In Australia, the question of Palestine and the Palestinians has been given unprecedented coverage in the past month. It certainly comes with an overdue date, for too long the Australian public has been consumed with the Israeli version of the conflict leaving the Palestinian narrative to dwindle in obscurity and deal with the “terrorist” labeling and other racist stereotypes.
What unleashed the Palestinian struggle on to the scene was the furor over the 2003 Sydney Peace Prize awarded to Palestinian democracy, peace and justice advocate, Dr Hanan Ashrawi. As soon as the award was announced, the Israel lobby came out in full swing, launching a concerted campaign to discredit and assassinate Ashrawi’s character and ongoing commitment to peace and justice. The campaign was replete with disinformation, vain interpretations of her commentary on the conflict, and outright lies on her work and history. Every single allegation and diatribe claimed against Ashrawi was squashed. Ashrawi and her supporters knew that this campaign was not just aimed against her, but it was a very attack on the Palestinian people and their struggle. Another attempt, in a long history, at silencing the Palestinian narrative.
It seems as though there has been a new attempt by the Israel lobby to censor the Palestinian narrative with allegations that it was involved in censoring the Treasures of Palestine exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum, uncovered by ABC’s Lateline on Monday night. The exhibition, a personal collection of the Palestinian delegate to Australia, Mr Ali Kazak, was held in Canberra in March of this year and was allowed to be displayed in full. It featured two political documentaries, and 50 poignant photographs of Palestinian dispossession, exile and life under Israeli military occupation. Only 5 of those pictures were allowed final screening at the Powerhouse Museum, along with a film on Palestinian fashion. The community cultural weekend open to the public on 29-30 November doesn’t feature the political documentaries, but one about the work of Dr Hanan Ashrawi and a Canne’s festival award-winning film of a Palestinian wedding under occupation, Rana’s Wedding. Mr Kazak claims that all photographs with Israeli soldiers or graphic images from the occupied territories were culled; the permanent exhibition remains free of the context of an Israeli occupation. The Museum’s Director Dr Kevin Fewster interviewed on Lateline denied that there was censorship of the collection and sights lack of space was the reason they couldn’t be shown. The Powerhouse Museum is the largest museum in the country.
The NSW Jewish Board of Deputies had a say in the consultation process over the collections final presentation, although President, Stephan Rothman strongly denies these claims and maintains they only raised concerns with the Director and did not view the exhibition’s content until its launch. Dr Fewster’s version of events needs to be answered too. The Australian Jewish News on 17 October, quoted him as saying the exhibition was “free of propaganda”, this would seem to dismiss his claims about lack of space. The consultation he had with Mr Rothman was apparently appropriate in “community relations” terms as he argued on Lateline. No community body from the Palestinian or the Arab community was approached in the consultation process, and the Australian Arabic Communities Council is right to demand answers from the Director of the Museum.
These claims of censorship by the Museum and the false accusations propagated against Hanan Ashrawi illustrate that there is a concerted attempt to deny, suppress and silence anything Palestinian. Palestinians know all to well about denial and attempts to silence and hijack their narrative. No due space is given to their voice and they are left to vanish or simply be on the defensive every time they try to speak of or represent their struggle, a struggle that is based on the oldest and most universal of human struggles, freedom, peace and justice.
After having my article, ‘Silencing the Palestinian narrative’ published in Honi Soit on 29 October, Sydney University’s weekly student newspaper regarding the actions of the Israel lobby on Dr Ashrawi, and asking the student community to support the awarding of the prize to Ashrawi (especially since allegations of pulling out funds from the University if Dr Ashrawi was to receive the award at the Great Hall on our university grounds surfaced) within 36 hours of distribution, every single copy on campus mysteriously disappeared, which is unusual, Honi has never been that hot. And there was no other piece in that edition that would have stirred so much contention, certainly not an SRC election campaign that was the subject of the only other known Honi disappearance some years ago (They turned up bound and wet at the lake in Victoria Park). It seems the title was apt, the narrative was silenced. Yet it is not known what happened to those Honis’.
