It happened in Australia this past week. Greg Sheridan, billed as “the most influential foreign affairs analyst in Australian journalism” by his newspaper The Australian was awarded the annual Jerusalem Prize by the State Zionist Council of NSW. According to its president Frank Levy, “The prize is awarded to someone who fosters and supports the state of Israel and its ideologies, the concept of the Jewish homeland and the Jewish community, particularly in Australia.”
Sheridan saw nothing wrong in accepting the prize, but many Australians did. In fact, Sheridan wrote a loose article “Rare support for democracy in a sea of misunderstanding” (The Australian, 3 May 2007) in response to the mail he received urging him not to accept the prize and was at great pains to explain that he had not compromised his independence as a commentator because he believed Israel — quoting the former pro-Israel president of Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid — “is a democracy in a sea of misunderstanding.”
Anxious to justify his position, Sheridan referred to the illustrious recipients of the prize worldwide including our own Liberal Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and a former Labor lord mayor of Sydney and current NSW minister, Frank Sartor. Sheridan wanted to make sure that bipartisan support for Israel in Australia was really understood and he pointed to both Liberal Prime Minister Howard and Labor Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd as avid supporters of Israel’s democracy.
After all the names Sheridan dropped to validate his own selection for the prize, Israel’s democracy emerged as the prime reason for Sheridan’s unquestioning support, not because it is perfect, but because being anti-Israel is “fundamentally irrational and evidence of psychological and ideological dysfunction rather than genuine analysis.”
There is no room in Sheridan’s argument for an irrational and dysfunctional Israel and the ideology in which it is rooted. If any of its actions are mistakes that should be understood because “any democratic nation makes plenty of mistakes and sometimes it makes moral mistakes.” But, he does not allow for other forms of government and leaders to make mistakes. Sheridan raises Saddam’s responsibility for the killing of 300,000 to 400,000 of his own citizens: he does not mention that Israel slipped through the legal and moral net without condemnation when it deliberately killed hundreds of Palestinians and terrorised some 750,000 others to flee their homes and homeland in 1948.
Sheridan’s snapshot look at history gives an out-of-context account of Israel’s birth, ignoring the well-documented massacres and complete razing of Palestinian villages and towns that Israel executed to gain a permanent foothold in all of Palestine. None of that is in the least justified by Sheridan’s statement that “there have always been Jews in Palestine.” Indeed, it would have been helpful for him to point out that most of those Jews who lived in Palestine over the centuries were in fact Palestinians. Just like there are Palestinians who are Christians, and of course, Muslims. The European Jews filtered in when they fled persecution in Christian Spain in the Middle Ages, but it was not until modern times that the European Jewish population in Palestine swelled in number after Zionists forced their mass exodus to Palestine in the aftermath of the European holocaust. This was the realisation of the great Zionist colonialist experiment that had no predilection for democracy.
There was nothing fair about the partition that created Israel, giving the minority European Jewish population a greater portion of the land belonging to the majority Palestinian population. And there has been no fairness for the Palestinians since, despite Sheridan raising the old canard of Barak’s “generous” offer. The 95 per cent of the West Bank and Gaza that Sheridan says was offered to the Palestinians was once again not put in context.
For years, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) had called for a two-state solution agreeing to Israel keeping 78 per cent of the former British-mandated Palestine while the Palestinians would form their state on the remaining 22 per cent that Israel has occupied since the 1967 war. At Camp David 2000, Barak’s offer actually amounted to only a bare 8.3 per cent of the original Palestinian homeland from which they had been driven in 1948. In exchange for withdrawing completely from Gaza as well as the offer of a small piece of land in the Negev Desert that Israel had used as a toxic waste dump, Israel would annex the most fertile and strategically important areas of the West Bank while maintaining control over the Palestinian state’s borders, air space and the land’s scarce water resources — and with Israel’s military free to intervene at any time. Effectively, what was offered were four non-contiguous parcels of land which would force Palestinians to cross Israeli territory every time they travelled or shipped their goods between each other and with no free access to their own international borders with Jordan and Egypt. Had Arafat agreed to this, he would have effectively waived any further Palestinian claims against Israel. That would have been political suicide for the Palestinians already being subjected to these Orwellian restrictions.
Moving on, Sheridan says that Israel made this “generous” offer in exchange for a peace that would accept Israel’s legitimacy. Because Arafat refused, Sheridan then makes the quantum leap to deduce that Arafat “had never accepted that Israel had a right to exist at all.” Nowhere does Sheridan explain that all the while these negotiations were taking place, Israel’s illegal settlement expansionism was still going on. In fact, the Israeli bureau of statistics reported that settlement building had increased 81 percent in the first quarter of 2000. (Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories, 11-12/00) Nowhere does Sheridan describe the nightly military raids into Palestinian cities, towns and villages, the killings, home demolitions, arrests, humiliations and indignities suffered by the Palestinian population. Nowhere does he mention the frenzied attacks by the Israeli settlers, who have no moral qualms about allowing their children to hurl stones and abuse at Palestinian women and children as they try to make their way to school or home. Instead, he asks the reader to empathise with the Israelis who he says are forced to defend themselves from the constant threats and attacks driven by “hate-filled and anti-Semitic propaganda designed to make schoolchildren despise the Jews.” Israel’s democracy, therefore, has an excuse for war; Palestinians under occupation have none.
For an experienced foreign affairs journalist, Sheridan shows an amazing reluctance to examine the realities of Israel’s “democracy” at work. His article relies on the same old and now-debunked myths and arguments that no self-respecting journalist ought to employ. Even if Sheridan is convinced that “Israel is a democracy in good standing” he ought to be asking for whom? Israel has made no secret of its intention to be a Jewish state only, so it is no wonder that Israel’s 1.2 million Palestinian citizens — the survivors and descendants of the 1948 Zionist ethnic cleansing of Palestine — see themselves increasingly isolated and alienated from Israeli society. It won’t be long before Israel will have to declare its hand: is it “a state of the Jewish people throughout the world” as it defines itself, or a state of all its citizens, both Jewish and non-Jewish? Perhaps Sheridan sees this as yet another issue that must be left for Israel’s “vibrant, genuine problem-solving democracy” to solve. In the meantime, Sheridan should indeed congratulate himself on the “great honour” of being awarded the Jerusalem Prize for no other reason than having supported Israel so “conspicuously”.
Sonja Karkar is the founder and president of Women for Palestine in Melbourne, Australia.