Sympathy for the traumatised Palestinian community was targeted by political vigilantes attempting to influence the Australian election.

by | 1 Jun, 2022 | Israel, Palestine

The struggle for land, identity, and justice lies at the centre of the Israeli colonial occupation of Palestine, and the worldwide campaign for the Palestinian people. (Photo: Washington Institute)

At the recent federal election, the most repugnant line of attack undertaken by media backers of the Morrison Government, on both ALP and Independent candidates, was an attempt to impose an Israel loyalty test.

Think about it. Candidates were not being assessed on whether they had policies that were in Australia’s national interests, but whether they had thoughts or had made comments that were deemed insufficiently pro-Israel by self-appointed guardians of the Holy State.

Prohibiting criticism of Israel is an unfortunate American and British political trait that Australia’s right-wing Zionists have been keen to emulate and import. It was used to great effect by the Israel lobby in the UK to demonise former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as antisemitic. 

In this election, attacks on ALP and Independent candidates were designed to assist the Liberal Party in electorates with significant Jewish populations, such as Wentworth in Sydney (Dave Sharma) and Goldstein in Melbourne (Tim Wilson). They were spectacularly unsuccessful.

The modus operandi of the political vigilantes undertaking the attacks was simple. Trawl through old speeches and comments made by candidates, sitting MPs, staffers and anyone tangentially associated with non-Liberal candidates, and suggest or imply that their sympathy for Palestinians or criticism of Israel was evidence of antisemitism.

On Twitter, Jewish cybersecurity expert Andre Oboler was appalled by the tactic, specifically at “attempts by people associated with the Liberal Party to frame independents as anti-Israel and/or antisemitic. They have been trawling for material that the Jewish community might dislike … The hate and fear being peddled is disingenuous and for political purposes, not out of real real concern”.

The journalists themselves were often quite open about their motives. In an interview for Australian Jewish News, Murdoch’s Sharri Markson expressed her primary concern: “I’m really worried that if the Labor Party gets in in the next federal election, there won’t be the same support for Israel that we have seen under the Coalition government”.

Markson soon lined up a number of targets, including Labor leader Anthony Albanese, “uncovering” unremarkable comments he made about Israel’s crimes which have been on the public record for years but which are now, according to Markson, “long-forgotten”.

New Wentworth electorate MP Allegra Spender at a pre-election debate with then-MP Dave Sharma at a community event hosted by the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, the Jewish Communal Appeal, and the Executive Council of Australia Jewry. (Photo: Courtesy AAP) 

It wasn’t just Albanese’s sympathy for Palestinians that Markson seemed to find distasteful. She appeared to be concerned that the bipartisan, status quo policy of the major parties was under challenge, in particular the prospect of an Albanese Government recognising the State of Palestine, as the ALP national conference has called for twice, and to which over 100 states are already committed. 

Markson’s attack was endorsed by a fringe lobby group, the Australian Jewish Association, which holds extreme right-wing views, though it commands little support within the local Jewish community and cannot claim to speak on their behalf. 

If she had more carefully read Albanese’s recent comments about Israel, Markson’s fears would have been assuaged. She would have struggled to distinguish his position from Scott Morrison’s. Both were fulsome in their unconditional praise for the Holy State and support Israel’s “right to exist”, even though no such right exists in international law

Labor has been a long-standing uncritical supporter of Israel. This approach is unlikely to change now that the party is in government, but an early indication of the path ahead will be whether it adopts the recommendation of the National Conference for the recognition of Palestinian statehood.

In Wentworth, where 12.5% of the electorate identify as Jewish, Markson and a Murdoch colleague attempted to tar independent candidate Allegra Spender in a similar way. Blair Palese, an activist with Wentworth Independents, but not a part of Spender’s campaign to replace sitting MP and pro-Israel politician Dave Sharma, a former Australian ambassador to Israel, was attacked in The Australian. 

On social media she had criticised Israel’s murder of unarmed Palestinian civilians, supported a boycott of the Sydney Festival which the Israel Embassy sponsored, and had retweeted posts referring to Israel as an apartheid state which was guilty of crimes against humanity. Unsurprisingly, no mention was made in the article that this latter accusation is now accepted by mainstream human rights organisations Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.  

Despite an attempt at guilt by association, Markson and fellow journalist Remy Varga could not conceal that Spender openly supports the views of the pro-Israel, Jewish population of Wentworth and opposes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) strategy towards Israel

In Goldstein, where 6.8% of the population identify as Jewish, it was a similar story. Former ABC correspondent Zoe Daniel ran as an independent candidate against free market ideologue and sitting Liberal Party member Tim Wilson.

‘Cynical election ploys’ were utilised to tag Goldstein candidate Zoe Daniel as antisemitic. However the tactics failed to swing significant voters to retain the sitting member Tim Wilson, in a seat with substantial numbers of Jewish voters. (Image: The Age)

Wilson has assiduously courted the Jewish vote for years with a commitment to Israel that is difficult to overstate, once claiming on Twitter that “Israel can always depend on Australia. We will say so for as long as we have breath”. More recently he celebrated “the 74th anniversary of Israel’s modern rebirth (my emphasis) and 74 years of fellowship as a shining beacon of democracy, freedom and hope”, though that light clearly hasn’t yet shone on Gaza or the West Bank.

