The Australia/Israel Jewish Affairs Council: Good or Bad for Australian Jewry? – Philip Mendes – Engage Journal Issue 4 – February 2007

The recent contentious report by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt on the alleged power of the pro-Israel lobby in the US has once again focused attention on the relationship between Diaspora Jews and the State of Israel (2). In Australia, discussion of the role played by pro-Israel lobby groups has tended to be heavily polarised between on the one hand those who wish to delegitimize the State of Israel, and on the other hand those who wish to silence any criticism of Israel.

The aim of this paper is to move beyond this polarisation to critically examine the activities of one pro-Israel lobby group, the Australia/Israel Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC). The goal is not to evaluate the effectiveness or influence of AIJAC as an interest group per se, but rather to judge whether AIJAC’s key actions and strategies are on balance in the best interests of Australian Jewry. Two case studies of major AIJAC campaigns – the One Nation Affair and the Hanan Ashrawi Affair – will be utilised in this analysis.

Historical Background and Structure

AIJAC was established in 1997 as an amalgamation of two existing bodies, Australia-Israel Publications (AIP) and the Australian Institute of Jewish Affairs (AIJA). AIP had existed since 1974 as a vocal pro-Israel advocacy group. AIJA had been founded in 1984 to conduct and promote research into a broad range of Jewish issues. (3)

AIJAC describes itself as “the premier public affairs organisation for the Australian Jewish community. Through research, commentary, analysis and advocacy, AIJAC represents the interests of the Australian Jewish community to government, media and other community groups and organisations. It has professionals dedicated to analysis and monitoring developments in the Middle East, Asia and Australia”. (4)

Most commentators concur that AIJAC is a professional advocacy body with good political and media connections. (5)
It is important to note that from the very beginning AIJAC has operated as a private think tank accountable only to its small Board of Directors. It does not have any formal association with the elected roof bodies of Australian Jewry such as the national-based Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ), or the state Boards headed by the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies (NSWJBD) and the Jewish Community Council of Victoria (JCCV).

AIJAC is also primarily a Victorian body even though it has an office and Chairman in Sydney. Its key players are the National Chairman Mark Leibler, the Editorial Chairman Dr Colin Rubenstein, and the Senior Policy Analyst Ted Lapkin. All are middle-aged to older males. Leibler is a long-time Zionist movement activist, Chair of the World Board of Trustees of Keren Hayesod – the United Israel Appeal – and a prominent tax lawyer. He has had strong relations with politicians from both major parties, and is particularly close to the current Liberal Party Prime Minister John Howard. (6)

For example, Leibler was one of a small group of people invited by Howard to attend a private barbeque with US President George Bush in October 2003. (7) Along with most Australian Jews (8), Leibler is also a strong supporter of the rights of indigenous Australians(9), and is currently co-chair of Reconciliation Australia, a body which aims to “recognize the special place and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians, value their participation and provide equal life chances for all”. (10)

Rubenstein is a former Monash University lecturer in Middle East politics who was for some years active in the Liberal Party. He is a strong supporter of multiculturalism despite its current unpopularity with the government. But he seems to define multiculturalism rather narrowly as “integration into the core values and institutions of Australian life” (11), rather than as referring more broadly to the promotion of cultural diversity, and the right of immigrants to retain their previous national heritage and traditions within certain limits.(12)

Lapkin is an American-Israeli who moved to Australia in 2002. He previously worked for a Republican Congressman Rick Lazio, and as a lobbyist for the chemical industry. Lapkin is an unapologetic neo-conservative who has declared himself a “full fledged combatant in the culture/political wars”.(13)

The Sydney branch of AIJAC is headed by Jeremy Jones, a long-time campaigner against anti-Semitism who has also been President of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry. Jones authors an annual report on anti-Semitism published by the ECAJ, and is generally regarded as working cooperatively with the elected Jewish roof bodies. Sydney AIJAC tends to have a lower profile, and is arguably less significant than the Melbourne branch.

AIJAC publishes a monthly magazine, Australia/Israel Review or AIR (titled in recent years simply as “The Review”), which highlights developments in the Middle East affecting Israel, and public policy issues of concern to the Australian Jewish community. The Review is edited by Tzvi Fleischer with assistance from Colin Rubenstein, Jeremy Jones, and Ted Lapkin. It also has a nine person national Editorial Board which includes a number of business supporters, a Rabbi, some activists from both the Liberal and Labor Parties, and two women. However with one or two rare exceptions, none of the members of this Board appear to speak formally on behalf of AIJAC.

AIJAC is easily the best funded lobby group in the Australian Jewish community, and employs approximately ten staff in Melbourne, and five staff in Sydney. (14) Contrary to what one author has implied, there does not appear to be anything secretive or sinister about the sources of its funding. (15) Its main predecessor, AIP, was originally co-funded by two Melbourne Jewish businessman, Isador Magid (associated with the Labor Party), and Robert Zablud (associated with the Liberal Party). (16)

It would appear that some of this funding was transferred to AIJAC in 1997, but equally a number of other Australian Jewish businessmen and women and/or families have provided ongoing core funding.
Some of these donors either sit on the Review Editorial Board, or alternatively contribute regular advertisements to the Review. One benefactor specifically funds the Rambam program as described below. It should be noted that most of these individuals or families are also generous funders of other prominent Jewish communal institutions and organisations. They presumably donate to AIJAC because they believe it effectively represents the best interests of the Jewish community and Israel. There does not appear to be any evidence that they have a broader political or ideological agenda in mind.

