Towards the end of 2002, the jury that represents the Sydney Peace Foundation chose the Palestinian academic and human rights campaigner Dr Hanan Ashrawi as the recipient of the 2003 Sydney Peace Prize.
Usually the news of each year's winner receives little public attention. Immediately following the announcement about Ashrawi, however, influential sections of the Jewish community campaigned to vilify her, to ridicule the
status of the prize, to pressure the companies that are partners of the foundation to cease their public and financial support and to petition the Premier not to give the award.
Even the Mayor of Sydney, Lucy Turnbull, withdrew her support for the peace prize events.
Ashrawi's critics claim that she once described the Holocaust as a deceit which Jews exploit to obtain sympathy. This was acknowledged to have been false. Other charges are that she has not been sufficiently outraged by suicide bombers and has only condemned such violence for tactical reasons; that she shares the Hamas view that Israel - not the settlers or the borders - is the problem.
Some claim that she is an unyielding, passionate exponent of an absolutist, rejectionist position which says that Israel ultimately has no place in the Middle East.
But Ashrawi's website includes the comment, "The solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict must emanate from a spirit of tolerance and sharing, not one of blind hatred and exclusion." She advocates from a partisan position for the
Palestinian cause, albeit one prepared to criticise certain Palestinian officials and conduct.
The Sydney Peace Foundation interprets peace with justice as a process concerned not only with a nation's identity and security but also with citizens' employment, housing and health, their experience of the rule of law, of poverty and homelessness. The difference between peace - an end to hostilities - and peace with justice - the process of building a civil society - is central to our deliberations.
The jury does not look for people who have led impeccable lives, nor does it perceive achievements for peace only in terms of a significant outcome such as a signed treaty. It examines the records of those who have engaged in the struggle for human rights, have made contributions to democratic governance and have been advocates of the philosophy and practice of non-violence.
The Sydney jury judged Ashrawi's lifelong advocacy of women's rights to be just one item of impressive evidence of her work for peace with justice. Young Australian women of Arabic origin say they have been offended by the ridicule heaped on someone who they hold in high esteem but they have difficulty in making their voices heard.
The marshalling of vehement criticism raises issues central to the health of Australian democracy. Should people give way because of the formidable financial power pitted against them? Should they stay silent because the Palestinian/Israel issue is perceived to be so complex or because criticising the Israeli Government's policies risks getting them branded anti-Semitic? Responses to these questions confront perhaps the major issue in all of this: the place of courage in public life.
I am referring not only to Ashrawi but also to the conduct of the business and political leaders asked to dissociate themselves from this year's Peace Prize events. The Premier, Bob Carr, has shown courage not to be influenced by those petitioning him not to award the Peace Prize. The principals of the companies that support the Peace Foundation have shown similar resolution. Our Lord Mayor has not.
We should not only welcome Ashrawi to Australia but also give her an opportunity to be heard without fear or favour. That response would be in the best traditions of democratic governance, of human rights and of hospitality to visitors. Even her strident critics might then discover that in the work of this significant citizen lies a hope for a peaceful and just future for Israelis as well as for Palestinians.
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