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Australian Jewish Community Looks to the Future

The last three years

For the last three years the Australian Jewish community has enjoyed unprecedented support and understanding from the Australian government, led by Liberal Prime Minister Scott Morrison, on matters concerning Israel and domestic policy.

Australia has maintained a realistic and principled stand against recognising a Palestinian State under the dysfunctional Palestinian Authority, and in favour of recognising west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Australia has consistently voted against the obsessive anti-Israel resolutions which are ritualistically passed by the UN each year. It stopped funding the Palestinian Authority and cut funding to UNRWA.

Domestically, Australia embraced the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism and listed the whole of Hezbollah and Hamas as terrorist organisations. Synagogues, schools, and other Jewish community institutions received unprecedented levels of funding to help pay for security infrastructure. Holocaust museums were funded in every State and Territory.

The new Labor government

Under a Labor government led by newly sworn in Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, and with a new parliament, the picture for the future is more mixed.

In the week before the election, one media outlet showed clips of Albanese’s parliamentary speeches from 2000 and 2002 painting Israel as an “oppressor,” blaming Ariel Sharon alone for starting the second Palestinian intifada, claiming that the establishment of Israel itself created millions of Palestinian refugees, accusing Israel of using excessive force and funding Hamas and comparing Israel’s conduct to that of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. It also showed him in 2018 supporting a notorious UN Human Rights Council move to “investigate” Israel.

 

Yet despite being photographed smiling with then UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn during a visit to the UK in 2017, Anthony Albanese has gone out of his way in recent times to make it clear that he is not Jeremy Corbyn and that the Australian Labor party is in no way comparable to the Corbyn UK Labour party. The stunning electoral defeat of UK Labour under Corbyn in 2019 seems to have had a chastening effect on Albanese’s thinking, including about Israel.

In an hour-long, on-the-record interview with the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) in July 2021, which was prominently reported in the general media, Albanese denounced the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, describing it as “based upon a racial targeting of a group, in this case Israel,” and slammed moves within his own party to promote BDS.

Labor’s new Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, has also repudiated BDS and attempts to delegitimise Israel. In May 2021, she publicly slapped down a resolution by the Queensland branch of the ALP accusing Israel of “ethnic cleansing.” Wong described the resolution as “counterproductive” and said that “viewing the conflict from one perspective would not advance the cause of peace.

In his interview with the ECAJ, Albanese went on to reject the use of the apartheid analogy to demonise Israel as “ahistorical” and “offensive,” strongly endorsed the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism, reaffirmed Labor’s strong support of Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, praised the Abraham Accords, and added that an ALP government would work constructively with Israel, especially over “issues we have in common” such as “scarcity of water,” and “new technology.

Albanese’s comments were condemned by the Palestinian Authority representative in Australia and anti-Israel activists.

Yet there is also a negative side to the change of government which cannot be sugar-coated. Although Israel continues to have many long-standing friends within the ALP, they do not have the numbers within the party to carry the day on certain Israel-related issues.

The ALP’s policy platform changes and public statements by key ALP figures in March 2021 create the distinct prospect, although it is not an inevitability, that under its new government Australia will recognise a Palestinian State, withdraw recognition of west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, revert to a voting pattern at the UN that is less sympathetic to Israel and increase funding to UNRWA, which will in effect free up more Palestinian funds for terrorism. These moves would be vociferously opposed by virtually the whole of Australian Jewry, among others.

More Greens means a less friendly parliament for the Jewish community

Many staunch friends of Israel and the Jewish community will no longer be in the Federal parliament including Australia’s Jewish former Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, and former Ambassador to Israel Dave Sharma.

Several newly-elected Greens candidates such as David Shoebridge and Max Chandler-Mather have a one-dimensional record of criticising Israel at every turn, joining like-minded ALP MPs like Senator Sue Lines, who is now likely to be President of the Australian Senate, and Josh Wilson.