AIJAC and the Jewish pro-Israel consensus

AIJAC’s major brief is to represent what they call the “pro-Israel consensus values and views of the mainstream Jewish community”. (17) In doing so, they adhere to the policy long pursued by Australian Jewry which is to support the elected Israeli Government whatever its political colour. This policy has some obvious limitations given that many Israeli actions are hotly debated within Israel itself – for example the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, or the responses to the two Palestinian intifadas. Nevertheless, this is felt to be the consensus position. In addition, it is argued that a united Jewish position is necessary to effectively lobby governments and other influential groups in a pro-Israel direction.

There is no doubt that identification with Israel plays a fundamental role in Australian Jewish life and identity. A key contributing factor is that Australia has a comparatively high number of Holocaust survivors or children of survivors. For example, a 1993 study found that 73 per cent of Australian Jews have visited Israel with 48 per cent doing so two or more times, most have close friends or immediate family living in Israel, and 98 per cent feel a special connection with Israel. In addition, Australian Jews have the highest per capita rate of aliyah (emigration to Israel) in the Western world. There is also the strong political influence of Zionist groups within Jewish communal structures, significant Zionist education in the Jewish day-school system, high participation rates in the Zionist youth movements, extensive Jewish fundraising and political advocacy on behalf of Israel, and regular coverage of Israel-related stories within the weekly Australian Jewish News. (18)

At the same time, this does not mean that all Australian Jews support everything Israel says or does. On the contrary, the substantial political divisions within Israel particularly around policies towards the Palestinians are duplicated locally. Some Jews support the parties on the Israeli right such as Likud, some Jews support groups on the Left such as Meretz, and probably the majority favour the centrist views of Kadima which is currently the ruling Party in Israel. Often Australian Jews engage in vigorous debates around Israeli politics as was particularly the case over the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. (19)

In short, Australian Jews hold a range of ideological positions on how this pro-Israel position should be operationalized within the Australian context.
AIJAC’s agenda is reflected most benignly in Mark Leibler’s statement that AIJAC has “fought the good fight over the years, on Israel, on terrorism, on war crimes, on hatred and racism, on holocaust denial, on a large agenda that has clearly benefited not only the Jewish community, but I believe, Australia as a whole”, (20) or alternatively in Jeremy Jones’s argument that Australian Jews (with AIJAC as the “vanguard”) work “to promote explanations of Israel’s political actions and understanding of the history of the region, Israel’s conflicts, and the reality of contemporary Israel”. (21)

AIJAC undertakes a number of activities to promote its pro-Israel perspective including hosting visiting speakers from Israel and elsewhere, briefing journalists, lobbying the Department of Foreign Affairs and politicians, and exposing alleged anti-Israel bias in the media. (22) Rarely a day goes by without an AIJAC representative appearing in the print or broadcast media to present a pro-Israel perspective. In addition, AIJAC aims to promote racial and religious tolerance which includes supporting anti-vilification legislation, exposes links between Islamism and terrorism in Asia and the Pacific, opposes Holocaust denial and others forms of anti-Semitism in the global community, and seeks to bring Nazi war criminals to justice. (23)

AIJAC has also formed a number of international alliances. For example, they are associated with the American Jewish Committee (well known for its “small-l” liberalism, but also the publisher of the neo-conservative Commentary Magazine) in a global partnership designed to advance joint interests. (24) In June 2004, the AJC worked in conjunction with AIJAC to arrange the honoring of Australian Prime Minister John Howard with AJC’s American Liberties Medallion.

In addition, AIJAC has acted as the Australian distributor for the Middle East Quarterly, a journal published by hardline conservative Daniel Pipes. Pipes is also the founder of the controversial Campus Watch program which has been accused by its critics of attempting to impose political restrictions on the teaching of Middle East Studies in the USA. (25) AIJAC have suggested that it might be a good idea to establish a Campus Watch program in Australia in order to confront alleged anti-Israel bias within Australian universities. (26)

In late 2003, AIJAC established the Rambam Israel Fellowship Program, which aims to promote educational and fact-finding missions to Israel for opinion leaders drawn from areas of public life such as politics, the media, trade unions and the academic community. (27) The Rambam tours have provoked some controversy due to allegations that participants are mainly exposed to Israelis from the hawkish or right-wing end of the spectrum. (28)

However, it does appear on balance that visiting delegations meet with a range of personalities from both the mainstream Israeli Left and Right and a number of leading Palestinian figures, although some doubt remains as to whether representatives of the Israeli peace movement have been adequately involved. Equally, at least part of the complaint from pro-Palestinian groups seems to be simply that they have failed to fund and organize similar tours from a pro-Palestinian perspective. (29)

In summary, it would appear that AIJAC retains the support of most Australian Jews when it articulates a reasonable case for Israel. However, the Rambam example suggests that AIJAC’s legitimacy and representativeness may come under serious question if it is suspected of pursuing overly zealous ideological or political agendas that go beyond this communal consensus.

