Israel Hand-Outs: The Art Of Spreading Talking Points And Propaganda


If a government suggests you should write something, you should probably ask a few questions first, writes Michael Brull.

Back in 2013, I spoke on a panel at Limmud Oz with Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins, from Emanuel Synagogue, and Yair Miller. Miller was then serving as the Vice President of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ), and also as the President of the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies (JBD).

Given the opportunity to speak first, I criticised the organisations he helped lead, arguing that they peddled the official party line on Israel, which, I said, Miller would soon spout too. He did not deny this charge: he admitted that during times of conflict, organisations received talking points from the Israeli government.

As is obvious, this propaganda eventually finds its way into whatever parts of the Australian media are ready to reproduce those talking points. The results are tedious, and usually not very impressive or persuasive.

In the case of the knife uprising in Israel and Palestine, the efforts have been meagre in an interesting way, with a dash of gratuitous claims about Palestinians. And they haven’t had much luck in getting their message out.

For example, Liberal MP Michael Sukkar gave a speech on what was happening. The video – shared on Facebook by a group of right-wing Zionists – can be seen below.

He reads out the entire speech, occasionally glancing up from the speech. The text is here. He draws attention to a “sermon” by Muhammad Salah to stab Jews, claiming that these were “commands”, not rhetoric, implemented by his followers. Also charged with incitement is “Palestinian President”, Mahmoud Abbas, who “supposedly represents the more moderate Palestinian factions”.

Sukkar distributes some blame to him, as he “told his people”: “Every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem is pure, every shahid [martyr]will reach paradise, and every injured person will be rewarded by God.” Sukkar implies this speech incited the murder of a Jewish couple (the Israeli government alleges the attack was actually committed by a Hamas cell in the West Bank).

Sukkar stresses that the preacher’s “motivations are clear. He does not speak of settlements or blockades. No political outcome or policy change or concession by the Israelis will satisfy him. The issue is religious supremacism”.

This is what “boys like Farhad Jabar in Parramatta and the young men in Jerusalem take as their creed.”

Capitalising on the shooting in Parramatta, Sukkar clearly hopes to transfer Australian revulsion at that shooting to argue that what happens in Palestine is basically the same. Palestinians have no political grievances: any who kill Israelis, are just senseless religious fanatics.

Rowan Dean, writing for the right-wing Murdoch paper, the Courier Mail, wrote along similar lines in the form of an attack on the ABC.

He cites the same sermon in the same mosque. He then says that Palestinians who stab Jewish civilians are “no different to Farhad Jabar”. He escalates the rhetoric slightly, identifying the “same murderous ideology that is seeing ‘kaffirs’ butchered around the world.”

Israel, of course, is blameless: “What is occurring in Israel at the moment is the result of decades of official anti-Semitism”.

Alex Ryvchin, the public affairs director of ECAJ, in a weird coincidence, wrote along similar lines for the Daily Telegraph. He began with the same sermon by Muhammad Salah. After that speech, “results quickly follow”. By a strange coincidence, Ryvchin also cites the same alleged speech by Mahmoud Abbas that Sukkar cited.

Turning to the third talking point they were all assigned, he hints at the connection: “The images of violence and the themes underpinning it will be familiar to Australian audiences. Barbaric crimes targeting civilians or police officers are being carried out by indoctrinated teenagers in the name of religious duty.”

Get it? The stabbings in Israel and Palestine will be familiar, because of what happened in Parramatta. Because of religion – Islam. Not because of any political issues.

Footage obtained by Channel 7 of the shooting in Parramatta.
Footage obtained by Channel 7 of the shooting in Parramatta.

In the October 20 issue of the Australian Jewish News, NSW JBD CEO Vic Alhadeff contributed his own insights. He began with the shootings in Parramatta, and then said “Compare the above to the reaction which Israel…” He went on to cite the same alleged sermon by Abbas, denouncing this “so-called peace partner”. Strangely, Alhadeff forgot to cite the Salah speech.

