The Australian Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, who will be visiting Israel this week, has a longstanding warm relationship with the Jewish community.
Carr boasts a distinguished political career, having served uninterruptedly for a record 10 years as premier of Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales, retiring in 2005. He was recently appointed Foreign Minister by Prime Minister Julia Gillard in March 2012.
Carr’s links with the Australian Jewish community date back many years. He was one of the founding members of Labor Friends of Israel and was also renowned for his support for the campaign for Soviet Jewry.
He is an admirer of left-wing Israeli writer Amos Oz and has on occasion been critical of various Israeli government policies, its settlement program in particular. In 2003 he created a stir when he presented the Sydney Peace Prize to Hannah Ashrawi, the acerbic Palestinian critic of Israel.
But notwithstanding this, Carr has been and unquestionably remains a genuine friend of Israel and the Jewish people and the Government of Israel will undoubtedly treat him accordingly.
Australia’s positive relationship with Israel dates back to when Australian troops served in Palestine in the course of the two World Wars. To this day, veteran Israelis recount vignettes of the warm and uninhibited relationships with the Australians – in stark contrast to the cold and frequently hostile British attitudes displayed throughout the mandatory period.
Since 1948, when Labor Party leader Dr. H V Evatt served as UN President, until today – with the solitary exception of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam whose hostility against Israel during the Yom Kippur war is considered an aberration – successive governments on both sides of the political spectrum have consistently displayed friendship to Israel.
Australian governments also supported broader Jewish concerns. In 1962, Australia became the first country at the UN to raise the issue of Soviet state-sponsored anti-Semitism and called for the right of Jews to emigrate, with successive governments making significant global contributions towards ameliorating the plight of Soviet Jews. The Australian Embassy in Moscow was regarded as a haven for refuseniks who they invited to receptions despite the tensions this created with the Soviet authorities.
The Australian government made major contributions to the global campaign to rescind the UN resolution bracketing Zionism with racism and also acted as intermediaries for Jewish leaders who sought to promote diplomatic relations between Israel and Asian countries.
Following the previous Liberal (conservative) government headed by John Howard, who emerged as Israel’s greatest champion amongst world statesmen, concerns that the new Labor government would distance itself from Israel proved to be totally unfounded. In fact, aside from the small Green factions, Israel today enjoys genuine bipartisan support throughout the entire Australian Parliament.
Until the late 1940s, Australia’s population was exclusively white and primarily of British origin. It was regarded as a backward colonial outpost notorious for its racist exclusionary White Australia Policy. Initially, there was considerable anti-Semitic based populist opposition to the entry of prewar Jewish refugees and postwar survivors.
Why should a country so geographically distant from the Middle East with a relatively small Jewish community (approximately 120,000), have adopted such a warm relationship with Jews and Israel?
One of the principal factors was is that in the late 1940s, Australia underwent radical change. It scrapped the White Australia policy, rescinded its restrictive immigration policy and recruited migrants, initially from Europe but then extended to Asia, transforming itself into one the most open-minded multicultural countries in the world.
The genesis of the Jewish community dates back to the end of the 18th century when Jews were amongst the first convicts deported from England to Australia. It was a declining and rapidly assimilating community until the Second World War when it was reinvigorated by Jews fleeing Nazi persecution and survivors from the camps. Indeed, Australia’s Jewish community absorbed more Holocaust survivors proportionately than any other Jewish community, aside from Israel.
Jewish cultural and religious life developed dramatically. The immigrants created an extraordinary network of Jewish day schools ranging from Chabad to Reform and even Yiddishist, which catered for the majority of Jewish youngsters.
The “Lucky Country” was a special boon for Jewish immigrants, most of whom were penniless and shattered Holocaust survivors. They worked hard and many prospered, with a notable number becoming the leading commercial and industrial giants in the nation. Whilst a poor Jewish underclass still remains, on the equivalent of a Forbes rich list, Jewish former refugees comprise an extraordinarily high proportion of Australia’s most successful and wealthy businessmen. It is notable that in their public business profiles, many refer proudly to their Jewish and Zionist ties.
Since the 1980s, the Jewish community has been augmented by Russians and large numbers of South Africans, the latter financially independent and rapidly assuming important communal leadership roles.
Jews have also been appointed to prominent roles in public life. General Sir John Monash was Australia’s Military Commander during World War I. Sir Isaac Isaacs and Sir Zelman Cowan – the latter an active Zionist – served as Governor Generals.
Until the 1960s, most Jews were inclined to support the Labor Party because the conservatives were then perceived as aloof, hostile and even anti-Semitic. Today, they divide their support between both parties.
The large proportion of Holocaust survivors encouraged a strong communal Zionist orientation. The leadership invested enormous efforts towards promoting the case for Israel at the political level, not hesitating to protest and confront governments they considered were displaying bias or double standards against Israel in conforming to global politically correct approaches . Despite the geographical distance, the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce is undoubtedly the most popular and efficient Chamber in the country. This all-encompassing Jewish passion for Israel was the critical factor leading to the current bipartisan pro-Israel orientation of the mainstream political parties.
Jewish leaders were equally aggressive in fighting against anti-Semitism and all forms of discrimination. To the pride of the community, some assumed key roles in the broader area of human rights. For example, my brother Mark Leibler, a long-standing Zionist and Jewish leader, was last year appointed as co-chairman of the prestigious “Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal Peoples”.
Needless to say Australian Jewry today is confronted with similar challenges to other diaspora communities. Assimilation and intermarriage whilst relatively low (25%), is growing. In addition, the cost of Jewish education is now prohibitive for all but the affluent and the vast majority of children in schools are subsidized by independent fund-raising.
But Australian Jewry remains one of the strongest and probably most Zionist Jewish communities in the world. This is reflected in aliya statistics. There must be close to 15,000 Australian expatriates now living in Israel (10% of the entire community). They strengthen the ties with the Jewish state.
If Australian Jews represented the norm, the long-term survival prospects for diaspora Jews would be much healthier than is the case. And Israel’s standing in the international arena would be much better if, in addition to Canada and the US, there were a few other governments displaying the same evenhandedness as Australia.
The writer may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom