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Jan 21, 2009

The Michael Backman Column: Weird and Unpleasant Happenings at The Age

UPDATE: The Michael Backman column has been removed from his website. His Wikipedia entry has been recently edited, and his Fa

UPDATE: The Michael Backman column has been removed from his website. His Wikipedia entry has been recently edited, and his Facebook page seems to be missing.

I was out frying other fish yesterday so did not catch up with the controversy consuming The Age newsroom until late afternoon. This morning as I ring around, it is clear that the newsroom remains tense and upset. Staff are rallying around. They fear unfairness.

It’s all about an anti-Semitic column by regular contributor to the business pages, Michael Backman. published last Saturday – and about the bizarre “apology” The Age had on page two yesterday.

The original column has been taken down from the Age website, but is still available on Backman’s own website,

Bad enough. Very bad, in fact. How did such a racist column come to be published? Keep reading, but first some more background.

Yesterday a bizarre apology was published on page two of the Age, under the usual pro forma information about contact numbers and the like:

A column by Michael Backman headlined “Israel living high on US expense account’’ was published in error.

The Age does not in any way endorse the views of the columnist, apologises for the distress the column caused to many readers, particularly in the Jewish community and regrets publication of the column.’

Now, if publishing the column was strange, this was even stranger. The wording suggested that the column was – woops – published as a production error – without anyone realising or thinking about it or noticing what it said. This was not the case, as I detail below.

As for saying that the Age does not endorse the views – who ever said it did? Every day newspapers around the world publish columns expressing dozens of views that the editorial team does not endorse. That is part of the job of a newspaper.

So why was this strange apology published? Part of the background is the instant action by the Jewish community, and in particular the Australia-Israel Jewish Affairs Council and its chairman Mark Leibler and executive director Colin Rubenstein.

Rubenstein spoke to Age editor Paul Ramadge on Monday morning, and he and Leibler met Ramadge face to face that afternoon.

Rubenstein told me this morning that Ramadge “happily agreed” that the column was offensive and outrageous, said its publication was due to a “breakdown in editorial proceedures” and promised that he had the affair “under the microscope”. He also promised an unreserved apology.

Is Rubenstein happy with the result? This morning he did not argue when I suggested the wording of the apology was a little strange, but said it was a “gesture in the right direction”.  What was really needed, he said, was an investigation into how the piece came to be published and an assurance that such things could not happen again.

Caroline Overington of The Australian has been breaking the news on this controversy, and expressing strong opinions on her blog. She was the one who got comment yesterday from former Age editor Michael Gawenda, which The Australian (no doubt gleefully) published as a news story today. Gawenda accused the paper of journalistic failure. He said to Overington:

I think the real question here is what publication of this article says about the prevailing journalistic culture at The Age. The apology is a non-apology really. It apologises for the hurt it caused some people, especially Jews. This is a clayton’s apology–the sort, for instance, that Wayne Carey once offered up when he apologied for grabbing a young woman’s breast.

The apology states that The Age does not hold the views expressed in the article. I assume The Age publishes many oped pieces that do not express the views of The Age.

What this apology seems to be aimed at doing is limit the damage to the paper from the publication of this piece. What I want to know is how it came to be published and how The Age has reached the point where racist rubbish like this gets published. And what the new editor in chief intends to do about changing this culture.

There is a history to this. Just a few months ago Gawenda accused editor Ramadge of “payback”. This was because Gawenda had been sacked as a columnist after his criticism of of Farifax management in the A. N. Smith Lecture in journalism at Melbourne University. There is no love lost between the two men.

Nevertheless there is no doubt that the apology is weird – and so is the fact that the article ran at all.

So how did it run?

I have to say here that I am somewhat constrained. I am not naming names, because I have found out this morning that the person within The Age who is getting the blame – and who has taken responsibility for the “error” – is both under enormous strain, and not solely or chiefly to blame. Nor, in case management should think otherwise, are they talking to me.

There is a strong view in the newsroom that there is unfairness afoot in the promised “under the microscope” review.

Here is what happened, as I understand it. The Business editor, Michael Short, was on holiday. So too was Ramadge. Backman’s column arrived as usual. It was clearly evident that it was a strange piece, well off Backman’s area of expertise and offensive to Jews. Should it be run?

There was debate around the sub’s table. The person who is now getting the blame for running it was reluctant. Others argued strongly in favour of publication. Part of the argument was that pieces critical of  Muslims often got a run. The Age should not be seen to be frightened of the “Jewish lobby”, and Israeli treatment of Palestinians and actions in Gaza were legitimate topics of debate.

The final decision was collegiate – and now of course deeply regretted.

So what are we to make of all this?

Here’s what I think. The column is clearly offensive, and also weird and badly written.

It makes the classic logical error of the racist – generalising from the particular deeds of an individual or group to the race as a whole. It manages to blame Jews for Muslim extremism and violence, talks carelessly about that classic of anti-Semitic hate speech – that Jews were to blame for the death of Jesus – and leaps bizarrely from what is happening in Gaza to the alleged rude behaviour of Israeli tourists trekking in Nepal.

I don’t think it should have been published.

Yet is the case really all that clear cut compared to other things that have been published recently in mainstream media, without the organisation concerned feeling the need to apologise, or to disassociate itself from the views expressed?