With his fellow Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) alumnus Senator James Patterson, Wilson confected campaign props and photo ops with yarmulkes, the Jewish skull caps, at the Holocaust Museum in Elsternwick in Melbourne, earning the ire of Rabbi Yaron Gottlieb, who runs the Voices of Goldstein Twitter account. Gottlieb described Wilson’s stunts as “all bullshit” and “idiotic virtue-signalling garbage”. 

Subsequently, antisemitism slurs were allegedly made by Wilson against Daniel’s volunteer workers during campaigning in Goldstein. Over several weeks Paterson also took out full page advertisements in the local Jewish press against what he called “fake Independents” with “extreme views” about Jews and Israel. 

On Facebook, the head of Mount Scopus Memorial College (not in the electorate of Goldstein) Rabbi James Kennard, labelled Zoe Daniel’s position on Israel as “dissembling and deliberately ambiguous”. In 2021 Daniel co-signed a letter asking the Australian media to do better, more balanced reporting on Israel-Palestine.

The historical record reveals a very one-sided pro-Israel approach taken by many Australian journalists, a widely held view to which the number of signatories on the letter attests. However, when any criticism of Israel is deemed unacceptable and can be conflated as antisemitic, Zionists like Principal Kennard regularly demand immediate answers to their questions.

Daniel responded by saying “I did not write the letter, and if I had, I would have framed it very differently. The letter makes several assumptions and did not take into account the complexity of the situation at the time, in which Israel’s security was under threat.” However, if she were to have removed her name from the letter it would have been “insincere or a cheat’s way out”.

It was a timid buckle or perhaps a politically-prudent concession at a key moment in the campaign, and enough to neutralise the attacks despite the best efforts of The Australian and other media outlets to keep the story bubbling along.

Kennard has form when it comes to patrolling the fields of Middle East commentary for political transgressions and protecting Israel from legitimate criticism. In a poorly written and confused attack on John Lyons’s 2021 book Dateline Jerusalem: Journalism’s Toughest Assignment, the head of Mount Scopus made an outrageous implication of antisemitism against the author. 

Unfortunately for those who examine the Israel-Palestine conflict critically, “bad faith charges of antisemitism and anti-Israel bias” are par for the course

It turned out that when it came time for electors to cast their votes, the ‘sensible centre’ was found to contain support for climate action, progress for women, and a desire for integrity and fairness, and not a sign of a fanned fear of antisemitism. (Photo: Coutesy AP)

While Israel was not a major issue in the election, people like Zionism Victoria president, Yossi Goldfarb, urged the community to consider Israel when they “think about who they’re going to vote for”. But others in the Jewish community argue it should remain a separate issue.

“There is something very unhealthy – arguably even unethical,” writes Jewish community activist Mandi Katz, “about voting for candidates based not on what they will actually do in the electorate which they will represent but on the basis of what they think and feel about a political situation in another place.”

As Liam Getreu, executive director of New Israel Fund Australia, accurately notes in Haaretz, “For the Australian right, ‘support for Israel’ only counts if it is a nuance-free blank check for right-wing Israeli governments. Criticism of Israeli settlement growth, Israel’s treatment of Palestinians under occupation or prime ministerial racism aren’t acceptable, even though they are staple talking points of Israel’s Zionist left“. Only one perspective on the conflict is acceptable.

“The fact that both independents had been the target of sustained attacks, accusing them of BDS sympathies and questioning their support for Israel, seems to have had no impact on the outcome,” says writer Michael Visontay, editor of independent Jewish publication, Plus61J.

The election wiped out supporters of Israel, Dave Sharma in Wentworth and Tim Wilson in Goldstein. It also ended, or at least suspended, the political career of Josh Frydenberg in Kooyong. All three were replaced by small “l” liberal independents.

As an editorial in Australian Jewish outlet Plus61J reflected: “These results make it clear that Jewish voters do not respond to smear campaigns centred on our special interests and, like other Australians, are increasingly influenced by issues of environment, equity, and probity”. 

Confecting a moral panic implying antisemitic conspiracies were behind these first-time candidates – as well as the Opposition leader – proved utterly ineffective, deserves widespread condemnation, while simultaneously exposing the inability of Murdoch media to swing enough voters behind the political wing of the company, even in what had until now always been blue-ribbon Liberal Party seats.

Scott Burchill

SCOTT BURCHILL is Honorary Fellow at Deakin University. He is the author of The National Interest in International Relations Theory (Palgrave Macmillan 2005), Misunderstanding International Relations (Palgrave Macmillan 2020) and co-author and editor of Theories of International Relations (5th ed Palgrave Macmillan 2013). He has also taught at Monash University, the University of Melbourne and the University of Tasmania, and is a regular commentator on ABC Radio and TV. View all posts by