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Understanding the back story of Australian Jews’ attitudes to Israel

Dashiel Lawrence
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The Jewish Independent

The Crossroads23 survey showed Australian Jews still care about Israel but are losing faith in its policies. DASHIEL LAWRENCE explains how past decades have produced this change.

Australia’s Jewish community has long been cited as among the most Zionist, Israel-centred of all Diaspora communities. The data gathered by The Jewish Independent in Crossroads23 survey, both affirms this view and punctures it.

While 90% agree it’s important the community maintains close ties with Israel, the survey shows sharply declining support for, and confidence in, Israel’s current trajectory.

Pay close attention to the longer course of relations between Australian Jewry and Israel, and you’ll quickly recognise that these statistics are grounded in watershed events and broader social changes. My 2015 doctoral study of this relationship, titled Complex Kinship, identified a latter-day fragmentation in relations that is now filtering through to create the communal scepticism about Israel we witness today.  

For much of the 20th century, Israel represented one of the central pillars of Jewish communal life in this country. Going back to the 1950s, Australia’s small Jewish community proudly raised millions each year for organisations like the UIA and JNF. Tens of thousands rallied in Australian capital cities during times of military crisis - most notably the Six-Day War in 1967. And as the Jewish community grew in size and influence, an effective Israel lobby was built by the likes of the late Isi Leibler. Schools, synagogues and a vibrant Zionist youth movement all played an enabling role in reinforcing Israel’s centrality to the Australian community.

Leading communal and Zionist organisations, what I term the "established leadership", became adept at controlling the boundaries of acceptable public discussion on Israel. Divergent or dissenting views towards Israel and its government, which first started to emerge among Australian Jews in the early 1980s (mirroring Israel’s own Peace Now movement), were deemed unacceptable.

But in 1997, when a poorly constructed bridge over the toxic waters of the Yarkon River collapsed under the weight of hundreds of Australian Jewish athletes and officials participating in that year’s Maccabiah Games – these bonds were torn. Four people died. Dozens more were hospitalised, in a few cases left with permanent damage.

Everyone from the Maccabi World Union to the builders of the bridge abdicated responsibility. (In a decision that continues, more than 25 years on, to confound just about every sensibility, the Games’ organisers permitted the opening ceremony to continue.) When it came time to award compensation, no one in Israel was willing to foot the bill. Australian Jews were rightly outraged. Fundraising for Israel took a hit, and so too did Australian visitation to Israel.

the vast majority of Australian Jews will not be dictated to by communal leadership. Their connection with Israel is unmediated, instantaneous and unfiltered.

It took the private haranguing of a handful of outraged leaders in Melbourne and Sydney to see justice for those impacted by the collapse. Once compensation money was finally paid and culpability located, many Australian Jewish leaders moved on, seeing the episode as a brief if unpleasant chapter in a long history of love and affection. But in the words of one leader, whom I interviewed many years later, “The whole affair left a very bitter taste, and revealed an ugly and unpleasant side to Israel that was unfamiliar to many Australian Jews.”

The bridge collapse functioned as a loss of innocence about Israel. But it was the emergence of the internet that irrevocably disrupted Australian Jewish-Israel relations on a broader scale. By the late 2000s, the great distance between Australia and Israel had been bridged with the arrival of the internet, enabling an unprecedented flow of information and news. Where once Australian Jews were reliant on week-old syndicated news in the pages of the Australian Jewish News and in briefings provided by Zionist organisations, by the 2000s, anyone with a dial-up modem could access live updates from one of Israel’s many English-language newspapers, enabling Australian Jews to see a very different, unfiltered side of Israel. The internet also created new platforms for Australian Jewry to express itself about the state of affairs in Israel and forge online communities, The Jewish Independent being a prime example.

Today, Australian Jews are able to access a breadth of reportage and analysis that reveal the many self-induced crises the State faces.

In recent years, a malevolent nexus of political and religious forces has taken a sledgehammer to Israel’s institutions. Australian Jews are well aware of the civil crisis, centred on but not restricted to the current judicial overhaul proposals, the deep divides between secular and religious Jews, and, above all, the festering sore of the occupation and the unresolved conflict with Palestinians.

Crossroads23 demonstrates beyond refute that they are having serious misgivings about Israel’s trajectory. They continue to visit Israel, have close personal or familial connections and see their destiny as Jews intertwined with Israelis. But the cognitive dissonance generated by the slow dismantling of the State’s democratic and civil values has taken its toll.

To their credit, Australia’s current Zionist leadership, led by ZFA president Jeremy Leibler, has loosened its grasp on its utopian Israel narrative and been willing to speak up on concerning developments in recent years. Leibler understands better than many of his predecessors that a relationship goes both ways; that Australian Jews’ future engagement with Israel must be forged on the ability to have disagreements and robust conversations. Pragmatic 21st century Zionists know that love is never truly unconditional but maintained only by mutuality, respect and shared objectives. They also know they can no longer take Australian Zionism for granted and that a broad church is better than no church at all.

In any event, the vast majority of Australian Jews in 2023 will not be dictated to by communal leadership, political or religious.  Their connection with Israel is unmediated, instantaneous and unfiltered. They will decide for themselves how they think and feel about Israel.

Crossroads23 surveyed Australian Jews at a vital moment. President Isaac Herzog has opened the door to a dialogue with the Diaspora through his Kol Ha’am initiative. Some observers, local and international, have questioned Herzog’s deeper motives. The cynicism is understandable. But it shouldn’t be lost on anyone that an initiative like this is unprecedented.

On Sunday afternoon, Australian Jews gathered in Melbourne’s ageing Beth Weizmann Community Centre to begin the process of creating a formal and sustained forum for relations between the Diaspora and the State of Israel. The question is, will Israel finally listen?

Photo: Israeli rescue workers evacuate members of the Australian Jewish athletic team from a collapsed bridge at the Yarkon River in Tel Aviv in 1997. (AP Photo/Jeremy Feldman) 

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