Jewish Leaders in Australia Say Media Not So 'Fair and Balanced' on Israel

The mainstream media down under has butted heads with the country's Jewish community on multiple occasions in recent months.

Dan Goldberg
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Dan Goldberg

Australia's parliamentarians are, with a few exceptions, overwhelmingly pro-Israel. The same, however, cannot be said for the nation's mainstream media, as multiple examples of reporting, in print and on television, and editorial cartoons have shown in recent months.

The government-funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation is often accused of left-wing bias, most recently for hosting controversial Israeli historian Ilan Pappe on a popular political talk show.

Australia's multicultural broadcaster, the Special Broadcasting Service, was on the receiving end of strident criticism from Jewish leaders last year for screening the controversial four-part series, "The Promise." The televised series directed by Peter Kosminsky traces the journey of a young woman to present-day Israel and the Palestinian territories to investigate her soldier grandfather's part in post-war mandatory Palestine. It was accused of presenting Israel in a less-than-flattering light.

Despite a 31-page complaint to the SBS ombudsman by the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, in which it slammed the British-made drama as "a landmark in the creeping rehabilitation of anti-Semitism in Western culture," the network's complaints committee dismissed the submission by Australian Jewry's leading body.

But arguably the most fraught relationship is with one of the nation's major publishing houses, Fairfax Media, the owner of the Sydney Morning Herald, Melbourne's The Age newspaper and the Canberra Times, all of which have come under attack in recent years for alleged anti-Israel bias in much the same way The Guardian or the New York Times have been criticized.

Delegations of Jewish leaders make intermittent visits to Fairfax's editorial offices in an attempt to thaw the frosty relations. But the rapprochement never seems to last long. As one senior Jewish official conceded to Haaretz: "For all the engagement, the overwhelming slant is negative – and unfairly so."

By contrast, Fairfax's main rival, News Ltd., owned by Australian-born American media mogul Rupert Murdoch, is staunchly pro-Israel. Moreover, the Murdoch press comprises about 70 percent of mastheads published across the continent.
The turbulent relationship between Fairfax and Jewish leaders erupted again last month following the publication in The Age of a cartoon in the aftermath of Israel's showdown with Hamas that was branded as "virulent hate speech" by Dvir Abramovich, the Israeli-born chair of the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation Commission.

The controversial cartoon – by the acclaimed Michael Leunig, who was declared an "Australian living treasure" by the National Trust in 1999, but who has also been a staunch critic of Israeli government policy – was an adaptation of German Pastor Martin Niemoller's famous "First they came for the Communists" poem.

In Niemoller's poem, which was originally a clarion call against apathy in the face of evil, "they" referred to the Nazis. In Leunig's parody, "they" referred to Israelis. "First they came for the Palestinians and I did not speak out..."

Abramovich led the chorus of condemnation arguing it "demonizes and vilifies Israelis and Jews" and is "the kind of hateful rhetoric you would expect on anti-Semitic websites, not The Age."

"In Leunig's world there are no Israeli victims, no blood spilt on the Israeli side of the border, no traumatized children or lives derailed," Abramovich argued. "There are only Israelis who are jackbooted Nazis determined to wipe them off the face of the earth."

The Anti-Defamation Commission requested a rebuttal in The Age but said it was rejected because "its claims about the cartoon were unreasonable."

The Age did, however, allow Leunig space to defend himself. "As a cartoonist I am not interested in defending the dominant, the powerful, the well-resourced and the well-armed because such groups are usually not in need of advocacy, moral support or sympathetic understanding," he wrote. "I am not against Israel but I am opposed to what I regard as its self-defeating, self-corrupting militarist policy, which is not only excessively homicidal and traumatizing but sows the seeds of irreversible hatred and can never bring a lasting peace."

Abramovich's rebuttal was instead published by The Australian newspaper, owned by Murdoch. "By any measure comparing Israel to Nazi Germany is a kind of deliberate amnesia of the monstrous policies of the Nazis that minimizes their genocidal extent and intent, and instead maligns Israel," he wrote.

In response to Leunig accusing Jewish critics of being "bullying boys who cry wolf," Abramovich asked: "Can you imagine any other community described in such an offensive way in an Australian newspaper?"

Leunig has drawn numerous cartoons that have offended Jews, arguably none more so than his infamous 2002 cartoon – which was not published in The Age – that analogized Israel with Auschwitz.

This cartoon was submitted in 2006 as a hoax by an ABC satirist to an Iranian newspaper, which ran a competition of cartoons mocking the Holocaust.
Leunig is not the only persona non grata from the Fairfax stable. Jewish community leaders have long railed against its Middle East correspondents, including Paul McGeough, who was captured and deported from Israel for joining the flotilla to Gaza in 2010.

McGeough wrote that the Israeli commandos, whose raid resulted in the deaths of nine activists, "hunted like hyenas," prompting widespread condemnation from Jewish leaders for his "inflammatory" language. He subsequently won a Walkley Award, the nation's highest journalistic accolade, for his eyewitness report, further irking Jewish leaders.

Fairfax's current Middle East correspondent, Ruth Pollard, has also been singled out, most recently following a story last year about alleged maltreatment of Palestinian children by the Israel Defense Forces, according to ex-soldiers who gave testimonies to Breaking the Silence.

It prompted the president of Australian Jewry, Dr. Danny Lamm, to accuse The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age of "featuring crude propaganda on their front page." Peter Kerr, then executive editor, defended Pollard's "strong, honest and independent journalism" and accused Lamm's criticism of being "misplaced."

Emily Gian, an Israel advocate for the State Zionist Council of Victoria, has been a trenchant critic of Fairfax Media. "The Age and Sydney Morning Herald readers are now treated to only one narrative in which every story from the region must delegitimize Israel," she wrote on Honest Reporting's website last year.

Tzvi Fleischer, of the privately funded Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, argued in a paper for Jewish Political Studies Review that the Australian media has a "mixed record" on Israel.

"Beyond bias, certain themes emerging in the Australian media are examples of the new anti-Semitism," he wrote. "These include the alleged financial and media power of the Jewish lobby; an extreme demonization of Israel and extravagant assertions about the supposed worldwide effects of its policy toward the Palestinians; conspiracy theories about American Jewish neoconservatives; and a tendency to claim that anti-Semitism is a response to Jewish behavior and attitudes."

But in this new-media age of blogging, tweeting and citizen journalism, not all Australian Jewish leaders are irate about perceived anti-Israel bias in the mainstream media.

What happens in Canberra is, according to one senior Zionist leader, far more important than what happens in the mainstream media.
"We've never had it so good in Australia," he said.

'First they came for the Palestinians,' a cartoon by Michael Leunig.Credit: The Age
Cartoonist Michael Leunig.Credit: Wikimedia

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