Room for nuance

As Australian society becomes increasingly polarised by the actions of Israel and Hamas, politicians should be appealing for respectful disagreement

A Liberal Party MP recently approached a community charity with a troubling assertion: that one of the charity’s board members is a “Holocaust denier”. 

The MP’s demand was precise: either the board member went, or he would withdraw his public support. 

The allegation was entirely baseless; the targeted person had made a public statement in the past that tangentially referenced Hitler but went nowhere near denialism. That was all, and it long pre-dated the October 7 Hamas attack. 

It’s easily forgotten, but the current tendency in some quarters to see anti-Semites everywhere did not begin last October; its roots lie in the 2022 federal election and, specifically, the rise of the so-called “teal” independents. 

Most of the ultimately successful independents in inner-urban Sydney and Melbourne were subjected to very uncomfortable attacks – mainly via the Murdoch press – accusing the candidates and/or members of their campaign teams of holding anti-Semitic views or being insufficiently pro-Israel. 

Of course, things became turbocharged after the atrocities perpetrated by Hamas, and haven’t slowed with Israel’s destruction of Gaza. I’ve been engaged for defamation advice by a surprisingly large number of individuals whose perceived criticism of Israel or support for Palestinians has brought them into the crosshairs and labelled as anti-Semites, Jew-haters or worse. 

My point of interest isn’t whether equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is legitimate (as is The Australian’s position, at least according to what its lawyers told me in response to a concern I raised in one of my clients’ cases) or an unfair conflation of distinct things, nor who is right or wrong on Gaza. 

The opposed viewpoints couldn’t be further apart. Into this febrile hellscape stumble our politicians, trying to tiptoe the path of most avoidance. With due credit to Penny Wong’s attempts to calibrate a slow escalation in moderation of what has been essentially unqualified acquiescence in Israel’s actions, mostly the responses from both major parties have been knee-jerk and expedient. 

It’s understandable, given the perceived influence of the pro-Israel lobby groups, that politicians don’t want to upset them. As the independents’ experiences demonstrate, they don’t hold back, and acquiring media attention is easy. 

The federal government’s panic-driven promise to introduce vaguely described and literally unnecessary new laws criminalising “doxxing” was a clear example of a political response that had nothing to do with either good policy or moral leadership, but plenty to do with satisfying a demand that the government visibly choose a side.  

In a time, as this is, of disputation on a question of justice that is so violently binary it’s almost feral, the last thing any institution of power should be doing is piling in. What we desperately need is room for nuance – such as the notion that it’s feasible to hold the view that both Hamas and Israel can be fairly criticised – and respect for the possibility that those on the other side of this argument from oneself might have a point. 

However, politicians are still enabling the litigation of debunked allegations, buying into moral panics and, for some individuals, actively promoting accusations for political gain

It’s so much less than we deserve. Our society is fracturing by proxy from a war on the other side of the world, each camp retreating ever further from any point of common understanding. Our leaders could be holding open the space for respectful disagreement, instead of reflexively pandering to the loudest voices and criminalising legitimate protest

Instead, they call for “social cohesion”, a chimera. The mark of a free society is not cohesion – a euphemism for compliance with the dominant culture – but physical and psychological safety. Recent extreme violence tells us that this is at risk, and the remedy will not be found in laws and policing. 

The name-calling is positively harmful. Our political class is not just tolerating but empowering it. We’ll all be paying the price for this failure. 

Michael Bradley is a writer and Managing Partner at Marque Lawyers. 

Disclosure: Marque Lawyers has represented a number of independent candidates and members of their staff or campaigns, and the person mentioned as the target of criticism in the opening paragraph. 

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