AJDS letter to radio national

This letter was submitted to the ABC on 13th August, 2019. Their response will be posted to our blog when received.

Dear ABC,

On Wednesday 24 July, Patricia Karvelas interviewed Israel’s Deputy Chief of Mission and charge d’affairs Ron Gerstenfeld on RN Drive. We understand that this interview was initiated because of a complaint that was lodged by the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, after RN Drive interviewed Iranian Israeli journalist, Orly Noy and Palestinian Australian human rights campaigner, Sara Saleh.

We, the Australian Jewish Democratic Society, wish to complain about the factual inaccuracies and misleading generalisations made by Gerstenfeld. Given the ABC issued an apology, right of response and Editor’s note on Noy and Saleh’s interview, we hope that you will respond likewise to Gerstenfeld’s interview.

Based on the ECAJ’s very own complaint, this interview would fail to meet the accuracy standard, outlined in the ABC’s Code of Practice 2019. We will discuss these factual errors further below.

We are also concerned that the ECAJ has misleadingly characterised itself as the representative voice of Australian Jewry. Whilst the ECAJ may be the peak body representing the major Jewish organisations of Australia, it does not represent all Jews in Australia, many of whom are not members of those organisations. There are many Jewish people in Australia who wish to hear a diversity of voices and welcomed the interview with Noy and Saleh. We would like to thank the ABC for being open to exploring nuanced discussions about Israel and Palestine, and hope that it will continue to do so in the future.

  1. The issue of discrimination facing Mizrahi Jews is a non-issue in Israel

Gerstenfeld’s claim:

‘In the last two or three decades the issue of a Mizrahi Jew is a non-issue in Israel.’

Whilst the ECAJ, in their letter, pointed out a number of high-ranking Mizrahi officers in the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) as a basis to claim that Mizrahim have full equality in Israel, we know that this type of argument is simplistic and fails to consider the broader context. As a group, Mizrahim have lower wages than Ashkenazi Jews in Israel[1] and, as explained by Noy in her interview, are largely over-represented in the lower positions of military service. If we were to follow the ECAJ’s logic, one could argue that we have gender equality in Australia simply because we have had a female Prime Minister and various women in successful positions. We know, of course, that it is not that simple.

Whilst Gerstenfeld has stated that the discrimination facing Mizrahi Jews is a non-issue in Israel, the evidence does not support this claim. For example, in the 1970s, there was one Mizrahi with a baccalaureate diploma to every three Ashkenazis. Four percent of Mizrahi got a baccalaureate compared with 16 percent of Ashkenazim. Today, the gap has widened to about 12 percent against 50 percent.[2] Historically speaking, Mizrahi Jews were settled in less ideal locations, with fewer amenities, and received less opportunities within Israeli society. This practice continues today, as can be seen particularly starkly with Jews immigrating from Ethiopia. Today Mizrahi Jews also make up less than nine percent of Israel’s academic faculty members. There has never been a Mizrahi theatre director, or head of public broadcasting, never a Mizrahi State Attorney, or Prime Minister, for example.[3] This is despite Mizrahi Jews making up over 50 percent of Israel’s Jewish population.

We can see evidence of discrimination amongst law makers stretching back decades. Research has found that Israel’s immigration policies have always been deeply racialised, and continue to be so today. Again we can take the situation for Ethiopian Jews within Israel, and those seeking access to Israel and still being denied it, as an example. The attitudes of Israel’s law makers can be exemplified by the statement made by Israeli diplomat and politician Abba Eban over 60 years ago: ‘The goal must be to instill in them a Western spirit, and not let them drag us into an unnatural Orient. One of the biggest fears… is the danger that the large number of immigrants of Mizrahi origin will force Israel to compare how cultured we are to our neighbors..’[4]

  1. Denial of state-sanctioned discrimination against Palestinians and Mizrahi Jews

In the RN Drive interview Karvelas questioned Gerstenfeld directly about the Jewish Nation State Law, with the following statement: ‘There are claims that there’s systemic State-sanctioned discrimination by the state of Israel towards both Mizrahi Jews and Palestinians as well. You’re saying that’s not an accurate characterisation of what’s happening now?’

Gerstenfeld’s response is one of denial, stating that ‘There was never a policy of discrimination’. This is a direct denial of the truth by Israel’s Deputy Chief of Mission.

Whilst in practice discrimination against its Palestinian Arab citizens has been manifested in several ways, it has been most blatant with respect to discriminatory planning practices and access to land. [5]  Now that The Jewish Nation State Law has been passed such discriminatory practices have gained legal sanction. This law states that Jews alone have the right of self-determination, making it a national priority to build homes for Jews but not others (“promote Jewish settlement”). The law also revokes the status of Arabic as an official language of Israel to one with “special status”.

The intentions behind this law are clear: that the State of Israel is working for its Jewish citizens only, and even amongst its Jewish population, it has its favourites. If you are a Mizrahi Jew, and your native language is Arabic, the government has just sent a very clear message, that you are not recognised as an equal citizen. Even more so for Palestinian citizens of Israel, who clearly are of no priority for the Israeli government.

The passing of this law raises the question of whether it is possible for a State to be for the people of one defined group (Jews) and a democratic state for all its citizens. This is clearly a demonstration of State-sanctioned discrimination, one which Gerstenfeld decided to deny.

  1. 90-95% of Palestinians would prefer to live under Israeli rule

In his interview, Gerstenfeld claims that most Palestinians living within the border of the State of Israel and in the West Bank look to Israel as a ‘role model’, and would prefer to live under Israeli rule. To support this claim Gerstenfeld quotes a poll taken in West Jerusalem, stating that 90-95% of Palestinians questioned would prefer to live under Israeli, Jewish, rule over Palestinian rule. This statistic is completely misleading. In the first instance, very few Palestinians or Arabs are resident in West Jerusalem, if indeed he intended to say West Jerusalem. What Gerstenfeld deliberately ignores is that the reason some Palestinians elsewhere may express a preference to live under Israeli rule, is a result of the horrific conditions and lack of rights in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, rather than as a consequence of their positive identification with the Israeli state. 

In polls taken in East Jerusalem, respondents mostly cited practical reasons for their preference: better jobs, income, health care and other social benefits, freedom of travel, and the like. Their Israeli residence permits (“blue identity cards”) already provide such advantages over West Bank residents, and they increasingly want to retain those advantages as the Israeli economy prospers while the West Bank stagnates.[6]

Gerstenfeld also ignores the many more representative studies that include both Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, and the much greater population of Palestinians living in the West Bank under an oppressive regime of occupation, who enjoy none of the rights that Jewish settlers possess as colonisers in the occupied territory, or in deprived conditions in Gaza. In the West Bank, a mere 4% would prefer Israeli citizenship, and 12% in Gaza. [7]

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter, and for providing the space on the radio for these discussions to be had. We look forward to your reply, and to seeing a response commensurate with your previous response to ECAJ’s complaint.

Yours sincerely,

Yaelle Caspi and Yael Leah

Australian Jewish Democratic Society

Contact: 0423 234 069

[email protected]

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