Hanan Ashrawi and the Price of Dissent


It’s not easy advocating Palestinian rights. Edward Said frequently commented upon the constant abuse he had received throughout his life. Upon his death, the Anti-Defamation Commission (ADC) in Australia (related to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in America) renounced Said as ‘anti-American and anti-Semitic’. Supporting Palestinian self-determination, critiquing Israeli Government policy and questioning Zionist history was seemingly enough to incur the wrath of Jewish groups around the world.


Hanan Ashrawi is currently finding herself in similar straits in Australia. The Sydney Peace Foundation, associated with the University of Sydney, recently decided to award Dr Ashrawi its annual peace prize. Previous winners have included the East Timorese leader Xanana Gusmao in 2000 and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1999. What originally appeared to be an uncontroversial choice has developed into a full-blown battle between the Peace Foundation, elements of the Jewish lobby, the New South Wales premier, Bob Carr and the Jewish press. The issue in my opinion, however, is not simply the prize, but a more fundamental debate around Palestinian identity in Australia. I believe it is nothing less than an attempt by the Jewish community to delegitimize the Palestinian cause. This kind of behaviour is becoming a regrettably common Zionist ploy in the Western world for increasingly transparent reasons.


Since the announcement of the prize to Ashrawi, Jewish groups have begun a campaign to firstly discredit the high-profile winner, and then to convince Premier Carr that attending the ceremony on November 6 would be, in the words of Gerald Steinberg, an associate professor of political studies at Bar Ilan University, “honouring war, murder and hatred, while debasing the concept of peace and reconciliation”. Incidentally, Professor Steinberg launched a petition to stop Ashrawi receiving the prestigious award and received nearly 4000 signatures. The Australian Jewish News (AJN), the sole Jewish community newspaper in Australia, wrote in its editorial on October 17, that “an Australian premier [Bob Carr] is about to present a peace prize to an apologist for terrorism…The problem is not that Premier Carr is meeting Dr Ashrawi; on the contrary, the more engagement there is, the greater the chance of achieving a solution. The problem is that by presenting her with the prize, he is endorsing her track record.”


Her track record, according to the AJN, is thwarting the Oslo peace deals in the 1990s, not condemning Hamas as a terrorist organization and suggesting Jews living in the West Bank are legitimate targets for Palestinian aggression. All these comments are a misappropriation of the truth. Dr Ashrawi was clearly aware of virulent anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab feeling in the Australian Jewish community, as her comments to the Sydney Morning Herald on October 23 suggested: “I knew there would be mobilised voices trying to malign Palestinians, particularly ones like me who have been outspoken for peace.” 


So who are the groups so determined to smear Dr Ashrawi? The Australian Jewish News has been the conduit through which numerous Jewish groups and individuals have been able to libel her. The paper, not known for its coverage outside the official Israeli/Palestinian paradigm, has chosen to repeat the lies against Ashrawi and in doing so, has become even more of an impediment to dialogues of understanding between the two sides. Writing in The Sydney Morning Herald on October 23, Peter Wertheim, former president of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, suggested:


“Ashrawi certainly presents well in the media. She is articulate and intelligent. But she is also dogmatic and ideologically driven. Her carefully cultivated media image as a moderate cannot disguise her consistent history as a rejectionist and a maximalist.


Awarding a peace prize to someone with Ashrawi’s track record is a de facto endorsement of her hardline views. It has everything to do with politics, and nothing to do with peace. That is why the Jewish community – not some lobby group – is opposed to any attempt to gloss over her uncompromising pronouncements and legitimise her views.
Hysterical references to “the power of the Jewish lobby” are merely crude attempts to deflect attention away from the cold hard facts of Ashrawi’s public record.”


Wertheim was gracious enough to argue that “there are, of course, legitimate criticisms that can be made about the peace process and the “road map”, from both the Israeli and Palestinian perspectives,” but then goes on to list the catalogue of deceptions supposedly perpetuated by one of the leading lights in the Palestinian movement.


Jeremy Jones, President of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, argued that the awarders of the prize were “blinded by celebrity” and the decision reflected badly on the judges (primarily University of Sydney members, while its advisory body consists of Kerry O’Brien, Pat O’Shane AM and Hugh Mackay, amongst others). This is despite the fact that two previous winners, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mary Robinson, have endorsed the decision.


Indeed in August this year, after learning of Jones’ complaints regarding the Peace Prize to Ashrawi, NSW Labor member Leo McLeay said the following in the New South Wales parliament:


“Mr Jones’s comments on this issue are in line with his regular attacks on members of Parliament and others who give any support for the people of Palestine…It amazes me how intolerant Mr Jones and the pro-Israeli lobby can be. If you are not an enthusiastic supporter of the Sharon version of the Berlin Wall [in the West Bank occupied territory] you are considered anti-Jewish. When will the Jeremy Joneses of this world understand that criticism of the Israeli Government and its actions is not anti-Semitism?”


Other Jewish groups have also joined in placing pressure on Bob Carr to withdraw his support for Ashrawi. On October 22, the Sydney Lord Mayor, Lucy Turnbull, declared that the City of Sydney would not be supporting the prize to Ashrawi. Turnbull claimed to suddenly find her an unsuitable choice because she was allegedly opposed to a two-state solution.


The director of the Peace Prize, Stuart Rees, has said that Ashrawi was awarded the distinction due to her “lifelong advocacy of women’s rights [being] just one item of impressive evidence of her work for peace with justice.”


The debate brings up a number of uncomfortable realities regarding the influence and mentality of the Jewish lobby in Australia, though their modus operandi is far from limited to this country. I would argue that the central, yet unspoken, complaint of the Jewish community is awarding a prize to a woman who so well articulates the Palestinian cause. In the current battle for international legitimacy, there is no question that Israel is losing friends at an ever-increasing rate. For this reason alone, the legitimacy given to Ashrawi lessen the arguments of Zionist and Israeli supporters. She is being given credence after a lifetime of speaking out against Israeli aggression. Speaking on ABC newsradio in 2002 she best summed up the reasons why so many in the Jewish lobby can never understand the Palestinian cause: “Israel seems to think that it can initiate collective punitive measures, it can assassinate people, it can continue to imprison a whole nation and kill civilians at will and with impunity, and doesn’t expect that there are people on the other side who will adopt the same tactics. This is self-defeating either way.”


What infuriates the Zionist lobby is that Ashrawi has seen a succession of Israeli leaders unwilling to make peace and she’s be unafraid of saying so. While the likes of Barak, Shamir and Netanyahu has come and gone, and each of them with a proud history of talking peace while expanding settlements and clamping down on the Occupied Territories, Ashrawi has outlived them all.


One of the leading lights of the Israeli peace movement, Uri Avnery, founder of Gush Shalom, (www.gush-shalom.org/english/) has spent a lifetime fighting against the militaristic Israeli mindset and supporting a two-state solution. He recently reminded readers of Ehud Barak’s infamous words a few years ago regarding the Palestinians and the proposed peace deals: “There is no one to talk with!” This mentality lives on in the campaign against Hanan Ashrawi. The Jewish lobby doesn’t want people like her in the public sphere talking about Palestinian aspirations, hopes, fears, angers or dreams. It’s much easier to portray the Palestinians as violent, anarchic and hateful towards Jews, as the Zionist lobby frequently claims. Indeed, members of the Sharon Government or Jewish groups throughout the world echo the words of Barak almost daily.


Rawan Abdul-Nabi, writing on the Australian based Palestinian Human Rights Campaign website, said in a powerful editorial recently that the treatment dished out to Ashrawi in Australia fitted a pattern throughout the world.


“The Sydney campaign against Dr Ashrawi is part of an ongoing history of attacks against prominent Palestinian spokespeople. Most notably, last year Dr Ashrawi was targeted as a keynote speaker in the US at the Colorado College Symposium titled, ‘September 11 – One Year Later: Responding to Global Challenges’. For weeks prior, a national debate was waged in the media and amongst community groups in an attempt to destroy Ashrawi’s credibility and diminish her ongoing commitment to justice and peace. The Governor of Colorado, Bill Owens and the State’s two Senators succumbed to the pressure and were publicly opposed to Ashrawi’s visit. During her address in Colorado, Ashrawi spoke most eloquently and compellingly, passionately and honestly from a Palestinian and humanist viewpoint, despite the intrusive vocal opposition.


Amidst heckles and jeers Ashrawi testified to some of the brutal daily realities of living under an illegal military occupation. She spoke of her willingness to devote her life to peace and justice with Israelis and Jews:


“I’ve lived under military occupation most of my adult life. I have been repeatedly beaten up, shot at, interrogated, [and] even imprisoned. I have seen some of my best friends killed. My next-door neighbour’s kid shot in the back. I’ve seen my daughter’s childhood totally destroyed, living in fear, being tear-gassed, and living under curfew. I’ve seen houses demolished, crops destroyed, our infrastructure destroyed. And recently I’ve lived for weeks under curfew, a prisoner in my own home, without water, without electricity and often without a phone. I’ve lived under constant shelling — I’ve seen the windows and doors of my home (my ancestral home) being blown away. But I’m not saying this to tell you that I’m a victim — no –I’m saying this to tell you that despite all these things, despite my living under captivity and seeing the worst horrors of violence, being on the receiving end of the last remaining colonial situation in the world, an occupation, I have never succumbed to hate. I have never allowed hate to take over, and I have never accepted any kind of revenge as a motivation.”