I can understand how this decision was made, in an understaffed holiday season newsroom where the subs are reduced in number and under pressure.

Think about other controversial material recently published. What about some of Paul Sheehan’s columns?  Crikey, reported a case a while ago where Sheehan used the words “parasites” to describe refugees let in during the 1970s and 80s (in other words, Lebanese). These words were quickly amended in the website version, but are still on Brisbane Times site.

Sheehan’s writing is largely a legitimate, though controversial, questioning of policies of multiculturalism and immigration. There are also legitimate questions to be asked about Israel’s actions in Gaza and treatment of Palestinians. Sheehan sometimes steps over the line, as Backman has. He still gets published, and nobody suggests it is necessary for the Sydney Morning Herald to disassociate itself from his views.

Then there are the practices described by Media Watch in this program a few years back. There are the diatribes from Alan Jones in the lead up to the Cronulla riots.

Or the Janet Albrechtsen column that led to her stoush with Media Watch, that includeed this paragraph:

‘French and Danish experts say perpetrators of gang rape flounder between their parents’ Islamic values and society’s more liberal democratic values, falling back on the most basic pack mentality of violence and self-gratification.’
The Australian July 2002

You can read for yourself the controversy that generated on the Media Watch site. The Australian, of course, vigorously defended Albrechtsen. No apologies or disassociation.

Then there was the media treatment of African youths in Flemington late last year, something I have written about in Crikey before. In that case the facts were incorrectly reported, and that resulted in opinion columns based partly on incorrect facts, chiefly by Andrew Bolt. No apologies. No disassociation.

I think the Backman column shouldn’t have been published. It’s a pretty vile and silly piece.

Do I think it was so extreme, so obviously and extraordinarily vile, that it was obviously not the kind of thing the mainstream media should publish? No.

Colin Rubenstein said to me this morning that “it is a long time since we have had this kind of thing from the mainstream media.”. Well, I disagree. It happens all too often. The Jewish community is efficient at combatting it, and in this case good on them. Not all communities have such able spokespeople.

What will the “under the microscope” examination promised to Leibler and Rubenstein by Ramadge amount to?

I hope not laying blame where blame does not really belong.

I would hope that it might result in some transparency – in Ramadge taking the readers into his confidence about what happened, and engaging in some debate about what constitues legitimate, if controversial expression of views, and what crosses over the line in to unacceptable racism.

If space prohibits doing this in the pages of the newspaper, there is always online, where the technology favours an open exchange with readers.

I rang Ramadge asking for comment yesterday afternoon. I have not yet had a return phone call. I have not been able to contact Backman.

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92 thoughts on “The Michael Backman Column: Weird and Unpleasant Happenings at The Age

  1. michael franker

    I would like to ask Michael Backman how he can write such a non-sense as presented on The Age in “Selling Tibet to the world” with respect to the Dalai Lama:

    “To enhance his authority, he has sought to merge the four traditions into one and place himself at its head. But Dorje Shugden presents a roadblock. One aspect of Shugden worship is to protect the Gelugpa tradition from adulteration, particularly by the Nyngma tradition. Nyngma followers respond by not wanting anything to do with Gelugpa followers sympathetic to Dorje Shugden. So to allow a proper merger of the four traditions, the Dalai Lama needs to get rid of the Shugden movement. If the Dalai Lama can claim to represent all Tibetans, it will increase his political prestige and clout with overseas Tibetans and with governments.”

    There has never been an attempt to “to merge the four traditions into one” and to place the Dalai Lama as its head, this is mere fantasy of some Shugden followers, and there is not any sign of such an attempt (factual such a merge would be absolute impossible). Everybody who knows the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism and how they are led understands that this is fantasy. What makes me wonder on what basis the author basis his claim?

    Since I couldn’t find an email of Michael Backman to ask him directly, I ask him here. For a journalist to claim such inaccuracies is quite odd.

  2. Doos

    As a Jew & a committed Zionist in the traditional sense, ie as espoused by Herzl & others, I have to admit in all honesty that some Israelis can be a real pain in the ass!
    They can be arrogant, rude & downright petty as I have observed travelling in Asia & Europe.
    But then so are a few Aussies!

  3. Backman’s Columns Suspended - The Content Makers

    […] for running a column perceived as anti-Semitic. (Read previous coverage of this controversy here, here and […]

  4. Jkad

    “Lawrence, that is unmitigated crap and paranoia. The public in Australia wouldn’t know a jew if they fell over one. You don’t need all this stupid security at your schools, they are not in danger and never were.”

    Oh marilyn, so we need no security at schools? Have you been at a jewish school? Ever had a bomb threat? No? I am so suprised. Newsflash, I GO to a jewish school, and have had a bomb threat. No one would know a jew if they saw one? Of course not, the “jew hat”, isnt associated with Jews. Your right. Havent had people violently throw money at you as a joke when your walking by, why am i not surprised? I have. Lawerence has unmitigated crap and paranoia? Really?

  5. Margaret Simons

    D Pruitt, I resent that. I have made my views about what Israel is doing clear. I am horrified by what is happening in Gaza. The fact that I think the Backman article should not have been published has absolutely nothing to do with that.

