The final zeditorial
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  • At work in the editor's chair.
    At work in the editor's chair.
  • Running Sydney's City2Surf in 2011 with AJN journalist Chantal Abitbol and the paper's next editor Gareth Narunsky.
    Running Sydney's City2Surf in 2011 with AJN journalist Chantal Abitbol and the paper's next editor Gareth Narunsky.
  • With former prime minister Julia Gillard and wife of one month Adina Rotstein in November 2013.	Photo: Dean Schmideg
    With former prime minister Julia Gillard and wife of one month Adina Rotstein in November 2013. Photo: Dean Schmideg
  • Receiving the NSW Premier's Multicultural Media Award for Best Editorial in 2014 from then-premier Barry O'Farrell.Photo: Warren Duncan/CRC
    Receiving the NSW Premier's Multicultural Media Award for Best Editorial in 2014 from then-premier Barry O'Farrell.Photo: Warren Duncan/CRC
  • Lighting the Pillars of Light menorah in Federation Square in 2021.
    Lighting the Pillars of Light menorah in Federation Square in 2021.
  • Celebrating The AJN's 120th anniversary in 2015 with soon-to-be prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and his wife Lucie, AJN publisher Bob Magid, then-treasurer Joe Hockey and The AJN's Karen Klein.Photo: Noel Kessel
    Celebrating The AJN's 120th anniversary in 2015 with soon-to-be prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and his wife Lucie, AJN publisher Bob Magid, then-treasurer Joe Hockey and The AJN's Karen Klein.Photo: Noel Kessel
  • In The AJN's Sydney office with former journalist Evan Zlatkis.
Photo: Noel Kessel
    In The AJN's Sydney office with former journalist Evan Zlatkis. Photo: Noel Kessel
  • With former ALP leader Bill Shorten.
    With former ALP leader Bill Shorten.
Feature

The final zeditorial

More than 12 years, over 600 editions and plenty of laughs as national editor, The AJN farewells Zeddy Lawrence with his final feature, sharing some thoughts on the paper and our community.

Main image by At work in the editor's chair.

TUESDAY, November 10, 2009. Some time in the morning, I can’t remember exactly when.

The plane touched down at Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport. It was more than 24 hours since I’d set off from London Heathrow, and with my worldly possessions packed into two suitcases, I was, to say the least, a tad exhausted.

Arriving in a strange city with no family and no friends was, as you can imagine, a little overwhelming, but fortunately the then CEO and sales manager of The AJN met me at arrivals, whisked me into the city where they’d sorted out a rental car and then dropped me off at the apartment which was to be my home for the next couple of months while I found my feet.

Twelve years and 18 weeks on, the precise wording of the parting conversation escapes me, but I seem to recall saying that I’d try and conquer the jet lag and get my bearings over the next 24 hours, with a view to starting my new job – and life – on Thursday.

It was not to be. Wednesday morning, still in something of a daze, the call came through. Where was I? We were on deadline. The paper had to be sent to the printers in a couple of hours.

With no idea where I was, let alone any idea where I was in relation to the office, I got into the car I’d never driven and headed off in the direction of I wasn’t quite sure where. I made a mental note – buy a sat nav.

Finally, with a bit of guidance over the phone, I turned up at AJN HQ in Glenhuntly Road, was shown to my office, handed a pile of A3 pages that needed my approval and a red pen to mark my corrections.

More than 600 issues later, with advances in technology, we no longer use red pens and I no longer require a sat nav. But one thing has remained the same – the frenetic demands of The AJN: Finding stories to fill the pages of not one, but two newspapers; writing them; taking or sourcing pictures; laying them out; ensuring they fit, are well-structured, engaging and, crucially, factual; and then getting them to the printers on time.

In a meeting with the late Josh Levi and sub-editors Rebecca Alford and Michelle Perl.

Yes, we’re a tiny team so the occasional error slips through. But as I always tell readers who ring up to complain about a spelling mistake. “Yup, but just look at how many words we got right.”

Readers ring up to complain? Surely not?

Oh, it’s true. Let us remember who our readers are. If there’s one thing Jews mastered when we were slaves unto Pharaoh, and then handed down through the generations, it was the art of kvetching.

And not just about the outside world, but about each other. Welcome to The AJN Letters Page, where our communal keyboard warriors do battle, often putting as much effort into personal attacks as they do into tackling the issues.

In editing submissions over the years, I have striven to temper the tone of the correspondence, while still trying to maintain their sense and sentiments.

