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Why Andrew Bolt’s distress is truly uncomfortable

Andrew Bolt feels betrayed by Jewish community leaders. That he should feel this way is one small but illuminating -- and disturbing -- consequence of the debate about whether or not section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act should be retained or significantly reshaped as the Abbott government has promised.

Bolt reckons he has earnt the support of Jewish community leaders because, in his words, “...they know well what I have done for their community.” Bolt made this claim in one of his blog posts recently and what he was referring to was the fact that he felt Jewish leaders had not supported him well enough ever since he was found to have breached section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act back in 2011.

Instead of supporting him, Bolt wrote, these Jewish leaders had remained silent when the shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus (who happens to be Jewish) set out the Labor Party case for retaining section 18C and like all good lawyers, made that case in rather robust terms. Dreyfus also argued that Bolt failed to make out a defence of free speech before federal court judge Mordecai Bromberg (who also happens to be Jewish) over Bolt’s articles about the aboriginality of light-skinned Aborigines.

“Jewish community leaders know well what I have done for them,” wrote Bolt. “Are they happy with this outrageous attempt to throw me under the bus simply to avoid admitting the RDA was never intended to ban the kinds of things I wrote?”

Bolt said that he understood that “the most prominent community leaders may now have overplayed their hand. I am looking particularly at you, Peter Wertheim.” (Wertheim is the President of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry.)

He then went on to ask the Jewish leaders campaigning to retain section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act whether “they really wish to be seen as demanding restrictions on free speech largely for the benefit of their own highly articulate and influential community.”

Bolt is perhaps the most influential commentator in Australia, given the size of his audience, his reach across print, radio and television, and the high regard in which he is held by Tony Abbott and other senior government ministers.

When he lost that Federal Court case, Tony Abbott went to Bolt’s home to comfort the distraught commentator and to urge him to keep writing -- Bolt had apparently been so upset with the verdict that he had contemplated silencing himself. Perhaps it was during that home visit that Abbott promised Bolt that when the coalition won government, section 18C of the RDA that had caused Bolt so much pain would be abolished.

Bolt is a man of great influence and he has the ear of powerful politicians and business leaders for that matter. What then to make of this hurt of Bolt’s, this sense that he has been ‘betrayed’ by Jewish leaders after all he has done for the Jewish community?

For a start, this suggests that Bolt indeed sees himself as powerful, able to ‘do things’ for the Jews and, it must be assumed, for others who would benefit mightily from his support. In return, he expects support when he gets into a spot of bother. This is the way players in politics sometimes operate but not, I would hope, someone who calls himself a journalist.

And anyway, what is it that Andrew Bolt has done for the Jewish community for which they owe him their support so that they should, at least, water down their opposition to any change to section 18C? Presumably, it’s Bolt’s strong support for Israel that he’s referring to. And there can be little doubt that this support has been strong and consistent and no doubt there are many in the Jewish community who are grateful.

But perhaps naively, I had assumed Bolt’s support for Israel and his strong opposition, for instance, to the boycott and divestment movement were sincerely held views.  As a journalist -- as opposed to a political player -- he should not expect any thanks for holding these views and he most certainly should not expect any special consideration from the Jewish community when it comes to the issue of section 18C of the RDA.

Most disturbing about the Bolt complaint about lack of support for him from Jewish leaders was his suggestion that the campaign being waged by Jewish community leaders -- and the leaders of many other ethic communities it must be remembered -- demanding section 18C be retained could be seen as a campaign “largely for the benefit of their own highly articulate and influential community.”

This is uncomfortable stuff in the context of the debate over section 18C, for it suggests that the Jews are powerful and influential and if they aren’t careful, they will be open to the accusation that they are looking after their own interests rather than the interests of the community as a whole.

Is this really where the focus ought to be in the debate about racism and free speech? For perfectly understandable reasons, Jewish community leaders have joined other ethnic community leaders to campaign against the government’s proposed changes to section 18C.

They should not be singled out for special consideration, not by Bolt and not by any other journalist or commentator. In a recent column in The Conversation, Michelle Grattan -- who I have known for decades and admire as a journalist and commentator -- criticised the government’s ham-fisted handling of its proposed changes to section 18c. It was a powerful column.

But she said that “there will be arguments ahead -- as there have already been -- with ethnic communities and the Jewish lobby.’’

Just why the Jewish community leaders were singled out by Grattan as the “Jewish lobby”, with all the connotations that some people ascribe to that term, is unclear. The fact is that the campaign has united ethnic community leaders, including Jewish community leaders, and to single out the Jewish leaders as not legitimate community leaders but people who are part of this thing called the Jewish lobby, is not acceptable in this context.

I have written several times for Business Spectator on the debate about section 18C and the government’s commitment to amending the section or dropping it completely from the Racial Discrimination Act. I argued that the act should be amended and that at least the words “insult” and “offend” should be removed from section 18C (Hate is not a dirty word, March 5).

Despite the fact that Attorney-General George Brandis has entirely mishandled the debate over section 18C and the fact that his proposed amendment to the section is unworkable and will have to be re-drafted, I remain convinced that section 18C needs amending.

My views have nothing to do with fact that I am Jewish and until now, I have felt no need to reveal that I am a Jew. I am not sure why I am revealing it now. I despair when I see commentary that begins with a statement like “I am the son of a Holocaust survivor…” which was the start of a piece I read recently on the Guardian website.

This is not a Jewish issue though of course I bring all my experience and my background to my consideration of what should be done about section 18C and my views on the debate about racial vilification and the limits of free speech.

So does Bolt. So does every commentator and journalist who has written and broadcast on these issues. Perhaps it is important to know where the commentator is coming from, but the fact that I am Jewish should not matter anywhere near as much as the cogency of my argument. And the cogency of Bolt’s argument for that matter.

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