A four part review of media reception of Greg Sheridan’s book “When we were Young
and Foolish”. (Allen & Unwin 2015)
….by someone who was there before and after….Jefferson lee
….. THE ISRAEL-PALESTINE DEBATE WITHIN AUS
In the book “The Costello Years (MUP, Melbourne 2008) Peter Costello gives his version on pp.25-27. He argues “The AUS (in 1974) passed extremist resolutions that ‘AUS informs the national union of Israeli students that AUS does not recognise the State of Israel’ and that ‘AUS supports the liberation forces of Palestine’. In 1975 the council of the AUS further resolved that ‘AUS Travel cease all advertising and organisation, and promotion of travel to occupied Palestine until the Zionist entity is overcome and the land known as Israel is completely restored to its rightful inhabitants’. Costello goes on to position this debate in the context of “the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, the massacre of the Israeli athletes in Munich, and a high jacking and terror campaign by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO).” where “most Australian students were appalled at these sentiments” and it demonstrated “how extreme and unrepresentative the student leadership had become”. He acknowledged “All student associations had to decide whether to ratify the resolutions” and there was, in his view “overwhelming opposition to the resolutions…and they were defeated.”
In the light of subsequent events, Arafat’s recognition as the legal and legitimate head of the PLO, the Camp David Accords ( President Carter with Sadat-Begin in 1979), The Oslo Accords (1993), the eventual recognition that the PLO was an umbrella organisation where not all Palestinians subscribed to the tactics of ‘Black September’ (Munich 1972) , or even ‘Hezbollah’, to the point where today the PLO flag flies over the UN Building, it is clear the Middle East debate has moved on from the 1974-75 mainstream position. The common consensus was indeed back then, based around the Hollywood movie ‘Exodus’ as representing the only view allowed. The AUS leadership then was proposing an earlier version of “Boycott, Divest, Sanctions or BDS” which the Supreme Court of NSW ruled in 2015 was a legitimate campaign in the Sydney University case involving Professor Jake Lynch’s refusal to invite a Zionist professor from Israel to the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies. The AUS position from 1974-75 was deliberately moved by Leftist students at the time, not to ram through with an expected national campus wide endorsement, but to allow for debate of the issue of the Middle East conflict. As such it was a brave initiative, ahead of its time, as were the initial campaigns for Aboriginal Rights, withdrawal of troops from the Vietnam War and opposition to Apartheid in sport at a time when Nelson Mandela was regarded as a “terrorist”. These students were motivated by a sense of fairness in international relations and not an endorsement of “terrorism” as claimed by Costello and Sheridan in their student era memoirs.
As a UNSW campus ‘Tharunka’ student paper co-editor with well-known Zionist supporter Uri Windt, in 1974 we tried to present “both sides” of the conflict in our paper. For even allowing a debate on the issue I was personally slandered by the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies as a “well-known anti-Semite”. The JBD criticised the Jewish President of the Students Union at UNSW John Green (now retired QC and philanthropist) for joint membership with me and dozens of other student leaders in the ‘Go Ahead Committee’ to re-elect the Whitlam ALP Government because of its progressive tertiary education policies. The claim that I was “a well-known anti-Semite” subsequently appeared on the front page of the Australian Jewish Times. My only other contribution to the debate at the time was a letter in the Nation Review advocating a “democratic secular state” solution which 20 years later could be retrospectively seen as even more moderate than the post Oslo, Camp David accords. Back in 1970s I was a naive and idealistic undergraduate seeking a peaceful resolution of what was then and still is a complex intractable issue. The general meeting at UNSW in 1974 to decide AUS policy ‘constituent ratification’ was only defeated by a 60%-40% margin. So much for the “terrorist extremists” assertions of Costello and Sheridan in their memoirs.
