It was an extraordinary get-together that spoke to all the contradictions, idiosyncrasies and moral errors that characterise the curious relationship of the Anglophone world with the political elite of Israel. An Australian company, also registered as a charity, paid for a £2,000 per head junket to Israel, just before Christmas 2016. Those from Britain lucky enough to receive an invitation were Joan Ryan, the Chairwoman of Labour Friends of Israel; former Foreign Office minister and Conservative MP, Alistair Burt; another Conservative MP, Will Quince; and the Chairman of the Westminster-based lobbying group Conservative Friends of Israel, former party chairman Sir Eric Pickles MP.
Their trip was paid for by the Australia Israel Cultural Exchange, founded by the flamboyant jazz impresario, businessman and philanthropist Albert Dadon. Charity documents registered with the Australian authorities give the impression of luvvies clinking champagne glasses in Tel Aviv and Sydney, thanks to an organisation that is intended to “promote the exchange of culture between Australian and Israeli artists.” Although the organisation also arranges a film festival in Israel, the Australia Israel Cultural Exchange is largely nothing to do with artists; instead, it hosts an annual “Australia-Israel-UK Leadership Dialogue” and has done since 2009.
Tony Abbott, the former Australian Prime Minister, took part in the most recent get-together and wrote about it for the Australian edition of the Spectator magazine, saying that the guests had been “MPs, officials and analysts of the three countries.” The Australian delegation, he pointed out, included “Opposition leader Bill Shorten, Trade Minister Steve Ciobo and ten other federal and state parliamentarians.” Unless these political bigwigs have a sideline in watercolours or playing the didgeridoo, it seems unlikely that the Australia Israel Cultural Exchange is doing much to promote anything between Australian and Israeli “artists” and is instead used to pay for the travel expenses of pro-Israel parliamentarians. Abbott certainly wasn’t just along for the ride, picking up some tips in pottery or ceramics along the way.
“The Dialogue,” he wrote, “has become an opportunity for leaders from like-minded countries to consider issues in common, as well as to analyse in-depth the security problems of Israel and the wider Middle East. Along with the ‘two state solution’ to the Palestinian question, the challenge of Iran and Syria, the Sunni-Shia divide, the interplay of religious and economic grievances, and the consequences of United States’ and Russian policy in the region, there were vigorous discussions of Brexit, border protection, housing affordability, fiscal and monetary policy and the science of climate change – which turns out to be far less settled than most people think.”
Casual climate change denial aside, it is not unreasonable for Albert Dadon to organise these kind of events. As a Sephardi Jew who was born in Morocco and whose family left their homeland in 1962 to settle in Israel, he has a genuine connection with the country. He likes the desert, he says, and of the desert in the three countries he can live in — Australia, Israel and Morocco — Israel’s is notably hospitable towards Jews. In Morocco, there were once up to three hundred and fifty thousand Jews; today there are just 2,500. The Holocaust may have been a European crime, but there were immense pressures on Jews to leave Arab countries in the years afterwards too. That said, Dadon was French-Moroccan, so he has a little of the colonial in him as well.
He also receives few accolades from the Australian Jewish establishment for his work, dominated as it is by European Ashkenazis who, at least by stereotype, tend to look down on their Arab-Jewish counterparts. “I am not a lobbyist,” claims Dadon. “I’m a facilitator, and if you want to call me a peacemaker, I’m a peacemaker.”
His bravado reminds you of a certain Tony Blair, who was also a guest at one of these Australia-Israel-UK Leadership Dialogue events in 2012, alongside disgraced former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Like Blair, Dadon likes to play guitar. Unlike Blair, he is rather good at it, with a formidable career as a pioneer in a new genre, acid jazz, formed in the smoky jazz cellars of Melbourne and Paris.
If he really is a peacemaker, then Dadon’s leadership events have curious guests. British and Australian lawmakers on the most recent trip sat down with extreme right-wing Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who has more or less called for the genocide of the Palestinians. Dadon has planted himself firmly in the Israeli hardliners’ camp, being a close friend of both Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu, but Shaked is even further to the right as a member of the Jewish Home party.
Hardliners never do peace deals. They do war deals. As Justice Minister, Shaked is uniquely positioned to keep the Israeli struggle against peace going. Her efforts have included legislation to legalise Israel’s colonial settlements, and she wants to extend Israeli law into the West Bank post-haste. Less than a year ago, she sponsored a bill forcing NGOs to disclose foreign funding, mirroring similar Putinist legislation that drew widespread condemnation when the Kremlin passed it, but little interest when Israel did the same. Israeli lawmakers have called her new terrorism legislation “racist and totalitarian.”
“Behind every terrorist stand dozens of men and women, without whom he could not engage in terrorism,” read an infamous article Shaked endorsed on Facebook during the 2014 Israeli offensive against the Gaza Strip. “Actors in the war are those who incite in mosques, who write the murderous curricula for schools, who give shelter, who provide vehicles, and all those who honour and give them their moral support. They are all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on all their heads. Now this also includes the mothers of the martyrs, who send them to hell with flowers and kisses. They should follow their sons, nothing would be more just. They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there.”
How poetic; how genocidal, in fact. Was this the kind of cultural exchange Dadon intended? For British and Australian lawmakers to meet with genocidal Israeli ministers who think Palestinian civilians are fair game? From Rwanda to Bosnia to Germany, we know that genocides are preceded by the dehumanisation of the other. Referring to people as animals — like the “cockroaches” in Rwanda — is an obvious sign. You cannot on the one hand condemn Hamas for causing civilian casualties, then sit down at a “cultural exchange” with an Israeli minister who believes that the same thing should happen to Palestinian men, women and children.
Except you can; of course you can. Welcome to the necessarily contradictory terms of British and Australian support for Israel, where jazz and genocide are the new norm.