A sorry saga that needs no introduction.
Independent Australian magazine Overland recently received this letter from six Jewish academics. It was sent to the editors of the publication and the editorial board:
Dear members of Overland Editorial Board,
We are writing to express our grave concern about your journal’s unbalanced coverage of Israeli-Palestinian issues in recent years. We all strongly respect Overland’s tradition of providing a forum for free and open discussion of democratic and progressive ideas. But the recent biased and prejudiced coverage of Middle East affairs has the potential to bring Overland into serious disrepute.
We can all agree that the Australian Left has no consensus on this issue. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that a wide majority on the Left today support a two-state solution which encapsulates recognition of both Israeli and Palestinian national rights. It is also fair to say that those fundamentalists who advocate the elimination of Israel and its replacement by an Arab State of Greater Palestine represent a small, if sometimes vocal, minority.
Yet it is precisely these marginal views, which demonize Israel and infantilize the Palestinians, that seem to have captured Overland’s agenda in recent years. We note, for example, the three recent articles that appeared in issues 187 by Ned Curthoys, 193 by Antony Loewenstein, and 198 by Michael Brull.
What is common in all three of these articles is the collective essentialising of all Israeli Jews and all Jewish supporters of Israel’s existence, whether supporters of the Israeli peace movement or supporters of a Greater Israel, as inherently evil oppressors. Equally there appears to be a concern to promote miniscule groups such as the Committee to Dismantle Zionism and the Independent Australian Jewish Voices group as in some way representing a significant Jewish dissenting voice. This is a complete nonsense. In fact, they represent a tiny minority even within the wider Jewish Left, and their simplistic viewpoints are overwhelmingly rejected by progressive Jews. Highlighting their views means implicitly excluding the perspectives of 99 per cent of Australian Jews from your journal.
Brull’s particular contribution is rambling, repetitive and contradictory, and of a standard that one might expect to find on a blog devoid of editorial oversight, not as an article chosen for publication in a refereed intellectual journal. It is also overtly defamatory in a manner that is both embarrassing and shameful to Overland. His comments totally misrepresent the views and opinions of one of us (Mendes) who has been publicly commenting on these issues for 25 years. Mendes has consistently argued for a complex analysis of the relationship between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. His views are the precise opposite to those described by Brull.
And yes Overland did publish Dennis Altman in issue 196 who presented a more subtle and sophisticated overview of this debate. But Altman did not directly critique the fanatical position presented by Curthoys et al.
Yet there are many left-wing Jews (and far more leftist non-Jews, see for a start, www.tuliponline.org) who support two states, strongly oppose Israeli settlements and expansionism, but also totally reject the simplistic “Israel oppressor, Palestinians victim” argument presented by Curthoys et al, and seek to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace and reconciliation rather than continued violence and enmity. Their views represent the majority of the Left, but seem to have been deliberately excluded from the pages of Overland magazine.
Our principle question is why Overland has chosen to highlight these vexatious voices who contribute only fanatical polemics and represent nobody in either the Jewish community or the Left, and chosen to ignore or actively censor the large group of Jewish (and broader Left) voices who are able to present serious contributions on the complexity of the conflict. We also specifically question why the editor published the article from Brull without taking a basic duty of care to ensure that his arguments were free of falsehoods and libel.
Bernard Rechter (Professor)
Douglas Kirsner (Professor)
Andrew Markus (Professor)
Dr Bill Anderson
Dr Nick Dyrenfurth
Philip Mendes (Associate Professor)
Overland has responded brilliantly (see below), skewering the increasingly desperate tactics of a Zionist community that less people are listening to. As Palestine burns and the occupation deepens, these dinosaurs are complaining about their poor views being marginalised. I look forward to the same passion being spent on condemning the illegal settlements in the West Bank and siege on Gaza:
A few days ago, we received a letter signed by six Australian academics: Professor Bernard Rechter, Professor Douglas Kirsner, Professor Andrew Markus, Dr Bill Anderson, Dr Nick Dyrenfurth and Associate Professor Philip Mendes. They were, they said, collectively writing to the board of Overland and to its patron, Barry Jones, about ‘recent editorial bias on Israel/Palestine’.