These talking points are enough to fill a 700 word op ed. They just aren’t enough to impress many. For example, if the words of the speech by Abbas were accurately reported, they occurred in September – weeks before the stabbings started. An Israeli army intelligence assessment said that Abbas worked to prevent violence once it started. The Shin Bet also found that he was “instructing his security forces to prevent terror attacks as much as possible”.

The claims about the speech by Salah can be found in trashy right wing media, and in Ruth Pollard’s report for Fairfax. Like the others, Pollard doesn’t cite the source for her claims about the speech.

The Times of Israel reports that the speech was provided by MEMRI, and provides quotes cited by the others. It can be found here.

MEMRI was founded by a Colonel from Israeli intelligence, who happens to have defended torture in 1995. It purports to provide translations of speeches in Arabic, which are primarily designed to show Arabs as evil, and to generally advance the interests of the Israeli government. It has repeatedly been charged with mistranslating Arabic.

For example:

In 2007, CNN correspondent Atika Shubert and Arabic translators accused MEMRI of mistranslating portions of a Palestinian children’s television programme.

“Media watchdog MEMRI translates one caller as saying – quote – ‘We will annihilate the Jews,”‘ said Shubert. “But, according to several Arabic speakers used by CNN, the caller actually says ‘The Jews are killing us.”

Numerous more examples can be found here.

MEMRI also provided a clip of an interview with Norman Finkelstein – speaking in English on an Arabic program – presenting him as a Holocaust denier, after carefully editing out his comments affirming the Holocaust. And they fabricated a quote and attributed it to the former editor of the Forward, a leading Jewish American paper.

Let us suppose that MEMRI is right. Salah gave the speech, as described. The speech is from October 9. The first stabbing was October 3. It is a little hard to credit a speech from six days later as the inspiration for the stabbings.

Furthermore, if Islamic preaching is the cause of stabbings, then what caused Jews stabbing Palestinians, and even other Jews who were thought to look Arab?

None of the Israeli talking points, recycled wherever possible, are meant to be serious analysis about what is actually happening. There is no interest in understanding it. The goal is to stress that Israel is not at fault, and terrorists are senselessly killing Israelis. Just like the senseless murder in Parramatta.

The comparison of the Palestinians to Farhad Jabar – common to ECAJ, the JBD, the Liberal MP and the Murdoch columnist – is part of the cynical game, of tying Muslims to terrorism. In this framework, the idea of an Israeli-Palestinian conflict is irrelevant. There are just Muslim terrorists who try to kill because Islam is awful – or, in the wink wink version, there is an evil form of Islam which we just wish some Muslims would finally condemn.

Police close off surrounding streets in Parramatta after the shooting.
Police close off surrounding streets in Parramatta after the shooting.

Ha’aretz reported that the head of Israeli Military Intelligence, Maj. General Herzl Halevi, attributed the stabbings in part to, in the words of journalist Barak Ravid, “feelings of rage and frustration… they were in despair over the state of things “and felt they had nothing to lose”. Ravid wrote that these remarks

“reflect the predominant position that members of the Israeli security establishment in general, and the IDF in particular, have been presenting to the cabinet and the inner cabinet since the escalation began several weeks ago. Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot and other generals have been pushing for a much less aggressive approach than that advocated by cabinet members, and have been stressing the importance of close coordination with Abbas and the PA security forces.”

Ravid observed that, “Halevi’s assessment as for the causes of the wave of terror attacks substantially contradicts Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s message on the subject over the past few weeks.”

Netanyahu said “Now they say: you have terrorist attacks because there is no peace. Neither is true. They’re attacking us not because they want peace or don’t want peace. It’s because they don’t want us here.”

Israeli journalists have repeatedly commented on the link between the stabbings and the occupation. Chemi Shalev wrote that if you take out the occupation, then Palestinian attacks on civilians “turn into manifestations of unadulterated psychotic evil”.

