Overland branded biased by Jewish academics

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

Overland is a quarterly publication published in Melbourne since 1954 and aims to give, in the words of…  editor Jeff Sparrow, “space for radicals and liberals”.

Over the past few years a handful of articles have appeared written by Jews (including me, principally on peak oil) that aimed to challenge the established view on Israel/Palestine. They were respectful of critics and urged a fresh way of seeing a conflict that continues to bleed lives and rationality in the diaspora.

In early May, six Jewish academics from some of Australia’s major universities wrote a letter to Overland and its board arguing that “biased and prejudiced coverage” could bring the journal into “serious disrepute”.

The letter stated that the Jewish Overland writers are “fundamentalists who advocate the elimination of Israel and its replacement by an Arab State of Greater Palestine” and these “marginal views ”¦ demonise Israel and infantilise the Palestinians”.

They demanded to know why “these vexatious voices who contribute only fanatical polemics and represent nobody in either the Jewish community or the Left” should be given any space in the magazine. It was urged that only individuals who “support two states” be allowed to appear.

Overland responded with a lengthy defence of its position and rejected the implied allegations of anti-Semitism:

“Almost by definition, our small magazine provides space for views that do not receive a hearing elsewhere ”¦ The notion that publishing minority views constitutes ”˜censorship’ is truly bizarre.”

The magazine forensically examined the publishing record of the complainants and found regular columns in The Australian to espouse their views (some damning critics of Israel as “anti-Semites”).

Monash University’s Philip Mendes and Sydney University’s Nick Dyrenfurth have made particularly regular appearances in Murdoch’s broadsheet writing about the Middle East (despite neither of them having any academic credentials in the field.)

The journal highlighted the hypocrisy of the academic’s position:

“”¦ 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!”

“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.”

Significantly, the small, liberal Australian Jewish Democratic Society has supported the Overland response, the only Jewish organisation to do so. Predictably, the Australian Jewish News this week distorted the Overland response and the positions of the original Jewish writers for the magazine, including Michael Brull.

Crikey asked some of the six academics to comment but two ignored the request and one declined the offer.

Overland editor and Crikey contributor Jeff Sparrow told Crikey that he was unaware of any serious pressure being placed on the magazine’s funding bodies, namely the Australia Council or the journal’s patron, Barry Jones. He believed that a public response was warranted because the implied allegation of the original letter suggested that the magazine was anti-Semitic in publishing such views.

Sparrow revealed to Crikey that a further, short letter was sent by the academics late last week expressing disquiet with Overland’s response and demanding action on the journal’s alleged “ethnic stereotyping” of Jews and Israel, a charge Sparrow vehemently rejected.

The magazine is “explicitly political and not balanced on issues”, Sparrow told me. “Since 9/11, Middle East politics is now central to Australian life, accentuated after the Gaza war and we have a responsibility to take a position on Israel as Australia is so uncritical of that country’s policiWees. If there’s anything we should apologise for it’s that we should broaden the perspectives on the Middle East and include Palestinians, Muslims and Israeli Arabs.”

Sparrow believes that the failure of the same voices writing in the mainstream about Israel/Palestine warrants a search for fresher perspectives. “The same voices are clearly not bringing peace in the region,” he said.

It is telling that six privileged academics are complaining about “bias” at Overland at a time when heated discussion is raging in the US.

As illegal settlements continue to expand in the West Bank, the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation recently announced the following guidelines:

The JCF does not fund organizations that through their mission, activities or partnerships:

1. endorse or promote anti-Semitism, other forms of bigotry, violence or other extremist views;

2. actively seek to proselytize Jews away from Judaism; or

3. advocate for, or endorse, undermining the legitimacy of Israel as a secure independent, democratic Jewish state, including through participation in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, in whole or in part.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry is considering blocking American and British lecture tours due to heckling by pro-Palestinian activists.

Just last week more than…  4000 European Jews, including prominent individuals, called for an end to the “morally and politically wrong” colonies in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, while Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz calls rabbis who support UN Gaza conflict investigator Richard Goldstone “rabbis for Hamas”.

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution.

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

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