We cannot speak for the OL Society. But editorial decisions are the responsibility of the editorial staff. We make the allegations against us public, partly because they are too serious for closed-door insinuations, and partly because, by seeking to exert organisational pressure on editorial policy, the letter illustrates, in a small way, the obstacles to debating Israel/Palestine in this country.
Let us begin with the obvious point that accusing an overtly political journal of ‘bias’ makes no sense whatsoever. When Overland launched in 1954, it proclaimed its ‘bias’ (literally) with a famous phrase borrowed from Joseph Furphy. That slogan was meant to signal that the journal gave a voice to the Left, just as Overland does today.
But we suspect that by employing words like ‘bias’, ‘prejudic[e]’, ‘demonise’, Mendes and co. intend to imply something rather darker – that the Overland editorial team is anti-Semitic. If that is what they mean, they should come out and say so. For the record, any allegation that Overland publishes, accepts or otherwise endorses anti-Semitism or any other form of racial discrimination is utterly scurrilous, and we reject it entirely.
In relation to our coverage of Israel/Palestine – which consists, it might be noted, of a debate over three years between four Jewish writers, some of whom uphold a two-state solution and some of whom do not – Mendes and co. write:
“We can all agree that the Australian Left has no consensus on this issue. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that a wide majority on the Left today support a two-state solution which encapsulates recognition of both Israeli and Palestinian national rights. It is also fair to say that those fundamentalists who advocate the elimination of Israel and its replacement by an Arab State of Greater Palestine represent a small, if sometimes vocal, minority.
“Yet it is precisely these marginal views, which demonize Israel and infantilize the Palestinians, that seem to have captured Overland’s agenda in recent years. We note, for example, the three recent articles that appeared in issues 187 by Ned Curthoys, 193 by Antony Loewenstein, and 198 by Michael Brull. […] Our principle [sic] question is why Overland has chosen to highlight these vexatious voices who contribute only fanatical polemics and represent nobody in either the Jewish community or the Left, and chosen to ignore or actively censor the large group of Jewish (and broader Left) voices who are able to present serious contributions on the complexity of the conflict. (emphasis theirs)”
Here, our critics entirely misunderstand the Overland project, which is not, and never has been, to present the ideas of the majority. On the contrary, almost by definition, our small magazine provides space for views that do not receive a hearing elsewhere. In Overland’s case, those views are inevitably political. As its website makes clear, Overland has
“a tradition of publishing dissenting articles with a political and cultural focus. […] Overland is the only high-profile Australian literary magazine that sees the publication and advancement of new and marginal writers as part of its charter. (emphasis ours)”
The notion that publishing minority views constitutes ‘censorship’ is truly bizarre. Let’s put the question specifically. Are Mendes and co. silenced? Do they or their co-thinkers lack forums in which to expound their ideas?
No, not so much. For the sake of brevity, let us merely consider their access to the Australian, the country’s only national newspaper, and a publication with a circulation and reach far beyond that of Overland. A quick search through the archives reveals the following: a piece by Nick Dyrenfurth on 16 March 2009, accusing leftists of anti-Semitism; a piece by Nick Dyrenfurth and Philip Mendes on 13 May 2009, accusing leftists of anti-Semitism; a piece by Nick Dyrenfurth and Philip Mendes on 19 September 2009, accusing leftists of anti-Semitism; a piece by Nick Dyrenfurth and Philip Mendes on 11 November 2009, accusing leftists of anti-Semitism. (At that point, our patience began to wane somewhat.)