  6. D Pruitt

    The Backman article is spot-on. Those who misquote him do so with prejudice. The fact that the Age meets with certain known Zionist elements to approve their stories even after the fact of publishing shows the power of the Zionist movement in this country. And now we know where Ms Simons sympathies lie; certainly not with the victims in Gaza. Hamas may kill its opponents but in Australia the Zionist lobby destroys you financially. You may as well be dead.

  7. kme

    Margaret: The page has not entirely disappeared down the memory hole, yet – it is still in Google’s cache at

  8. Zoe

    The cached article is here

  9. Molly

    For Chaim Morris, abuse masquerades as reason (I must wish that Arab armies had wiped out Israel at the beginning and I’m merely ignorant) and no one is to criticise Israel unless there is also criticism of the Armenian genocide, Chinese actions in Tibet, and so on. On this basis no one is ever accountable no matter how distasteful or criminal or morally reprehensible their conduct. Once again I ask that the specific reasons why Backman’s article is anti-Semitic be explained to me. If this isn’t done then one reasonable explanation is that the article is NOT anti-Semitic. Why is that not the ONLY reasonable explanation?

  10. Irish Pete

    One final point:

    Hamas rules Gaza, democratically elected by the people. When its government issues information, that information deserves to be treated with the same respect or cynicism as that from any other government media service (and I highly recommend cynicism). Comments above cite Israeli Government claims as “fact” while deriding Hamas claims. On what basis other than bias?

  11. Irish Pete

    Interesting that the Baccman article has now been removed even from his own website! Thanks to the power of Google’s cache, I was still able to read it today. What does this say about censorship in 21st century Australia?

    As someone who grew up Catholic in Northern Ireland, through the 20+ years of the “Troubles”, I’m perhaps more qualified than some to distinguish racism from politics. Of course “racism” against Jews still exists, though so too does “racism” against many other religious and ethnic minorities – indigenous Australians anyone? Muslim Australians?

    In this case, I see Backman’s article as valid political statement. While he reports on the alleged racism of Nepalese shopkeepers, and while the point of some of his statements never seems to be made (which suggests to me too much editing by someone, rather than not enough), I do not detect racism in his own opinions.

    To say that many Muslim extremists target the USA and other “Western” countries because of our support for Israel is a no-brainer. It’s a political fact.

    Why did this piece appear on the Business page? Well it started out as a point about how much MONEY that support for Israel costs us all. He strayed from the point, and the article just tails off, but had he stuck to that point it would have been a valid one.


  12. Whispering Jack

    My daughter’s friend was recently seriously injured in a road accident in South America whilst among a group of backpackers from many different nationalities. The only ones among the backpackers who interrupted their tour and remained behind to comfort the young girl and her sister during her hospitalisation were two Israelis. While this, like the story of the Nepalese tourists, is also an anecdote (and this one is true and can be verified), I suggest that it clearly demonstrates more clearly what type of souls these young Israeli travellers are.

    Most of them come straight out of a stint in army service where they have been fighting against an enemy whose charter says their country must be destroyed and they must be killed because (wait for this) they are Jews. There were people marching in the streets last week with banners supporting this vile philosophy and yet Backman and his apologists admonish Israel for not making friends with those who would annihilate them.

  13. Max Gross

    At the risk of being hounded by the Israel lobby as an “anti-Semite”, the fact that Backman’s story was hastily pulled and the Age issued its cringeworthy “apology” to the usual Greek (Jewish?) Chorus of Zionist apologists is more of a concern that any purported offense caused to some readers of a particular political or relgious bent. Even the Israeli news media is more critical of Israeli government policy and the historic Zionist agenda there than our news media is here.

  14. leonidas

    I have read this column and there is absolutely nothing even remotely anti-semitic about it. As others have asked, for those so apparently offended can they please point out the specific points that are so hate-filled? Margaret perhaps? There is nothing there actually is there? This is just another example of the rabid pro-Zionist lobby trying to shut down all discussion of how, objectively, Israel has behaved appallingly and unconscionably ever since its first miserable inception

  15. Julian

    “I have backpacked in over 60 countries now and see these attitudes time and time again. This doesnt mean that ALL israeli backpackers are like this, but culturally they tend to this.”

    Perhaps, as a point of clarification I have only sometimes seen Israeli backpackers behave in very aggressive behaviour and most of the time seen them behave in an unexceptional way. They certainly do haggle hard, usually with good-humour.

    But I have repeatedly seen tourism professionals single out Israeli backpackers as being difficult or heard hear-say reports to that tendency.

  16. Julian

    Without necessarily agreeing with everything in Backmann’s opinion piece (and why should I? its an opinion piece). It is rather disturbing and unsettling that such opinions should be banned.

    Things like this
    “This has
    nothing to do with religion or politics: Nepalese people are some of the warmest, most hospitable in the world. Rather, they say that the
    young Israelis are rude, arrogant, and argue over trifling amounts of money even though they clearly have means.”
    are not anti-semitic, they are simply fact.
    I have backpacked in over 60 countries now and see these attitudes time and time again. This doesnt mean that ALL israeli backpackers are like this, but culturally they tend to this.
    An older more experienced Israeli explained it to me like this: “Israeli society is very competitive and aggressive so the type of extreme haggling is not necessarily unusual there. Also many of the Israeli backpackers are very young, have just finished highly stressful army service and tend to have a strong group bonding mentality”
    A comparision could be extreme barracking practices of Australian cricketeers which are culturally acceptable in Australia but can be seen as far more offensive in India or Sri Lanka.