Three Core problems

In my opinion, there are three major problems with AIJAC:

1) Their neo-conservative politics which do not represent the breadth of opinion in the Jewish community and constantly associate all Jews with partisan political groups and positions.

AIJAC claims to be politically bipartisan in both their personnel and their lobbying activities. By this they mean that their Board includes both Liberal and Labor Party supporters, and that they engage with both mainstream political parties. They also deny any formal political alignment with the Liberal Party or the current Coalition government. (30)

This defense may or may not be true, but it is also a largely irrelevant response to the charge that AIJAC pursue a narrow ideological agenda.
Firstly, it narrowly associates political bias with party political bias. Secondly, most interest groups lobby all sides of the spectrum in an attempt to convert them to their preferred perspective. This tactic doesn’t suddenly make them politically or ideologically neutral. And finally, it appears that none of the Labor Party figures within AIJAC have attempted to change the organisation’s political agenda, or to transform AIJAC into an alternative pro-Labor or at least non-conservative organisation. As argued by the editor of the Australian Jewish News, the dominant players within AIJAC continue to be perceived as leaning well to the right. (31)

The key problem is the political image that AIJAC present to the wider Australian community. For example, Ted Lapkin published an article in both the daily Australian and the far right Institute of Public Affairs Review attacking the so-called “economic sclerosis of the socialist welfare state”. (32) The statement was particularly disappointing and unrepresentative given that both the Victorian and NSW state Jewish roof bodies sponsor Jewish Social Justice Committees which advocate strong support for the welfare state and the social inclusion of the less affluent. (33) Yet Lapkin’s argument would have left many readers with the impression that Jews do not care about the rights of poor and disadvantaged Australians.

On other occasions, AIJAC have defended the Howard Government’s anti-terror laws, strongly supported Australia’s involvement in the Iraq war, justified American actions in Guantanamo Bay, and appeared to justify the use of torture.(34) It is debatable whether or not these positions are shared by most Australian Jews. At the very least, they are contentious and go well beyond the communal pro-Israel consensus. As we have also noted, AIJAC tend to choose international partners who share their neo-conservative views.

AIJAC is also particularly ineffective in engaging with the political Left. As I have argued elsewhere in relation to the academic boycott of Israel debate, pro-Israel groups have had some success in targeting elite groups in Australian society. However, many grassroots activists are more sympathetic to the Palestinian narrative rather than the Israeli narrative. It is evident that campaigns based solely on defending all Israeli actions or at least all current Israeli Government policies are not working, or at least are not convincing many non-elite groups in the community.

Arguably there is a case for adopting both new lobbying content and new lobbying strategies based on incorporating a wider range of perspectives, and a more diverse group of advocates. Pragmatic alliances with sympathetic leftists who support Israel’s right to exist (irrespective of their views on specific Israeli policies) are essential for any broad defense of the State of Israel. (35)

Yet AIJAC has made no attempt to distinguish in an informed way between Left groups who are critical of specific Israeli policies such as the occupation of the West Bank, and those who reject Israel’s right to exist. Nor have they attempted to actively counter extreme anti-Zionist viewpoints in Left journals, or sought to involve left-wing Jews (who are broadly pro-Israel) in their activities. Instead, AIJAC has published blanket and virtually useless denunciations of “left anti-Zionists” in conservative journals such as Quadrant.(36)

In addition, AIJAC are unwilling to accept the argument of mainstream Jewish Left figures that “reasonable criticism” of Israeli policies has a place in the Jewish community. Instead, they simplistically dismiss all such criticisms as “unreasonable and unfair”.(37) Whilst claiming to themselves endorse a two-state solution, they also imply that those from the Left who support such a solution are naive and “unrealistic” in their views of the Palestinians. (38)

2) Their ultra-aggressive and sometimes openly bullying and threatening methods which are just as likely to create rather than combat anti-Semitism and extreme anti-Zionism.

Pro-Israel lobby groups have as much right as any other interest groups to argue their case vigorously and assertively. And to be sure, AIJAC’s pro-Israel activities and objectives are not fundamentally different from those undertaken by other pro-Israel lobby groups including the ECAJ, the state Boards, and the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission. What is different is the particular methods utilized to achieve the desired outcome.

The other Jewish groups adhere to reasonable and responsible lobbying strategies. In contrast, AIJAC seem to view themselves as the “tough Jews” of the community,(39) and too often revert to ad-hominem bullying and abuse.(40) For example, a brief critique by AIJAC of anti-Zionist journalist Antony Loewenstein contained the following personal attacks on his character: “thin-skinned”, “whinging”, and “juvenile petulance”.(41) Elsewhere, AIJAC attacked the academic record of Deakin University academic Scott Burchill, claiming that he engaged in left-wing polemics rather than genuine scholarly research.(42) In my opinion, AIJAC could easily have challenged Loewenstein and Burchill’s anti-Israeli bias without utilizing personal slurs.

