I returned with my wife Naomi on the eve of Rosh Hashana from a brief visit to Australia, frequently referred to as Down Under, being the most geographically distant destination from Europe (and Israel).
Besides visiting family and friends, the principal purpose of our visit was to partake in a major fund-raising event in Melbourne, hosted by Australian Emunah, a constituent of the global religious Zionist women’s organization which Naomi currently heads as world president. Emunah last year was the recipient of the Israel Prize in recognition of its extensive network of children’s homes and welfare institutions catering for all disadvantaged Israelis.
The keynote speaker was former Australian prime minister John Howard and during the evening, we both made reference to his visit to Israel on the eve of the second intifada when he had persuaded me reluctantly to join him when he met Yasser Arafat in Gaza. After the meeting, I expressed reservations about Arafat, suggesting that a duplicitous murderer was unlikely to change his spots. Howard vowed that if Arafat failed to adhere to his commitments “the people of Israel and the Australian Jewish community should rest assured that I will not let them down.”
He certainly fulfilled that promise, emerging during the 11 years of his term as one of Israel’s staunchest international friends.
During my visit, Australia was undergoing a political crisis. Julia Gillard, who had displaced her Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd a few months earlier, had called for an election. Many traditional Labor voters, angered by the brutal displacement of her predecessor, voted against their party, resulting in a hung Parliament which was only resolved when four independent parliamentarians ultimately endorsed her.
PRIOR TO World War II, Australian Jewry was a decaying Anglo Jewish outpost. It was the flow of refugees and Holocaust survivors which enriched and transformed the community into what is today considered one of the most thriving and dynamic Jewish diasporas. Many who found haven in Australia succeeded and prospered. Today, strengthened by recent infusions from Russia and South Africa, there are approximately 120,000 Jews principally concentrated in three cities – Melbourne, Sydney and Perth.
Australian Jewry is frequently depicted as a role model for other Diaspora communities. Having, aside from Israel, the highest proportion of Holocaust survivors, it is dominated by painful memories but is also a forwardlooking Zionist community.
The community created an extraordinary network of day schools and cultural institutions catering to all Jewish religious and cultural streams. The majority of graduates partake in courses in Israel ranging from three months to a year and more than 12, 000 Australians have made aliya. Intermarriage while growing is much lower than in other Western Jewish communities.
Until the 1950s, Australia was a far cry from the country of today. It was racist, bigoted ,anti-Semitic and notorious for its White Australia policy. However by absorbing migrants from all corners of the world, Australia evolved into a unique multicultural society, open-minded, liberal and tolerant. Yet, today, determined not to follow the disastrous example of Europe which provided free rein to minorities opposing the central tenets of democracy and freedom, many Australians realize that multiculturalism can only succeed if the participants share a commitment to the open society. Today, despite growing anti-Semitism, the standing of the Jews is similar to the US and the influence of Muslim migrants is limited.
Australian Jews are proud that since the birth of Israel, with only one exception, consecutive Australian governments have remained strongly supportive. The links go back to Australian soldiers who served in Palestine in both world wars and developed warm relations with Jews in the Yishuv in 1940-41.
Australia has also been highly supportive of major Jewish global endeavors such as the struggle to free Soviet Jewry. As far back as 1962, it became the first country to raise the issue of Soviet anti-Semitism and the refusal to grant Jews the right to make aliya at the UN. Former refuseniks will recall that the Australian embassy in Moscow was highly forthcoming in extending whatever help and support possible and even held receptions for them. In my visits to the Soviet Union, successive Australian prime ministers, despite incurring the rage of the Soviet authorities, instructed the Moscow embassy to provide me with transportation and support in meeting refuseniks.
The government also played a major role in the struggle to rescind the UN resolution bracketing Zionism with racism and assisted Australian Jewish leaders in their efforts to help pave the way for diplomatic relations between Israel and both India and China.
MUCH OF the credit for this can be attributed to a united Jewish leadership which was never reticent in raising its voice to confront governments displaying bias against the Jewish state or conforming to the anti-Israeli stance of the international community. There was also a longstanding tradition by the Jewish community to facilitate visits to Israel for a wide cross-section of parliamentarians. Likewise, the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce emerged as possibly the most effective and successful of all the chambers of commerce.
The Australia-Israel relationship was strengthened during the 11 years of the Howard government. Over the past year, just prior to the overthrow of prime minister Rudd by his own party, there were concerns that the policy had tilted against Israel because the government was canvassing support for election to the UN Security Council. Following a meeting with the national Jewish leadership, the situation appeared to have been resolved but was never tested because shortly afterward, Gillard displaced Rudd.
It would seem that today bipartisan support for Israel will be maintained. However, there are concerns. Gillard is regarded as being evenhanded and friendly, but the Labor Party was obliged to forge an alliance with the Greens whose attitude toward Israel is highly antagonistic. However, most of her new cabinet is pro-Israel, as is the powerful opposition.
Of course, all is not rosy. The younger generation, like its global counterparts, lacks the passion of its forbears who lived during the Holocaust and witnessed the struggle to establish the State of Israel. The cost of day school education has risen considerably, with many parents unwilling to match the sacrifices of their parents to ensure a Jewish education for their children. The level of intermarriage, while low compared to the US and most European countries, is growing.
There is also a discernible change in the political climate. Australian trade unions, traditionally bastions of support for Israel, now even endorse anti-Israeli boycotts. The churches, many of which were previously hostile, have intensified their anti-Israeli approach. Anti-Israeli activity at universities is escalating and encouraged by a number of Jewish academics. Anti-Zionist Jewish splinter groups have emerged although in contrast to the US, they are totally marginalized from the mainstream.
Yet notwithstanding these emerging challenges, if there were more Jewish communities like Australia, the future of Diaspora Jewry would be far more secure than it is.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post