Ashrawi herself is no stranger to these sorts of defamatory campaigns. She has endured campaigns of hate based on slander and lies for most of her life, from those who are intent on silencing the Palestinian narrative. Besides, she has lived a significant part of her life under the jackboot of Israeli occupation; do Australian Jewish leaders think that their attempts to intimidate and silence will succeed in the face of truth and integrity? As Dr Hanan Ashrawi herself said at Colorado College, in the midst of being booed, jeered and faced with “I disagree” placards every time she made a point, (ironically, even when she denounced violence against Israeli civilians):


“Not only won’t I be distracted — I wasn’t distracted by bullets, I will not be distracted by signs. I just appeal to you to listen. It’s important, you might have something to learn. While I’m talking to you here, I have invitations from students, from Israeli universities asking me to address them, and I’ve addressed many Israeli universities, and they want to listen, because by creating a common discourse, a common language, you overcome not just those stereotypes but precisely those forces that want to perpetuate the conflict. You’re sitting here wanting to keep us in conflict.”


In November 2000, renowned Middle East reporter for the UK’s Independent newspaper, Robert Fisk, interviewed Ashrawi at her home in Ramallah. In a far ranging piece, Ashwari rallied against journalistic bias towards Palestinian casualties, the fraud of the so-called peace process and the continued suffering of her people under constant occupation:
“The new “intifada” will continue – “in different shapes, different forms” – she believes. “We are not fond of mass suicide, but we want the right to resist occupation and injustice. Then the moment we say ‘resist’, the Israelis pull out the word ‘terrorist’ – so a child with a stone becomes the ‘legitimate’ target for Israeli sniper fire and a high-velocity bullet.”


The Jewish lobby would claim Ashrawi is justifying suicide bombing, when she is doing nothing of the sort. She is talking about the right of resistance to an illegal and brutal occupation. The same right eventually extended to other peoples throughout the world, not least of which the ANC and its brothers and sisters in South Africa during the apartheid years. 


The heart of Ashrawi’s arguments are best summed up in this comment to Fisk:
“Now we are all being fed well-worn phrases: ‘peace process’, ‘back on track’, ‘ceasefire’, ‘time-out’, ‘put an end to violence’, ‘Arafat to restrain/control his people’, ‘do we have the right peace partner?’ This is a racist way of looking at the Palestinians and it obscures the fact that we’ve suffered an Israeli occupation all along. When newspapers ask if Palestinians deliberately sacrifice their children, it’s an incredibly racist thing to do. They are dehumanising the Palestinians. The press and the Israelis have rid us of the most elemental human feelings in a very cynical, racist discourse that blames the victims.”


The Jewish lobby in Australia are fully aware they are contributing to the dehumanisation through their campaign against Ashrawi. If Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak or Ariel Sharon (laughably referred to by George W.Bush as “a man of peace”)  were awarded the peace prize, the Jewish lobby would celebrate the fairness of the distinction. The very fact that a Palestinian is winning, galls Jewish leaders and leaves their bigotry, racism and intolerance clear for all to see. When will we realise that many of these people don’t want peace with the Palestinians and prefer spending their time labelling critics of Israeli policy as anti-Semitic? It’s a reality many are finally waking up to.


At a time when the Howard Government and the Crean Opposition makes shameless overtures to the Jewish lobby, the aggressive campaign against Ashrawi should come as no surprise. As Sydney Morning Herald columnist Alan Ramsey wrote on 6 September, when commenting on a speech given by Labor leader Simon Crean to the Jewish community:


Crean: “Beyond the human tragedy, further damage has been done. The Jerusalem bombing could destroy the peace process. For the sake of the people of Israel, and indeed the Palestinian people, I hope it doesn’t …”


Ah yes, `”the Palestinian people”. At last, a mention. This extract is approximately a single page of an 11-page speech. Labor’s attitude to the Palestinians is similarly modest in the other 10 pages. As a depiction of Labor policy, it represents one of the more sniveling grovels in recent memory.


As this cartoon (http://www.normanfinkelstein.com/id137.htm ) featured on Norman Finkelstein’s website displays (author of The Holocaust Industry and Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict), the last quarter century has seen the Zionist lobby surreally shift from victim to oppressor, yet still cannily maintain the victim tag, in face of overwhelming Israeli military and political strength. There is no reason to believe that the current battle over Dr Ashrawi is not yet another attempt at legitimising Jewish supremacy in the Israeli/Palestinian debate.


Antony Loewenstein is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.


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