I have just returned from Down Under, Australia, the country that nurtured me prior to my aliyah. It remains one of the most delightful countries in the world, providing an unparalleled quality of life. Indeed, Australians remain so laid back that many even now still tend to open their daily newspapers directly at the sports pages. Its 120,000 Jews comprise a model Diaspora Jewish community.
The purpose of my visit was to celebrate the marriage of a grandson to the charming granddaughter of the late Sir Zelman Cowan, a former Governor General who was recognized as a great Australian as well as being a proud Jew and passionate Zionist.
The Jewish community can trace its roots back to the 18th century when Jews were among the first convicts deported from England to Australia. Until World War II, it was a rapidly declining community which was reinvigorated by the influx of Jewish refugees and survivors fleeing Nazi persecution, to whom Australia provided a haven. In fact, the Australian Jewish community absorbed more Holocaust survivors proportionately than any other Jewish community, with the obvious exception of Israel.
The “Lucky Country” enabled many penniless and crushed Holocaust survivors to work hard and prosper. While a significant Jewish underclass still remains, former Jewish refugees comprise an extraordinarily high proportion of Australia’s most successful and wealthy businessmen, of whom a notable number have become commercial and industrial giants in the nation.
Jews have also played a major role in public life, providing two Governor Generals and several prominent cabinet ministers. Jews have been at the forefront of efforts to promote human rights, with my brother, Mark Leibler, the long-standing Zionist leader, having been appointed by the government to act as co-chairman of the prestigious Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal Peoples.
In recent years, the community was further strengthened by the immigration of Russian Jews and large numbers of financially independent South Africans, many of whom have since assumed important communal leadership roles.
Jewish cultural and religious life developed dramatically in the postwar era, with the immigrants creating an exemplary network of Jewish day schools, ranging from Chabad to Reform and catering for the majority of youngsters — undoubtedly the most successful communal day school structure in the Western Diaspora. Regrettably, the past few years saw a series of deeply distressing public scandals within the Chabad school network involving child abuse, which led to the conviction of a number of offenders.
It is said that Australian Jewry is, in a sense, somewhat “behind the times.” In these times, this has proven to be highly advantageous.
Anti-Semitism or anti-Israelism has certainly intensified, but aside from some pressure against Jewish students on campus, the situation is far removed from the growing intense hatred prevailing against Jews and Israel in Europe.
The Jewish community is united under the umbrella of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and its effective leadership is unequivocally Zionist. It has invested enormous efforts toward promoting the case for Israel and has not hesitated to confront governments it considers to be displaying bias or double standards by conforming to global politically correct anti-Israeli approaches. The Jewish passion for Israel in Australia was undoubtedly the most important factor contributing to the hitherto bipartisan orientation of the mainstream political parties
Australians long-standing friendship with Israel dates back to troops serving in Palestine in both world wars. The Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, the community’s Israel advocacy organization, the counterpart of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, operates at an extraordinarily high professional level and could serve as a model for other Jewish communities to emulate. The Australian Israel Chamber of Commerce is the most popular and efficient chamber in the country.
The present government would undoubtedly be classified as one of Israel’s closest allies. I had the opportunity of meeting Prime Minister Tony Abbott and conveyed our appreciation for his government’s steadfast support of Israel at all international forums. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has been equally supportive even though she seems to have been influenced by U.S. Secretary of State Kerry in relation to the Iranian agreement.
Australian governments have also supported broader Jewish concerns. In 1962, Australia became the first country at the United Nations to raise the issue of Soviet state-sponsored anti-Semitism and called for the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate. Successive governments subsequently made significant global contributions toward ameliorating the plight of Soviet Jews. The Australian Embassy in Moscow was regarded as a haven for refuseniks who were invited to receptions despite the tensions this created with the Soviet authorities. Australian governments also made major contributions to the global campaign to rescind the U.N. resolution equating Zionism with racism, and acted as intermediaries for Jewish leaders who sought to promote diplomatic relations between Israel and Asian countries.
Until now, with the solitary exception of Gough Whitlam’s anti-Israel stance during the Yom Kippur War, successive governments since the establishment of the State of Israel when Labor leader Dr. H. V. Evatt occupied the role of president at the United Nations General Assembly, were all supportive of Israel.
Regrettably, today, this bipartisanship has dramatically eroded. Although there are still strong forces within the Labor Party that support Israel, the national conference which took place a few weeks ago endorsed a highly negative resolution according moral equivalence to both parties and giving notice of intent to unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state.
The elements combining to bring this about include a strengthened anti-Israeli Left, and the impact on Arab voters – there are now more than 500,000 Muslims resident in Australia – on right-wing electorates, and the machinations of the former Foreign Minister Bob Carr and his acolytes, who have attempted to whip up anger against the purported “domineering” Jewish lobby.
Effectively this means that should the current liberal (conservative) government be defeated, a Labor-led Australian government would be no less hostile to Israel than European governments.
Despite its truly spectacular achievements, Australian Jewry is currently confronting the same challenges as other Diaspora communities. It may be blessed by being a decade or so behind the times compared to other Jewish communities, but assimilation and intermarriage are already beginning to take a toll and anti-Semitism fanned by Muslim immigrants and the political Left has grown considerably over the past decade. In addition, the escalating cost of Jewish education is becoming prohibitive for all but the affluent, with the vast majority of children in Jewish day schools being subsidized by independent fundraising.
Yet despite this, Australian Jewry remains a jewel in the crown of the Diaspora and provides an outstanding Jewish lifestyle. It is the most Zionist Jewish community in the world with over 15,000 Australian expatriates — 10% of the community — now settled in Israel. Indeed, the present government together with Canada represent the most loyal and supportive friends of Israel.
So overall, for Jews, Australia remains the lucky country although many of its best youngsters will continue to make aliyah, thus further strengthening links between Israel and Australia and ensuring that that the centrality of Israel remains at the core of Jewish identity.
Much as I miss Australia and have many fond memories of my life there, not for a moment have I had cause to regret that, together with the majority of my family, we made aliyah over 15 years ago.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom