Marrickville meets Bethlehem, controversy erupts

My following article appears in today’s edition of Crikey:

Back in 2003, Palestinian Christian politician Hanan Ashrawi was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize. The Zionist establishment reacted with predictable apoplexy and accused her of supporting terrorism and not recognising the Jewish state.

After months of fruitless lobbying, then NSW Premier Bob Carr resisted Jewish pressure and presented Ashrawi her award. He later told me that the Zionist lobby “should be much more relaxed about the fact that, in a pluralist media, there will be criticisms of Israel appearing.”

Four years later, it seems that the Jewish community has learned nothing. When Sydney’s Marrickville Council announced in June it was achieving sister city status with the occupied Palestinian town of Bethlehem, the Zionist lobby went into overdrive.

They distorted the facts, argued the town was controlled by Hamas “terrorists” and said the Mayor of Bethlehem, Christian Dr Victor Batarseh, supported a militant group and should not be allowed into the country.

CEO of the Jewish Board of Deputies in New South Wales, Vic Alhadeff, peddled the usual tripe about Australian funds potentially “supporting terrorism”. The real agenda of Alhadeff and other Jewish leaders was to smear a Palestinian moderate who dares to challenge a brutal Israeli military occupation that is strangulating the holy city.

A five-person delegation arrived from Bethlehem this week after Australian officials in Israel delayed issuing visas until the last minute.

Crikey has been told that Jewish leaders had actively lobbied Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews to not provide the visas and even Minister for the Environment Malcolm Turnbull pressured Andrews to delay making any decision (Turnbull’s seat of Wentworth, according to the 2006 Census, now contains the greatest number of Jews in the country).

One of the organisers of the visit told me he’d written to Andrews politely but firmly asking if only “Muslim-bashers like Wafa Sultan” were allowed into the country.

Despite the fear that the delegation would “adversely affect” the local Jewish community – who knew that hearing inconvenient truths could so upset the delicate Jewish sensibility? – Australia appears to have survived the onslaught (though the Mayor had to face a hostile ABC PM interview a few nights ago, host Mark Colvin demanding that he condemn “terrorism”.)

Last night at Sydney University, the Mayor spoke to a large crowd alongside Palestinian writer Randa Abdul-Fattah and myself.

Dr Batarseh said he accepted the concept of a two-state solution, but wondered why the international community demanded the Palestinians recognise Israel when successive Israeli governments had never accepted the right of the Palestinians to live in an unoccupied land, as settlement expansion continued daily.

He told of the “apartheid” wall and its envelopment of Bethlehem, the devastation of Palestinian olive groves, the 60-65% unemployment rate, the fall in essential tourism and his desire to see peace between both peoples.

A dignified man with grey hair, the Mayor reiterated the necessary refrain that criticism of Israeli policies is not anti-Semitism.

If the Zionist establishment truly believes in peace, they should be welcoming the Bethlehem delegation as a necessary bridge between the warring sides.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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