The Israel lobby – an Australian case study

JVL Introduction

John Lyons is one of Australia’s most experienced journalists, currently head of investigative journalism at the ABC.

He is the author of a new book Dateline Jerusalem: Journalism’s Toughest Assignment. We publish two articles discussing it as well as an extract from the book itself.

They provide a devastating exposure of the power of the Israel Lobby in Australia.

Louise Adler, vice-chancellor’s professorial fellow Monash University, and the commissioning editor of the Lyons book says simply: “The conflation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism is a long-term strategy and the effect on the Australian media is obvious. It is a proven way to silence critics…”

Bob Carr, a former Premier of New South Wales, writes that Lyons exposes “the most concerted and best funded foreign influence operation in Australia: the Israel lobby and in particular its dogged attempts to shape media coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict.”

And John Lyons: “In 40 years in journalism, I’ve dealt with some smart and powerful lobby groups. But none compares to the pro-Israel lobby in Australia. It is formidable, well-funded and effective. Material which the lobby opposes being published in Australia is routinely published in Israel.”

Fortunately, we can rest assured in Britain that nothing like this could possibly happen here…

Why are Australia and its media so fearful of debate on Israel’s treatment of Palestinians?

Until the discussion moves beyond the strategic conflation of Zionism and antisemitism, people who are suffering will not be heard

Louise Adler, the Guardian 8th October 2021

Recently 700 journalists and writers signed a petition calling for fuller media coverage of the plight of the Palestinians. Reportage on the Middle East has long been contested. For Zionists the Australian media is a hot bed of biased, leftwing enmity, for Palestinians the lack of a fair hearing and accurate reporting is a given.


The petition triggered a furore as media proprietors and their editors were called out for self-censorship. There is a tacit consensus in newsrooms across the country that attempting objective reporting and honest analysis isn’t worth the grief. Both implicitly and explicitly it is agreed that subjects best avoided are: daily life for Palestinians, the relentless growth of settlements in the occupied territories, the concomitant moral erosion of the Israeli polity, and the complexities at play within Palestinian and Israeli politics.


Believing it to be in the national interest to publish an evidence-based account of the challenges the media confront in reporting on the region, I commissioned John Lyons to write Dateline Jerusalem: Journalism’s Toughest Assignment. Lyons is a veteran newspaper editor who spent six years as a foreign correspondent in Israel and is now head of ABC Investigations. The task was to examine the impoverished reporting on this benighted region. Twenty-three editors, senior journalists and reporters confirmed on the record, to him, that the problem was the Israel lobby.

The fact that a lobby group seeks to influence government, the media and the community is neither improper nor unsurprising. Junkets, freebies, duchessing are not new. Neither is lack of transparency. But the impact of lobby groups needs to be recognised. If the media is to keep faith with the public then it must expose how influence is exercised.

When Israel’s policies are criticised in the public sphere, the reflexive accusation is antisemitism. The defenders of Israel “right or wrong” share with antisemites a belief that the actions of the state are inextricably bound up with Jewishness. This ensures that Zionism and antisemitism remain the focus of debate and the issue of Palestinian suffering under an illegal occupation is conveniently ignored. Until we can have a public discussion, which moves beyond that deadlock, it seems inevitable that Palestinian voices will not be heard.

The conflation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism is a long-term strategy and the effect on the Australian media is obvious. It is a proven way to silence critics, ensure questions remain unanswered and media coverage muted. The intemperate and defensive responses to Dateline Jerusalem prove the point. It is clear that if one doesn’t want to endure the endless orchestrated letter writing campaigns, the complaints, the phone calls up and down the management hierarchy, it is best to leave the subject of Israel well alone, which of course is not in the public interest.

Years ago I published Antony Loewenstein’s My Israel Question, which sought to understand the Israel lobby. The response was wildly disproportionate. One might have thought community leaders would engage Loewenstein in constructive discussion to “set him straight”. Instead the Australian Jewish News engaged in a relentless vilification campaign against the author and his publisher. Michael Danby, then a politician, wrote to Melbourne University’s vice-chancellor, Glyn Davis, demanding I be sacked and the book pulped. Despite the attempted intimidation the vice-chancellor continued a 14-year steadfast commitment to MUP’s editorial independence.

