War of Rhetoric vs. Australian Jewish Lobby Heats Up

Journalist adds fuel to the fire erupting after the broadcast last month of an anti-Israel documentary that provoked the ire of the powerful AIJAC.

SYDNEY – Australian Jewry’s major pro-Israel lobby has come under fire for its “extremely hard-line positions,” sparked by an ongoing war of words following the broadcast of a controversial documentary that accuses Israeli soldiers of abusing Palestinian children.

The Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, which claims to be “the premier public affairs organization for the Australian Jewish community,” was singled out this week by John Lyons, Middle East correspondent for The Australian, a newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch.

“AIJAC is not an elected body representing the Jewish community but a privately funded lobby group with extremely hard-line positions on Israel,” Lyons wrote in a scathing article that was unusual in an otherwise unapologetically pro-Israel paper.

The piece prompted AIJAC’s executive director, Dr. Colin Rubenstein, to launch a stinging rebuttal, dismissing Lyons’ allegations as “mud-slinging against his critics.”

“AIJAC unreservedly repudiates John Lyons’ depiction of this organization as holding ‘extremely hard-line positions on Israel’ and is not surprised he adduced no evidence for this other than a barely relevant reference to a claim by a single politician,” Rubenstein told Haaretz on Sunday.

He was referring to Bob Carr, Australia’s foreign minister in the previous Labor government, who declared last month that AIJAC had “directed a furious effort at trying to block even routine criticism of settlements, as if this were more vital than advocating a two-state solution or opposing boycotts of Israel.”

The furor erupted after the broadcast last month of "Stone Cold Justice," a controversial joint investigative effort by The Australian and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Lyons, who presented the documentary, accused Israel of a “new policy” of systematically targeting Palestinian children for physical abuse, and claimed that its soldiers force the youngsters to sign false confessions.

Broadcast of the film was widely savaged by a slew of local Jewish organizations, with AIJAC’s national chairman, Mark Leibler, branding it a “blanket demonization” of Israel. Philip Chester, president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, blasted it as “highly emotive and one-sided.”

In a March 1 article titled “Evil and deeply untrue,” Lyons’ colleague at The Australian, foreign editor Greg Sheridan, slammed the documentary as “a crude piece of anti-Israel propaganda that revived some of the oldest anti-Semitic tropes,” and recommended that readers go to the AIJAC website for “exhaustive rebuttals.”

“I find it breathtaking that a journalist would recommend a private lobby group for a rebuttal of journalism,” Lyons retorted this week.

For his part, Rubenstein said “Lyons’ response was to fail to address a single criticism but instead to make further unsubstantiated allegations, about AIJAC, his colleague Greg Sheridan and Israel, present further material out of context, belittle concerns with the empowerment of extremists and introduce a furphy of a censorious and all-powerful cabal of Jewish leaders in Melbourne.”

In his article, Lyons also quoted Australian Jewish leaders with whom he met in Israel, one of whom told the journalist he wanted the occupation to end. Lyons wrote: “When I asked why he never said that publicly, he replied: ‘Are you serious? And have the Melbourne guys declare a fatwa against me?’”

Rubenstein rejected the allegations outright. “Given the vigorous and active debate within the Australian Jewish community, if there are people in the community who do not have the courage of their convictions or confidence that they are able to convince others of the validity of their views, their existence proves exactly nothing,” he said.

'Turf wars'

The current uproar involving AIJAC, which was founded in 1997 as an amalgamation of Australia-Israel Publications and the Australian Institute of Jewish Affairs, has reignited the question of who speaks for Australian Jewry. AIJAC has in the past been embroiled in "turf wars" against various other groups for allegedly straying across territorial lines.

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) is "the peak body" representing the country's 110,000-plus Jews, according to its website, while the above-mentioned Zionist Federation of Australia is the umbrella organization of the Zionist movement in Australia.

The ECAJ “and no other organization on behalf of the community” makes submissions to the federal government on issues affecting Australian Jewry, president Robert Goot reiterated in a statement this week, adding with respect to AIJAC: “I cannot recall any major disagreement between our two organizations on any issue involving representations to the federal government. There is no clash."

He also stressed that the ECAJ has “had the running” on the campaign to stop the government from repealing a section of the Racial Discrimination Act, which Jewish leaders have used to litigate successfully against Holocaust deniers, anti-Semites and religious extremists.

The ECAJ has long been the poor relative of AIJAC, which is well-financed thanks to fund-raising efforts led by Leibler, who has for decades maintained close ties to prime ministers in Australia and Israel despite different political orientations; he is sometimes accused of being more allied to the Liberal Party here and Likud there.

In December, Prime Minister Tony Abbott addressed the 60th anniversary of Leibler’s law firm, which was also attended by Labor leader Bill Shorten along with a cast of MPs.

The ECAJ appointed a full-time executive director in 2009, and has two other staff members; in contrast, AIJAC has more than 10 staffers in its Sydney and Melbourne offices.

Earlier this month, AIJAC’s Jeremy Jones addressed the American Israel Public Affairs conference in Washington, D.C. on the subject of Israel-Asia ties, an area it invests heavily in.

AIJAC, which is also affiliated with the American Jewish Committee, has for over a decade sponsored an annual program in Israel for journalists, policy makers and advisers, which critics have described as “a propaganda trip.”

Henry Benjamin