There is a need to find some cause for Palestinian stabbings. For the Israeli government’s propagandists, it soon becomes Islam, or even Palestinian society.

Thus, Ryvchin, speaking on behalf of the peak representative body for Australian Jews, wrote in the Daily Telegraph (where else?) “a sick and corroded Palestinian society, reared on the sermons of maniacal preachers and corrupt politicians, and increasingly detached from reality, descends into an orgy of criminal violence which is destined once again to turn in on itself”.

Got that? The Palestinians are a “sick and corroded” society. Ryvchin, for his part, is deeply sensitive to manifestations of anti-Semitism. For example, terms like “Jewish lobby”, “Zionist lobby” and “Israel lobby” are “intended to appeal to antisemitic views of the Jews”. It is thus – funnily enough – virtually impossible to refer to organisations like his own without using terms he claims are anti-Semitic.

Ryvchin also implied that British columnist Owen Jones was anti-Semitic for criticising Goldman Sachs.

ECAJ also provides the service of providing news summaries, of items they regard as of interest to readers. These present the Israeli government’s point of view. This one begins with a charming item from Bret Stephens. The headline: “Palestine: The Psychotic Stage: The truth about why Palestinians have been seized by their present blood lust.”

It begins by discussing “this Palestinian blood fetish”. It then cites the speeches, noted above, by Abbas and Salah. I suppose he got the same talking points.

Last year, when Fairfax ran a cartoon that ECAJ thought was anti-Semitic, it sent a letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. It purported to be deeply offended that the cartoon “attributes to Jews generally a collective blood guilt”, by portraying one Jewish man stereotypically.

Only representing one Jew in the cartoon was irrelevant: “the identification of the figure as a Jew in the cartoon is a device for conveying a message about Jews generally.” This is a “calumny of Jewish people”. Shockingly, the paper wouldn’t apologise “for what has clearly been a descent into racism in your newspaper”. It seems that attributing collective blood guilt is one thing, but attributing a collective “blood fetish” is something else. Indeed, the latter might be praiseworthy, and warrants sharing with ECAJ’s supporters.

ECAJ also found some other stories insightful. Here, it shares analysis from Alexander Joffe. He says, “inflicting pain and rejoicing in suffering are so visible within Palestinian culture that they can be construed as defining traits.” He suggests that “Palestinian culture has been overtaken by psychosis”, before inquiring into the cause of this “flight to unreality”. And then compares “Palestinian culture” to ISIS broadcasting its beheadings.

In a different vein, ECAJ shared the insights of an article headlined “Concerns about Islam must not be ignored”. Another is headlined “Germany May Soon Have 8 Million Muslims, Islamic Political Party”. The story is cross-posted from Breitbart. It begins: “A German political expert has warned that a successful Islamic political party is not a far off thought given Germany’s rapidly changing demographics.”

What does this have to do with anything? Why would ECAJ, the peak Jewish representative body, share a warning about Germany having a larger Muslim demographic?

I think it represents the dwindling prospects of the Israeli government’s propagandists. With little interest in reality – and less support from the factual record – the best they can do is smears, fear mongering and bigotry. Casually linking Palestinians to Farhad Jabar, linking Islam to terrorism, and complaining about how awful Palestinian society and culture is.

Fewer people are buying it, and fewer people are even willing to sell it. Outside of Jewish organisations, Israeli government propagandists are restricted to the most extreme right-wing elements of the Murdoch press. Like Andrew Bolt praising Tim Blair for boycotting Sky News.

Israel’s government is increasingly being sold only by right-wingers, its propaganda is right-wing messaging, and it seems that its supporters will increasingly become limited to sympathetic elements of the right.

Israel is becoming the international Tony Abbott.

Michael Brull writes twice a week for New Matilda. He has written for a range of other publications, including Overland, Crikey, ABC's Drum, the Guardian and elsewhere. His writings can be followed at his public Facebook page (click on the icon below right).