The anti-Israel lecture chosen to kick off the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in the Sydney Opera House last weekend was a significant event. About 2,000 enthusiastic Sydneysiders rolled up on a dazzling spring afternoon. The speaker was Professor Ilan Pappe of Exeter University, one of the champions of BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions). His subject was ‘Israel is an Apartheid State.’ A born-and-bred Israeli (the preposterous John Pilger says he is Israel’s ‘most principled historian’), he was in Australia to deliver the annual Edward Said Lecture in Adelaide — ‘proudly sponsored by the Australian Friends of Palestine Association’. But he seized the opportunity to carry his message across the country. His Opera House lecture was his 14th engagement. As his audience took their seats they were discreetly handed anti-Israel leaflets. Pappe spoke quietly and calmly. (He even remained unruffled when a series of mysterious small explosions rang out through the Concert Hall. It helped create the appropriate atmosphere, he said. ‘These are dark days!’) His message is simple. He wants to delegitimise Israel. The Jews are not indigenous to Palestine. They are colonialist settlers who relentlessly oppress the Arabs through ethnic cleansing and apartheid. The only solution is a one-state bi-national free republic of Israel and Palestine — that is, the obliteration of Israel as a Jewish state. The best way to reach this objective is by BDS. It will take time. It took more than 20 years in South Africa, but in the end it was successful. Pappe made a particular appeal to Jews to give up Zionism: ‘In abandoning Zionism, I felt more at peace, more human and more Jewish.’ The lecture was obviously provocative and tendentious. The proper, or better, way to present it would have been for Pappe to make his case and then have one of his many critics point to what they claim are errors, prejudices, blind spots. But Pappe was a solo performer at the Opera House, sharing the stage with a complaisant chairwoman from the ABC. There were no dangerous ideas or disagreements, only anti-Israel propaganda, noisily welcomed by the large audience with cheers and catcalls of approval. A troubling development.

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No surprise that the federal government has abandoned its proposed racist and discriminatory referendum aimed at amending the federal Constitution to write in a special place for indigenous Australians. It was always a bad idea and never had the support of the general public or of Aborigines, who have more pressing priorities. One factor in killing off public support was the reaction to the Australia Day riot in Canberra in January this year. Another was the court action brought against Andrew Bolt under the infamous s18C amendment to the Racial Discrimination Act. That case sharply turned many away from the referendum, which they feared would mean more of the same. It’s one of the legacies of Keating/Lavarch.

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The heavy official investment in Australia Day — to turn it from a half-hearted celebration of our British heritage into a great multicultural festival — may have produced, as a reaction, a revival of interest in Anzac Day, which many Australians find more authentic because less government-directed. Take for example Jonathan Biggins’ new play Australia Day. In the program notes for the current production of this gentle farce mocking Australia Day, the cast were asked what they considered our greatest national tradition. None said Australia Day. David James says: ‘Anzac Day: dawn service followed by Collingwood v Essendon at the MCG. If you haven’t heard a minute’s silence impeccably observed by 100,000 people, you haven’t lived. Spine-tingling stuff.’ Peter Kowitz says our best tradition is the last post on Anzac Day. Yet 60 years ago the hottest new drama, Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year, presented Anzac Day as a drunken, brawling, vomiting celebration of racist Aussie bigotry. The main result of government sponsorship of Australia Day may turn out to be the apotheosis of Anzac Day. I should add that one member of the Australia Day cast, Kaeng Chan, thinks our greatest tradition is Melbourne Cup Day.

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A biographer is something of an archaeologist doggedly putting fragments together, and something of a detective following up unlikely leads. This is how the extraordinary American ‘serial biographer’ Jeffrey Meyers (more than 20 major biographies and counting) sees his vocation. He has been in Australia to give the Seymour Biography Lecture — and while he was at it, check on a few of his Australian subjects, especially Errol Flynn. Although clear-eyed about Flynn, whose conduct he describes as ‘appalling’, he was harshly critical of another biographer, Charles Higham, who portrayed the Australian as a homosexual Nazi spy. In Meyers’ book Inherited Risk on Flynn and his son Sean (a photojournalist adventurer killed by the Khmer Rouge), he dismissed Higham’s story as ‘false’. But on the platform in the NSW State Library he called it ‘disgusting’. One detail lingers in his memory. While visiting Flynn’s daughter Rory in Hollywood — she let him read her father’s diaries — Meyers found a Hebrew prayer book in the bathroom. Checking it out he found that Rory’s son, also named Sean, was the first Flynn to have a bar mitzvah.

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We all know — as our newspaper editors keep telling us — that the right to free speech has to be balanced by the duty of responsibility. So our responsible editors play it safe, especially when dealing with violent fanatics. The problem is that the more they cave in to fanatics, the more they erode our birthright of free speech. But not all editors capitulate. Not at Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Vive la France!

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