Airbrushing dissenters out of the Jewish community – Harold Zwier

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.