Israel’s propaganda has ceased to convince or persuade even its friends

Feb 20, 2024
Giant national flag of Israel on Israels 70's independent day.

Israel’s citizens seem either blithely unaware of the world’s horror at the terror raining down on Gaza, or do not care. Whichever, the barbarity has stripped it of the significant moral advantage given by the Hamas atrocities of October 7, and have caused fundamental reappraisal of Israel’s standing among people once disposed to be sympathetic or admiring.

There are good, if not invincible arguments, for controls over doxxing, but most of the arguments founded on the unfortunate things said to have happened to a group of pro-Israeli lawyers after they campaigned in concert for the sacking of an ABC announcer are not very good ones.

No one has yet seen any draft legislation, or any public interest or other defences the proposed doxxing bill might contain. It’s an obvious restriction upon free speech – which by no means settles the matter but which will actuate some who will recognise a lot of potential problems. Especially if the cause is designed to stop anyone outing members of a team attempting to get someone sacked.

It is thus difficult to conclude what was in the mind of the prime minister. But those listening to his emotive (and misleading) use of the alleged persecution of the pro-Israeli campaigners, allegedly for the reason they were of the Jewish faith, could be excused for believing and expecting something fairly illiberal, likely to accentuate opinions that appeasing people with access to the prime minister’s ear is more important than the rights of underdogs. It was journalists, not Palestinians, who drew to public attention clandestine, if perfectly legal activities, of some pro-Israel groups. These are often and misleadingly called the Jewish lobby – the ones for whom Albanese seems to want his proposals crafted.

The Jewish lobby is by no means exclusively organised by people of Jewish religion or background. A good many politicians, Labor and Liberal, are reflexively pro-Israel, which is what it is mainly about. Many people who are Jewish by religion or birth are deeply critical of the behaviour of the state of Israel, particularly now in Gaza. Others doubt that Israel’s right to exist turns only on a mandate from God, the British and French governments in 1917, and the United Nations in 1948.

Usually, no group is more critical than Jews, their friends, Zionists and Israelis of the conflation of the Jewish religion or ancestry with the state of Israel.

Being anti-semitic is being anti people of the Jewish religion or of Jewish ancestry. It says nothing about being pro-Israel, or being a Zionist. Yet within the Jewish community there have been long campaigns focused outwards suggesting that criticism of Israel is by definition anti-semitic and is a view harboured only by people morally or mentally complicit with the Holocaust. Some think that the interests of the state of Israel are at least as important as those of their native Australia. When Israel declares war on its enemies, Australians of Jewish backgrounds flock to Israel to serve in its armed forces. Conveniently anyone offering to join the Palestinians or many of Israel’s enemies are by definition terrorists.

Lawyer group acting clandestinely was united by common cause, not mere common religion or ancestry.

Albanese is well aware of the problem: at the moment, indeed, his government has expressed support and sympathy with the state of Israel over the events of October 7 last year. Yet, partly in response to the substantial support among Australians, including Australian Muslims, Australia has been lately highly critical of the war on Gaza. Or at least, with theological exactitude, that part of the war against Hamas that incidentally rains terror, death and destroyed habitats on Palestinian children, women and men,regardless of whether they have no association with Hamas.

Yet Albanese was seemingly unembarrassed about using the backlash against some pro-Israeli campaigners as the foundation for his decision that anti-doxxing legislation was necessary.

Unpleasant things done or said towards the pro-Israel lawyers were not because the victims were Jewish but because they were engaged in a campaign, pushing the political, military, and propaganda barrow of the state of Israel.

Albanese did not suggest that mere anti-semitism prompted the abuse. From the evidence it seems to have been an attempt by a large number of the group to protest any criticism of Israel’s condition. But those doxxed “have a range of views about the Middle East.” Perhaps different views, but very narrow ones, fiercely uncritical of Israel.

“What [the doxxed ‘victims’] have in common is that they are members of the Jewish community. That’s why I have asked the Attorney General to develop proposals to strengthen laws against hate speech,” Albanese said.

Usually doxxing, which can be an anti-social scourge having nothing of itself to do with racial or religious hate-speech, is about revenge, intimidation or harassment. It involves the use of sensitive or private information, or records, to harass or expose and bring out unwelcome information. It might be used, reasonably or not, to “out” an anonymous blogger. Whether it is reasonable is not necessarily a matter for the person outed.

Doxxing might sometimes serve public interests, for example by pointing out criminal records or past public behaviour of people jumping on the public stage. Or prior inconsistent statements by a politician. The exposure might be quite embarrassing and unwelcome to the victim, but she, or he, has no intrinsic right to have such information kept private if there is a legitimate public interest in bringing it to light. I think there was with the Lawyers for Israel, and my feeling that it was is accentuated by the smug self–congratulations exchanged. Outing them might have been reasonable, the avalanche of threats was not.

Some doxxing causes serious personal damage and hurt. Bad doxxing can include improperly releasing medical or mental health records, revenge porn against former lovers, or threat to reveal embarrassing behaviour to friends, or employers. Such doxxing usually happens through social media.

Whether we could, or should, do something about this does not depend on the state of the propaganda war between Israel and Palestinians. But that war, or the debate between Australians on what ought to be done about it, needs help to make it more informative, not more restricted. We don’t want to encourage hate speech, or even mere abuse. But doing everything to prevent it is sometimes counter-productive.

