Usual suspects come out against “biased” Middle East simulations

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

I recently reported… for Crikey on alleged anti-Israel bias of educational simulations on the Israel/Palestine conflict conducted by Macquarie University’s Centre for Middle East and North African Studies. The NSW Jewish Board of Deputies and The Australian have both conducted a campaign to stigmatise the simulations as pro-terrorist, pro-Palestinian and anti-US (though the simulations ended late last year.)

Crikey has now discovered that the popular simulations were cancelled after only one complaint. I have obtained the initial letter that was sent to the headmaster of Killara High School in mid-2004. It alleged “pro-Palestinian bias” and concern that “pro-Israeli or pro-US [roles] are given a negative connotation”. The parents contacted the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies with their complaint, and the Board then demanded a meeting with the school’s principal (which he granted.)

After this meeting, the principal suddenly cooled on the simulations – a strange decision considering his letter in late 2003 to Macquarie University Middle East Centre head Andrew Vincent praising the program – and accepted the Board’s suggestion of giving their own presentation to the students (an opportunity not given to a Palestinian representative.) The Powerpoint presentation, seen by Crikey, paints a strongly partisan view of the conflict and deliberately glosses over Israeli crimes against Palestinians during the country’s birth.

The NSW Department of Education began an investigation into the simulations, not to determine alleged bias but rather whether public schools should continue with the program. It was soon decided that the simulations would cease operating within NSW government schools.

A number of sources close to the simulations have confirmed that the NSW Education Department simply capitulated to the demands of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies and refused to continue the programs. To this day, NSW Education Minister Carmel Tebbutt’s office refuses to provide transparent answers regarding the simulations and has provided any number of contradictory statements over the last days. Certain teachers and principals have been told that they can’t speak to the media about these matters.

This is a story about a partisan Zionist organisation forcing its will on educational freedom and wanting to censor perspectives they deem inappropriate. Robert Burton-Bradley, a journalist at the Northside Courier, has interviewed a number of Jewish students who participated in the simulations.… Vice-President of the Australasian Union of Jewish Students, Dave Burnett, said that, “the program was brilliant; I have nothing but praise for it. I learnt a lot from the course. I have not seen that much merit to the complaints about the course…” Another student and parent responded similarly. In documents obtained through Freedom of Information by Macquarie University’s Middle East Centre and seen by Crikey, many students and parents wrote to the principal of Killara High School and praised the benefits of the simulations. Over the fifteen years that the simulations had been run by Andrew Vincent, he had never received any complaints from teachers, students or parents.

In one letter to the NSW Education Department in August 2004, Vincent explained why “extremists” must be included in the simulations – such as Hamas, Hizbollah and al-Qaeda – because “failure to have such groups represented would result in a less than accurate simulation of reality and would amount to a form of censorship”. For The Australian and various Jewish lobbyists, even acknowledging that these groups have multiple personalities is akin to siding with terrorists. Such blinkered thinking contributes nothing to a broad educational experience.

The recent page-one Australian story last week on this issue was simply an attempt to raise the spectre of moral panic in the community about anti-Semitism. The Macquarie Middle East Centre, of which I’m a board member, abhors all racial vilification. The fact that one complaint has generated wild claims about bias, anti-Americanism, being pro-terrorist and anti-Israel reflects the deep-seated insecurity of many within the Jewish community. As the Australian’s Cameron Stewart pointed out in a recent article, the Zionist lobby risks overplaying its hand and muzzling academic freedom. The recent war in Lebanon, he writes, “has done great harm to Israel’s international image. This will naturally be reflected in academic studies, just as it has in the media and in mainstream public opinion”.

Is it any wonder that the usual suspects are jumping up and down now about these simulations, more than one year after they were dropped?

Text and images ©2023 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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