“Bias” is so hard to find

Every now and then, an article appears in the Australian media that alleges anti-Israel bias in academia. The sources for such stories are the usual Zionist clowns that desperately want universities to teach the Leon Uris version of history. Thankfully, most academics desire a more nuanced look at events.

Hence, this article in Wednesday’s Australian newspaper. The story featured comments by Federal Labor MP Michael Danby – a man not known for subtlety or depth of understanding on the Middle East – and Zionist leader Colin Rubenstein – a zealot who desires endless war in the Arab world.

The thrust of the article was thus:

Complaints about an alleged pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel bias in Australian academe have been less highly charged than in the US or in Britain, where during the past 18 months lecturers unions have twice tried to impose boycotts on contacts with Israeli academics.

Yet claims of analytical failures, politicisation and intolerance of alternative views in Middle Eastern studies departments in Australia have coalesced this year with complaints in federal parliament and from Jewish and Israeli lobby groups.

The allegations were primarily against Macquarie University’s Andrew Vincent and ANU’s Amin Saikal. Vincent was accused of inviting extremists to speak at his Centre for Middle East and North African Studies (of which I’m a board member) including mainly “anti-Zionists” such as Tanya Reinhart and Robert Fisk. Both events generated huge interest and turn-out, and Fisk attracted the largest crowd ever seen at Macquarie.

But Rubenstein was concerned by something far more sinister:

Rubenstein is also critical of the appointment this year of anti-Zionist blogger Antony Loewenstein to the board of Vincent’s centre, which includes Health Minister Tony Abbott and parliamentary secretary Greg Hunt.

On January 27, Vincent was quoted in The Australian Jewish News as saying: “We wanted a Jewish person on the board. We didn’t have any Jews on the board and it seemed to be an absence.” Yet Rubenstein says Loewenstein has no academic expertise on the Middle East and visited Israel for the first time only recently to research his contentious book, My Israel Question.

Aside from the fact that I’m described as an “anti-Zionist blogger” – have these people no respect for a best-selling author? – the suggestion that my appointment to the board was inappropriate because I don’t have “academic expertise” is laughable. Rubenstein may have an academic background and a failed bid to gain Liberal Party pre-selection, but his analysis on the Middle East has been proven wrong time and time again.

Iraq’s “liberation” would be a success? The recent Lebanon war would bring Israel victory? “Natural-growth” of the Israeli settler movement? More brutality in the occupied territories could bring peace? There is a (polite) word for people like Rubenstein: delusional.

After all, my appointment to the board was designed to bring a fresh, young perspective on the Middle East and the success of My Israel Question suggests that a great number of people desire a less militant reading of the region. Support for people like Rubenstein is dwindling and he knows it. Therefore, going on the offensive and alleging bias is the perfect mother-of-all-distractions. Suffice to say, the established Jewish community still treats him with velvet gloves, but his version of exclusionary Zionism is about as popular internationally as Saddam Hussein.

So, who exactly is the author of the article, Rebecca Weisser? She has been described as a “former Australian diplomat and specialist in Francophone affairs.” Her July article in the Australian explains her thinking:

It is not just the Australian media that puts Israel in the dock. BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight on Friday framed its coverage with the loaded question: “Is Israel justified in its actions or are they disproportionate?” In an interview with Philippe Sands, a poster boy for the illegality of the Iraq war, presenter Robin Lustig asked: “That question of proportionate response lies at the heart of international criticism of Israel. Is the scale of military action appropriate? Is it indeed aimed at legitimate targets?” rather than questioning the legitimacy, proportionality or legality of Hezbollah’s bombing of civilians in towns and cities in Israel.

It was a point picked up later by Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who pointed out that in the war against Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia, bridges, roads and power supplies were targeted asking: “Is this not singling out Israel, holding it to a higher standard that Europe doesn’t even hold itself to?”

And therein lies the rub. Israel is consistently held to a higher standard than the terrorists who attack it or the countries that condemn it, thanks to the inverted logic of political correctness.

So, hear that people? Israel and Jews are the victims here, always have been, and always will be. Launching cluster bombs into civilian areas in Lebanon was purely defensive, was it? Israel is internationally isolated and supported by fewer nations every year simply because it behaves like a rogue state, brutalises the Palestinian people and believes it is above international law. Crying “victim” may be effective in London, Canberra and Washington – and in the isolated offices of the Murdoch empire – but as world power shifts from the West to the East, Israel’s long-term existence is seriously threatened.

