The danger of pretending to be Arab or Israeli

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

Readers of Wednesday’s Australian may have noticed a front page article by Rebecca Weisser which stated:

A simulation exercise in which Year 11 students played Arabs and Israelis has been dropped by NSW schools after parents complained it was creating racial tension and painted terrorists in a sympathetic light. An inquiry by a senior Education Department officer found the simulation exercise, devised by Macquarie University’s Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, risked creating disharmony in schools and the community and that there was a “significant risk” of harm to the “welfare and wellbeing of students from particular minorities”.

Even the paper’s editorial alleged that the simulation “presented conflict in the Middle East from a militant Palestinian perspective”.

The story was full of easily correctable errors and nearly a year out of date (the simulations stopped one year ago). More insidiously, however, it was yet another attempt at stifling differing perspectives on the Israel/Palestine conflict by a handful of unaccountable Zionist lobbyists.

The axing of the simulations was announced in the Australian Jewish News (AJN) in late January… and was warmly welcomed by Federal Labor MP Michael Danby and the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies.

The Macquarie Centre’s head, Andrew Vincent, responded some weeks later and reminded AJN readers that “we have not received a single complaint about the conduct of the simulations from any student, parent or teacher”. He correctly argued that this was simply an attempt to “push a pro-Israel line and stifle debate.”

The simulations were hugely popular with students and teachers and the NSW Education Department did not in fact find any evidence of bias against them. The underlying agenda was clear. A source close to the Department has told me that it was afraid to continue the simulations in public schools for fear of attack by Zionist lobbyists.

Not unlike the US – where numerous academics have been harassed for alleged anti-Israel bias (see SBS Dateline, 8 November)… – zealots remain determined to erase any coverage of the Middle East that doesn’t classify Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and Syria as terrorists, and Israel and the US as the good guys. It’s the DFAT way or the highway.

Australian stringer Rebecca Weisser called me yesterday for my response to her story [I’m a board member of Macquarie University’s Middle East Centre]. Her questioning was predictable. Did I approve, she asked, that the simulations hadn’t categorically slammed Hamas as a terrorist organisation? Was the Centre “balanced” in its choice of speakers (many of whom, it should be noted, have been both Israeli and pro-Zionist)?

She seemed incapable of grasping that the simulations may present alternative viewpoints from varying perspectives. As I discovered during the writing of My Israel Question, allegations of “bias” and “imbalance”… are semantic code for silencing dissent in the “war on terror.” Any individual that states, for example, that Hamas is far from a terrorist organisation is automatically tarred with the “bias” brush and should be censored.

In a democracy, multiplicity of views is the lifeblood of society. The Australian’s attempt to hype a nonexistent “threat” against students and the Zionist lobby’s unhealthy tendency to smear any criticism of Israel is just the latest effort to pressure Macquarie University to close down the Middle East Centre. Such a move would be a retrograde step at a time when dissenting voices are needed more than ever in the Middle East and Australia.