Room for a view?

Antony Loewenstein

Truly free societies are defined by the limitations placed on free speech. What is permissible or illegal often determines the way we view subversive, extreme or outrageous opinions. The US is the most open nation on earth. Other countries are not so tolerant.


Disgraced historian David Irving languishes in an Austrian prison for denying the severity of the Jewish Holocaust. It is illegal in Austria to minimise the crimes of the Third Reich and Irving once claimed the gas chambers never existed in the Nazi death camps. (He now claims to have recanted this egregious position.)


Leading Jewish American historian Deborah Lipstadt -- who won a court case against Irving in 2000 after she accused him of Holocaust denial -- argues that Irving should not be in jail. "I am uncomfortable with imprisoning people for speech," she says. "Let him go and let him fade from everyone's radar screens."


Australian philosopher Peter Singer agrees. "How is the case of truth served by prohibiting Holocaust denial?" he writes. It is vital, he argues, that evidence and argument be marshalled to at least try to persuade doubters of the Holocaust (or any other historical anomaly).


In Australia, Irving has been banned from entering the country since 1993, when the Keating government blocked his entry (since confirmed many times during the Howard years). The Zionist lobby was keen to ban Irving - "a neo-Nazi hipster", according to the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council in 1996 - principally because, in its view, Irving's ideas might create doubt in the minds of Australians about the calamity of the Holocaust. He was therefore too dangerous to speak here. Irving's views may be repugnant, but a ban only gives him the status of a martyr. He is not restricted in the US and is barely known there.


There is an unfortunate tendency by the Zionist lobby in many countries to try to restrict robust debate on matters related to Israel, Judaism and the Holocaust. The strong implication is that our secular society isn't mature enough to withstand opinions some may find offensive or false. Alternative viewpoints and narratives should exist in a democracy, though when it comes to the Middle East, Arab or Palestinian perspectives are rarely offered the same column space or air time given to Israeli or Western sources. The present conflict should ensure we hear equally from Hezbollah, Hamas and Israel.


Isi Leibler, a former leader of Australia's Jewish community who lives in Israel, wrote in a recent letter to The Weekend Australian Review that "a large element of the Palestinian population has been transformed into a truly evil society. They have undergone a process not dissimilar to the draconian transformation of the Germans under the Nazis".


In the post-September 11 era, such views tend to pass without criticism. But imagine the justified outcry if an Arab commentator dared suggest in the Western media that Israelis or Jews are an evil people undeserving of sympathy. Neither perspective is in any way acceptable, but only one would generate outrage from the established Jewish leadership. Yet these views should never be silenced but robustly debated. After all, Leibler's comments are no less offensive than Irving's rants.


"The attempt to smear dissenting perspectives - and the distaste felt by many younger Jews towards this tactic - is providing a moment of truth for the advocates of censorship."

Back in 2003, moderate Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize. The Zionist lobby was outraged and demanded that then NSW premier Bob Carr refuse to present the award. Pressure was placed on the corporate sponsors of the prize to withdraw their support. AIJAC issued press releases that accused Ashrawi of being a Holocaust denier, an extremist, terrorist sympathiser and crony of Yasser Arafat. They were all false allegations. However, she defended the rights of Palestinians to resist Israeli occupation, terrorism in Western parlance.


She is undoubtedly a vocal advocate for the Palestinian cause - and this was enough to incur the wrath of the Zionist lobby - but she believes in dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. Elements within the Jewish community criticised AIJAC for its aggressive tactics and attempts to silence her. Carr later told me the lobby was "producing too much hostility among journalists, who are sick of being called to account. I think they should be more relaxed about the fact that, in a pluralist media, there will be criticisms of Israel appearing."


The release of my book, My Israel Question (just released and already slated for a second edition) has caused the Zionist establishment to again display a dangerous tendency to vilify critics. Last year, federal Labor MP Michael Danby insisted my publisher, Melbourne University Publishing, "should drop this whole disgusting project" and urged the Jewish community to "treat it with dignified silence". Danby hadn't read the book - I hadn't even finished writing it - but he recently claimed he "didn't need to read Mr Loewenstein's book to know what it would contain". MUP's decision to commission me was "like commissioning Pauline Hanson to write a book about multicultural Australia".


AIJAC's Jeremy Jones has conscribed to similar tactics. A review in the Australian Jewish News - after comparing me with fraudulent writer and accused anti-Semite Helen Demidenko/Darville - claimed that my book has "already garnered a fan club among overt anti-Semites, anti-Israel extremists and others who are treating the author as a Jewish 'useful idiot' who serves anti-Jewish agendas". The opposite is in fact true.


I have received hundreds of messages from Jews and non-Jews in Australia and overseas who are yearning for a more honest discussion about the Middle East and Israel's role within it. They tell me the silence around such debates has resulted in the ability of self-appointed Zionist leaders to claim they represent the voice of Judaism and Israel. They do not.


The attempt to smear dissenting perspectives - and the distaste felt by many younger Jews towards this tactic - is providing a moment of truth for the advocates of censorship. Australian society is capable of handling uncomfortable truths. We deserve to engage with viewpoints that we find repugnant as well as celebrate. Censorship only achieves one thing: failure.

Antony Loewenstein is author of My Israel Question (Melbourne University Publishing), released by David Marr at Gleebooks in Sydney on 8 August 2006. This article was originally published in the Australian on 7 August 2006 and is reproduced with the author's permission. Read more about Antony's book at the My Israel Question website. You can purchase the book on line at Melbourne University Publishing.

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