In 1975 with more students becoming aware of the Palestinians historical plight, the vote was even closer with the pro-Israeli position only narrowly winning the student vote. On other campuses a similar pattern was emerging. Many students had become appalled at the violent and threatening tactics of disruption by the Zionist lobby during the 1975 information speaking tour by two representatives of the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS), prior to the AUS constituent ratification meetings. At these meetings ‘off-duty’ commandoes from the Israeli army (in their mid 30s) were prominent in shouting down the Palestinian speakers at the Uni of Technology meeting, while AUJS students screamed hysterically throughout the entirety of the Uni of NSW meeting in CLB 7, constantly waving little Israeli flags to distract the speakers. Sheridan starts his book chapter five “Turbulence” with reference to the Macquarie University meeting of this tour. It was held after the three earlier Sydney-based campus meetings had all been disrupted by the well-organised Zionist lobby. Yes the Sydney Arab community had been mobilised to attend this meeting at Macquarie in response to the hostility of the earlier meetings. There was community anger at yet another example of the silencing of the Palestinian voice in public had been repeatedly witnessed by silent observers. In Sheridan’s book he references Rod Webb, then an editor of the campus paper ‘Arena’. Webb was sued for covering this meeting and suggesting that the few Zionist students present deliberately provoked violence so as to successfully skew the evening television news coverage away from the Palestinian dispossession issue to “violence on campus from Arabs”. The article in Arena was called “Jonathan Lester’s Finest Hour”. I will let readers of this article seek it out and form their own judgement. (Lester was a personal friend of mine at the time. We were both fellow law students at one time. I discussed the Middle East with him regularly. Note, I did not attend the Macquarie event and do not claim to be a witness to what happened there).
In 1976 there were no motions emerging for ratification from the national AUS Council meeting, except for a call for continued debate on campuses. At Melbourne University the pro-Zionist President of the SRC, Michael Danby, did not help his cause by his documented collaboration with the Commonwealth Police to deny entry to Australia of a legitimately enrolled Palestinian student at Melbourne University when he was entrusted by the student body and bound by the SRC Constitution, to represent students, not betray them. The student in question, Eddie Zannaneri had been given a clearance by ASIO to re-enter Australia as the husband of an Australian wife, (note he was one of the GUPS speakers the previous year), and enrol in Law at Melbourne University. Danby’s views on the issue were known. He should have stood aside as Student President if he could not represent all students impartially and fairly. (See debate in ‘Axis’,’ National U’s forerunner, an AUS publication, 1976) . This issue received mainstream media coverage and even had the Zionist student lobby having to state defensively they were in favour of “free speech on the Middle East” when clearly they weren’t.
By 1977 the Zionist camp had decided the only way to prevent further debate was to paint all opponents as “extremists”. Glossy brochures of Israeli bomb attack victims were spread from one end of the country to the other on every campus denouncing “AUS Terror” as though allowing free debate on the issue on Australian campuses was the source of all terror in the Middle East. The issue of Palestine-Israel was heated up further no doubt because of the bank-rolling of the Australian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS) by three Melbourne Zionist businessmen, one of whom had the primary objective of pinching a slice of the low-fared AUS student travel market, the other two aiming to fund the destruction the Union in order to prevent debate on the Middle East. (The other businessmen became prominent as the semi-secret financial backers of Bob Hawke’s ACTU Bourke Store, a so-called discount house for trade unionists and other businesses that ‘Hawkey’ conned the workers movement into as head of the ACTU).
Soon after I was elected to the AUS Media Office in their Melbourne Headquarters at 97 Drummond Street Carlton, Michael Danby was the victim of a daylight street bashing by two unidentified assailants carrying Eureka flags. I was interviewed by the Australian Federal Police at the time. I was informed that Danby asserted I was not involved as he would have recognised me. Danby had a lot of political enemies apart from the Middle East student debate. Sheridan only makes reference to it in his book. It was widely rumoured throughout the Melbourne labour movement at the time that he attended anti-Kerr rallies and other anti-government protests and fingered protest leaders to the plain clothes police for them to be identified and either photographed for files or arrested. I have no evidence apart from hearsay as to the truth of this issue but the Zannaneri affair confirmed his alleged role to many people. I made a public statement deploring the violent attack on him and asked the AFP to convey my sympathies. Despite this I was under continual surveillance by the security police including phone bugging. I say all this because Sheridan’s book claimed his bashing was related to his involvement in a reform AUS move over direct elections for office bearers. I believe the attack was more random and could well have had nothing or little to do with Danby’s involvement in the AUS issue.