I have also done battle with some of our letter writers myself, and there have been heated and hostile email exchanges. Nonetheless, despite our differences, I think all would confirm that I have never held that against them when putting together the page, and make every effort to ensure their views are published.

But while I endeavoured to mellow the animosity between those with different outlooks within the pages of The AJN, as part of my mission to foster a less fractious and fractured community, it wasn’t within my power to stop it elsewhere – which brings me to last August.

Presenting The AJN hour on J-Air. Photo: Peter Haskin

Over the years I’ve copped a lot of personal abuse online, in print and in person.

Among other things, I’ve been accused of perpetrating blood libels and desecrating God’s name and just last week, I was called a “basher of religious Jews”.

But never have I witnessed or experienced the level of abuse, hatred and vitriol that was spewed across Jewish and non-Jewish social media sites after a few people were unwittingly caught out celebrating a simcha, while a bunch of zealots who’ve been flouting the regulations throughout the entire pandemic continued to do so.

On Jewish web pages, people were wishing each other dead, labelling each other antisemites, saying they didn’t deserve to be called Jews and branding them informers.

Meanwhile, my colleagues and I were personally abused because a number of completely false rumours were being circulated throughout the community. It was variously claimed that The AJN had broken the story about the engagement party, that we had leaked it to the mainstream media and that we had been the ones who informed the authorities about it – all of which were entirely untrue, but resulted in a “boycott The AJN” campaign, calls for a bonfire in the heart of Caulfield where copies of The AJN could be burnt, members of the community cancelling their subscriptions and people pulling their advertising … but worse than all of that, totally innocent AJN staff being screamed at and abused over the phone, called Kapos and told they were no better than Nazis pushing their fellow Jews into the gas chambers.

Just because how you practise Judaism is different from how I practise Judaism, or how you define your Zionism is different to how I define my Zionism doesn’t stop us all being Jews and Zionists. We are Am Echad, One People.

Now for a community that cries foul when other people use Nazi analogies, to use them against our own people is not only the height of hypocrisy but absolutely repellent. In short, the animosity and loathing being expressed last year was off the scale. And even when I wrote a rare front page editorial pleading for people on all sides to rein in their vitriol, I was abused by both sides for taking the other side.

Why do I say all this? Because I regard it as one of the great tragedies of our community that there is often so much personal bitterness between people with different views, no concept of agreeing to disagree and a simple lack of respect for each other’s opinions.

Addressing The AJN’s 120th anniversary event in Melbourne in 2015.Photo: Peter Haskin

Heck, we even tear strips off each other arguing who our biggest enemy is – neo-Nazis and the far right or Islamist extremists and the far left.

But the biggest enemy is actually ourselves. So much effort is expended fighting one another that could be far better put towards fighting common enemies or in simply celebrating all that unites us.

Just because how you practise Judaism is different from how I practise Judaism, or how you define your Zionism is different to how I define my Zionism doesn’t stop us all being Jews and Zionists. We are Am Echad, One People.

All that said, there are real challenges that have confronted us as Australian Jews. Both within and outside the community.

And as editor over the past 12 years, it has been my duty to ensure those have been addressed.

Almost from day one, in a meeting requested by the police, the issue of historic child abuse landed on my desk. Long before the 2015 Royal Commission, we revealed the shocking attitudes held by some of our spiritual leaders. The kind of attitudes that meant serious allegations had not been reported to the proper authorities, allowing those accused of committing the most egregious crimes to get away with it, and even leave the country.

I wrote a piece urging everyone with any knowledge of what had gone on to come forward – no more cover, ups, excuses or denials, I said. We needed to take responsibility as a community and tackle it. But we didn’t. And because of that, it all came crashing down on us a few years later, very publicly, at the Royal Commission.

One body feigned shock and horror at certain views expressed at the Commission about what constituted acceptable behaviour and whether alleged perpetrators should be reported to the police. Which was bizarre. Because when The AJN revealed that a particular rabbi had expressed precisely those views four years earlier, the self-same body had slammed us for perpetrating a chilul Hashem and for being reckless and sensationalist, claiming that we had distorted the rabbi’s views, presented them out of context and had stooped to the level of a cheap tabloid.

A tragedy. Had those who should have known better listened, we could have avoided one of the most traumatic episodes in modern Australian Jewish history. Instead, the community was splashed across the front pages of the popular press and the TV news, and made to look as insular and extreme as the Taliban, with religious zealots taking the law into their own hands and refusing to cooperate with the proper authorities.

