From the archives: 1999, The Australian Jewish News and censorship

In April 1999 the Australian Jewish News pressured editor David Bernstein to resign, following remarks about the Balkans and Israel/Palestine, which were considered intolerable by the newspaper and powerful agents in the Jewish community. ajnbluesolid_website_banner The AJDS condemned the censorship.  Our official statement read:
The Australian Jewish Democratic Society deplores the circumstances that led to the resignation of David Bernstein, acting editor of the Australian Jewish News (AGE report April 17, 1999). The last minute decision by the owners of the Australian Jewish News (AJN) to remove an article written by Mr Bernstein from the April 16, 1999 edition of the paper, represents the censorship of legitimate views within the Jewish community on issues involving Israel. The full text of this article is [no longer] available at http://www.vicnet.net.au/~ajds. The suppression of controversial views within the mainstream debate, whether to the right or left of the political spectrum, by the only newspaper within the Jewish community is unacceptable in a democratic, open and tolerant society. In 1993 Sam Lipski, then Editor of the AJN (now Editorial Chairman) wrote, “Quite apart from being wrong in principle, the deliberate politics of exclusion of dissent from the organised community … reinforce(s) the perception of a monolithic lobby that stomp(s) heavily not only on any criticism of Israel in the mainstream of public opinion, but within its own community.” Many often cry foul on the grounds of “freedom of speech” when editors of papers restrict their views. It is even more disturbing when the editors’ own view, well within the mainstream, is censored by publishers, to the point where he feels compelled to resign. Leon Midalia President, Australian Jewish Democratic Society
Norman Rothfield also disseminated the following letter, elaborating on the AJDS’ stance on this matter:
“Time to blow the whistle” by Norman Rothfield The ability to criticise yourself, your own side, your own people, is part of the best traditions of religious and secular teaching, yet too often we seem incapable of saying “we were wrong and we are sorry”. On Wednesday, 14 April, according to David Bernstein, he was forced to resign from his position as acting editor of the Australian Jewish News because its owner, pressured by members of the Jewish establishment, could not tolerate his writing a restrained but alternative interpretation of Israeli’s early history concerning Palestinian refugees. His article might have put in context the six letters of protest which the same editor published in that issue of the paper. Instead of an alternative view the paper was published with a section of a page completely blank, and all readers knew was that a cartoon from a previous issue had been condemned. Following a public demand made by the president of the State Zionist Council, who incidentally is a member of the Likud, the right wing in Israeli politics. Another example of what is unfortunately a widespread problem is provided by leading activists f the Serb community in Australia which daily sees horrific examples of hundreds of thousands of refugees being driven from their homes often with violence and cruelty, yet media reports suggest that they confine their comments to protests at the Nato bombing campaign. It is the notion of comparing the tragedy of ethnic Albanian refugees with the plight of Palestinian refugees which has exposed the difficulty of the Jewish community in coming to terms with history and the rights of another people. Following the war of 1948-49 brought on by the attack of seven Arab states against Israel, 80% of the Palestinian population for reasons which are disputed, left their homes. What is not disputed is that these Palestinians (some 500,000 to 700,000) were refused the right to return to their homes and property and they have lived, often in squalid conditions, in refugee camps. Although historians advance differing explanations for the flight of the refugees, they no longer exclude Israeli army pressure as a factor since Yitzhak Rabin himself testified to it. And who could deny the terrifying effects of Deir Yassin on the Arab population. If some Arab voices persuaded them to flee it is hardly surprising if they did. Of course, this is not by any means an exact parallel with the case of ethnic Albanians, but it is fair to challenge the right of cartoonists, who live by exaggeration, from making their point referring to the plight of two groups of refugees? The owners of the Australian Jewish News condemned the publication of the cartoon, and prevented the acting editor, who published the six letters critical of it, from publishing his own very mild explanation. This represents an act of discrimination and an infringement of free speech. This event should not be taken in isolation, other events clarify it, Last year, an all party delegation of Australian Members of Parliament visited the Middle East and on its return published a report which was critical of Prime Minister Netanyahu and the harm his Government had done to the Peace Process. A flood of inspired letters and articles attacked the delegates implying that they were either ignoramuses or hostile to Israel. The reason for the inability to accept a view critical of Israel was provided in spectacular fashion at a meeting of the Australian Labor Party to which was invited a member of the Parliamentary delegation, and the Middle East specialist of the Australia/Israel Review, a magazine which claims to represent major Jewish opinion. The Jewish Middle East “specialist” was forced to admit under intensive questioning that his magazine in principle defended the policy of the current government of Israel so that if and when the Netanyahu Government is replaced, the magazine and the speaker would if necessary perform a graceful somersault in order to explain and defend any changed policy of the new government. “My side right or wrong” is not conducive to a true statement of history or for promoting peace. I cite one more revealing example of the failure to deal adequately with the problems “of your own side”. There is a significant Jewish organisation, entitled Anti Defamation Commission (ADC) of B’nai B’rith. Its job is to combat racism and discrimination of all kinds, and it has performed very valuable work. Its actions have not been limited to exposing anti0semitism but have included combatting some dangerous policies of Pauline Hanson and discrimination directed against the indigenous people of Australia. The Australian/Jewish community it can be said has taken a leading role in defence of the rights of the Aboriginal people. However, the organisation has failed in recognising and dealing appropriately with racism which occurs within the Jewish community. As a member of B’nai B’rith I have held lengthy discussions and correspondence with members of the organisation. Last year an article appeared in the Australian Jewish News written by a well known leader of the Revisionist Party. Their policy has been that only Jews have any rights in the whole of what was mandated Palestine which includes the territory where two million Palestinians have their homes. (They have even claimed Jordan as part of the biblical land of Israel and therefore part of Israeli territory). The article apart from its extreme politics was blatantly racist. The Arab people were defamed and their religion disparaged. Yet the ADC took no action. After several months of pressure from the Australian Jewish Democratic Society a mild almost apologetic letter was sent to the offending writer. No undertakings were asked from him and no apology was asked for or received. Had similar racist language been used in an Arab paper or any paper about Jews the ADC action would have been, quite properly, immediate and substantial. Discrimination in favour of your own people, here or overseas, or of your own religion, is no doubt common place, but Australia and in fact society in general would be better off without this sort of discrimination, dishonesty and injustice. These are the things that lead after all to hatred, conflict and war. It would be to the advantage of all if other groups and communities were ready likewise to expose their weaknesses. 22 April 1999
Other members of the AJDS were vehemently opposed to the AJN’s move. You can read their comments and correspondence on this matter on the former AJDS’s Readers Forum, here. Those of you who participated in this discussion will also be aware that the AJN goes through editors at a fairly quick rate.
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