The reference to this in Sheridan’s book only accentuates his typical ‘guilt by association’ slander. There were thousands of Eureka flags carriers in Melbourne in 1977. The Australian Independence Movement (AIM) teachers group had 500 members alone. The Cultural Workers for Independence (CWI) had hundreds of members and supporters from Shirley from the Skyhooks band to Geoff Hogg an internationally recognized wall muralist, to countless filmmakers, to artists galore. Thousands of trade unionists also carried Eureka flags on May Day marches! There are probably many more supporters today. Even ‘BlokesWorld’ on Channel1-10 TV network embarrassingly uses it as part of their logo. As do the North Melbourne Aussie Rules football fans. Returning to the Danby incident, no-one has ever of been arrested or charged over this event. It is interesting that Sheridan paints this event more colourfully with each and every media interview for his book. He tells the Byron Bay Writers Festival crowd it was “a mob” of Maoists. A similar image is created in his Brisbane 612 interview with no one to argue to the contrary. I was interviewed by the Commonwealth Police over this attack and was told they were looking for one, and at most, two suspects. Sheridan’s media flourish gives the listener the
impression it was six or ten bully boys onto one man with his frightened lady looking on?
Sheridan attacks AUS for other things such as the alleged violence against him and three other open disruptors during a screening of a pro-Palestinian land rights film at the Monash Conference. Again I was not there as it occurred separately from the Conference deliberations venue. I cannot comment on the veracity of Sheridan’s claims in his book. Does Sheridan seriously believe that he, Abbott and their mates, went to a film screening with a pro-Palestinian title, in a darkened room with forty other people, and expected no come back when they proceeded to disrupt the viewing of the other people in the room? Or that he naively expected the film to present “both sides” of the debate?
Suffice is to say that the desire by the student movement overall was to present “both sides” of the debate had a torturous history going back to the 1973 Middle East War conflict and even back to the creation of Israel in 1948 To me the simple truth remains that anyone in Australia who debates publicly this vexing issue was and is labelled by the Lipski, Danby or Sheridan camp as a “terrorist supporter”. The leading speakers for the Zionist movement do not believe in dialogue. The pulled the plug on a public meeting on the detention of Mordici Vanunu when Jews Against Zionism and Anti-Semitism (JAZA) booked a room at the Hakoah Club in Bondi. The recent legal actions against Dr Jake Lynch at Sydney Uni, over the BDS campaign, were orchestrated from Israel. These are just two examples of how far the Zionist camp will go still to slander and silence any critic. I guess the reputation shredding ‘hit list’ now includes Bob Carr? Sheridan in his Byron Bay address wrongly asserts that AUS bankrolled the PLO with student money. This was untrue. The Arabic family-owned Scarf clothing company donated money for a pro-Palestinian booklet and the Jewish business lobby bank-rolled the Australian Union of Jewish Students during the 1974-75 ‘constituent ratification debates. To my recollection, in 1976-77 AUS passed motions at its Annual Conferences simply calling for a student forum and debate in the absence of genuine mainstream media debate with no allocated finance from its budget.
The other alleged and related violent incident (involving the Newcastle delegate Anne McCosker) that Sheridan refers to in his coverage of the Monash Conference I was not an eye-witness. Nor does Sheridan present any beyond his travelling mates and the politically aligned victim. It happened in the corridors of one of the residential colleges, not at the conference hall. At face valour I accept the incident occurred. Had I been there I would have intervened to prevent any physical attack as Greg claimed Tony Abbott did on this occasion. Nevertheless like other delegates to the conference I had to accept the internal investigation reports to the conference that delivered by professional members of staff and a broadly based Council committee. I will concede that there were a few hangers on to the Students for Australian Independence who enjoyed nothing more than a biff up with there right wing political opponents. I will further admit that one or two of them did not always fight by ‘Queensbury Rules’. No doubt they were from working class backgrounds and not elite middle class private school backgrounds. No doubt they may have been motivated by being thumped by wallopers and standover men from the bosses camp in the past? But that is no grounds for an anonymous slur against a whole political student movement in either your book or public pronouncements on the era. Unless you have an agenda other than truthfully recounting your “foolish youth”?