In a review of a new book by Edward Said, I reflected briefly on my own idealistic arrival in Israel at the age of 17, anticipating a socialist utopia and dancing the hora on the tarmac. Instead I was met by Ashkenazi Jews stamping my passport, Sephardi Jews sweeping the floors and Palestinians cleaning the toilets. It was a depressing introduction to a society mired in race and class divisions. My recollection of the experience in a book review prompted a personal visit from the Israeli ambassador demanding I refrain from “airing the community’s dirty linen in public”. The AJN routinely proclaims on its front page “One People, One Voice” – encapsulating the problem in a nutshell.

Why are the local foot soldiers so fearful of debate, of clear-eyed reportage of the conditions of Palestinian life, of observations that the oft touted “only democracy in the region” discriminates against Israeli Arabs, of demands for Palestinian self-determination, and critiques of the military occupation that has radicalised successive generations of Palestinians?

The right to live in peace and with justice tragically continues to elude Palestinian and Israeli citizenry. It is a truism that a diversity of opinions is impossible to repress in Israel. Asking why the same diversity of views is not tolerated in Australia should be the start of an important conversation. Let the debate begin.

Louise Adler is vice-chancellor’s professorial fellow and curator of In the National Interest at Monash University and publisher at large for Hachette Australia. In the National Interest is a new series in the Monash University Publishing list that focuses on the challenges confronting Australia. The series informs, influences and inspires public discourse. Showcasing experts both from within Monash and across Australia, these short, thought-provoking and accessible books address the major issues of our times.

Bob Carr: Israel lobby’s overreach far exceeded any other diaspora community

For casting light on the savage lobbying the Australian media — and politicians — receive from the Israel lobby, John Lyons should be congratulated.

By Bob Carr, Pearls and Irritations, 9th October 2021

The former editor of The Sydney Morning Herald John Lyons has done democracy a service by publishing a small book exposing the most concerted and best funded foreign influence operation in Australia: the Israel lobby and in particular its dogged attempts to shape media coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

He provides a strong evidentiary base. His example of a full court lobbying exercise against the use of the noun Palestine in a Sydney Morning Herald crossword is the case study reductio ad absurdum. He recounts Israeli diplomats visiting The Australian’s editor to complain about 23-year-old Jennine Khalik, a journalist on his staff with a Palestinian-Australian background — as if it were remotely their business. He recounts a fiercely pro-Israel journalist on his paper who took it upon himself to excise critical articles about Israel.

Lyons is able to quote Chris Mitchell his former editor-in-chief to confirm the “interference” — Mitchell’s word — happening without his knowledge. Still Mitchell also confirms the lobby’s Colin Rubinstein was so ever-present policing Israel-related coverage that, “You don’t even need to say, ‘Colin who?’”

Mitchell, a hard nosed Murdoch editor, told Lyons that when neo cons captured the George W Bush administration “… you had a real radicalisation of the Israeli lobby here, almost hand in hand.”

My experience as premier and foreign minister confirms that the lobbying exceeded that marshalled by any other diaspora community. As foreign minister on my first visit to the UN I released a very routine statement noting the latest burst of Israeli settlement activity, stating that it was not helpful to the peace process. From Australia arrived a request I make myself available for a telephone conference with “the community”.

This expression had only one meaning: that as foreign minister I should justify myself to Mark Leibler and Rubenstein who would patiently explain to me that Australia was not entitled to criticise settlements even though a clear breach of international law happens when an occupying power settles its own people on territory captured in war and, in this case, on land intended as the future Palestinian state planned by the Oslo Accords.

But, then, the Israel lobby also argues that no Australian politician or newspaper was even entitled to use the term “occupation” or “occupied territory”. I declined the invitation to justify myself for
stating Australian policy.

No organisation representing Arab, Chinese, Armenian, Greek, or Turkish communities has sought to litigate every comma and police every statement from the foreign minister of their adopted homeland concerning the country they left behind.

At a state Australian Labor Party conference, it was put to me that on settlements I should drop the term “illegal under international law” and use the softer language, “not in line with international law”. At the state ALP conference which was about to unanimously endorse my motion supporting recognition of Palestine a small diehard pro-Israel group lobbied that while my motion would proceed I should agree to no debate — presumably because the state of Israel was at once too special and too fragile to be subject to loss of dignity from public criticism.

This overreach had been exceeded only in 2003 when I as premier accepted an invitation from Sydney University to present its Sydney Peace Prize to a famous Palestinian advocate Hanan Ashrawi, a secular (Christian, as it happens) moderate. Ironically I accepted because I thought it was a favour to Israel. I was then the president of Labor Friends of Israel which I had launched with Bob Hawke in 1977 and thought that to reward a Palestinian who supported the peace process was a happy thing for Israel’s security.