Answering a pre-election questionnaire from the ECAJ, the Greens expressed a “commitment to combatting antisemitism and all forms of racism.” However, the Greens are the only party represented in the parliament not to endorse the IHRA Definition.  For many in the Jewish community the Greens’ decision not to endorse IHRA puts into question the value of that commitment.

Greens spokespeople have no difficulty condemning racial forms of antisemitism and Holocaust denial from neo-Nazis and other white supremacists, but seem to be emotionally and ideologically incapable of recognising more contemporary forms of antisemitism from the “progressive” side of politics, including the rejection of Jewish peoplehood and the Jewish people’s collective right of national self-determination.

The Greens are also the odd ones out on BDS. In their answers to the ECAJ’s pre-election questionnaire, the Greens stated “Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions is not Australian Greens policy”. Every other party, including Labor, responded to the same questionnaire by expressing clear opposition to BDS.

Whilst the Greens will not be part of the government, their increased numbers in the parliament will enhance the political voices who are hostile to Israel and opposed to values and policies which are overwhelmingly supported by the Jewish community.

The teal Independents

The biggest change to have been brought about by the election is the rise of a new third force in Australian politics. A group of Independent candidates succeeded in wresting from the Liberals six of the seats in Sydney and Melbourne which have traditionally been part of the Liberals’ heartland.

Known as the “teals” after the blue-green campaign colour they each adopted, this group combines economic and foreign policy conservatism, signified by the Liberals’ blue colour, with social progressivism, including “green” views on the need for action against climate change.

All six teal MPs are highly-educated, accomplished professional women. Their election seemed to punish the Liberal Party for its long-standing reluctance to promote gender equality among its preselected candidates, and Prime Minister Morrison’s apparent tone-deafness to complaints of sexual abuse of women within the parliament and the issue of domestic violence against women and children.

Answers to the ECAJ pre-election questionnaire were provided by two of the most prominent of the new teals MPs, businesswoman Allegra Spender, and Zoe Daniel, a former journalist for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

Allegra Spender and, perhaps more surprisingly Zoe Daniel, gave clear and definitive answers opposing unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state and supporting Australia’s recognition of west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and Australia’s current voting pattern favourable to Israel at the UN. They both rejected BDS and gave unequivocal support to the IHRA definition. They also expressed strong support for the Jewish community on domestic issues such as expanded security funding and beefed up education about the Holocaust and against prejudice.

Some within the Jewish community expressed doubts about the sincerity of the teal independents’ stated positions in support of Israel.

At a candidates’ forum co-hosted by the ECAJ, NSW Jewish Board of Deputies and Australasian Union of Jewish Students two weeks before the election, Allegra Spender sought to dispel those doubts, forcefully dissociating herself from an anti-Israel activist who had been one of her prominent supporters.

Zoe Daniel has evidently been less successful in convincing her critics in the community of her pro-Israel credentials. In May 2021, she joined other journalists and commentators in signing the now-notorious “Do Better on Palestine” letter, which in effect called for journalists not to report even-handedly on the Israel-Palestinian conflict and to give priority to “Palestinian perspectives.

Ms Daniel subsequently said she does not agree with everything that appeared in the letter she signed, and would have worded it differently, but will not withdraw her signature.

So the doubts have persisted. It will be interesting to see how Ms Daniel’s answers to the ECAJ’s questions on Israel will be received by her co-signatories to the letter, and indeed by many of her former colleagues in ABC news and current affairs, who have long practised the kind of reporting on Israel that the letter called for.

Both Allegra Spender and Zoe Daniel have reached out to the ECAJ and the Jewish community seeking deeper engagement, which we welcome.

Conclusion

The extent to which Jewish community issues influence the way Jews vote has long been the subject of speculation and study. Judging by the care and detail that went into the answers provided to the ECAJ questionnaire by the parties and independents, it seems that they see these issues as highly important.

Peter Wertheim is co-CEO of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the peak national representative body of the Australian Jewish community.