Palestine, Israel and freedom of speech: striking at the heart of liberal democracies

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

Echoing the discredited and contemptible Holocaust-denier David Irving, Australian Frederick Toben, who happily accepted an invitation to the 2006 Holocaust denial conference in Tehran, was back in the news last week after being found in contempt by a Federal Court for refusing to remove material from his website that vilified Jews. The Australian featured a photo of Toben’s nephew giving a Nazi salute outside the court.

As a human being first and a Jew second, Holocaust denial disgusts me… ”‰—”‰as it should any decent person. It must be condemned in the strongest possible terms as both an indignity to the millions of victims and survivors, as well as a perversion of the historical record. The Jewish Holocaust, along with other similar catastrophes against Cambodians, Rwandans, Palestinians and Tamils, should be respected and understood.

But there are two critical questions about the whole Toben saga. Firstly, does it do anything to address the serious issue of Holocaust revisionism, a growing problem as survivors of the death camps fade away? Secondly, can the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ), the lobby group that has pursued the Toben case for years, credibly argue that Toben has been chastised by their pursuit let alone that community education on the Holocaust been enhanced? Just last week saw yet another Australian man, who had posted anti-Semitic rants on YouTube, charged with inciting racial hatred.

The Toben and Irving cases strike at the heart of liberal democracies. Which views are permissible? Are there limits? Who decides the rules?

More ominously, however, the Toben saga masks a very selective concern for racial vilification by the ECAJ. Holocaust denial warrants condemnation, but too often any criticism against Jews or Zionism is automatically slammed… ”‰—”‰witness a recent article by the former head of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies (JBD) professing to oppose all racial hatred, especially anything directed at Jews. Yet, equally egregious examples of bigotry are ignored, even endorsed. Anti-Muslim sentiment has often been proudly displayed since September 11 by the Zionist establishment. In their worldview, only what they find offensive should be censored.

Take the case of leading Israeli historian Benny Morris who visited Australia in 2008 and was warmly welcomed by the current head of the JBD head Vic Alhadeff. Morris has exposed the massacres and forced expulsions of Palestinians in 1948 but he is also a proud extremist who thinks the Arabs are “barbarians” who should be placed in a “cage”. He believes that the mistake of David Ben-Gurion and the leadership of 1948 was that they did not fully carry out the expulsion of the Palestinians. He has called for a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Iran. He argues in his new book that Jews value life more than Muslims.

These positions are abhorrent. However, I would not want to censor Morris’s views. If Toben’s ideas are beyond the pale, why not equally call for the censure of Morris or even push for criminal charges? The answer is obvious: the Jewish establishment largely agrees with Morris, he’s Jewish and a Zionist and therefore not “offensive.” A community is either consistent about racial vilification or it’s not.

There have been countless examples of senior Jewish leaders publicly supporting viciously anti-Islam and anti-Arab sentiments and regularly welcoming overseas visitors, such as Daniel Pipes, who routinely defame Muslims in the name of their Zionist jihad. Pipes continually claimed during last year’s US Presidential debate that Barack Obama was Muslim, a transparent attempt to insinuate terrorist-sympathy. I don’t remember the shock-jocks calling for the Jewish establishment to stand up and take a stand against such bigotry (such is demanded of Muslims.)

Where, for example, is the Jewish outrage over the third biggest party in the Israeli Knesset, Yisrael Beiteinu… ”‰—”‰its leader is hardline Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman… ”‰—”‰last week proposing a law that would forbid Arabs in Israel from commemorating their annual “Nakba” [catastrophe] day? For many Palestinians, this is nothing less than an assault on denying what they regard as their Holocaust.

My point here isn’t to support rampant racial hatred; I actively campaign against it (and when Toben himself approached me in 2006 at the Adelaide launch of my book, My Israel Question, I wanted to have nothing to do with him). There is no denying that Holocaust revisionism is a growing problem and it must be tackled in every way possible.

But the agendas of those pushing loudest for criminal punishment against racial vilification are counter-productive, highly selective and certainly demonstrate double standards. The Jewish victim complex must end and criticism of Israel, as distinct to that of Jews, treated as both legitimate and appropriate in a democracy. Witness last week’s predictable smearing in Melbourne of a robust “anti-Semitic” play about Israel.

Free speech is a delicate beast that must be constantly nurtured and defended. Our society can handle robust engagement on a host of issues. Some will offend Jews. Some will offend Muslims. Some won’t offend anybody.

Hurt feelings shouldn’t be a crime.