The very nature of the campaign against Hanan Ashrawi was a clear attempt to divert attention from the struggle Ashrawi represents, which is the case for Palestinian human rights, an end to a 35-year-old military occupation, and a long struggle for a peace based on justice. Just as the Treasures of Palestine exhibition has no context of life under occupation, the diversion campaign on Ashrawi meant that her supporters would be on the defensive, dispelling all the untruths that came hurdling across daily and continuously without addressing the issues of occupation.
There was never a time when the campaigners were taken to task. They should have been interrogated, asked what their position is on the military occupation, where their absent condemnation of Israeli terrorism was, what their position is on the Palestinian refugee’s right to return, a right entrenched in international humanitarian law and their position on justice as a basis for peace. Former Justice of the High Court, Justice Marcus Enfield, whom I met two years ago and used to look up to in great admiration recently cut through the pains and memories of Palestinians by denying the role of Zionist forces in the massive expulsion in 1948 and refused to recognize this inalienable right. Certainly not the actions of a person who defends and upholds justice, the rule of law and the sanctity of human rights.
Michael Visontay, editor of The Sydney Morning Herald’s Spectrum, wrote a thought provoking piece in the Herald on 14 November on the Ashrawi campaign; the limits of free speech and the image of the “Jewish lobby”, arguing that some commentators warned against lobbying by Jews, fearing it legitimizes anti-Semitism. However this was not the argument of various commentators (Alan Ramsey, Philip Adams and Margo Kingston) who spoke out against the campaign waged by the lobby. Their grievance wasn’t against the thought of Jews lobbying or having the freedom to voice their opposition to Dr Ashrawi–the issue, as Paula Abood Sydney community worker and activist observed, was “how this free speech was exercised that must be of concern to anyone who is against bullying, intimidation and the mobilising of disinformation to discredit individuals.”
It must also be recognised that the term, “Jewish lobby” is an incorrect term to apply. As in all communities there is a diversity of opinion and this was displayed by a scope of Australian Jews who saw the campaign as needless or abhorrent. It was articulately expressed by NSW State Greens MP, Ian Cohen, journalist Anthony Loewenstein and in The Age’s letters page by Sol Salbe on November 13 who responded to a letter published the previous day by Michael Lipshutz of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria, Jeff Morrison of the State Zionist Federation and Dr Colin Rubenstein of the Australia/Israeli & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC). Salbe wrote they “claim inaccurately, to represent a vague entity called "mainstream" Jewish opinion. But, in fact, they speak for a much more clearly defined position, which is essentially that of the present Israeli Government.
Not everyone in the Jewish community, here or in Israel, supports a policy of expanding settlements on Arab land, targeted assassinations that usually result in horrific "collateral damage", and building massive walls/fences to keep populations apart.
Not everyone in the Jewish community thinks that such policies, which keep Palestinian anger at boiling point, offer anything useful in the long struggle for peace.”
A British Jew, Michael Harpen had similar sentiments to an unrelated incident concerning the Board of Deputies of British Jews writing to The Daily Telegraph of London on the 31 of October, he writes in part; “There is a groundswell of opinion, certainly in Britain and Europe, that the actions of the Israeli government (and the IDF) constitute ethnic cleansing, and that the Board of Deputies is acting ultra vires its constitution in becoming apologists and supporters of that regime.
My family and I are fourth-generation British Jews and we wish formally to dissociate ourselves from the actions of this body who, we claim, now increasingly represent the interests of the government of Israel rather than the rights of the British Jewish community.”
It then seems appropriate to associate those who wish to lobby for Israel to be termed the Israel lobby and not the Jewish lobby.
