'This is a binary world'

If this is how we treat our friends …

Surely the same criterion must apply to our community, so that we avoid over-simplifying and potentially alienating our friends from our rightful cause.

Danny Hochberg
Danny Hochberg

israeli trauma expert Dr Moshe Farchi was forced to withdraw at the last minute from the Frontline Medical Health Conference in Queensland following a boycott campaign against him. The conference organisers said they had received a “high volume of online abuse and telephone calls” from pro-Palestinian protesters and activists demanding that Farchi, a keynote speaker, be banned.

The conference organisers stated they decided to cancel Farchi’s registration “in the interests of safety only”.

Alon Cassuto, CEO of the ZFA, says: “What kind of message are we sending as a nation when a conference organised by and for mental health practitioners succumbs to bullying and intimidation tactics by a small group of extremists?”

A complex conflict like the Gaza war cannot be distilled down into a simple right-vs-wrong argument. By the same token, organisations and individuals need to take care to avoid falling into the trap of responding to these over-simplified conversations. By responding to bullying from a few, the Frontline Medical Conference has inadvertently taken sides and, by extension, handed one side ill-deserved legitimacy.

Surely the same criterion must apply to our community, so that we avoid over-simplifying and potentially alienating our friends from our rightful cause.

I was appalled to hear of the decision by Courage to Care to cancel Allegra Spender as the speaker for its 25th anniversary luncheon.

Spender is a strong friend of our community. Since October 7, she has been steadfast in her support of our community and Israel. She has attended and spoken at rallies, and has remained resolute in her support of Israel. She has been at the forefront of a number of initiatives to combat antisemitism, including consideration of legal options to prevent doxxing; exploring the creation of an antisemitism envoy to address and combat antisemitism; being a co-chair of the Parliamentary Friends of IHRA; and ensuring the security of our community, which has included ensuring that visas issued to Palestinian immigrants are being vetted appropriately.

Recently, along with other teals, she participated in a joint statement which requested the government determine how they are going to get aid to the Palestinians in Gaza that need it. Given the shocking revelations about UNRWA, they asked the government to either find other partners to achieve this, or provide clear conditions to UNRWA which would allow it to resume its support, such as providing support under the control and oversight of other more reputable organisations such as UNICEF or UNHCR.

Given the concern around a humanitarian disaster in Gaza, this makes sense. The vacuum needs to be filled if a crisis is to be avoided. At the same time, the statement expresses not only deep concern, but a complete lack of trust in UNRWA.

But this is a binary world. You’re either all in, or you are out. Thus, there are those in our community who have chosen to interpret a sensible statement as an attack on Israel and support for UNRWA.

Reading the “chatter” in community discussion groups, you would think that Spender betrayed Israel and had caused indelible harm to our community. The rhetoric is as hurtful as it is untrue. It fails to provide a nuanced conversation because it has made its mind up. The statement is more subtle than “restore funding”, but this has been lost in the rage of those who “take no prisoners”.

Interestingly, a Netanyahu government spokesperson, and US State Department spokesperson Matt Miller have said: “The US still supports UNRWA’s ‘critical’ work … there is no other humanitarian player in Gaza who can provide food and water and medicine at the scale that UNRWA does.”

The allegations against UNRWA are serious, and should ultimately lead to its discontinuation. But the humanitarian crisis is happening in real time and will further complicate the campaign by the IDF to destroy Hamas and return the hostages, both in Gaza and internationally. Spender and her fellow teals, as well as the current Labor government, are aware of this and are advocating to avoid a humanitarian crisis. Having some empathy for the plight of the many innocent Palestinians caught up in the crisis is no crime. We ask for the same empathy from fellow Australians for the plight of Israeli citizens.

I stood proud at a rally of Christians and Jews just a few weeks ago. I did so with gratitude to these Australians who chose to stand with us against the scourge of antisemitism. I did so despite the reality that I do not entirely share their values on many issues. But just as when I come together in many interfaith forums, I look for what binds us rather than what separates us.

Even if we are reluctant to recognise the nuances, cancelling a friend of Israel and our community sends the wrong message to Australians. We need to be better than those “doxxing” our community members or those that would ban the appearance of Israelis academics, or who cancel the appearance of comedians at a venue.

In these dark times, we need friends, and Spender is a true and proven one. Let’s not push our friends away. Let’s hold them close.

Danny Hochberg is a member of the Sydney Jewish community.

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