Physical Education teachers are caricatured as tormenting the unfit children in the class but in fact they are an essential and appreciated asset of any school. The same cannot be said, however, of their professional association in Victoria, the Australian Council for Health, Physical Education and Recreation (ACHPER).
ACHPER, a private organisation but largely funded by the state government, provides various services for teachers of these subjects, including creating practice exams to prepare students for their Year 12 tests. In such a paper created earlier this year for students of Health and Human Development, a question asked for an example of individuals who are persecuted because of their religion.
The writer of this question could have indicated for the model answer a Muslim Uighur in Xinjiang incarcerated in a ‘re-education camp’ because of his faith, while his mosque is destroyed by the government; or a Christian in Saudia Arabia banned from building a church or from entering Mecca; or one of a hundred examples of genuine religious persecution. Instead, the author offered the case of ‘the Arab families living in Israel who practice the Islam (sic) religion rather than the Jewish religion. Including unlawful demolition of homes and forced displacement and detainment of these families.’
When a student of mine came across this question she was shocked and outraged. In a publication of ACHPER Victoria, designed to be used unquestionably by impressionable students, a libel appeared accusing the Jewish state of religious persecution — a crime of which Jews throughout the centuries have been victims but never perpetrators.
It is correct to say that the Israeli army engages in house demolitions in the West Bank. This is in accordance with regulations from the British Mandate (which remain operative in the disputed territory) and is applied to the houses of terrorists (and some houses built illegally by both Arabs and Jews). It is not practised as a form of religious persecution, nor are Muslims displaced or detained because of their religion. Israel is indeed the only country in the Middle East that provides freedom of religion.
ACHPER responded quickly to complaints from me, from the Zionist Federation of Australia and others. The paper was ‘withdrawn’ (though that is of limited effectiveness when it had already been distributed to hundreds of students). An internal investigation was commenced to find out what had gone wrong. And then ACHPER went quiet.
It took nearly six weeks, continued pressure from the Jewish community and a threat from Victorian Education Minister James Merlino to review ACHPER Victoria’s funding, for a half-hearted apology (for ‘offence’) to emerge. This also promised an independent investigation (the internal one, promised initially, was quietly forgotten) and, crucially, referred to the libel against Israel as ‘an interpretation of a context’, and not a falsehood. In a conversation with me the ACHPER CEO repeatedly refused to confirm that Israel does not displace and detain Muslims because of their religion. Only three days later was a clause added to the statement admitting that the exam question contained information that was ‘inaccurate’.
Thus began another long wait. After three more months, the findings of the external investigation were published. The final document was a bizarre rehash of information already known and a survey asking ACHPER staff if they thought the organisation was antisemitic (they did not) and the same question to a random selection of schools (one did).
To call it a whitewash would be an insult to lime paint. Despite triumphantly concluding that the entire problem was because of inaccurate source material and definitely not because of antisemitism (perish the thought!) the investigation did not just fail to answer the key questions; it failed to ask them.
In particular, it did not ask why the writer of the exam paper used as their source what could only have been an extreme anti-Israel propagandist. It did not ask why none of the six-member review panel thought to question the material. Crucially, it did not ask (despite promises to me from senior ACHPER personnel that it would) why the board took six weeks to apologise and why, even after six weeks of ‘intensive activity responding to this issue’ it still maintained that it was not untrue to say that Israel persecutes Muslims.
Given that the allegation could be refuted by a minute spent with Google, why did no-one within ACHPER take the trouble to do so?
So let me offer my own answers, and explain why this obscure episode is so important.
Thirty years of left-wing hatred and demonisation of Israel have created an environment in which the subliminal message that ‘the Jewish state is evil’ is accepted without question. Mahmoud Abbas can declare that Israel poisons Palestinian water at the urging of rabbis and those reading such absurdities while sipping their morning coffee say ‘yes, I suppose that’s likely’. Despite Abbas admitting the claim was baseless the following day, this story is still doing the rounds on Twitter. Jeremy Corbyn can repeatedly refer to Israel as a racist endeavour and the source of the world’s problems and millions will vote for him to be prime minister.
And whereas we might think that this delegitimisation of the world’s only Jewish state would be rejected by those in academia and education, who should be more dedicated to truth and accuracy than anyone else, tragically, the opposite is true. So when educators review an exam containing extreme libels, they too say ‘suppose so’ and move on. And when the ACHPER board consider their response for six weeks, they do not even think to ask if the accusation has a credible source.
There’s one more thing. It is a counter-factual, but I would wager that if any other minority community were libelled in this way, the board’s reaction would be a little quicker, a little more contrite, and a little more accurate. The concerns of Jews, it appears, do not deserve quite the same attention as those of anyone else.
Minister Merlino suggested that continuing ACHPER Victoria’s funding would be dependent on the results of a thorough investigation. I hope that he acknowledges that a thorough investigation has not yet taken place.
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