In short, it’s not just the outside world – the Bob Carrs and the boycotters – that we hold to account.

Keeping our own machers in check, taking up the baton on behalf of community members if they feel they are being shortchanged or wronged by communal institutions – it’s what separates newspaper articles from PR puff pieces.

Whether it’s child abuse being swept under the carpet, school fees being too high, not-for-profits being mismanaged, spiritual and secular leaders acting illegally or unethically, The AJN provides a forum where the issues can be raised and discussed. A forum that cannot be ignored.

With former Israeli ambassador to Australia Yuval Rotem and communal stalwart Helsie Brustman.
Photo: Peter Haskin

But The AJN isn’t just about reporting problems and reporting news. It is our duty also to reinforce and defend the values of our readership. And nowhere is that more critical than when it comes to Israel.

When the mainstream press, politicians and pundits are peddling a one-sided critique of the Jewish State, it is incumbent on us to redress the balance, to present Israel’s point of view.

When other newspapers talk of the suffering of Palestinian children, we talk of the suffering of Israeli children, when they talk about IDF shells hitting houses in Gaza, we talk of Hamas rockets hitting houses in Sderot, when they talk about an apartheid wall, we talk about the suicide attacks that wall has prevented.

We redress the disproportionality. But not at the cost of our integrity or our credibility.

Do we criticise specific policies of the Israeli government? Yes. Do we question the wisdom of construction in the settlements? Yes. Do we lament the intransigence and inflexibility of certain politicians who put obstacles in the path of peace talks? Yes.

But do we give a platform to those who question Israel’s right to exist, who describe it as an apartheid regime, who call for a boycott of the Jewish State, who challenge Israel’s right to defend itself? The answer to all these is a categorical no. Likewise, we give voice to diverse views on religious matters, from all streams of the community. We have female rabbis writing for us, we promote communal inclusion for LGBTQI+ Jews.

In short, we don’t shut ourselves off from the changing nature of our community. But, as with Israel, we have to draw a line and stand up for fundamental tenets of Judaism. Do we give a platform to those who would ban shechitah or who would challenge our right to carry out circumcision? The answer, as before, is a categorical no.

Packing items donated to The AJN’s Queensland flood relief drive in 2011, with the newspaper’s Debbie Davis and Sharon Krawitz.Photo: Peter Haskin

For the past 12 or so years those are the key values that have driven me as editor. Simply to do what is right for the community. Whether campaigning for alleged abusers to be brought back to Australia or for IDF hostages to be freed by Hamas, whether exposing antisemitic bullying in government schools or sexism within our own communal institutions, whether highlighting the hypocrisy of anti-Israel politicians or the horrors endured by our cousins in Kyiv and Kharkiv, we have tackled the big issues.

But we also print the fun photos from communal events, celebrate the successes of our schools and students, and share both the harrowing and heartwarming stories of the homegrown newsmakers in our midst.

Treading that fine line between the negative and the positive isn’t always easy. But it means each and every week as we put The AJN together, we face a new challenge, getting that balance just right.

It’s a challenge I’ve now enjoyed for well over 600 issues … so it’s time to let someone else have a go.

At the outset of writing this piece, I decided not to mention any names. Firstly, because we cover so many people and so many stories in The AJN, that those referred to here are just examples to illustrate my thoughts as I type and shouldn’t be singled out beyond that.

And secondly, because I’ve been privileged to work with, and have encountered, so many wonderful people over the years – both within The AJN and the wider community – that it would take too many pages to list them individually … and I’d be horrified if inadvertently I left anyone out. So thank you all so very much, you know who you are.

Treading that fine line between the negative and the positive isn’t always easy. But it means each and every week as we put The AJN together, we face a new challenge, getting that balance just right.

And to my colleagues past and present, I’m indebted to you all – for all your support, for laughing at my jokes however bad, and for making my tenure such a richly rewarding experience.

It wasn’t always easy, but your dedication and commitment have been incredible – you always went, and always go, above and beyond.

Even when the world shut down and we were forced to work from home, you overcame challenges we never dreamed of to ensure we still hit deadlines and never missed an issue.

And finally, having said what I just said about not naming anyone … thank you Bob and Ruth for giving me this fantastic opportunity back in 2009, and backing me ever since. Thank you to my wife Adina for putting up with the demands of this 24/7 job. And thank you Josh for being Josh – we had quite a ride.

And so, as I leave the bridge … Gareth, as your friends would say on the USS Yenta-prise, “Mr Narunsky, you have the conn.”

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