Today Australia is indisputably Israel’s best friend in the world – in every respect.
The origins of this relationship have their genesis a century ago with the spectacular victory of Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) that liberated Beersheba on October 31, 1917 and paved the way for the conquest of Jerusalem. This was followed two days later by the issuance of the Balfour Declaration which preceded the British Mandate and subsequently served as the basis for the establishment of a Jewish state.
The Battle of Beersheba was a turning point in the war against the Ottoman Empire after successive failures to capture Gaza. It was the first time Australians and New Zealanders were highlighted as having effected a critical impact. The stunning charge of the ANZAC Light Horse Brigade that overcame the Turkish defenses was hailed as a milestone of military bravery comparable to that of the Light Brigade at Balaklava in 1854 and is remembered as the last great cavalry charge, establishing it as the best cavalry force in the world. It represented Australia’s first outstanding achievement as a fighting force, predating the 1918 Western Front victories.
With the disaster at Gallipoli, where over 8,000 Australians needlessly lost their lives, many initially predicted that this attempt was doomed to failure and represented yet another example of military incompetence and willingness to cynically sacrifice soldiers.
Beersheba was heavily fortified, making the town a virtual fortress, and the battle was considered a last-ditch effort to defeat the Ottoman Empire in the region.
Late in the afternoon of October 31, following an order by their commander, Sir Harry Chauvel, 800 Australian light horsemen, brandishing bayonets, galloped directly into machine-gun fire, many dismounting and engaging in hand-to-hand combat, surprising the Turks who did not imagine that the Australians would act so brazenly. Galloping over 2 kilometers at top speed, they overcame the stunned Turkish defenders in less than an hour. Thirty Australian horsemen were killed and 36 wounded. Over 500 Turks were killed and 1,500 surrendered.
It was a glorious victory, a turning point in the struggle enabling General Edmund Allenby to defeat the Ottomans in Palestine.
It also heralded the beginning of an extraordinary close relationship between Australia and Israel.
On the personal and individual level, it was enhanced by Australian soldiers temporarily stationed in Palestine at the outset of World War II who developed good relations with the Jews. Old timers still relate nostalgically to the friendship extended by the Australians as tensions were rising with the British mandatory officials.
This week the Australian and Israeli governments will jointly celebrate the centennial anniversary of the heroic Light Brigade’s extraordinary role in Beersheba. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, New Zealand Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a major entourage of ministers, officials, descendants of the ANZACs, and over 100 Australian horsemen, as well as private citizens from both countries will participate in commemorative ceremonies. These will include a joint Australian-New Zealand service at the war cemetery, the opening of an ANZAC museum, and a re-enactment of the charge by the Australian Light Horse Brigade.
It is anticipated that huge numbers will attend what promises to be a spectacular event highlighting the Australian-Israeli relationship.
Australian Jewry enjoys an outstanding Jewish lifestyle and can be considered a jewel in the crown of the Diaspora. Jews were among the first boatloads of convicts transported to Australia in the 18th century.
The first military commander of Australian forces serving during World War I was Sir John Monash, a proud Jew who was also the founding president of the Zionist Federation of Australia.
In the 1930s, the Jewish community was declining and rapidly assimilating but over the course of time it became reinvigorated by Holocaust refugees and survivors. Most of the newcomers were passionately Zionist and created a unique network of Jewish schools ranging from secular Zionist to Chabad, from Modern Orthodox to Reform and even a Bundist Yiddish school. From the 1980s, the community expanded further with the immigration of large numbers of Russians and South Africans.
Many penniless Jewish immigrants to “the lucky country” became leading industrial titans. Jewish leaders were appointed prominent roles in public life, including two governors general. One, the late Sir Zelman Cowan, was an outspoken Zionist and champion of Jewish rights. My brother, Mark Leibler, a long-standing Zionist leader and head of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, was appointed by the government as co-chairman of the expert panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal Peoples.
Today, Australian Jewry numbers over 120,000, has the highest percentage of Holocaust survivors and their descendants in a Diaspora Jewish community, and is one of the most Zionist communities in the world with 15,000 – more than 10% of the community – having made aliyah.
The community, united under the umbrella of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, could well serve as a template for other Jewish communities to emulate. The Australia Israel Chamber of Commerce has emerged as probably the most successful chamber of commerce in the nation.
Despite its geographical distance, except for two minor aberrations, Australia has consistently maintained a positive bipartisan relationship with Israel since its creation, when Labor leader Dr. H.V. Evatt chaired the U.N. General Assembly.
Both parties also supported broader Jewish concerns. Successive governments made major global contributions toward ameliorating the plight of Soviet Jews, particularly in 1962 when Australia became the first country in the world to raise the issue of Soviet Jewry at the U.N., condemning Soviet anti-Semitism and calling for the right of Jews to emigrate. On a personal note, two successive prime ministers from each of the two major parties directly intervened to enable me to assist Soviet Jews and instructed the Australian Embassy in Moscow to provide me with maximum assistance. The embassy was regarded as a haven for refuseniks despite the tension this created with the Soviet authorities.
Australia was directly involved in efforts to rescind the infamous 1975 U.N. resolution that equated Zionism with racism. It also served as a crucial intermediary for Jewish leaders seeking to promote diplomatic relations between Israel and Asian countries.
The Jewish community can claim much of the credit for this.
In contrast to their American and European counterparts, Australian community leaders have not hesitated to confront their government on the rare occasions they considered their government was acting in a biased manner or applying double standards against Israel. The all-encompassing Zionist orientation of the bipartisan Jewish community is undoubtedly a major factor contributing to the pro-Israel orientation of the mainstream political parties.
However, there are now dark clouds emanating from sectors of the Australian Labor Party, whose former Foreign Minister Bob Carr has become a spokesman for extremist Arab causes and vitriolically lambasts the Jewish community for being extreme right-wing. He is supported by former Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who was once one of Israel’s greatest supporters. The growing electoral power of over 500,000 Muslims, especially concentrated in the Labor electorates, also strengthens these trends.
Yet, despite a growth of anti-Semitism and intensified anti-Israeli activity at universities, overall, the public tends toward Israel. But there are legitimate concerns that if the current government is defeated by Labor in the next elections, the Arab lobby – which now has a powerful electoral influence within Labor and its left-wing allies – will pressure Australia to adjust its Israel policy in line with that of the hostile EU.
But 18 months to the next election is a long time and meanwhile the Australia-Israel relationship has exceeded all expectations.
Netanyahu’s visit to Australia earlier this year was a resounding success and undoubtedly Turnbull’s visit will further cement this relationship.
We warmly welcome the Australian prime minister and his entourage to Israel and are confident that this will further strengthen the burgeoning economic, technological, defense and investment ties that bind our countries.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom