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MICHAEL GAWENDA: Truths and myths about Australia’s ‘Israel lobby’

Michael Gawenda
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MICHAEL GAWENDA: Truths and myths about Australia’s ‘Israel lobby’

Published: 6 October 2023

Last updated: 19 March 2024

In this extract from his memoir, the ex-editor of The Age says Israel's advocates are relentless but the idea that a lobby dictates foreign policy is both shocking and laughable.

In June 1981, I arrived back in Australia after three years in London, where I had been a correspondent for The Herald and Weekly Times newspaper group. A few weeks later, I was asked to come to what I was told would be a panel discussion about the way the media covered the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. I assumed I had been invited because of the articles I had written a few months earlier, during my first visit to Israel, which had caused something of a stir in the Melbourne Jewish community.

By the time I arrived back in Australia, I had forgotten the articles, and was surprised by the invitation. I did not know the people who issued it, and I somewhat reluctantly agreed to be on the panel. I thought the other panellists would be journalists. The event was held in a suburban community hall on a Sunday afternoon.

On stage, at the front of the hall, were six or seven chairs, with another chair set a small distance away. When I arrived, I was told I should sit on that chair. About 200 people trooped into the hall, most of whom I did not know. In the row of chairs sat not journalists, but a group of youngish men. Each of them had copies of the articles I had written. For the next hour and a half, these articles were analysed, criticised, dissected, destroyed. I was on trial!

When it came to my turn to defend myself for what I had written about Israel, I don’t think I did a magnificent job. I felt I had been misled about the composition of the panel. Still, I could not help but see that these Jews were forensic, knowledgeable, articulate. They knew much more than I knew. This taking on and re-educating me, a Jewish journalist, was a mission for them. Back then, there were few Jews in journalism. It was a trade, and a poorly paid one. Few Jewish mothers would have encouraged their children — their sons, in particular — to become reporters.

I had moved on from those articles. Journalists are always moving on to the next story. But we forget that while we move on, for the people we write about, and for people like the Jews in that hall interrogating me, there is no moving on, because the stories are central to their lives and their life’s work.

Like all foreign correspondents returning home, I felt unsettled, unclear about what the paper I was returning to had in store for me. I had loved the freedom of the correspondent’s life. London in the late 1970s and early 1980s was the capital city of a country in decline. The empire was gone. Northern Ireland was racked by the violence of what was essentially a civil war. Racism against Blacks and South Asians was widespread. British industry was in decline; its industrial centres — Manchester and Liverpool, and other northern cities — were becoming industrial wastelands, where the future looked bleak.

Journalists felt bullied, because these people were relentless, constantly challenging their reporting, constantly demanding meetings with editors.

This was about the time, in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher came to power. Before her election, she was known as "Thatcher the milk snatcher" because, as education minister in the Heath government during the early 1970s, she had removed free milk from Britain’s schools. We had lived in the south of London. We did not have close Jewish friends, and we were not involved in Jewish communal life. We had acquaintances who were Jewish, people my wife had known when she lived in London in the early 1970s, who we would visit from time to time.

But there was a distance between us and them that we never overcame. The ancestors of these Jews had come from Eastern Europe a century before and had settled in the East End or in Manchester, but their roots were now in the middle-class suburbs of north London. They were determined not to make a fuss of their Jewishness. They were so damn English.

More than forty years later, I wonder about the English Jews we knew back then, what happened to them after Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party. Were they still the quiet, polite, anxious, hoping-to-be-invisible Jews that we had known? They were so different from the Jews in that community hall in Melbourne who were interrogating me, those unapologetic Jews who were unashamedly defenders of Israel.

This was my first encounter with some of the Jews who would eventually become part of what came to be regarded by many on the Left as the Israel Lobby, a powerful, international, secret, almost demonic group of Jews who the former premier of New South Wales and former foreign minister Bob Carr, once a passionate supporter of Israel, has described as “the most powerful foreign influence operation in our country”— a terrible accusation that borders on a warrant for treason.

It is particularly troubling for Jews, because it carries echoes of classical Jewish conspiracy theories about Jews both being extraordinarily powerful and holding dual loyalties — that Jews are, above all, loyal to their fellow Jews.

