The topic for the night was “Social justice, Israel and Palestine”.
Religions for Peace Australia, an outfit affiliated with the New York based Religions for Peace International, which claims to be the world’s largest international coalition of representatives from the great religions dedicated to promoting peace, was running a Q&A Forum on the Middle East in Melbourne. The event had been advertised by, among others, the Q Society to its members.
The line-up of speakers: Yousef Alreemawi – translator, language teacher, 3CR radio broadcaster and campaigner on Palestinian issues; Bishop George Browning, president of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network; Ron Jontof-Hutter, a clinical psychologist who has written about antisemitism and Israel; and Nadia Ghaly, an Egyptian born into a Coptic family who is a 3ZZZ broadcaster and women’s rights advocate.
The speakers came from completely different worlds, which might have led to an interesting discussion. It was to be chaired by Dr Bernie Power, a lecturer in Islamic Studies at the Melbourne School of Theology.
The forum, held last week, had been promoted as an “open and honest discussion in a respectful atmosphere”. It was sold as a forum to find common ground.
It turned out to be anything but.
Power had even positioned the speakers on different tables with the pro-Palestinian side of Alreemawi and Browning at one end, and Jontof-Hutter and Ghaly who were pro-Israeli at the other.
The hundred odd who turned up at the Wheeler Centre were told to listen and hold their tongues.
The prospects for respectful discussion dimmed from the outset as Jontof-Hutter claimed the Palestinians were notorious for child abuse, violence against women and minorities.
“Society is judged by its treatment of women, of children, minorities, animals, gays and press freedom,” Jontoff-Hutter said. “The Palestinian leadership has failed on every one of these…”
“Civilised societies dote on their children. Palestinian leadership abuses them for propaganda headlines. It is hard to find a greater abuser of human and children’s rights than the Palestinian government. In their depraved depths of evil, they are using children as young as 13 to blow themselves up…
How would you feel if the government forced you to keep bombs in children’s schools, your homes and places of worship? Is it not the most perverse form of child abuse and exploitation? That’s what the Palestinian government that receives Australian aid does to its own people.
Shame on anyone apologising even reluctantly for these crimes on children while sanctimoniously talking about social justice…
Like Sydney, Tel Aviv has a huge gay parade each year. In contrast, gays are punished in Gaza and thrown off the tops of high buildings. In the Palestinian controlled territories, violence towards women is common. Honour killings by fathers and brothers are on the rise. Women are pressured to marry rapists. Where is your voice Bishop?”
“My heart is pumping,” Browning said, to applause from a large section of the audience. “I want to apologise to the Palestinian men and women in this audience tonight who have actually heard xenophobic material.
The xenophobic material is shocking. It’s disgusting.”
Browning said these were the sort of remarks that could only be made by someone who had never been to the West Bank or Gaza.
“I have been to Palestine many times, stayed in their villages, stayed in their homes and the statements you have just heard are unrecognisable to me,” Browning said.
“In fact the opposite is my observation. On the West Bank, it is terrible to see all the settlers with armaments. I have never seen an armament in a Palestinian home ever.”
Alreemawi then defended the Black September terrorists who killed Israeli Olympians at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.
“Yes the Palestinians kidnapped the Israeli athletes but they didn’t kill them,” he said. “The ones who opened fire were the Israeli Mossad and the German police.”
A section of the crowd went wild.
Power was an inept chair, allowing the conflicts to blow up on the night. Making no attempt to pull anyone into line when they made provocative comments, he was as effective as a sticking plaster on a severed jugular.
Then again, the way he had organised the night made it likely it would turn out that way. “The audience is not self-selected,” he said. “I actually sent invitations to every mosque and every Islamic organisation in Melbourne both by mail and email and the Islamic Council of Victoria was also invited.”
He had not bothered inviting synagogues or Jewish institutions.
Now he became angry with the crowd.
“I laid down the rules and if you can’t keep them I will ask you to go to the back of the room and get a refund and you can leave,” he said.
And he got really mad when some people walked out after Alreemawi quoted “sources“ claiming Israel’s first prime minister David Ben Gurion, Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad and the antecedent of the Israel Defence Force, the Haganah, had murdered Jews.
Alreemawi also attacked Ghaly – the Egyptian Copt – for criticising the Palestinian leadership and defending Israel (“When I refer to Arabs or Palestinians, their leaders and governments have let them down”).
Yousef Alreemawi: I have to say I feel disheartened seeing an Egyptian advocating for Israel.
Nadia Ghaly: Are you denying me my right speak?
Alreemawi spoke of what he described as a system of apartheid in the occupied territories.
“The policy of marginalisation manifests itself in inferior services, housing, access to jobs and limited budget allocations,” Alreemawi said.
“The Palestinians in Jerusalem suffer from policies of expulsion and home demolitions which serve the Israeli policy in favour of the Jewish residents.
This is designed to prevent the demographic weight of the Palestinians in Israel.
Therefore the social and political life of the Palestinians of Jerusalem is caught inside a legal bubble that prevents its inhabitants from challenging the apartheid regime lawfully.
Palestinians are governed by military law while the approximately 400,000 Jewish settlers are governed by Israeli civil law. If this is not a text book for apartheid, then what is apartheid?”
When the forum was opened up for questions, audience members used the opportunity to attack the speakers.
In the end, it was left to me, a Jewish journalist, to ask what seemed to me the best question to stimulate constructive discussion.
“Abba Eban famously said the Palestinians never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” I said. “The same could be said for the Israelis. But Donald Trump is now offering that opportunity, saying he wants to bring peace to the Middle East and he is talking to Netanyahu and Abbas.
What should be done to bring peace? How can they focus on the future and not past grievances? And how can they find the common ground that this panel has failed to show?”
Alreemawi said there had to be a withdrawal to the 1967 borders with the establishment of a Palestinian state.
“That’s the least they can accept,” Alreemawi said.
“To have a state, it means there will be no Jewish settlers and we will need sovereignty over our borders.”
Ghaly said the Netanyahu and Abbas had to look at whether they wanted peace.
“I would get the two leaders and get them to sit down and get it from them that they want common ground,” she said. “If they don’t then there will not be peace.”
It was the one point of the night where the speakers attempted to give constructive answers. But it left me depressed. Finding common ground between Palestinians and Israelis might be possible, but, as the night showed, the parties have to remember the lesson of Lot when he left Sodom. There can be no looking back, the focus of any negotiation has to be on what’s ahead, not the past. This discussion panel failed to do that.
Religions for peace? Yeah right.
Editor’s note: Religions for Peace (RfP) promoted the event referred to in the above article prominently on its Home page, without any indication that it was not organised by them. Since publication of the above article, RfP has advised that the event was in fact organised by a group known as Dialogue for Peace, not RfP, and has put a disclaimer to that effect on the RfP website. No website of Dialogue for Peace has yet been located.
This Plus61J article may be republished with this acknowledgement: ‘Reprinted with permission from www.plus61j.net.au’