Israel’s local supporters are not helping to convince or persuade. If anything they may be undermining their case.

I think that Israel has been ill-served by many of those pushing its line. Listening to some Australians pushing Israel’s views always causes me to wonder if there is any bad behaviour by Israel that would draw their condemnation. I know many Jewish Australians whose views, pro or con Israel, are thoughtful and measured, and not pre-determined by the view that the state, and its leaders’ pro-tem must be supported uncritically right or wrong. A good many detest Benjamin Netanyahu and his policies. But most of the public opinions currently being voiced by the leading Jewish organisations show every appearance of having been drafted in concert, and ticked off as part of an international campaign.

No doubt friends of Israel feel under pressure to hang together rather than emphasise differences during what they see as wartime, and a struggle for the very existence of the state. The notion of fundamental danger, at a time when Israel has many less terrible options, is being used as a glue to promote complete unity and uniformity of opinion. But the theme and the combativeness means that many of their statements are neither factual nor persuasive.

Likewise, I think that the Palestinian perspective is under-represented in the mainstream media, and ignored altogether in Murdoch organs. But some defences of Palestinian atrocities undermine expressions of outrage at Israeli ones.

Israel’s citizens seem either blithely unaware of the world’s horror at the terror raining down on Gaza, or do not care. Whichever, the barbarity has stripped it of the significant moral advantage given by the Hamas atrocities of October 7, and have caused fundamental reappraisal of Israel’s standing among people once disposed to be sympathetic or admiring. Old propaganda, such as maps suggesting that all Arab countries are homogenous and vastly bigger than tiny Israel, have ceased to work. The injustice, atrocities and forcible ethnic cleansing of 1948 are up for debate, and the western world as much as the third world, seems increasingly insistent on a two-state solution. Two states must involve significant loss of land seized either by the Israeli state or by settlers with passive support from the state. Israel can blame its situation on its own oppression, injustice and denial of rights to the original inhabitants.

One got the impression that Anthony Albanese’s idea had not gone beyond a Scott Morrison-style thought bubble when he trotted it out. It was certainly not fleshed out in discussions with colleagues (or staff?) because some were appalled. Not at the idea of action against some forms of doxxing, but at the idea of rooting it on a claim of anti-semitic activity.

Mark Dreyfus, the Attorney-General, who would be responsible for any legislation enacted, seemed to have very little idea of what was planned, even days after.

I expect that he was additionally embarrassed because he has a Jewish background and would have been very aware that some of those opposed to the idea would think that his very association with it was some sort of Jewish plot.

Dreyfus has, of course, a strong record of opposition to anti-semitism and of campaigning against neo-Nazi bully groups – causes most right-thinking Australians would fully support. He has no reason to refrain from defending people of his background, if as an ordinary Australian who happens to be Jewish rather than some sort of delegate of official Jewish opinion.

But he knows the risks of expanding too far definitions of anti-semitism. Jewish opinion in Australia is by no means monolithic: indeed it is one of the assets of Australian Jewish society that there is such a wide range of ideas, opinions, backgrounds and experiences. Some, like many Israelis and Jewish people in the diaspora are very critical of the state of Israel, and to the idea of Zionism, sometimes for religious reasons.

Dreyfus should be emphasising doxxing as the abuse of secret or private information to coerce or punish private enemies. It is far from clear that such legislation would need to include information exchanged in political debates, which are often willing and sometimes abusive. By definition, such campaigns involve making use of the public square. That implies some sort of right of response, however salty. Or, if not in the open, it involves attempts to exercise power behind the scenes, by threats directed at decision-makers.

People with opinions are perfectly entitled to have them, even if others regard their opinions as wicked or wrong. Any member of the community is entitled to express their opinions, alone or in a coordinated campaign with other like-minded people.

But those who take to the public square to push their opinions can hardly complain if those who disagree feel entitled to note common elements among the campaigners. Those common elements are not usually merely a matter of being Jewish by background. They go further to involve membership of some group with a specific agenda, with prior arrangements to act in coordination to defend their cause, including attacking those seen to be against it.

Some emails exchanged by the Lawyers for Israel in the campaign to get the ABC presenter sacked spoke of conscious misrepresentations and seemed to gloat about hopes or expectations of intimidating or panicking ABC management. It was not an abstract argument, but one designed to damage her. This was an aim in which they may have succeeded, despite the fervent but quite unconvincing ABC denials.

It was not surprising that someone passed on to Nine journalists information about the campaign. Even before the first reaction from a wider public, the campaign had damaged the players and damaged their cause. It was further damaged by the ABC’s efforts to defend itself against the idea it had been got at. It had also, probably, renewed the currency of old tropes about secret Jewish power and influence. There are always people who thrive on such conspiracy theories.

No doubt the tropes will be being repeated as evidence long after the last Palestinian has surrendered. That is a lasting damage. Indeed so dumb was the general strategy that one is inclined to wonder whether it was conceived by a parliamentary staffer, the home and training ground, particularly in NSW, of stunts likely to blow up in one’s face.

Unfortunately it might require doxxing to find out, against bipartisan efforts to pretend that the “privacy” of staffers from any accountability whatsoever is against the public interest.

Israel’s reputation in the wider world has not collapsed because of a want of loyalists willing to defend its every action. Notwithstanding their efforts, indeed, Israel’s propaganda has ceased to convince or persuade even its friends.


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