Half a century ago, on that stage in suburban Melbourne, before they had become part of the Israel Lobby, they were a bunch of young and early-middle-aged men, none of whom I knew, but all of them punchy, smart, deeply knowledgeable about Israeli politics in a way I was not — not even close. And they were relentless. I had no great affection for them that day.

Later, when I had more contact with them, and especially when I was editing The Age, I would often think that if their goal was to educate journalists, editors, and politicians about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, they were not very good at it, this so-called Israel Lobby — which is a misnomer, for it suggests they represent a foreign government, which is not true.

These young men were too ready to accuse journalists of sloppy work, too quick to see bias when, even if there happened to be bias in an article, it was not all that important. This tendency to accuse too quickly, to elevate every biased bit of reporting into something fundamentally significant, persisted even when these young men became professional lobbyists in support of Israel. I often thought that accusations of bias were not the way to influence journalists and editors.

I often wondered whether other journalists disliked them more than I did. The answer to that question, I was to discover, was that there were journalists who despised the Israel Lobby and who despised its leaders. These journalists felt threatened and bullied. They believed that these lobbyists threatened to harm their careers, that they had influential friends and contacts they would lobby to try to get them sacked. They felt bullied, because these people were relentless with their complaints, constantly challenging their reporting, constantly demanding meetings with editors.

Was any of this true? Were media executives — even board members of media companies — contacted and urged to "do something" about a particular journalist or editor? I am pretty sure it did happen. But was a journalist or editor ever moved or sacked as a result? I think not.

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During my seven years as editor of The Age, there were many instances when a politician, or a business leader, or another public figure contacted me to complain about the work of a particular journalist. Peter Costello, when he was treasurer, would call to complain about the work of Tim Colebatch, The Age’s veteran economics editor. Frankly, he wanted Colebatch sacked.

Did he complain to the CEO or the board about this? I do not know. But I do know that, often, when they were not satisfied with my response, politicians and others went to the CEO or to members of the Fairfax board. Occasionally, the CEO or a board member would call to tell me about a complaint they had received. I would listen, but that was all. I do not remember any calls from senior Fairfax executives or board members complaining about the paper’s reporting of Israel and the Palestinians.

Towards the end of my time as editor, when the prominent businessman Ron Walker was chairman of the board, Walker called me two or three times a week to suggest how I might improve the paper, and every now and then he gave me the benefit of his opinion about a particular journalist. He complained about the way the paper was "covering Melbourne". What he meant was that we were not enthusiastic enough about the Grand Prix or the great benefit of the Casino to Melbourne’s cultural life. None of this ever went anywhere.

I thought that editors should listen to what the CEO or a board member had to say, and then ignore it. I also thought that editors — and journalists — needed to listen to complaints about the paper’s journalism. Editors had power over what was published. The people who complained didn’t.

I thought — and still think — that it was ridiculous for editors to whinge too much about people, such as members of the Israel Lobby, who were regular complainers. There is nothing worse than editors whingeing about what they have to put up with; thin-skinned (senior) journalists are not much better.

Yes, as I’ve said, sometimes these complainers went above the head of the editor and complained to the CEO or a board member. That’s their right. The editor has the power to decide what appears in the paper, and how it’s treated. Part of the job is to listen to complaints and to meet from time to time with people — even people you don’t like very much — who have problems with the paper.

In 1981, when I was on trial in that small community hall for my articles about Israel, I was found guilty of having raised unwarranted questions about Israel’s survival, although no formal verdict was pronounced. There were Jews, most of them volunteers, who did hasbara — there is no English equivalent for the word, but it means taking on the role of explaining — for Israel. They were my interrogators at my trial.

These hasbara volunteers were keen and smart and knowledgeable, but their relentlessness, their criticism of even minor factual errors, for instance, was often counter-productive. The creation of a team of professional hasbara lobbyists was born later out of a growing dissatisfaction among Jewish community leaders with the work of the unpaid, untrained hasbara volunteers. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Israel Lobby, with its supposed power and influence, and its supposedly malign effect on Australian foreign policy, lavishly funded by wealthy Jews, did not yet exist.