The anti-Ashrawi campaign and the alleged censorship at the Museum are not confined to just Australia. The actions of the Israel lobby all around the world seems to have one aim in mind; distort, silence, and deny the Palestinians, their memory, their history, their identity and their right to narrate. The late Palestinian scholar activist, Edward Said, wrote in Al-Ahram Weekly April17-23, 1997 of the Deir Yassin massacre in 1948, which was “to reduce the Palestinian actuality to nil, to efface the Palestinian people as a people without legitimate rights was the true purpose of Deir Yassin”, and more importantly, “it is a purpose that continues to set the Zionist agenda to this day”.
Said has been at the forefront of the Palestinian push to tell their version of history and stamp their “right to narrate”. It is a struggle the Palestinians have had to face and they have certainly done it with conviction, despite the half a century attempt at de-legitimising them altogether, whether physically in the forced expulsion in 1948 and now in occupied Palestine, or externally, just as there was an attempt to deny their identity, they have continued to exist. With conviction and belief in the justice of their cause they continue to speak. They will tell you that being born Palestinian is strong enough to suggest that attempts at dismissing them will never prosper.
Now we see a new approach from the Israeli lobby, explains Ali Abunimah of the ElectronicIntifada.net writing of an attempt to hijack the narrative in US Congress, on 8 November he says, “having been unable to suppress the Palestinian narrative” the Israel lobby are now, “trying to appropriate it for themselves”.
Something Hanan Ashrawi refused to submit to whilst in Sydney. Repeatedly barraged with questions about claims she doesn’t condemn terrorism (which she does), she said, after being probed a number of times by Kerry O’Brien on ABC’s 7.30 Report on 5 November, that having to answer this fallacy and in a way that the Israel lobby wants to hear it is an attempt at dictating her language; “if the discourse is always being hijacked by placing the Palestinians on the defensive and saying the only legitimacy you have is by adopting my language, my approach, condemning the side I condemn, then I would lose my integrity and the honesty of my own speech. So I would much rather dictate my own language rather than have it dictated by others.” Something she re-iterated again at her acceptance lecture that same night, despite Mark Leibler of AIJAC claiming victory (Australian Jewish News, 11 November) over the campaign waged by AIJAC, saying it was “successful” in preventing Ashrawi from rallying “defamation against Israel”.
Ashrawi said: “I wrote [the] speech, specifically disregarding any of the imposed or extraneous attacks, diatribes, smear campaigns and so on, because I felt there has to be a self-contained integrity and honesty to that speech and it shouldn’t be hijacked by any attempt at de-legitimising not just myself but the Palestinians and all those voices who are working for a just peace.”
….[W]e will not allow our land, nor our voice nor our will to be confiscated or to be besieged and therefore here once again I promise you that our message, our joint message, and our Palestinian narrative and all attempts at denial will be maintained and will not be tainted at these attempts at denying our very humanity.”
A narrative and a language that is as much under attack as Palestinians in occupied Palestine, though facing an onslaught of military and violent proportions. The attempts at diminishing the Palestinians into the all too easy to package stereotype of terrorists, mass murderers or using vile racism such as “they don’t love their children”- all notions that must be dispelled, cannot continue to pervade what is fed to the public whether in Australia, the US or the UK. Because there is a cause and a struggle that is based on justice and human rights and freedom and dignity being waged by a drained and exhausted yet resilient people. And the narrative, no matter how obtrusive or deceitful the campaigns waged to kill and banish it are, will still be maintained and will continue, just like the resilience of the Palestinians under occupation.
After laughing at the irony of the aptness of the title, bitterness at this tactic to suppress, and treasuring the fate of those now vintage copies of Honi Soit that we managed to keep, a friend said to me, “don’t be to upset about it, it just means that some people out there are scared you might have had the power to change people’s views and introduce them to Palestine and the struggle for justice, some people will do anything to suppress the truth.”
Rest assured the narrative of Palestine and its people and their conviction will not, (unlike those Honi’s) disappear mysteriously.