The savage lobbying campaign orchestrated by the same lobby Lyons anatomises drove Lucy Turnbull as deputy lord mayor and Kathryn Greiner to withdraw their attendances. It threatened Sydney University with loss of donor support. I stood firm and was gratified by public support for not giving in to raw bullying. Some in the Jewish community, I’m told, thought the lobbying had hurt their cause.

When in 2012 as foreign minister I persuaded the Gillard government we should not vote in the UN to block a motion lifting the status of the Palestinian delegation I was pushing a half-open door. Despite the frantic lobbying I found colleagues thought the chauvinism, apartheid laws and settlement expansion deserved a rebuke. In this sense some in the Jewish community are right. The lobby doesn’t win every time.

But because democracy dies in darkness Lyons deserves congratulations for exposing the phone calls, the visits to editors, the frantic emails, the subsidised trips. But in the end evidence speaks for itself, like the 600,000 Israeli settlers or the 2018 Nation State Law which entrenches Jewish superiority over Israel’s Arab population.

Enough to make this author in 2014 become patron of Labor Friends of Palestine.

The Hon. Bob Carr is a former Premier of New South Wales (1995–2005), a former Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs (2012–2013) and the former Director of the Australia–China Relations Institute, the University of Technology Sydney (2014–2019).

How the Australian public is short-changed on Israel and Gaza

This book is the story of why many editors and journalists in Australia are in fear of upsetting the pro-Israel lobby and therefore — in my view — self-censoring.

By John Lyons, Perls and Irritations, 4th October 2021

And it’s the story of how the Australian public is being short-changed — denied reliable, factual information about one of the most important conflicts of our time.

In 40 years in journalism, I’ve dealt with some smart and powerful lobby groups. But none compares to the pro-Israel lobby in Australia. It is formidable, well-funded and effective. Material which the lobby opposes being published in Australia is routinely published in Israel. Says senior journalist Peter Greste: “Personally, I think the pressure that the Israeli lobby places on Australian journalists is, frankly, outrageous.”

This means Australians cannot evaluate Australia always voting in support of Israel at the United Nations, no matter the issue, or if Australia’s continued support of Israel’s 54-year occupation meets our values and interests.

Wars between Israel and Gaza ignite every few years and because factual information is limited the causes often are not explained. One of the main reasons behind the May 2021 Gaza conflict was rarely reported in Australia. The media that bothered to report it framed it as essentially a real-estate dispute between Palestinians, who lived in the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, and Jews who claimed they lived in and owned those houses in 1948. As The New York Times reported: “The Israeli law allows Jews to reclaim ownership of land they vacated in 1948 but denies Palestinians the right to reclaim the properties they fled from in the same war.”

Most Australians would also not know that in order to achieve a demographic majority in Jerusalem, for decades many of these Palestinians have had their houses in East Jerusalem demolished or occupied.

In the Australian media, the military system is rarely mentioned. Under Israeli military law army commanders have full executive, legislative and judicial authority over Palestinians.

Most Australians do not know that Palestinians live not just in fear of the Israeli army but of Jewish settlers, who often attack them. Israeli human rights groups have numerous videos of settlers attacking Palestinians while soldiers stand by. Most Australians would not know that there are streets in the West Bank where only Israelis can drive.

When I was Middle East correspondent for The Australian, Albert Dadon, a property developer from Melbourne who founded the Australia Israel Leadership Forum, told me he was coming to Jerusalem. We decided to go to Hebron, an experience Dadon had not had. As we were driving down a hill into Hebron, Dadon asked why there were so many Palestinian women walking up the hill, many carrying babies, food and water.

“Because they’re not allowed to drive on this road,” I replied. Dadon was shocked — he found it hard to believe that there were roads in Hebron, and across the West Bank, where Israelis were allowed to drive but Palestinians were not. As we walked around Hebron, I pointed to other roads where Palestinians were not just forbidden from driving but were not allowed to walk Dadon said he wanted to leave.

I told him that he should see the Palestinian houses whose front doors had been sealed by the Israeli army, so the owners could not enter or leave by the main street, but he said, “I’ve seen enough. I’m upset that all this is being done in my name.” Dadon later said: “This is the dark side of a society that you don’t want to face, but when you face it you come out more informed. What I saw that day was not Jewish.”