Given this record, we might equally ask Dyrenfurth and Mendes whether, with their avowed commitment to representation, they organise similar open letters to the Australian’s editorial board, urging that Murdoch provide space for, say, environmental activists alongside his regular quota of climate change denying columnists. After all, to borrow a phrase, those who want action on global warming ‘represent the majority of the population’ – but, oddly, they seem to have been deliberately excluded from the pages of the Australian!
Think for a moment about what Mendes and co. are arguing. The signatories to this letter are, as they take pains to remind us, all professors or academics of one variety or another, ensconced in well-paid jobs at universities around the country. Many of them are widely published; most have, as we have seen, regular access to the mainstream media. Yet, when Overland prints an article by Michael Brull, a young writer with none of the resources or institutional backing that they enjoy, they complain to its governing body that they are being excluded!
In that respect, the whole episode is sadly typical of how debates about Israel/Palestine are conducted. Mendes and co. urge the OL Society not to permit Overland to ‘highlight the views’ of anti-Zionists like Ned Curthoys, Antony Loewenstein and Michael Brull who, we are told, are irrelevant, marginal figures and as such not worth worrying about. Yet in their writings for the mass-circulation Australian, Dyrenfurth and Mendes attack these ‘irrelevant’ and ‘marginal’ views, over and over and over again. Indeed, they single out John Docker, Ned Curthoys, John Pilger and a variety of other named individuals for public abuse – and neither they nor the Australian offer these people any opportunity to reply.
So it comes down to this. Mendes and co. assert their right to berate their political opponents in the most vituperative fashion. But they also want – in the name of ‘free speech’– to deny those opponents any platform whatsoever, even in a tiny literary magazine.
The politics underlying this dispute should be understood.
The signatories present themselves as friends of Overland, writing more in sorrow than in anger about its current editorial decline. ‘We all strongly respect,’ they proclaim, ‘Overland’s tradition of providing a forum for free and open discussion of democratic and progressive ideas.’
Really? Let us look at what one of our correspondents actually says about ‘democratic and progressive ideas’.
On 2 April 2008, Douglas Kirsner appeared in (of course!) the Australian. There, too, he complained of ‘bias’ – but, on that occasion, he directed his ire towards the ABC:
“Why is it that the only intentionally liberal-conservative program on Radio National is titled Counterpoint? […]
“In 1968, German student leader Rudi Dutschke, drawing on the idea of hegemony of Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci and of Marxist critical theory, suggested “a long march through the institutions” of power to create radical change from within government and society by becoming an integral part of it; as critical theorist Herbert Marcuse put it, “working against the established institutions while working in them”.
“The countercultural capture of cultural institutions meant the emergence of what Swinburne University sociologist Katharine Betts calls a “new class” whose object was not old wealth. Instead, Betts writes in her 1999 book The Great Divide, “the attack was concentrated on the Australian mass and its materialism, racism, sexism and insularity”.
“A noticeably homogenous class of inner city, tertiary-educated social professionals, often referred to as the chattering classes, has an identity that developed together with mass tertiary education. While the old Left emphasised economic reforms to help the working class, the new class focused on issues such as refugees, multiculturalism, reconciliation, civil liberties and so on. This new class of social professionals includes teachers, academics, public servants and welfare workers who adopt distinct ideological positions and values that serve as social markers for the new class.
“The “knowledge class”, which includes ABC journalists, is an important segment within the new educated class that has more distinct values that increasingly set them apart from business and the general community.
“I mention this not because I think the ABC has no diversity at all but because it’s a trend embedded within the institutional culture that will take another “long march” to reverse, this time in the opposite direction towards the centre. It’s a march that has begun from the top but needs to infuse its way to the bottom.”
Thus it does, indeed, seem that Professor Kirsner holds strong views about ‘democratic and progressive ideas’. He opposes them – and advocates a reactionary ‘long march’ to counter the influence of those concerned about ‘refugees, multiculturalism, reconciliation, civil liberties and so on’.
What does that mean in practice? Well, when MediaWatch caught Janet Albrechtsen distorting quotes to demonise Islamic youths, Kirsner weighed in:
“Janet Albrechtsen reveals the entrenched and blind bias in the ABC very well indeed. It’s a very sad story, especially about a program that claims the high journalistic ethics ground without fear or favour.
“Often defenders of the ABC claim that it compensates for right wing commentators such as Alan Jones, thereby admitting the endemic bias of “everyone’s ABC”.
“But yesterday I almost fell over when I heard a US conservative commentator on The World at Noon on Iraq. The ABC must have been desperate – though the anchor did point out that this commentator’s views on Iraq needed to be understood in the context that he was a conservative. I don’t hear such caveats when left wing commentators are introduced.”
Keep it up, Janet!
Dr Douglas Kirsner
We understand that Kirsner did, at one stage, belong to the Melbourne University Labour Club, back in the days when Leftism enjoyed a certain fashionable cachet. Since then, however, he has evidently picked himself up and returned, more or less unscathed by his radical experiences, to the more traditional Toryism of the professoriate.
Of course, Professor Kirsner’s political evolution is a matter between him and his conscience. But are we seriously to believe that a man who sees in the ABC a tide of radicalism that should be ‘reversed’, a fellow who shouts ‘Keep it up, Janet!’ in support of an Islamaphobic far-Right columnist, really ‘respect[s] the Overland tradition’ and wishes the project well?
We think not.
Why then does his name appear on this letter? Why have these ‘Leftist’ academics made common cause with an avowed reactionary? It is because, as we have seen, the signatories are not concerned with responding to articles with which they disagree, so much as with applying institutional pressure to ensure the offending pieces don’t get published at all. They think that the OL Society board might be more susceptible to names with a historical association with the Left – and so they are prepared to enlist to the cause a former radical who now enjoys hearing pro-war conservatives on the ABC!
Our ‘Leftist’ critics – some of whom, it is true, have made real contributions to the progressive movement in the past – need to ask themselves where, politically, they are heading. Kirsner is merely one on the long list of former radicals transformed into arch-reactionaries by an aggressive and uncritical identification with conventional wisdom about the Middle East. Dyrenfurth and Mendes, those self-proclaimed partisans of the Left, might wonder why the Australian, Murdoch’s ferociously conservative flagship, consistently offers them space alongside the climate change deniers, religious bigots, warmongers and Islamophobes whom it pleases that paper to promote. Is it, as they seem to think, because they present ‘serious contributions on the complexity of the conflict’? Or is it because self-proclaimed Leftists who devote themselves to smearing others on the Left as lunatics and racists serve a useful role for a conservative newspaper?
As to the specific merits of the Overland articles in question, we, unlike our critics, have faith in the ability of our readers to make up their own minds. We would, however, point out that Michael Brull’s piece, which our correspondents single out for particular opprobrium, maintains, for the most part, a remarkably civil tone – particularly when contrasted with the work of his critics. Compare, for instance, Brull’s writing to a typical Nick Dyrenfurth effusion in the Australian, in which the ‘socialist jihadists’ of the University of Sydney are abused as ‘anti-Semitic’, ‘imbecilic’, ‘maddies’ and ‘hatemongers’ – all without the reader learning anything whatsoever about the actual arguments that they uphold.
Michael Brull concludes his essay with the suggestion that issues around Israel/Palestine be opened ‘to free debate, without the usual flood of hysterical name-calling’. That seems to us, the editorial staff at Overland journal, an eminently reasonable proposal, and one to which we are also committed. Precisely because the misery in the Middle East shows no signs of abating, the discussion over Israel/Palestine needs to be broadened beyond simple reiteration of the conventional wisdom.
More generally, in an increasingly homogenised mainstream media, emerging voices that don’t parrot Murdoch talking-points often struggle to be heard. We believe that by providing a platform for ‘marginal’ writers – even if those writers occasionally scandalise a conservative or two – Overland performs an important function. That is the policy the journal has followed since 1954. It is one we will continue to uphold.