There were journalists who despised the Israel Lobby. They believed that these lobbyists would lobby to get them sacked.

There were Jewish organisations — the Zionist Federation, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry — that advocated for a close relationship between Australia and Israel. Sometimes, these organisations sent delegations to Canberra to meet with foreign ministers, even prime ministers, to discuss Australia’s position on Israel and the Palestinians.

But they were not considered to be a dark and nefarious and secretive cabal of Jews doing the bidding of Israel, acting in Israel’s national interests rather than Australia’s. What they were doing was straightforward: they wanted to convince Australian politicians and journalists and the Australian people of the need to be “friendly” to Israel — they called it being “fair”. These organisations and the small group of volunteers doing hasbara wanted to put the case that friendship with and support for Israel was in Australia’s national interest.

I don’t think the idea that Zionism was racist and evil was widely held on either side of Australian politics, nor within Australian journalism. This was the case even though the UN General Assembly had passed a resolution in 1975 stating that Zionism was racist. That resolution had come at the height of the Cold War, and had been pushed by the Soviet Union as part of its attempt to strengthen its influence in the Arab world.

The New Left, which in the aftermath of the Six- Day War in June 1967 regarded Israel as a neo-colonial state, supported the resolution, and some in the Socialist Left of the Victorian Labor Party supported it, but mainstream Labor did not. That held even after the 1982 invasion of Lebanon by the Israeli army and the massacre of Palestinians by Christian Phalange forces — Israel’s allies — in two Palestinian refugee camps.

The UN resolution was rescinded in 1991. Earlier, in 1986, the Australian parliament had passed a resolution calling on the UN General Assembly to reverse its 1975 vote. Bill Hayden, the foreign minister at the time, spent a year preparing for the motion and ensuring Labor Party support for it. Australia was the first country to pass such a resolution; the US Congress followed its example, as did Britain and France.

It would be an exaggeration to say that Australia played the lead role in rescinding the Zionism-is-racism resolution, but its role was significant. Hayden at the time was a leading federal member of the Centre Left faction, and yet he took on this campaign to reverse the UN resolution. While there was some disquiet on the Left in the Labor Party, there was no significant pushback to Hayden’s campaign.

Were media executives urged to "do something" about a journalist? I am pretty sure it did happen. But was anyone ever moved or sacked? I think not.

In retrospect, this was a sort of high point — a low point for much of today’s Left — in the relationship between the Jewish community and the Labor Party. It is inconceivable that a Labor government today — the Albanese government, for instance — would allow a foreign minister to do what Bill Hayden did: help lead the charge to overturn a UN resolution on Israel. It would not happen, even with a Labor government that is, on any reasonable reckoning, pro-Israel.

What else has changed? The small group of Jews doing hasbara back when I first met some of them grew into a professional operation funded by donations from the Jewish community. The Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, formed in 1997 with the merger of Australia-Israel Publications and the Australian Institute of Jewish Affairs, is independent, and not answerable to the peak Jewish community organisations.

But increasingly, because it is well funded and staffed by professionals, it has come to be regarded by the political class and by journalists as the voice of the Jewish community on everything to do with Israel and Palestine. Some former senior Labor politicians who were once enthusiastic supporters of Israel believe that this well-funded and professional group of Jews has seized extraordinary powers for itself. For many on the Left, this group of Jews has been able to dictate Australia’s foreign policy, especially policies on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, to the detriment of Australia’s national interest.

To me, this is both laughable and shocking. Shocking, because I grew up a Jew a heartbeat after the Holocaust, in the shadow of Jewish powerlessness and its terrible consequences. Laughable, because, like most conspiracy theories, it is bullshit, but powerful bullshit because it is rooted in ancient prejudice.

This is an edited extract from My Life As a Jew, by Michael Gawenda, published by Scribe.

Photo: Foreign Minister Penny Wong at an Executive Council of Australian Jewry event (Noel Kessel, AJN)

About the author

Michael Gawenda

Michael Gawenda is one of Australia’s best-known journalists and authors. In a career spanning more than four decades, Michael has been a political reporter, foreign correspondent in London and Washington, and was editor and editor in chief of The Age from 1997 to 2004. He has won numerous journalism awards including three Walkley awards.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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