    Ironically this comment
    “Israel needs to change. The Parsees of India might provide a model. The Parsees are a very tiny, very rich ethnic and religious minority.
    They own perhaps most of the land in central Mumbai as well as the country’s largest conglomerate. And yet ordinary Indians admire and
    respect them. Violence against them is unthinkable.

    How have they achieved this? They are not flashy or arrogant. Their overriding characteristic is a deep interest in the welfare of others.
    They have established hospitals, libraries, schools, museums and many other institutions and, most importantly, not for the Parsee
    community exclusively but for everyone. So the Parsees have peace and the Israelis do not.”
    could easily describe the position of Jews in Australia, often quite prosperous but respected for strong charitable and community contributions.

    So if its OK to praise the positive aspects of a culture it must also be OK to critique aspects as well.

  17. Yaakov Gorr

    Greetings from India, where this Jew who carries an israeli passport is working for a charity mainly supported by Jews and Baha’is which helps both Hindu and Muslim rural poor. Possibly the only joint Hindu-Muslim prayer ceremony in the world was held here near Mysore in November at the time of the Bombay bombings. There is a large history of intercommunal violence in this country too and to blame it on the Jews is ludicrous. On whom then do you blame the slayings of the Jewish religious figures in Bombay? The Hindus?

    Naturally it is a small minority only, the Islamists, who desire trouble and create terror both here in India and elsewhere. However the world seems to forget that there have been more deaths from Islamist terror in India than in the rest of the world combined since partition.

    Allow me to comment on Mr Backman’s piece. As someone who likes to read the Age I am very glad that he chose to criticise Jews rather than, say, Mohammed. I am glad that the Age is an Australian newspaper and not a Danish one. The Jewish lobby might be calling for Backman’s testicles right now, but we’ve seen what the other lobby do.

    Here in rural Karnataka in South India, where they’ve never seen an Israeli before I came along, it is Americans who are unpopular. In a village where 60% of the population has never shat in a toilet and access to safe drinking water is a dream for most, I’ve heard Americans ask for Diet Coke. (The cafe owner said that India was a poor country and people could not afford to diet). There’s a popular song which derides American culture with the chorus “We used to drink the juice of tender cocunut and now we drink Pepsi cola”. Equally, I’ve been to places in South Asia where they don’t like Germans, and not too many like the British.

    You know, I really miss Melbourne. I miss the Myer window, and the Myer music bowl (built by a Jew). I miss watching kids play soccer (a game much more popular since the Jew, Lowy, got involved in soccer Australia). I miss hanging out at the Arts Centre precinct (Pratt, Smorgon families). I miss my involvement in a community which provided the first Australian-born Governor General, Sir Isaac Isaacs, as well as General Sir John Monash, and former Lord Mayor and Parliamentarian Sir Benjamin Benjamins. I would have thought that the majority of members of the Melbourne Jewish community were quiet and unassuming, but in a way able to provide leaders like Monash. Sadly, I’m wrong, according to Backman.

    The right of free speech carries with it a very heavy responsibility, the burden of which Backman has not shouldered. The Age must make an example of him. Symbolism is important it is time that someone is sacrificed on the altar of political correctness just to show those who might make similar mistakes that public stupidity is not to be condoned.

  18. Rodney

    I think the real issue in all the above is why does the Western media so readily lap up every single piece of Hamas driven propaganda, without ever questioning a word of it? A lot of people here speak about “Zionist controlled media” and the West’s apparent weakness before Israel but the last 3 weeks have shown what nonsense this is.

    Over the last three weeks we saw countless examples of Hamas quoted information being passed of as undisputed fact, videos showing renowned PLO member “Mads Gilbert” posing as an unbiased Norwegian doctor (without ever a word about his background, his pledged support for the 9/11 attacks and his public statements that he would never treat a wounded Jew) – even examples of him performing CPR on a clearly unwounded child’s *stomach*, then pronouncing the child dead. Yet the media here laps it up.

    Conversely, when Israel makes a claim, the media doubts it or ignores it.

    Italian, non-Jewish I add, investigators have stated this very day that they can see no evidence that more than 600 people died in Gaza, yet instead the Western media quotes figures from Hamas that claim 1,300 – who also claim to have taken 47 Israeli tanks and killed 203 Israeli soldiers. Now we know for a fact the latter is a lie, so why does no one question the first part of the statement? Instead of questioning the word of Hamas, instead the BBC and their cohorts simply parrot everything they say and run emotive pseudo news over and over. In time, this will be the new ‘Jenin Massacre’ or Mohammad al Durra case – where initially the media all fell over themselves to paint Israel as evil monsters but when the evidence came to light that it was a work of fiction… are strangely quite and unapologetic.

    No one is claiming what happened is Gaza is a good thing or that it’s not a tragedy. But the Western media have a very strong and very pronounced anti-Israel bias that was very clearly shown over the last three weeks. However we still have the same old people coming out and claiming that “them evil jooos” control the World and we shouldn’t have to bow down to them any more.