These methods are also reflected in the way that AIJAC deal with legitimate criticism. For example, following the One Nation and Ashrawi debacles described in the next section, it would have been reasonable for AIJAC to approach the elected leadership of the Jewish community, and offer a mea culpa along the lines of the following: “We realize we mucked up on this occasion, we will do things differently next time, and this is how we plan to do them differently”. Instead, AIJAC frankly told its many Jewish critics on both occasions to “get stuffed”. Such behaviour can only be described as maverick and reckless.

3) Their lack of structural accountability to the elected leadership of the Australian Jewish community.

Although AIJAC is often perceived to be representing the Jewish community, they do not formally report to or appear to have any established protocols with the official leadership of the community.

The correct and perhaps controversial historical comparison here is with the now defunct Melbourne Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Council was a highly professional and pro-active anti-defamation body, and acted as the Public Relations Committee of the Victorian Jewish Board of Deputies and sometimes the ECAJ. At the same time, the Council retained its existence as a separate and independent organisation. This situation worked as long as the Council reflected the political consensus of the Jewish community.

But when it became apparent that the Council’s left-wing views on a range of issues were not representative and in some cases were serving to create rather than combat anti-Semitism, the Council was replaced.(43)
These same questions of organisational independence and political accountability apply to AIJAC. And this remains the case whether AIJAC articulates views that can reasonably be justified as representing a Jewish consensus on supporting Israel, or on those occasions when it articulates views on matters not involving Israel that arguably do not represent most Jews.

Of course in some ways, AIJAC is similar to political party think tanks such as the Liberal Party’s Menzies Research Centre, the Labor Party’s Chifley Research Centre, or the completely independent Centre for Independent Studies and Australian Fabian Society in that it has the freedom to advocate radical views and agendas that might not be politically acceptable to the elected leadership. So AIJAC argue that they are a private think tank, and can therefore say and do as they please.

However, there are two major differences between the Jewish community and political parties. Firstly, political activists join parties out of support for an ideologically uniform position, whereas the Jewish community is politically and ideologically diverse. Secondly, the Australian community is generally aware that elected politicians rather than party think tanks speak on behalf of political parties.

In contrast, many Australian policy makers and journalists seem to erroneously think that AIJAC is the official representative of Australian Jewry. According to the Australian Jewish News Canberra correspondent, Bernard Freeman, “AIJAC, whose representatives are frequent visitors to Canberra, and whose magazine, the Review, is distributed freely to all and sundry, has become the most visible source of comment and information when Jewish issues attract the interest of the non-Jewish media”. (44) As we shall see, this was apparent during the Hanan Ashrawi Affair when a number of media outlets sought the opinions of AIJAC spokespersons, rather than those of the elected leadership of the community.

To be sure, AIJAC have denied that they ever “claim to represent the Jewish community as a whole”,(45) and have modestly described themselves as a “community think tank”. (46)

But on at least one occasion, they have seemed to formally present themselves as the representatives of Australian Jewry.(47) And on numerous other occasions, they have disingenuously allowed the media to assume that they are the official leaders of the Jewish community. For example, a dubious article by journalist Glenn Milne, which documented alleged Jewish community anger towards the Labor Party over anti-Israel statements by backbenchers, cited only one Jewish organization, AIJAC. (48)

Case Study One: The One Nation Affair

During the mid-late 1990s, AIJAC and its predecessor AIP published a number of investigative reports exposing examples of political and financial corruption within the far right One Nation Party. This campaign reflected the Jewish communal consensus that One Nation’s racism directed at Asian immigrants and indigenous Australians was a serious threat to the multicultural cohesion of Australian society, and a specific threat to the welfare of Jews.(49) AIJAC’s campaign culminated in the unprecedented step of publishing the names of 2000 members of One Nation in their journal, The Review. The names were allegedly provided to AIJAC by disgruntled “senior figures in the party organization”.(50)

The publication of the names caused enormous public controversy and division. Issues were raised around the question of privacy, and allegations of political McCarthyism. The influential Sydney tabloid, the Daily Telegraph, described the list of names as “Leibler’s List”, and drew a provocative analogy with Nazi lists of Jewish names. (51) Support for AIJAC’s action came from Coalition Government Minister Tony Abbott and Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Laurie Brereton, but opposition was voiced by Prime Minister John Howard, Australian Broadcasting Chair Professor David Flint, neo-conservative commentator Ron Brunton, and most of the mainstream media. (52)

The Jewish community was also divided. The national editor of the Australian Jewish News, Vic Alhadeff, editorialized that publication of the list “was wrong in principle… and counter-productive”. It did not serve the “best interests of the Jewish community, of pluralist democracy and in fighting One Nation”, and had “hurt AIJAC’s own credibility”. (53) The Melbourne editor of the AJN, David Bernstein, argued that AIJAC’s action had “embarrassed and damaged the broader interests of the Jewish community”. (54)

