the possibilities of leftist discussions

by tobybee

Overland, that fantastic Melbourne-based journal, has been recently accused by some Melbourne Jewish academics of unfairly silencing debate on Israel-Palestine (specifically: “Our principle question is why Overland has chosen to highlight these vexatious voices who contribute only fanatical polemics and represent nobody in either the Jewish community or the Left, and chosen to ignore or actively censor the large group of Jewish (and broader Left) voices who are able to present serious contributions on the complexity of the conflict.”) And so the Overland editors have responded, publicly, to these claims. I don’t have much to add to what they have to say – they write so eloquently and persuasively – other than to say that I’m glad that they make these complaints public, and that they defend the importance of honest marginal(ised) political speech. It’s a glorious thing to read…

Overland and bias: a response to some critics

A few days ago, we received a letter (published below) signed by six Australian academics: Professor Bernard Rechter, Professor Douglas Kirsner, Professor Andrew Markus, Dr Bill Anderson, Dr Nick Dyrenfurth and Associate Professor Philip Mendes. They were, they said, collectively writing to the board of Overland and to its patron, Barry Jones, about ‘recent editorial bias on Israel/Palestine’.

We cannot speak for the OL Society. But editorial decisions are the responsibility of the editorial staff. We make the allegations against us public, partly because they are too serious for closed-door insinuations, and partly because, by seeking to exert organisational pressure on editorial policy, the letter illustrates, in a small way, the obstacles to debating Israel/Palestine in this country.

Let us begin with the obvious point that accusing an overtly political journal of ‘bias’ makes no sense whatsoever. When Overland launched in 1954, it proclaimed its ‘bias’ (literally) with a famous phrase borrowed from Joseph Furphy. That slogan was meant to signal that the journal gave a voice to the Left, just as Overland does today.

But we suspect that by employing words like ‘bias’, ‘prejudic[e]’, ‘demonise’, Mendes and co. intend to imply something rather darker – that the Overland editorial team is anti-Semitic. If that is what they mean, they should come out and say so. For the record, any allegation that Overland publishes, accepts or otherwise endorses anti-Semitism or any other form of racial discrimination is utterly scurrilous, and we reject it entirely.

In relation to our coverage of Israel/Palestine – which consists, it might be noted, of a debate over three years between four Jewish writers, some of whom uphold a two-state solution and some of whom do not – Mendes and co. write:
“We can all agree that the Australian Left has no consensus on this issue. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that a wide majority on the Left today support a two-state solution which encapsulates recognition of both Israeli and Palestinian national rights. It is also fair to say that those fundamentalists who advocate the elimination of Israel and its replacement by an Arab State of Greater Palestine represent a small, if sometimes vocal, minority.
Yet it is precisely these marginal views, which demonize Israel and infantilize the Palestinians, that seem to have captured Overland’s agenda in recent years. We note, for example, the three recent articles that appeared in issues 187 by Ned Curthoys, 193 by Antony Loewenstein, and 198 by Michael Brull. […] Our principle [sic] question is why Overland has chosen to highlight these vexatious voices who contribute only fanatical polemics and represent nobody in either the Jewish community or the Left, and chosen to ignore or actively censor the large group of Jewish (and broader Left) voices who are able to present serious contributions on the complexity of the conflict.” (emphasis theirs)

Here, our critics entirely misunderstand the Overland project, which is not, and never has been, to present the ideas of the majority. On the contrary, almost by definition, our small magazine provides space for views that do not receive a hearing elsewhere. In Overland’s case, those views are inevitably political. As its website makes clear, Overland has
“a tradition of publishing dissenting articles with a political and cultural focus. […] Overland is the only high-profile Australian literary magazine that sees the publication and advancement of new and marginal writers as part of its charter.” (emphasis ours)

The notion that publishing minority views constitutes ‘censorship’ is truly bizarre. Let’s put the question specifically. Are Mendes and co. silenced? Do they or their co-thinkers lack forums in which to expound their ideas?

No, not so much. For the sake of brevity, let us merely consider their access to the Australian, the country’s only national newspaper, and a publication with a circulation and reach far beyond that of Overland. A quick search through the archives reveals the following: a piece by Nick Dyrenfurth on 16 March 2009, accusing leftists of anti-Semitism; a piece by Nick Dyrenfurth and Philip Mendes on 13 May 2009, accusing leftists of anti-Semitism; a piece by Nick Dyrenfurth and Philip Mendes on 19 September 2009, accusing leftists of anti-Semitism; a piece by Nick Dyrenfurth and Philip Mendes on 11 November 2009, accusing leftists of anti-Semitism. (At that point, our patience began to wane somewhat.)

