have certainly been part of the left conversation in Israel for decades, and are now reflected in broader political conversations within Israel itself and others abroad: full recognition of the Nakba and its effects, including ethnic cleansing; the effects of Occupation; the creeping culture and institutionalisation of a local form of apartheid or ethno-separatism whether in the territories or Israel; Israel as a so-called Jewish democratic state or a democratic state of all its people; the collapse of rule of law and many other matters. Other controversies such as the Law of Return (Jews)/Right of Return (Palestinians) as a part of the future settlement as well as one state/two states options are also part of the conversation. Of course, this also puts the whole issue of Israel as Jewish majority state on the table. And by the way, I consider mutual national apologies as necessary.
But as long as Israeli governments continue down the current path, like it or not, BDS will continue on a strident, discomforting, and at times irrational path, which will impede what I see as a necessary alliance with many Jews who don’t like what Israel has become.
By AJDS Executive Committee Member – Dennis Martin
At a recent plenum meeting of the JCCV the policy of the AJDS calling for a boycott of goods manufactured in the West Bank was strongly condemned by a large majority of the attending delegates. This response did not come as a surprise as I fully understand the fierce commitment to Israel by the majority of the Melbourne Jewish community and their equally fierce opposition to anything that they consider a challenge to the security of Israel or anti-Semitic. Unfortunately, many of the delegates equated the specific campaign to avoid buying Israeli products produced on the West Bank with the global BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement which supports a blanket economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel. Some of the opinions expressed about the AJDS at the plenum meeting were quite robust and emotional. Listening to these opinions I was struck by how shared experiences can result in quite different responses. I would like to consider two of these experiences.
One of the delegates, representing Holocaust survivors and their families felt that the call to avoid buying Israeli West Bank products was an affront to the memory of all those who had perished and their families. I cannot accept that the memory of Holocaust victims can be used exclusively in this way. There is hardly a member of the AJDS whose family was not touched by the Holocaust and we have also had survivors in our membership.
Responses to the Holocaust are varied and all must be respected as genuine. Some survivors lost their belief in God while others came through the experience with their belief tested and strengthened. Similarly many survivors said, “Never again. Never again will anybody be able to raise a hand against the Jewish people with impunity”. Yet other survivors said, “Never again. Never again will we stand idly by while one group of people oppresses another. Never again will we be silent in the face of racism or the denial of human rights”.
It was this spirit that animated many Jews to oppose the Apartheid regime in South Africa, to play an active role in the civil rights movements in America and to be at the forefront of the movement to advance the rights of Indigenous Australians. The first response to the Holocaust is particularistic and aims at the vigorous defence of Jews. The second response is universalistic and believes that all people have basic rights that should be protected. A failure to protect the rights of others may lead to the loss of rights for Jews. The AJDS call to avoid buying Israeli settlement products is rooted in the lessons and values we learnt from the Holocaust.
A second delegate railed against the AJDS for attacking Israel from the security of Australia. He said that Israel is under attack, its cities are subject to rocket attacks and its brave soldiers are putting their lives on the line in our defence. He said that the AJDS should be ashamed of itself and didn’t deserve to be part of the Jewish community.
It may come as a surprise to that delegate that several members of the AJDS have served with pride in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) in both peace and war on the West Bank and in Israel (something which the speaker himself has not done) and it has been this experience that has help formed their beliefs. These members believe that the West Bank settlements are an obstacle to peace. The AJDS campaign to avoid buying settlement products is made in defence of Israel not as an attack on Israel.
By AJDS Executive Committee Member – Jemima Light
Recently, the Australian Jewish Democratic Society (AJDS) was condemned by the JCCV in a motion moved by the State Zionist Council of Victoria. The motion ‘deplores and condemns the [Don’t Buy from the Settlements Campaign] policy on the basis that it is repugnant to the basic policies and principles of the JCCV and the Executive Council of the Australian Jewry.’ I want to respond to this as an independent voice within the Executive Committee of the AJDS. My opinions are my own. The Executive is made up of a range of voices and opinions, a quality that drew me to the AJDS and lead to my joining the executive last year.
I am writing in direct response to the motion passed in the plenum meeting – both to the content and function of the condemnation. I want to affirm my support for the Don’t Buy from Settlement campaign and in doing so show that I will not be silenced. I believe that the JCCV condemnation policy was enacted primarily for the purpose of silencing this perspective within the Victorian Jewish community.
While the Don’t Buy from the Settlements campaign is not formally articulated as being part of the BDS movement, I would like to speak on BDS in general and my position on it, as it has been raised in different ways throughout discussion about the campaign.
I’m not going to firmly state that I am pro-BDS, even though I have engaged in boycott tactics in the past, and will in the future, because I think it is reductive and limiting to do so. In the same way, condemning or stating clearly that one is anti-BDS (or anti-Israel) is reductive and limiting. Supporting BDS isn’t an identity and it doesn’t necessarily align me with other individuals and movements who support BDS. I have encountered BDS tactics in many places, taken on differently by different movements.
I have seen BDS in Palestine, in Israel (mostly by Israeli Jews), in Europe, America and in Australia. I have engaged with many of these groups, agreeing and disagreeing with different positions and tactics. The principles of BDS and the way certain issues have been framed and discussed have taught me a lot about the Palestine/Israel conflict. They taught me to question and challenge deep-rooted assumptions I held. I first learnt the importance of openly challenging injustices as part of my education at Mount Scopus College, the Jewish day school I attended for 16 years.
