Sunday, February 6, 2011

Brendan O'Connell: Jailing won't help fight racism

Perth man Brendan O’Connell was sentenced to three years jail under WA’s racial vilification laws on January 31. He was found guilty of six counts of vilification relating to anti-Semitic comments he posted on a YouTube video in 2009.

His jailing, and the length of the sentence, has opened up a certain controversy.

Conservative columnist Paul Murray pointed out in the February 2 West Australian that a person convicted of glassing someone in a pub could expect to receive an 18-month sentence, whereas O’Connell received three years for an “essentially political [speech]”.

It should be noted that several media reports, including Murray’s, have falsely described O’Connell as a member of Friends of Palestine WA (FOPWA).

In fact, he is not and never has been a member of FOPWA. The group has categorically condemned his actions.

There are two main issues for progressive people in this case.

First, it is undeniable that O’Connell is an odiously offensive anti-Semite. There is nothing progressive in his political outlook: he is a representative of the far right.

This is obvious for someone who described Judaism as a “satanic death cult” and a “racist, homicidal” religion.

Nevertheless, his professed support for Palestine has confused some people.

We should be clear that anti-Semites are no friends of the Palestinian people. The Zionist state of Israel has waged a continuous war against Palestinian human rights for more than 60 years. However, many Jewish people have distanced themselves from that — or even actively campaign against it.

Judaism — a religion — is not responsible for the actions of the Israeli state.

Zionists use anti-Semitism as a cynical justification for Israel’s human rights abuses. Anti-Semites hinder the Palestinian struggle against Israel’s illegal occupation.

Second, while anti-vilification laws can seem like a progressive step forward, they are at best a double-edged sword.

Jailing far right figures for expressing their views — no matter how odious — is not an effective way to marginalise racist ideas.

O’Connell’s anti-Semitism has received far more publicity than it would were he not prosecuted. The far right will now try to turn him into a martyr.

The most effective way to combat far-right ideas is to organise a strong, anti-racist political response whenever they emerge.

More worryingly, O’Connell’s jailing sets a precedent that could extend beyond the far right and target racial minorities and the left.

For example, an Aboriginal teenager who allegedly vilified a white person in 2006 was the first person charged under Western Australia’s anti-vilification laws. The charges in that case were eventually dropped.

[This comment piece first appeared in Green Left Weekly #867. Add your comments and thoughts here.]