  19. Margaret Simons

    David, I have already said in the original post that I don’t think the column should have been published. I also think there is room for debate and disagreement about that. I have also, earlier on this comments thread, given an indication of my views on the Israel/Hamas situation. As for the commenters on this blog, I am trying to give free range to the expression of legitimate views, while moderating the extremely unpleasant stuff out. And believe me, there is plenty of it. Not everyone will agree with my judgment calls, but they are being made.

    Brian, I agree that the way in which The Age has handled this, having published the column, leaves a lot to be desired. I said that in the post. But I do think this column was clumsy, weird and badly argued, leaving open the accusation of racism. With his apology to the Jewish community today (as reported in Crikey) Backman himself acknowledges this. At the very least, the subs should, I think have alerted people to the nature of the column. I think that if you want to argue in the way Backman did, then you need to be very careful and accurate, not clumsy as he was. Nevertheless, if the Age decided to publish the column knowing what they were doing (and I can see that there is an argument for that, even if i don’t agree with it) then they should have defended their decision against all comers on Voltaire principles. To publish, then suggest that doing so was in the nature of a production error, is sad and pleases no-one. And, I wonder, why is this debate about what happened taking place here, and not on an Age blog? Surely the editorial team at The Age owe it to their readers to explain, and engage in debate. I don’t mind benefiting from what should be their site-traffic, but still…

  20. mark

    “Lawrence, that is unmitigated crap and paranoia. The public in Australia wouldn’t know a jew if they fell over one. ”
    So why do I get called a “f***ing Jew” in the street?

  21. David Black

    Just dipping in to Crikey, and interested in this debate. Naturally most Crikey readers seem left-leaning (as I am myself). but unfortunately the left has lost nearly all moral and political credibility, which is why it has so strongly aligned itself with Islamist anti-Semitism, both around the world and in Australia. Of course not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, but it makes very fine cover for the bigots to operate in, and I’m sorry Margaret, but I think you are giving some of them air space here. Backman’s piece was trite, risible and bigoted, as any fair-minded observer instantly identified. Globally, Muslims have four main grievances at present: Palestine (yes, that involves Jews), Chechnya, Kashmir and Iraq. So, one out of four. But your correspondents are not in general motivated to help Muslims, or they would worry about the other three conflicts too. I hope you can draw your own lessons from that, Margaret. I personally think Backman’s column was deeply unpleasant and certainly hope that The Age sacks him.

  22. Scott

    “The Jewish people did not try and kill their fellow Muslim arabs but asked them to join in unity to form a peaceful and free democracy.”

    For an alternate view of history I recommend reading “The Olive Grove” by Deborah Rohan.

  23. Chaim Morris

    That’s right. When the U.N. partitioned the land and all the Arab armies decided to annihalate the embryonic Jewish State of Israel. The Jewish people did not try and kill their fellow Muslim arabs but asked them to join in unity to form a peaceful and free democracy. Some did stay and are citizens of Israel. Try being a Jewish citizen of Iran or Syria…Unfortunately all the might of the Arab armies could not defeat a tiny Jewish army..David and Goliath. By your comments I am sure you would have wanted it the other way around…Again comments from the uninformed.

  24. John Rowe

    I chanced to read Backman’s article whilst sitting on the toilet monday morning.
    It was an interesting read given the current exposure to this most sensitive of world
    issues which many hold as being the spawn for world terrorism.
    What concerns me is the wholly Un Australian way that the Age has succumbed to the pressures of the influential Jewish lobby group.
    I for one saw the article as being a fair reflection of the circumstances being reported to us by the print and electronic media, but to have the Age intimidated to retract the comments gives some insight as to why the newspaper suffers from a low circulation.
    What happened to “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it ”
    Most un Australian I say on the eve of Australia Day.
    Jesus was also a successfull Jew.

  25. Darren Lewin-Hill

    The Age today published my letter in response to the Leibler piece. For those interested to see what kind of edits are made to submitted letters, see the two versions on my post, where I refer back here for the context of Leibler’s article.

  26. Daniel Lewis

    Phillip, if you have to ask, I’m afraid you will probably never understand. I don’t know you well enough to say whether it’s naivety or malice on your part. I suggest you research the history of antisemitism, look up classic antisemitic conspiracy theories, for example, Jews and money, or Jews causing problems in the world. Then go and read Backman’s drivel. The Jewish people are extremely sensitive to that sort of thing, and they have at least six million very good reasons to be.

    Focusing on just one example, if the Jewish state (as Backman claims) is responsible for most of the Islamic terrorism in the world, how does that square with Islamists murdering non Muslims in dozens of countries where there are no Jews, no Americans, no occupation and none of the other cliche ‘root causes’? It doesn’t. The problem lies within Islam, and Backman’s argument was not only inaccurate and naieve, it sounded a little too much like things we’ve all heard before, from Mein Kampf, the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion and any amount of Arab antisemitic television programming in the last few decades.