Given this record, we might equally ask Dyrenfurth and Mendes whether, with their avowed commitment to representation, they organise similar open letters to the Australian’s editorial board, urging that Murdoch provide space for, say, environmental activists alongside his regular quota of climate change denying columnists. After all, to borrow a phrase, those who want action on global warming ‘represent the majority of the population’ – but, oddly, they seem to have been deliberately excluded from the pages of the Australian!

Think for a moment about what Mendes and co. are arguing. The signatories to this letter are, as they take pains to remind us, all professors or academics of one variety or another, ensconced in well-paid jobs at universities around the country. Many of them are widely published; most have, as we have seen, regular access to the mainstream media. Yet, when Overland prints an article by Michael Brull, a young writer with none of the resources or institutional backing that they enjoy, they complain to its governing body that they are being excluded!

In that respect, the whole episode is sadly typical of how debates about Israel/Palestine are conducted. Mendes and co. urge the OL Society not to permit Overland to ‘highlight the views’ of anti-Zionists like Ned Curthoys, Antony Loewenstein and Michael Brull who, we are told, are irrelevant, marginal figures and as such not worth worrying about. Yet in their writings for the mass-circulation Australian, Dyrenfurth and Mendes attack these ‘irrelevant’ and ‘marginal’ views, over and over and over again. Indeed, they single out John Docker, Ned Curthoys, John Pilger and a variety of other named individuals for public abuse – and neither they nor the Australian offer these people any opportunity to reply.

So it comes down to this. Mendes and co. assert their right to berate their political opponents in the most vituperative fashion. But they also want – in the name of ‘free speech’– to deny those opponents any platform whatsoever, even in a tiny literary magazine.

The politics underlying this dispute should be understood.

The signatories present themselves as friends of Overland, writing more in sorrow than in anger about its current editorial decline. ‘We all strongly respect,’ they proclaim, ‘Overland’s tradition of providing a forum for free and open discussion of democratic and progressive ideas.’

Really?

[…]

[A]s we have seen, the signatories are not concerned with responding to articles with which they disagree, so much as with applying institutional pressure to ensure the offending pieces don’t get published at all.
[…]

Our ‘Leftist’ critics – some of whom, it is true, have made real contributions to the progressive movement in the past – need to ask themselves where, politically, they are heading. Kirsner is merely one on the long list of former radicals transformed into arch-reactionaries by an aggressive and uncritical identification with conventional wisdom about the Middle East. Dyrenfurth and Mendes, those self-proclaimed partisans of the Left, might wonder why the Australian, Murdoch’s ferociously conservative flagship, consistently offers them space alongside the climate change deniers, religious bigots, warmongers and Islamophobes whom it pleases that paper to promote. Is it, as they seem to think, because they present ‘serious contributions on the complexity of the conflict’? Or is it because self-proclaimed Leftists who devote themselves to smearing others on the Left as lunatics and racists serve a useful role for a conservative newspaper?

As to the specific merits of the Overland articles in question, we, unlike our critics, have faith in the ability of our readers to make up their own minds. We would, however, point out that Michael Brull’s piece, which our correspondents single out for particular opprobrium, maintains, for the most part, a remarkably civil tone – particularly when contrasted with the work of his critics. Compare, for instance, Brull’s writing to a typical Nick Dyrenfurth effusion in the Australian, in which the ‘socialist jihadists’ of the University of Sydney are abused as ‘anti-Semitic’, ‘imbecilic’, ‘maddies’ and ‘hatemongers’ – all without the reader learning anything whatsoever about the actual arguments that they uphold.

Michael Brull concludes his essay with the suggestion that issues around Israel/Palestine be opened ‘to free debate, without the usual flood of hysterical name-calling’. That seems to us, the editorial staff at Overland journal, an eminently reasonable proposal, and one to which we are also committed. Precisely because the misery in the Middle East shows no signs of abating, the discussion over Israel/Palestine needs to be broadened beyond simple reiteration of the conventional wisdom.

More generally, in an increasingly homogenised mainstream media, emerging voices that don’t parrot Murdoch talking-points often struggle to be heard. We believe that by providing a platform for ‘marginal’ writers – even if those writers occasionally scandalise a conservative or two – Overland performs an important function. That is the policy the journal has followed since 1954. It is one we will continue to uphold.

Jeff Sparrow
Jacinda Woodhead
Rjurik Davidson
Kalinda Ashton
Alex Skutenko
John Marnell

But I guess I should also say that the letter from Mendes et. al. makes me angry and sad. They claim a position within an imagined Jewish community which is dishonest, I think; and they formulate exclusivist boundaries which attempt to define that community. They work to further entrench the dangerous and violent idea that being a Zionist (and, of course, being a Zionist in a very particular way) is the only way of being Jewish, of being left-wing, and of being a Jewish lefty (or a lefty Jew?). But this lil blog works to demonstrate otherwise.

*hat-tip to Antony Loewenstein

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