Other major communal figures such as Justice Marcus Einfeld, Rabbi Raymond Apple, Ron Samuel from the Council of Western Australian Jewry, and Paul Gardner and Danny Ben Moshe from the B’nai Brith Anti-Defamation Commission expressed similar sentiments. Ben-Moshe cited specific concerns around potential security implications for the Jewish community, and the possibility of far Right groups retaliating in kind by publishing names of Jewish organizations or their members. Particularly strong criticism also came from representatives of Holocaust survivors. Conversely, others such as Rabbi Brian Fox, Ron Weiser from the Zionist Federation of Australia, and Peter Wertheim, the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies President, defended AIJAC. (55)

Despite the significant level of criticism, AIJAC refused to acknowledge that its actions had been either politically irresponsible, or ethically questionable. On the contrary, AIJAC launched personal attacks on some of its key Jewish critics. For example, Mark Leibler accused Anti-Defamation Commission Executive Director Danny Ben-Moshe of being more keen to criticize AIJAC than attack the alleged anti-Semitic comments of One Nation spokesperson David Oldfield. Leibler called Ben-Moshe “God’s gift to David Oldfield” (56) . Five years later, AIJAC vigorously rejected a suggestion that the action had “cast a shadow on the record of the organization”. To the contrary, they argued that the publication of the list constituted “one of the most successful and effective challenges to One Nation at the time”. (57)

Case Study Two: the Hanan Ashrawi Affair (58)

In August 2003, the Sydney University Peace Foundation announced that prominent Palestinian intellectual Dr Hanan Ashrawi had won the 2003 Sydney Peace Prize. The New South Wales Premier Bob Carr agreed to present the prize at a public ceremony. Carr is a long-time supporter of both Israel and Australian Jewry including founding Labor Friends of Israel in NSW, but defended his decision to present the award on the basis that it could help to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians. According to Carr, he would emphasize to Ashrawi the need for the Palestinians to renounce violence, and accept a two-state solution. (59)

The announcement provoked a wave of criticism from the Australian Jewish community which reached a crescendo at the time of the presentation to Ashrawi in early November 2003. Yet much of the associated media and public debate focused not on the suitability of Ashrawi for this award, but rather on the lobbying tactics employed by the Jewish community.

The awarding of the prize to Ashrawi was always going to be controversial. Firstly, given the endemic nature of the Middle East conflict, a presentation to a person representing one side of the conflict rather than a joint award to an Israeli and Palestinian would almost inevitably be interpreted as showing bias towards the Palestinian perspective. Secondly, there is some evidence that Professor Stuart Rees, the Chair of the Prize Committee, is not only personally biased towards the Palestinian perspective, but is willing to condone or rationalize anti-Semitism. (60) Thirdly, Hanan Ashrawi is no ordinary peacenik. On occasions, she has articulated extremist views, defended hardline demands for a return of 1948 Palestinian refugees to Green Line Israel, and openly demonized the Israeli people. (61)

Having said that, there is also little doubt that Ashrawi is a relative moderate within the Palestinian spectrum. She has generally endorsed a two state solution, opposed violence against civilians, and specifically condemned suicide bombings. She also maintains good relations with sections of the Israeli peace movement, and has been invited to participate in official negotiations by successive Israeli Governments. Overall, she appears to be a shrewd and articulate advocate of the Palestinian national cause who pragmatically varies her message according to the views of the audience.

Jewish concerns about the Ashrawi prize were expressed from the beginning. Organizationally, the Jewish campaign was directed by the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies (NSWJBD) given that the peace prize was to be awarded in Sydney, the capital city of the state of NSW. The NSWJDB is an elected body representing a range of views and opinions within the 40,000 strong NSW Jewish community. However, the national Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the Zionist Federation of Australia, and AIJAC also had significant input.

Whilst there was a consensus of opposition to Ashrawi, divisions soon emerged about both the tone and content of the campaign. The NSWJBD favoured a relatively subtle and low-key behind the scenes approach, whilst AIJAC encouraged public and media debate and division. For example, AIJAC published a fact sheet featuring a handful of Ashrawi quotes to demonstrate her allegedly extremist views. They also distributed a petition drafted by their Israeli correspondent, Dr Gerald Steinberg, claiming that “By awarding Hanan Ashrawi its peace prize, the Sydney Peace Foundation…with the participation of Premier Bob Carr, are actually honouring war, murder and hatred, while debasing the concept of peace and reconciliation”. In addition, AIJAC falsely claimed that Ashrawi was a Holocaust denier. (62)

These divisions within the Jewish community came to the fore when key media outlets including political commentator Glenn Milne, the ABC TV 7.30 Report, and the Channel Nine Sunday program sought the opinions of AIJAC spokespeople rather than of the elected communal leaders.