    But as I said, if you have to ask…

  27. Brian

    I’m with the subs who, despite The Age’s apology and Margaret’s breathless sermonising, still don’t have a problem with the column’s publication in the first place.
    To paraphrase Voltaire I don’t agree with what he had to say but I defend his right to say it, and for others to respond, and for us to then to have a debate about the myriad issues that are thrown up.
    This is the way a free-thinking democracy is meant to work. People say stuff and we argue: We expose ideas (and prejudices) to the disinfectant of sunlight.
    Margaret, rather than nit-picking about the column’s publication you should be expressing concern that a lobby group – any lobby but in this case the Jewish lobby – was able to so quickly get a wringing apology from a newspaper for publishing an article that was neither inaccurate nor defamatory.
    Think about it – The Age has apologised for publishing an opinion that was neither inaccurate nor defamatory, and that incited neither hatred nor violence. It was an OPINION and a major metropolitan daily apologised for publishing it, at the behest of an over-sensitive but politically and economically influential lobby group.
    This is where the focus of your confected outrage should be aimed – at the spineless response by senior editorial management to a bit of arm-twisting. Their response should simply have been “f*ck off and write a letter or contrary opinion piece”.
    The Australian media is already too tame and self-censoring. The last thing we need is for it to retreat even further into its shell.

  28. Tim Foyle

    The Age subs seem to be bearing the brunt for this, while Backman benefits through increased traffic to his website. Where is the justice.

  29. Molly

    According to Sonny, anyone who criticises Israeli policies in Gaza is a crackpot conspiracy theorist relying on age old fanaticisms, anti-Jewish prejudice and medieval thought constructs. Obviously my hope for reasoned debate on this site was naive … Chaim Morris writes: “If the rockets and bombers did not exist there would be no violence or war. Try and understand where this starts from please.” Some of us thought it started way back, sixty years at least, and that it is Israeli expulsion of Palestinians from their lands which better explains the violence. Could we have some historical perspective here?

  30. Herod the Less

    David Bernstein: we are on the same side about Israel but you illustrate my point that its fervent friends are doing it little good in the Backman case. Up to the second last sentence which suggests an absurdity I can well imagine such a piece being run by The Age, even with the suggested heading which would be thought by some sub-editor to beironically ambiguous because it is not what the hypothetical columnist is actually saying. And what has “fair” got to do with it? It would not be an opinion with no more or less credibility than much of the guff which gets printed. “Acceptable”? What kind of weasel word is that? Do you mean that The Age shouldn’t publish the opinion of someone who says, “based on my knowledge or Indonesia, the bombing of the nightclub had nothing to do with Muslim anger about Palestine but a lot to do with their hatred and contempt for Australians, not least over-exposed women, bringing their decadent and disgusting behavious, as they, and even quite a number of Australians, might see it, to their country”?

  31. Herod the Less

    As a 200% certified philo-Semite who admires Israel, wishes we had more Jews in Australia and wouldn’t mind if 50,000 people had been killed in Gaza if there was a good chance that the running sore in the Middle East was likely to be cured, what worries me is the damage done to Israel and its support in the West by the ridiculous reactions of Rubenstein, Leibler and other lobbyists as evidenced by many comments on this blog. Take a cool look at a pretty standard piece of opinion journalism, no more tripe than most, and expressing a point of view with some, if thin, evidence, that many share in large part.

    Israel and its supporters ought to be grateful for the setting out so clearly for them what problems they face in winning the world’s opinions even if they wouldn’t think much of the main point which was to suggest that Israel has made Palestinians greater enemies than they had to be. The anecdotes about young (often recently ex-IDF) Israelis in Nepal? Just a commonplace observation and highly relevant if anyone is seriously interested in why Palestinians might find a lot of Israelis hard to take. (Even our sainted professional soldiers in East Timor were not universally regarded as friendly nurse maids and My Lai and Abu Greib are reminders of what young men – and women – from civilised countries can do).
    The reference to “punishment for killing Jesus” was only a “careless” way of putting his point about Muslims, unlike Christians over comparable long periods, not having a religious problem with Jews/Israel if you factor in the hypersensitivity which means that many Jews and self-censors in the media will find a way of interpreting something that isn’t as clear as a mathematical formula as anti-Jewish. Read it without that starting point and it is just a way of illustrating his point.
    By contrast, a proper sensitivity to the understandably heightened sensitivities of Jews since a civilised European country with largely assimilated Jews went mad would have alerted a sub-editor to the word “flashy” where it was said that the Parsees are not “flashy or arrogant”. “Arrogant” yes, because it is quite credible to suggest that Arab and, particularly Palestinian, perceptions are that Israelis are arrogant and that there are reasons for this perception (like American ignorance of and lack of curiosity about other countries and cultures as one might generalise about George W. Bush’s countrymen generally). But “flashy”? I just can’t see it being applied to Israelis. So, there you go, it is an old stereotype rearing its (not specially ugly) head. So does that mean that it is the smoking gun, the evidence that Backman is anti-Semitic? It should have been edited out but I think the explanation is, most likely, that he adopted a conventional literary or rhetorical approach, for which a ready-to-use cliché supplanted serious thought, and made what might have been just a word into a phrase for euphony or rhetorical balance. If a sub-editor had time he might have found “pleonasm” in Fowler to describe what Backman had written here (and, if, like me, he started searching for the right word with “hendiadys” which is not quite right he could have noticed “hackneyed phrases” as well, and decided that The Age always filled its quota of those with Backman’s help).
    The only good that might come out of this for Israel is if enough of its most fervent supporters learn from the reaction to the reaction to Backman’s piece how to be more effectively and pragmatically realistic. When Israelis can be so critical of Israeli policy and actions how on earth do its Diaspora and fellow traveilling friends (like me) expect that the overblown protests at Backman’s piece, as though it had no arguable points or defensible observations in it and was blatantly anti-Semitic, will not turn non-Israelis off their legitimate message and points?
    BTW I am surprised to see any favourable reference to Caroline Overington’s appalling over the top and misleading rant. It just reminded me that she “has form” though her apology in December 2007 to George Newhouse has been taken off the Australian website.