Despite travelling the world and defending Israel and its policies, when Dadon saw the reality he was upset. So affected was Dadon that he rang me two nights later and said he’d had meetings with eight Israeli ministers… five of the ministers agreed (that Hebron had to change) and three did not. But the same military laws apply across the West Bank and the same “Israeli-only” rules that prevent Palestinians using certain roads.

Most Australians would not know that Israel’s justification for keeping Palestinians under military rule for 54 years is the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1950 — which, ironically, also prohibits settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Not only is this an example of cherry-picking international law, but this selective approach undermines the credibility of the rules-based order established after World War II.

Most Australians would not know that the freedom of expression of Palestinians in the West Bank is almost non-existent, or that often during Jewish holidays the West Bank is closed off. Why should one person’s religious holiday be another person’s lockdown?

Most Australians would not know that in Area C of the Palestinian Territories — the 61 per cent of the West Bank where all the Jewish settlers live — 98 per cent of Palestinian building applications are refused and that frequently the army will demolish a school, a shed or house for having no permit. Most Australians would not know that Palestinians from the West Bank are not permitted to fly into or out of Israel’s international airport or that Israel controls the water for Palestinians and sometimes turns it off.

Most Australians would not know that Palestinians in East Jerusalem are not allowed to vote in Israel’s national elections; they can only vote in local elections. And most Australians would not know that in 2018, the Israeli Parliament passed the Nation State Law, which formally entrenches Jewish superiority over Israel’s Arab population. This law says that “Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, and that the right to self-determination is unique only to Jewish citizens — in accordance with Article 1 of the law”. If a discriminatory and racist law had been passed entrenching the superior status of white Australians over Indigenous Australians it would have been front-page news in Australia.

The lobby likes to say Israel’s dispute with the Palestinians is complicated. It’s not. In 1967, Israel began an occupation of the West Bank, which was part of the land set aside by the UN for an Arab state which would be formed alongside a Jewish state. The lobby has been spectacularly successful in framing the perception of Israel’s strategic and political situation as vulnerable.

Firstly, Israel has long had peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan and in 2020 signed agreements with several other countries. It is the superpower of the Middle East, complete with a major arsenal of nuclear weapons.

And it’s a fact that Israeli settler leaders have worked with the army from the early days of the occupation to plan settlements to make a Palestinian state impossible. Settler leaders openly admit it. I could have a civilised discussion about these issues with most Israelis, but such a discussion in Australia would be virtually impossible — it would quickly descend into abuse.

One of Australia’s major pro-Israel lobby groups is the Australia-Israel and Jewish Affairs Council. AIJAC is aligned to the far right of Israeli politics — they may occasionally talk about a two-state solution, but in my view this is purely lip-service.

If they genuinely wanted a two-state solution they would push not just for an end to new settlements but for the winding back of existing settlements. AIJAC’s far-right position has become more obvious. Chris Mitchell, who has dealt with the pro-Israel lobby for decades and visited Israel many times, watched AIJAC radicalise.

He tells me: “I suppose I always took the view that in many ways what happened with AIJAC and other places is that when the neo-cons really got control of the [George W] Bush administration, you had a real radicalisation of the Israeli lobby here, almost hand in hand.”

I’ve visited the West Bank hundreds of times. I can therefore state that the picture the lobby in Australia paints for journalists on their wining-and-dining trips to Israel is so far from authentic that it is worse than meaningless. It is damaging because it fills the heads of influential editors with a distorted reality.

This is an edited extract from Dateline Jerusalem: Journalism’s Toughest Assignment by John Lyons published on October 1  as part of Monash University Publishing’s “In the National Interest” series.

Comments (1)

  • Neil Todd says:

    Thanks for posting this JVL. As could be expected, the Lobby down under have not reacted positively to John Lyon’s new book.

    According to Dr Colin Rubenstein of the Israel lobby group AIJAC “John Lyons falsely alleges that virtually all criticism of Israel is shut down by accusations of antisemitism” so that “genuine concerns about antisemitism are being weaponised against Jews by an ABC employee.”.

    Colin Rubenstein clearly hadn’t seen the prior response from his fellow lobbyist Rabbi James Kennard writing in the J-wire that even the use of the term “Israel lobby” is forbidden as it is “modern incantation of the ancient trope of powerful Jews controlling others”, concluding that “Mr Lyons’s view of Israel might be a product of antisemitism after all”, and thus confirming use of accusations of antisemitism against those who criticise Israel.

    These entirely predictable responses of course provide further evidence to support John Lyon’s case.

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