The councillors of Marrickville, in Sydney’s inner west, voted by a 10-2 majority on December 15 to support the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.
A month later, they have belatedly become the subjects of vilification in the Rupert Murdoch-owned media, and of death threats from Australia's lunatic fringe.
"What does the desert theocracy of Saudi Arabia have in common with Marrickville Council in Sydney's Inner West?" howled a January 13 article in Murdoch's Daily Telegraph, under a headline comparing the council to North Korea.
The piece — which manages to be factually inaccurate on subjects as diverse as kosher food laws and Palestine Liberation Organisation factions — goes on to hail Israel as "one of the most innovative and entrepreneurial countries in the world. Its products and inventions find their way into computers, mobile phones and medicines."
The online version of the article seeks to demonstrate Israel's virtues by illustrating it with a photo gallery of Israeli swimsuit model Bar Refaeli and a video of her writhing in the sand on a photo shoot.
"This is what passes for 'journalism' and commentary over Israel/Palestine in Australia," laments Antony Loewenstein, the Sydney-based author of Australian bestseller My Israel Question and co-founder of Independent Australian Jewish Voices.
His blog also points out the inconsistencies and omissions in recent coverage of the incident by The Australian, supposedly a more serious Murdoch paper than the Daily Telegraph.
The January 13 Australian quoted Anthony Albanese, the federal Labor MP whose constituency covers Marrickville council's turf.
Albanese claimed, “foreign policy is a fair way outside the parameters of the role of Marrickville Council” and suggested that the local authority stick to "local" issues.
But Greens Marrickville councillor Cathy Peters, who moved the boycott motion, rejects the suggestion that boycotting Israeli products is outside her remit as a council representative.
“It's not a matter of foreign policy at all, but rather the right of a council to make decisions regarding our purchasing policy and the relationships and engagements we have with outside organisations," she said in an interview with The Electronic Intifada.
“It's completely within our purview to make those decisions. We've done it before. We have an ongoing boycott of companies involved in Burma. The council has a long, proud tradition of making ethical decisions.”
Peters also stressed that many Marrickville residents had expressed their concerns about Israeli actions towards the Palestinians to local councillors.
Marrickville mayor Fiona Byrne, writing on the ABC’s Drum Unleashed on January 13, said: “Marrickville Councillors interact with the people we represent on a day-to-day level.
“We have spoken with many local residents, with community and multi-faith groups who have told us of their feelings towards the unresolved issue of Palestine and Israel and their desire to be able to take direct action.”
She said members of Jews Against the Occupation have supported the boycott motion. She also cited many Australian church and trade union organisations that have supported whole or partial boycotts of Israeli products and groups.
Albanese has in the past been supportive of Palestine solidarity campaigns and critical of Israel's human rights record, so his stance has surprised some local people.
Jennifer Killen, a Marrickville resident who strongly supports the council's sister city relationship with the West Bank Palestinian town of Bethlehem, and the council’s boycott initiative, told The Electronic Intifada: "I'm very disappointed in my local member of parliament for not being more supportive of our hard-working local councillors at this time."
Killen also pointed out that the contact details of the councillors who voted for the boycott motion are on the website of the Sydney-based Coalition for Justice & Peace in Palestine. She called on international activists to support Marrickville, even though its local MP had failed to do so.
Peters emphasised that the boycott motion at Marrickville had cross-party support and that the former mayor of Marrickville, who visited its sister city of Bethlehem in 2010, was a member of the Australian Labor Party.
But Loewenstein and other Sydney commentators have suggested that the realpolitik of future elections could be behind Albanese's condemnation of the boycott vote. The Australian's article mentioned the risks to Albanese's seat from the Greens.
But it failed to highlight the fact that Carmel Tebbutt, the state Labor member for Marrickville who was quoted in the same article, is also Albanese's wife.
Her seat is under threat from Byrne in upcoming state-level elections.
The NSW Greens adopted a strong boycott, divestment and sanctions position in December. Albanese's attacks on the boycott motion could, Sydney commentators suggest, be an attempt to put some political space between himself and Tebbutt, and their Green challengers.
Outside the mainstream media, Australia's nastier extremists have also waded in on the Marrickville debate.
An article on the Australian Islamist Monitor website titled “Australian council disgraces itself” berated Marrickville council, saying: “You have got it all wrong — you have sided with the aggressors, the bullies, the friends of Hitler and those whom Hitler considered his friends in their antisemitism [sic].”
The writer went on to claim: “Israel is a tiny land surrounded by aggressive Muslim nations and as David Horowitz has pointed out repeatedly, the aim of those nations is to deny Israel the right to exist.”
Horowitz is a US commentator and founder of the Freedom Center who claims that “free societies” are “under attack by leftist and Islamist enemies at home and abroad”. As well as attacking Arab and left-wing campaigners, he has also been accused of racism against African-Americans.
One comment on the Australian Islamist Monitor article said: “This is insane I hate these people. I would like to have a 22 and pick them off one by one for target practice.
“Better still a suicide bomber in their midst. In fact I might make a giant blow up of the photo and sell it to a shooting range.”
A “smiley” emoticon follows the comment. Immediately after it, the same commenter, “Skipping Girl”, added: “God Bless Israel.”
Despite its claims to be "anti-racist in all its forms" and to support freedom of speech when this does not lead to violence, the Australian Islamist Monitor site is rife with hysterical and sometimes violent comments about Muslim people.
Some of its contributors have links to more extreme hate sites and have made openly racist comments in other forums.
The website's membership is strictly controlled. Potential members are approved by a moderator and electronic tests. However, in more than three weeks it has made no move to remove Skipping Girl's bloodthirsty comments.
Peters says she has been made aware that some threatening comments have been made regarding Marrickville councillors, but that the matter has been turned over to the council's general manager for consideration.
For her, the larger concern is how the issue of Palestine is debated in Australia.
"I think it's unfortunate that these kind of emotional comments have been triggered by an overall reluctance by the Board of Deputies and other groups to tolerate debate and criticism of Israeli policies regarding Palestine and the occupied territories," she said.
She rejected charges that Marrickville's councillors have been influenced by “political correctness” or ideology. Her fellow members, she points out, include some “very experienced” local councillors with diverse backgrounds and political opinions.
“The problem at the moment is one group [is] trying to close down dialogue on the subject,” Peters insisted. “What is really needed at the moment is a mature, calm debate on Israel's policies on Palestine and how Australians should respond to them.”
[Reprinted from www.electronicintifada.net . Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06.
Her first book, Gaza: Beneath the Bombs, co-written with Sharyn Lock, was published in January 2010. She is now working on a new edition of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and a biography of Palestinian activist Leila Khaled.]