Vincent has written a letter to the Australian in response to Weisser’s hatchet job:

Your occasional contributor Rebecca Weisser (“Mideast studies accused”, 22/11) has joined other deeply committed pro-Israel lobbyists in their concerted campaign to stifle the balanced and open views we encourage here at the Centre for Middle East and North African Studies at Macquarie University.

She complains that we have had anti-Zionist Israeli Tanya Reinhart speak to our students. But she fails to mention that we have also had the Israeli Prime Minister’s brother, Yossi Olmert, speak to our students – along with many other pro-Zionist Israeli speakers. We welcome them.

Ms Weisser complains that I invited the Syrian ambassador to speak to my students. She failed to mention that on several occasions I have invited the Israeli ambassador (most recently over a meal with him as a guest in his home.) So far, he has not been able to make time available. That is a pity because I’m sure he would give an informative and stimulating talk to my students.

At our The Journalist and Islam Conference being held at NSW Parliament House Dec 7-8, we again have many sides putting their cases. We have Al-Jazeera, we have Health Minister Tony Abbott. We have a woman from a Muslim group and we have the CEO of the Jewish Board of Deputies. [ed: I am also speaking at this event.]

Ms Weisser raises alleged complaints about my courses by an unknown number of unnamed students. Is this really the best she can do? Thousands of students have attended my courses in Middle East Politics at Macquarie. How many have complained? How specific were their claims? Why haven’t I, or the University received any of these complaints?

No, these attacks against the Centre for Middle East & North African Studies aren’t made because we are biased or lack balance. On the contrary, they are made because we ARE balanced and unbiased, because we refuse to swallow the Israeli government’s version of events, or the US government’s or the Iranian, Syrian, or Lebanese government’s version of events.

We question, we challenge, we stimulate our students to inquire deeply about the issues in the Middle East. We will continue to present them with all sides of the arguments. We will not be frightened off by one-eyed political lobbyists determined to repress fair and open discussion.

Andrew Vincent, Director
Centre for Middle East & North African Studies
Macquarie University

Rubenstein encourages the establishment of an Australian Campus Watch – not dissimilar to Campus Watch in the US – to monitor “anti-Israel” and “anti-US” sentiment at universities. This suggestion is borne out of failure in the dissemination of ideas. Rubenstein and his ever-shrinking ilk haven’t won the debate by honestly discussing and sharing ideas on the Middle East, so a McCarthyite system is the only way they can at least try and institute some control. They’d be able to add yet another failure to their CV.

At a time in Israel when a fascist has secured a senior position in government and Gaza is again aflame, it’s no wonder Zionists want to focus on “bias” at universities. The moral and political bankruptcy of this position was recently argued by Israel’s former Foreign Minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami:

It appears that the Israeli aversion to international initiatives for solving the conflict with the Arab world is inherent in us. The world, and in particular Europe, is assumed to be hostile to Israel, and every international conference is conceived of as an ambush in which Israel’s enemies will try to force it into an arrangement that is contradictory to its existential interests.

This aversion is particularly difficult to understand in view of the fact that Israel is sunk in a bloody conflict that has no solution, neither diplomatic nor military. The battlefield – in Lebanon against Hezbollah and in the Gaza Strip against Hamas – no longer makes it possible to gain easy victories or a decisive advantage. In both cases, the governments enabled the Israel Defense Forces to push forward to a victory but they were not able to carry out the mission.

What is the government proposing to get out of this quagmire? The foreign minister has suggested speaking with “the moderates” in the Palestinian Authority. It is worrisome to think that she is not aware that the distance between the moderates and the extremists is most minute, and that the moderates will act toward setting up a Palestinian state with its borders on the pre-1967 green line, with Jerusalem as its capital and an agreed-upon solution to the refugee problem. In general terms, the moderates want a solution on the basis of the Saudi initative.

It’s more than time to ask intransigent Zionists how they intend to solve the conflict, other than bombing Iran, occupying Iraq, West Bank and Gaza and somehow hoping that “acceptable” Arabs will come along to negotiate. Israel has a stark choice (otherwise demographics will do the job for them.)

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