In contrast, I am aware that your student hero Tony Abbott was reported to the Chair of the1977 Monash Conference during one session for intimidating lesbian student activists verbally. Whether this was solely from his delegation seat at the conference table, or elsewhere as well, I cannot ascertain beyond hearsay. However his actions did lead to a motion guaranteeing all female delegates (of any political persuasion) safe conduct to their assigned rooms within the college grounds for the remainder of the conference. I note also in Sheridan’s book a reference to our ‘winking’ former Prime Minister Abbott alleged ‘student bully boy’ reputation. Here Sheridan attempts to discredit the Barbara Ramjan incident at the Sydney University SRC election night where she defeated him in the ballot for President. As recently as last week, (see Jared Owens,’ Accuser claims professor as witness to Abbott punch’ The Australian, 15/09/15, p.6), the counter view that Abbott did assault the female candidate to whom he lost the 1977 election is now backed up with an eye-witness statutory declaration (from a qualified lawyer). This was prepared for a legal suit in 2013 against the media but has only now been released in response to Sheridan’s book denial. Further the Sheridan book says nothing about Tony Abbott and his inebriated football mates invading the “women’s only room” in the Sydney Uni SRC offices on another occasion, nor the alleged assault of another female student, the Kuringai CAE incident, during a political debate. Both of these were covered in the David Marr Quarterly Essay which Sheridan only mentions with cursory derision in his book. Some would say “where there is smoke, there is fire”? My only conclusion is that with the period of time Sheridan, unlike the Barbara Ramjan he cites, may have a selective memory that distorts true events?
In saying all this I will take the opportunity to agree with Sheridan on a number of points. Yes Peter Costello was bashed by a Monash “Anarchist” in a lone regretful incident. His assailant maintains when I interviewed him recently that Costello deliberately over-exaggerated his injuries for political capital. Sheridan goes further than the victim himself and gives a bruised arm the upgrade to a ‘broken arm’ tag in his book. The student in question had no right to do so even if Costello was abusing his privileges as the MAS Chair to deny speaking rights to political opponents at mass meetings (using what you refer to “AUS-style” bureaucratic manoeuvres from the Chair), and censoring the local campus editors of ‘Lot’s Wife’, two female students who claim they were regularly verbally intimidated by Costello during political disagreements over the paper’s budget and contents. It is clear that Sheridan in his book, and subsequent launches, tries to beat the Costello incident up into a far more serious case than it may have been. The political point that he avoids, as does Costello himself in his 2008 memoir, is that up until this incident, the more left-wing ‘reformers’ inside AUS were attempting to mobilise student leaders from the progressive Christian camp, including Peter Costello, along with Peter Moss at Melbourne University, Brian Mulrony, President at UNSW, and many others, into a broadly-based campaign from within the union. The unfortunate fall-out from the Costello incident was it closed the door on that option, as he broke off discussions (with the Neil McLean camp, through intermediaries) and slipped into full support for the outside funded ‘wrecking campaign’ from the NCC, AUJS and ALSF and their backers in the mainstream media, government , Labor Right wing and political police.
Yes Sheridan and Abbott, as NCC student operatives, rode in on the coat-tails of it all, after elected student leaders from Perth to Sydney pressed ahead with a “spill motion”, initiated by those within the national office who wanted reform, to declare all national positions vacant within the union. Unfortunately it was not to be. Reform, with so many external enemies, including the courts strangling student funds, led to the demise of AUS in the 1978-79 period, as campuses were forced to secede from the national body over legal injunctions and misleading campaigns, and an hiatus of a few years before it’s national replacement, the National Union of Students,(NUS) found its feet albeit with budding ALP and Liberal student politicians at the helm, ready to reinvent the wheel.
Written by Jefferson Lee, Media Officer and ‘National U’ editor 1977. Mr Lee is a former tertiary level teacher and author. He received the Order of Timor-Leste on May 20th 2015 in Maliana, Timor Leste for his work with the Australia-East Timor Association from 1975-2015. The views he expresses are those of himself only. He notes as well that his views on many issues have changed since 1977.
Footnote…To pre-empt Greg ringing his ASIO mates, yes I do concede I was late adopting the “Standard Total View” on the Cambodia issue. My defence here was I was arguing with the pro-Hanoi Left in Australia and elsewhere who I felt were backing an “Indochina Federation” solution to the Third Indochina War. Given the restoration of the “Khmer Riche” in Phnom Penh, I concede all sides where wrong on predicting the eventual outcome of Cambodia today. My second footnote is to acknowledge the position of Norman Rothfield in his book ‘Many Paths to Peace” where he states that the late Franz Timmerman eventually agreed that dialogue was necessary between the two camps to find a solution to the Middle East and as such he would countenance a pro-Israeli position being aired on 3CR. On the other hand the late Neil McLean argued consistently to give Zionism a platform on Community Radio was tantamount to selling out the Palestinian struggle.
(Yarraford Publishers, Melbourne 1997).