The NSWJBD President Stephen Rothman accused AIJAC of using inappropriate and overzealous methods to lobby Premier Carr and the Sydney Peace Foundation. (63) In particular, Rothman attacked AIJAC for making the awarding of the prize an issue of party political contention within the NSW State Parliament. Similar concerns were expressed by Walt Secord, a media spokesman for Premier Carr and former Australian Jewish News reporter, by James Altman, President of Australia/New Zealand B’nai B’rith, and by Rabbi Raymond Apple, the Chief Rabbi of the Great Synagogue. The Australian Jewish News would later refer to the actions of AIJAC as ‘enormously counterproductive’, ‘ill-considered’, and ‘intemperate’. (64)

Another source of tension was ideological. As already noted, Premier Bob Carr has a long history of friendship both for Israel and Australian Jewry, and a number of leading NSWJBD figures are active in the NSW Labor Party. Many Jewish supporters of the ALP felt that AIJAC’s criticisms of Premier Carr provoked an unnecessary dispute with a prominent and sympathetic public figure.

For example, a number of prominent Jewish Labor Party figures including former JCCV Anti-Defamation Committee Chairman Adam Slonim, Jewish Labor Forum Executive member George Newhouse, former Labor Party Minister Barry Cohen, former High Court Judge Marcus Einfeld, and former Australia Israel Publications (AIP) Director and current Labor Party federal MP Michael Danby defended Premier Carr, and criticized the nature of the anti-Ashrawi campaign. Danby suggested the campaign by AIJAC was “perfectly legitimate political lobbying”, but argued that the specific tactics used by AIJAC had “stirred up opposition not just from the usual anti-Israel chorus, but from people usually supportive of Israel” (65) Einfeld questioned “why the knife was turned toward’s one of Israel’s most stalwart friends in public life in NSW Premier Bob Carr”. (66)

AIJAC later claimed that the campaign had been a success, pointing, for example, to the opposition to Ashrawi voiced by some prominent politicians and commentators, including the Prime Minister. But the opposing (and arguably far more convincing) view within the Jewish community is that the campaign failed to change the views of either the Sydney Peace Foundation or Premier Carr. Moreover, it produced serious divisions within the Jewish community, alienated many previously committed supporters of Israel, and reinforced stereotypes about Jewish influence and power being used to stifle free speech and debate.

Even critics of Ashrawi such as the neo-conservative Australian newspaper referred to “self-inflicted wounds” and the “own goal” of Australia’s Jewish community. (67) Similarly, the Australian Jewish News argued “the Jewish community’s image has been battered and bruised”, (68) and the Melbourne Age argued that the campaign “misfired” because it “distorted” Ashrawi’s views. (69)

In response to its critics, AIJAC refused again to concede any wrongdoing. For example, long-standing defender of Israel, Michael Danby MP, was attacked as an alleged “appeaser” of anti-Semites for his mild criticism of AIJAC. (70)

Response to our Book Chapter: Attacking the Messenger

Following the Ashrawi Affair, Geoffrey Brahm Levey and I co-wrote an account of the Affair for a book we co-edited, Jews and Australian Politics. The chapter was also reproduced in edited form in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian Jewish News. Our analysis of the Affair was mainly not about AIJAC at all, but rather about how several deep-seated Australian Jewish political characteristics came together in that controversy. And to the extent that we considered AIJAC’s role, it was three pages of mild dispassionate critical analysis in a 262 page book. Equally in order to ensure balance, we commissioned Israeli academic Chanan Reich to present AIJAC’s perspective on the Ashrawi Affair and a range of other issues in a separate chapter.

AIJAC could have responded to our criticisms by simply acknowledging that they had made an error of judgement. But instead, they accused us of making “grave accusations”, and launching a “polemical assault” on them. (71) In short, AIJAC claimed that we had misrepresented their actions because we had a “history of political animus” towards AIJAC, and were motivated by our “fringe political views” and “extremist politics”. (72) They also claimed absurdly that we had relied exclusively on a group of far left anti-Zionists for our information and analysis. (73)

AIJAC’s defense was a nonsense. Firstly, they made no attempt to critique the content and substance of our chapter. Secondly, the description of Levey and Mendes as extremists is ludicrous to anyone familiar with our writing, or our substantial participation within Jewish communal debates. Both of us are mainstream left-liberals whose views on the Middle East and other issues are widely shared both within the Jewish community and inside Israel itself. Thirdly even if we had happened to be hardline ideological leftists, it is hard to see why this in itself should be a problem for AIJAC unless they do actually view anyone on the Left per se as the “enemy”.


As a pro-Israel advocacy body, AIJAC has the capacity in principle to effectively represent the legitimate political concerns of Australian Jewry on this issue. But in practice, AIJAC too often lapses into illegitimate activities that potentially harm the interests of Australian Jewry. As our case studies demonstrate, AIJAC are liable to push a narrow ideological agenda, use irresponsible means to promote their objectives, and claim erroneously to represent the views of a broader Jewish constituency. When confronted with balanced criticism, they tend to respond by personally attacking the critics.

To fulfil its role effectively, AIJAC needs to be reformed to incorporate the following principles: 1) Moderate politics representing the diversity of Jewish opinion; 2) Subtle and assertive, but not aggressive strategies; and 3) Formal accountability via published protocols to the elected national and state roof bodies. Above all, AIJAC needs to learn to acknowledge past and current errors of judgment, and to respond soberly to serious criticisms from within and outside the Jewish community.

Dr Philip Mendes is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Social Work at Monash University, and the author or co-author of five books including Jews and Australian Politics, Sussex Academic Press, 2004:|


(1) I am grateful to Geoffrey Brahm Levey for his helpful comments on an earlier draft.

(2) Mearsheimer, John & Walt, Stephen, “The Israel Lobby”, London Review of Books, 28(6), 23 March 2006.

(3) Reich, Chanan, “Inside AIJAC – An Australian Jewish Lobby Group”, in Levey, Geoffrey Brahm & Mendes, Philip (eds.) Jews and Australian Politics. Sussex Academic Press. Brighton, 2004, pp.198-199.


(5) Levey, Geoffrey Brahm & Mendes, Philip, “The Hanan Ashrawi Affair: Australian Jewish Politics on Display”, in Levey, Geoffrey Brahm & Mendes, Philip (eds.) Jews and Australian Politics, p.217; Reich, Ibid, pp.199-200.

(6) Howard is the leader of a government based on a coalition between the Liberal and National parties. The Liberal Party has historically been a broad church comprising both social liberals and social conservatives, but has in recent years become more similar to the British Conservative Party with a dominant neo-liberal agenda.

(7) Levey & Mendes, p.217.

(8) Berman, Judy, Holocaust Agendas, Conspiracies and Industries? Valentine Mitchell, London, pp.96-97.

(9) Leibler, Mark, “Crossing the Wilderness: Jews and Reconciliation”, in Fagenblat, Michael; Landau, Melanie & Wolski, Nathan (eds.) New Under the Sun: Jewish Australians on Religion, Politics & Culture. Black Inc. Melbourne, 2006, pp.316-324.


(11) Rubenstein, Colin, “Multiculturalism works”, The Australian, 1 December 2006.

(12) Levey, Geoffrey Brahm, “Jews and Australian Multiculturalism” in Jews and Australian Politics, pp.179-197.

(13) Lapkin, Ted, “Intellectual Cowardice”, Source Watch: a project of the Center for Media & Democracy (, 5 April 2006.

(14) Reich, Ibid, p.202.

(15) Loewenstein, Antony, My Israel Question, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2006, p.294.

(16) See Magid, Isador, “In The Beginning”, in The Review, January 2000, p.15. Both Magid and Zablud are now deceased.

(17) Hyams, Jamie, “Talk: Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council”, Source Watch (, 3 March 2006.

(18) Levey & Mendes, Ibid, p.221.

(19) Mendes, Philip, “Demystifying Jewish Support for Israel”, On-Line Opinion, 10 May 2006.

(20) Leibler, Mark, “Toward The Future”, in The Review, January 2000, p.19.

(21) Jones, Jeremy, “The Jewish Community of Australia and its challenges”, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, No.13, 15 October 2006.

(22) Reich, Ibid, p.205; Loewenstein, Ibid, pp.188-198.

(23) Reich, Ibid, pp.208-211.

(24) Ibid, pp.202-203.

(25) Massing, Michael, “The Storm over the Israel Lobby”, The New York Review of Books, 53(10), 8 June 2006.

(26) Dr Colin Rubenstein cited in Weisser, Rebecca, “Mideast studies accused”, The Australian Higher Education, 22 August 2006.

(27) Reich, Ibid, p.200.

(28) Kohn, Peter & Singer, Melissa, “Under attack, clergy defend Israel trip”, Australian Jewish News, 26 May 2006; Loewenstein, Ibid, p.221; Matheson, Alan, “Getting the complete picture in the Holy Land? On Line opinion, 19 May 2006; Salbe, Sol, “Narrow spectrum”, Australian Jewish News, 5 May 2006.

(29) Carlill, Bren, “No neat answers to be found in Israel”, On-Line Opinion, 19 May 2006; Sherman, Brian, “In Defence of Rambam”, Australian Jewish News, 2 June 2006.

(30) Reich, Ibid, p.202; Leibler, Mark, “Academics’ ill-informed animus towards AIJAC”, Australian Jewish News, 8 April 2005.

(31) Goldberg, Dan, “The Tempest”, Australian Jewish News, 21 November 2003.

(32) Lapkin, Ted, “The Bitter Pilger”, IPA Review, 56(2), June 2004, p.18.

(33) Mendes, Philip, “Lifting The Lid on Poverty in the Jewish Community”, in New Under the Sun, pp.357-365.

(34) Cited in Loewenstein, Ibid, pp.5, 162-164 & 170-171. Whilst Loewenstein is heavily biased against AIJAC, I am not aware that they have challenged any of his interpretations of their positions.

(35) Mendes, Philip, “A Case Study of Ethnic Stereotyping: The Campaign for an Academic Boycott of Israel”, Australian Journal of Jewish Studies, In Press, December 2006.

(36) Lapkin, Ted, “Anti-Zionism in Australian Academia”, Quadrant, July-August 2006, pp.49-55.

(37) Hyams, Jamie, “We Heard You, So What?”, The Review, July 2006

(38) Colin, Rubenstein, “Fair hearing for Israel”, The Australian Higher Education, 13 December 2006.

(39) Breines, Paul, Tough Jews, Basic Books, New York.

(40) Claims that AIJAC persistently bully journalists or politicians who hold alternative opinions are made in Wynhausen, Elisabeth, “Careful, they might hear you”, The Australian, 10 June 2006.

(41) Lapkin, Ted, “Deconstruction Zone”, The Review, August 2006, pp.7-8.

(42) Lapkin, Ted, “Great Scott”, The Review, 29(3), March 2004, pp.20-21.

(43) Mendes, Philip, “Jews and the Left”, in Jews and Australian Politics, pp.72-73.

(44) Bernard Freeman, “AIJAC lobby role under the spotlight”, Australian Jewish News, 1 April 2005.

(45) Colin Rubenstein cited in Wynhausen, Ibid. See also Hyams, Ibid.

(46) Leibler, Ibid.

(47) Leibler, Mark & Rubenstein, Colin, “Letter to editor”, The Australian, 8 April 2005 regarding the late Pope.

(48) Milne, Glenn, “Nazifying Israel returns to haunt the Labor Party”, The Australian, 26 September 2005.

(49) Reich, Ibid, p.204; Berman, Ibid, pp.93-94; Kapel, Michael, “New Agendas”, The Review, January 2000, p.17.

(50) “Gotcha. One Nation’s Secret Membership List”, The Australia/Israel Review, 23(9), 8 July-28 July 1998.

(51) Symons, Emma-Kate, “Leibler’s List”, Daily Telegraph, 9 July 1998.

(52) Freedman, Bernard, “Leibler defends decision”, Australian Jewish News, 17 July 1998; Pullan, Rob, “Naming Names: The Press Reaction to the One Nation List”, Reportage, Spring 1998, pp.8-9.

(53) “The list and the fallout”, Australian Jewish News, 17 July 1998.

(54) Bernstein, David, “List’s double dose of shame”, The Age, 10 July 1998.

(55) Jones, Jeremy, “The Row over Pauline’s List”, The Jerusalem Report, 17 August 1998, pp.30-31; Kleerekoper, Victor & Labi, Sharon, “Community differs on Hanson list”, Australian Jewish News, 17 July 1998; Labi, Sharon, “Survivors express outrage”, AJN, 17 July 1998; McGregor, Richard, “One Nation list splits Jews”, The Australian, 9 July 1998.

(56) Freedman, Bernard, “Leibler blasts ADC spokesman”, Australian Jewish News, 17 July 1998.

(57) Kapel, Michael & Rubenstein, Colin, “Virtue of the List”, Australian Jewish News, 28 March 2003.

(58) Much of this discussion is adapted from Levey & Mendes, Ibid. For an alternative view, see Kampmark, Binoy, “Hanan Ashrawi and the Prize Protest: The Value and Limits of Debating Peace in the Australian Diaspora”,Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 25(3), December 2005, pp.347-361.

(59) Carr, Bob, “Speech to NSW Parliament on Israel and Hanan Ashrawi”, 16 October 2003.

(60) See Rees, Stuart, Passion for Peace. Sydney, UNSW Press, 2003, pp.41-43, 127 & 206; Rees, Stuart, “Villification Nation: The Hanan Ashrawi Affair – Ways of Thinking and Writing”, ISSA Conference Proceedings 2005, pp.72-78.

(61) See her speech to the September 2001 United Nations Conference on racism in Durban ( Reprinted in Australian Jewish News, 7 November 2003.

(62) Manning, Peter, Us and Them, Random House, Sydney, 2006, p.52.

(63) Hanna, Jim, “Jewish leader concedes community damaged by lobbying”, AAP General News, 3 November 2003.

(64) Alhadeff, Vic, “The Ashrawi Affair”, Australian Jewish News, 7 November 2003.

(65) Danby, Michael, “Over the top protest down under”, New York Forward, 14 November 2003.

(66) Einfeld, Marcus, “An inquiry must be launched”, Australian Jewish News, 14 November 2003.

(67) Anon, “Time for outbreak of peace on the prize”, The Australian, 5 November 2003.

(68) Goldberg, Dan, “From The Editor”, AJN, 7 November 2003.

(69)Anon, “Hanan Ashrawi and the peace prize”, The Age, 8 November 2003.

(70) Rubenstein, Colin, “No Appeasement on Ashrawi Award”, New York Forward, 21 November 2003.

(71) Lapkin, Ted, “War and Peace Prize”, The Review, 30(5), 5, p.23.

(72) Ibid, pp.24-25.

(73) Leibler, “Academics…”, Ibid.

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