  32. Margaret Simons

    Apologies to commenters whose contributions have sat in the moderation queue for a while this afternoon. I had a power outage, and couldn’t access the site. If I have lost anything, let me know.

  33. David Bernstein

    Imagine The Age (or the Australian Jewish News, perhaps?) running a column – under the title ”Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi! Oi! Oi!” – suggesting, among other offensive stereotypes about Australians, that the behaviour of boozed-up Aussie yobbos and their scantily clad Sheilas cavorting in Bali and elsewhere in the region is an arrogant and insensitive affront to Indonesian Muslim sensibilities and that this, not Israel’s behaviour towards the Palestinians, was the major factor driving the Bali bombers to target the Kuta nightclubs. And, just for good measure, accounted for the bombings in London and Madrid, too. Fair and acceptable ”comment”?

  34. martynsmith

    I can’t see what the fuss is all about. The Age has nothing to apologise for. Backman simply told the truth as he saw it. Freedom of expression is a key part of Australia’s democracy. My reading of it is that he criticised Israel but was not actually anti-Jewish. He just told a few home truths. I wonder what treatment people who live in Israel get if they say anything against the policy of the State? The fact is that there is a major problem in the middle east and it is going to end in tears if we aren’t careful. I can understand the Zionist Jewish point of view, but not all Jews are Zionists. It looks as though the Australian Jewish Council wishes to stifle debate by labelling any comment with which it disagrees as anti-Jewish. With respect, I would caution them against such action. We are all affected by this in one way or another and debate is healthy.

  35. Mikey V

    I’m confused….. people keep bandying around the term “racist”. Whether one replaces “Israeli” with “Jewish” still doesn’t make it clear to me…..

    “Israeli” is a nationality, as too “Australian”, both of which comprise many races and religions… anti-Israeli prejudice shouldn’t be condsidered racism.

    “Jewish” is a religious descriptor, as too “Christian”, both of which comprise many races and nationalities….so anti-Jewish prejudice shouldn’t be considered racism either.

    “Semite” (I guess) is the racial descriptor, meaning (quoting : “1. a member of any of various ancient and modern peoples originating in southwestern Asia, including the Akkadians, Canaanites, Phoenicians, Hebrews, and Arabs.” or “2. a Jew” or “3. a member of any of the peoples descended from Shem, the eldest son of Noah.” So “semitic” can be a racial term (point 1), a religious term (point 2), or a tribal term (point 3). Many Jews would not necessarily consider themselves racially semitic….. (point 1)….. but religiously so (point 2)…..

    In the press, “Zionist” seems to imply an intersection of “Israeli” and “Jewish”, although there are many Israeli Jews who are not Zionists, and indeed many non-Jewish, non-Israelis who are pro-Zionist… this is more a geo-philosophic term.. so an anti-Zionist would not be racist either.

    So clear as mud ? Sheeshh….. someone help me here…… who’s racist, and against whom ???? Zionists, Jews, Israelis, Semites ??

  36. Chaim Morris

    Obviously you did not understand my response. You assertions are generalised and are very naive & simplistic.

    You cannot equate dictatorships of half a billion muslims that surround to Israel; a small democracy of six million that are trying to survive daily terrorist attacks.

    You speak with no knowledge of the Midlle East frim a comfortable armchair. I am sure that if you had rockets fired into your livingroom you would want the Australian Army to act and act promptly!

    As an analogy understand that violence is never a good solution. However When the U.S bombed Japan it ended the war with less U.S casualties than conventional warefare. Israel has been under attack from terrorists and had several wars to defend itself. War leads to casualties. Israelis do not hide behind their women and children and use them as shields as do the Palestinian terrorists. What do you expect to happen?

    If the rockets and bombers did not exist there would be no violence or war. Try and understand where this starts from please.

    You need a reality check. Stop being anarmchair critic and go and live in Sderot.

  37. Robin

    I fail to see how Backman’s article can be called racist. For sure he serves it up to a country but how calling this country’s current policy as expensive and a failure is gilding the lily as far as I can see. If it were me writing it then the descriptors I would choose to describe that country would go along the lines of ‘apartheid’, ‘racist’, ‘murderous’…. you get the drift. Many countries around the world achieve the dubious distinction of almost universal opprobrium from time to time. Examples abound from the USSR to the USA (Iraq) to Zimbabwe etc etc. How come when Israel gets criticized for acting barbarically its critics are called racist, anti-Semitic etc while the critics of Zimbabwe are called human rights activists? It’s a very strange double standard we have here as in my humble opinion, both countries are barbaric which therefore makes me on one hand anti-Semitic and on the other a human rights activist. Backman’s article should have gone onto the Opinion Pages unchanged, unedited and unashamed as many, many people around the globe agree entirely with him. And as a final thought how can one be called anti-Semitic when I hold the view that all Semites are equal and that ultimately all on this planet are equal under heaven?