Therefore, I find it particularly offensive when any position supporting a BDS tactic is framed as repugnant and ‘anti-Israel.’ Not only is this silencing and marginalizing certain voices, but framing BDS as repugnant (and often inherently anti-Semitic) renders invisible the ways in which BDS has been taken up by Israeli Jews and Jews around the world who struggle in solidarity with Palestinians.
The fact that Jews may be critical of Israel doesn’t make sense according to a certain (often most outspoken) Zionist narrative (in which Israel is the natural homeland of all the Jews) so it is often ignored or dismissed as self-hating. It challenges the Zionist narrative as it raises the possibility that not all Jews support the notion, or current practices, of a Jewish State. It misses the point that sometimes the positioning of the State of Israel as the only safe place for Jews is destructive for Jewish communities outside of Israel, who are fragmented and fear driven. This leads many members of these communities to fight for a different articulation of Diaspora Judaism, one that is able to thrive outside of Israel. A Diaspora Judaism that focuses on our own communities and networks as well as engages with the wider community in ways which are mutually beneficial and enriching.
BDS demands equality for Palestinians, not just in theory, but also in practice. BDS provides a means of creating dialogue through co-resistance. This is contrasted against co-existence movements with a focus on increasing dialogue between Jews and Palestinians, the aim of which seems to be tolerating difference without any intention of dismantling oppressive structures and which ignore (and thus render invisible) the inherent power imbalance between Jews and Palestinians in the region. But this model of co-existence means Palestinians continue to exist in a military occupation. Co-resistance means addressing root causes of inequality, not just addressing its effects. BDS is a tactic. Other tactics (both violent and non violent) have been tried and thus far have failed.
Another argument directed against campaigns, which use BDS tactics, is that BDS is unfairly (and is thus anti-Semitic) targeted at Israel, when other countries in the region commit atrocities. But BDS isn’t just about Israel. It recognizes the complicity of corporations and international organizations in perpetuating the Occupation. It encourages us to ask: who profits? This also challenges the solely ideological formulation of the conflict and points to the fact that there are corporations and individual players that profit from the Occupation. Bodies that are powerful and who have a vested interest in perpetuating the oppressive structures of the Occupation rather than challenging them, interests that don’t include those of most Palestinians and Israeli Jews but rather are driven by profit and expansion. BDS demands international accountability, for the international community to look at our own governments’ role in perpetuating injustice.
I hope that the JCCV decision to condemn the AJDS does not silence voices that challenge the status quo – these are the voices that have affected change throughout history. They are the voices that contribute to a diversely rich Jewish community.
Robin Rothfield wrote the letter below letter to Nina Bassat of the JCCV concerning attempts to expel it from the Jewish Community Council of Victoria (JCCV) and it is shared with his permission. For the attached ‘note‘ alluded to in the letter, see the attachment.
Readers may need help to understand the remark “you may go down the path of Maurice Ashkenasy QC” as this alludes to a significant episode in the history of the Melbourne and Australian Jewish community. Robin, now in his 70s, sees the current politics of the JCCV as dominated by intolerant tendencies similar to that displayed during the Cold War when there was a major split in the Jewish community. Robin’s father Norman Rothfield who died at the age of 98 in 2010, was active in the Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism, which was founded in 1942. The council was active in alerting the general community and government of the dangers of anti-Semitism and post-war infiltration by former Nazis. Despite this work, in the anti-communist atmosphere of the Menzies period Maurice Ashkenasy QC led a campaign to expel the Jewish Council from the (then) Victorian Jewish Board of Deputies in 1952, even though Norman also had a senior role in the latter organisation. However, Norman and his wife Evelyn continued to be supporters of various causes including progressive Zionism. To quote Norman’s obituary in the Age, “He understood early that Israel could not live in peace if the Palestinians did not have their own state, and in 1974 established the journal Paths to Peace, which campaigned vigorously for a negotiated settlement to the Middle East conflict. In 1984, in response to a feeling that the Jewish community was not satisfactorily dealing with the Palestinian issue and in keeping with his progressive views, he became a founding member of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society, and was active in it almost to his last day.” Robin’s brother David was also active in Peace Now when serving in the Israeli Army. For Norman’s obituary see The Age [LS]
Jewish Community Council of Victoria
Following your move to have the issue of disaffiliation of the AJDS from the JCCV considered at the JCCV June plenum, I have compiled the attached note on the Jewish Left and the Jewish Community’s tendency to intolerance. I hope that the note will contribute to a better understanding of the relevant issues.
This is my own personal note and does not necessarily reflect the views of AJDS.
My concluding remarks to this note are as follows. Nina, you have a choice. You may accept that the AJDS has well founded concerns about the settlements and is attempting to put in place a strategy in response to these concerns. You may not agree with this strategy but you may still accept that, from the standpoint of an organization deeply concerned with the settlements and the occupation, the campaign to persuade people not to buy settlement products is totally legitimate. If you accept that the settlements are a thorn in Israel’s side as I have stated earlier, then I repeat my suggestion for you to come up with an alternative strategy.
Or you may go down the path of Maurice Ashkenasy QC and have the AJDS expelled from the JCCV. But may I suggest you first ask yourself what this strategy would achieve? If you decide on the expulsion strategy it would not surprise me because the Jewish Community has a long history of intolerance as I have attempted to document, and you would have a proud predecessor in Maurice Ashkenasy QC. But I would be deeply disappointed. The matter is in your hands.
I should be grateful if you would forward this to members of the JCCV executive.
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”