  38. Chaim Morris

    The Western media needs to get some balance in it’s reporting please. This is not a theoretical debate it’s about the reality of what Islam aims for. The destruction of Western civilisation (and the Jewish state of Israel) and “any opposing religious views”. This doesn’t seem to easily be understood by some individuals in Western socitiey who have never experienced war or religious intolerance. Because this is what we have a war of civilizations. Let me give you a history lesson then you can make some more of your moralistic judgements.

    I was born in Egypt. I am Jewish but have half sisters who are muslims as well as Christians in my family. I am like Barrack Obama truly multicultural. During WWII I saw anti-western riots in Cairo where British & Australian servicemen were ambushed. Beaten to a bloody pulp withs sticks by muslims followed by fertility rituals where women walked over the bloody corpses.

    Muslim Women in most Eastern muslim socities who reach puberty are circumcised to make sex painful so they remain faithful to their husbands. Who by the way can beat them and marry up to three women. These women often get vaginalinfections which compound their problems.

    No dissent is allowed in Musim socities.

    When Israel became a Nation Egyptian muslims decided we were to blame so we were subject to torture, imprisonment and murder because we were Jews… Where was the media?Where is The Age’s fair reporting!!

    The Christian Coptic population of Egypt lives in daily fear of genocide. Every day harrassment, intimidation, rape & murder are committed; but where is the World media when there is a real issue? Asleep on the job because they don’t see it or are only interested where the word Jew or Israeli is involved so they can kick us again…

    What about the Armenian genocide? Where is your balanced reporting on this issue? Has this minority group already been relegated to history as an extinct race? Where is the media reporting here?

    What about the Chinese genocide of the Tibetan people? Where is the AGE reporting on this issue? Too scared too pick on China because it is too strong! So you pick on little Israel. How fair & balanced is that!

    What about the Chechen people living under the Russian dictator Putin. Where is the balanced reporting on this? Nowhere to be seen….

    And while we are on the subject what about the slaughter of Christans in Aceh by Indonesian Muslims. Or the Timor massacre by the Indonesian Army. Not much reporting here considering three Australian reporters were killed by them?And yet again we will train the special Kompassus elite killing squads once more……

    The German Nazis killed six million yet the World media was very quiet…. Are Jews expendable? So my advice to The Age is to shut up or do your homework!!!!

    Don’t blame Jews for problems created by anti-semitism and racists such as Michael Backman. Where does he come from and what is his religious belief? Does he have any? Lets see how he likes being targeted? How would he like to walk down the street and be attacked like we were in Egypt and now in Australia. He should shut his mouth unless he understands real pain and loss.

    It appears that no matter what Jews do many people in the World hate Jews and wants to make us an extinct historical race and our culture only available in museums. Yet there is hope for the World if an African American can be President then maybe just maybe The Age will be more democratic and fair in it’s reporting!!

  39. Winsor Dobbin

    No apology was necessary – it was an opinion piece and in Australia we are still entitled to have opinions, even if those opinions do not coincide with those of the increasingly voluble pro-Israel lobby which complains every time a story reflects badly on the Israeli government.
    I don’t consider it as an anti-semitic piece. It was certainly anti-Israel but many of the points were well made.

  40. Miss Schlegel

    Racist or not, the point is the piece should have nuked or better edited before it hit the subs desk. The subs, on this evening, were clearly trying to get the paper together without sufficient editorial assistance. It’s hard to see how their job — particularly now as the subs work across the paper and there’s not enough of them in the first place — involves making such a major editorial decision at that time of night.

    Pft. Fairfax. Bah.

  41. Molly

    I asked yesterday for an explanation of precisely why Backman’s piece is anti-Semitic. No one has yet taken up the challenge. George just repeated the accusation: “racist garbage based on canards, stereotypes, biggotry [sic] and ignorance such as Mr Blackman’s [sic] piece last week”. Could the canards, stereotypes, bigotry and ignorance be pointed out, please? Angry Andrew: “if anyone interprets Backman’s article as non-racist, it shows your cards.” If you’re not with us you’re against us, I suppose. “Replace ‘Israeli’ or ‘jewish’ with any other religion or culture in the article and then make your decision. It’s racist everytime.” I did that, but Angry Andrew’s conclusion wasn’t obvious to me. Daniel Lewis: “It is when criticism crosses so far over the line – as Backman’s did, that there is a problem. That some people can’t see that, says a lot more about their prejudices than the Jewish Community’s.” Whch seems to mean that if you don’t instantly agree with me you must be morally inferior.

    Is this an issue which, from one side of the debate at least, is beyond rational discussion? If so, why? In the particular context of the invasion of Gaza (along with credible allegations of war crimes) it seems of some importance for civility and careful, measured discourse to prevail. Merely abusing someone who disagrees with you isn’t helpful.

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