SYDNEY – The reaction of Jewish community leaders to the death last week of former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was telling – not so much for what they said but for what they didn’t say.
Whitlam, who led the Labor Party to power in 1972 after 23 years in the political wilderness, was sacked in dramatic fashion three years later.
Despite his short stint in office, he managed to leave an enduring legacy, including introducing universal health care; abolishing the death penalty; replacing “God Save the Queen” with “Advance Australia Fair”; bringing the troops home from Vietnam; establishing diplomatic relations with China; granting Aboriginal land rights and initiating the Racial Discrimination Act.
Nevertheless, Whitlam’s tenure marked the nadir in relations between the government and the Jewish community since 1948.
But the depth of animosity between Jewish leaders and the former PM – who had two Jewish advisers – didn’t appear in media releases. Indeed, the fact the Zionist Federation of Australia did not even issue a statement on Whitlam’s death appeared to be a statement in itself.
Robert Goot, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said: “On matters relating to Israel, including the introduction of the so-called ‘even-handed’ policy, the Jewish community was rightly disappointed with, if not hostile to, Whitlam’s attitude and actions.”
Dr Colin Rubenstein, executive director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, said: “He had what was at times a tumultuous, disappointing relationship with the Jewish community, with his somewhat cynical and indifferent ‘even-handed’ approach when the survival of Israel was at stake during the difficult period of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.”
According to Sydney-based historian Dr. Suzanne Rutland, “Whitlam sought to completely change the direction of Australia’s foreign policy, moving from the United States orbit towards that of the Communist and Third World powers.”
Rutland wrote in the Australian Journal of Jewish Studies in 2012: “This change of direction affected his policies seen most clearly in his constant criticism of the Jewish lobby and his strong support for the Arab lobby.”
As a result, under Whitlam, Australia’s voting patterns at the United Nations changed, he moved to establish an Arab League office in Australia, and developed contacts with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
But it was Whitlam’s failure to condemn Egyptian and Syrian strikes on Israel during the Yom Kippur War that infuriated Jewish leaders, prompting a delegation to arrange a meeting in Canberra.
“At first he refused,” one of the delegation recalled this week. “We were outraged.”
Whitlam then agreed, and a 10-strong team went to Canberra. But the PM “point blank” refused to meet all the delegates. Isi Leibler, then a Jewish leader in Melbourne who now lives in Israel, “had a stroke virtually on the spot.”
Two or three members eventually met with the PM, but relations remained lukewarm at best.
In 1974, Whitlam was invited to a pre-election breakfast in Melbourne that was “supposed to be a rapprochement,” according to Isi’s brother Mark Leibler, a veteran Zionist leader.
Question time was a heated affair, which has since become infamous in the annals of Australian Jewish history.
“Why is it that during the Yom Kippur War you said nothing until the Americans started rearming the Israelis,” Mark Leibler recalled a colleague asking the PM.
Famous for his abrasive style, Whitlam reportedly retorted: “You people have to realize there’s also a big Arab Christian community here too.”
The Iraqi affair
Revelations later emerged that Whitlam had proposed taking a $500,000 donation from the Iraqi Ba’ath Party to help finance his 1975 election campaign. As a result, one of his ministers resigned, saying: “It would be inevitable for the Australian Jewish community to regard any such money as blood money that might be paid for, ultimately, in Israeli blood.”
Even veteran Labor MP Michael Danby, who this week hailed Whitlam as a great reformer, admitted he “sullied his record” in the Iraqi affair.
Whitlam was fired from office in November 1975 in a constitutional crisis known here as “The Dismissal.” He was succeeded by Liberal leader Malcolm Fraser, who soon mended fences with the Jews although in recent years he irked Jewish leaders who accused him of pro-Palestinian bias.
One senior community leader who declined to be named told Haaretz this week: “I have a lot of things to say about Gough Whitlam that are negative. But there is an old saying, do not speak ill of the dead.”
Another added: “Gough Whitlam was a friend [of the Jewish community] till he got elected.”
Just months before his 1972 election, Whitlam was the keynote speaker at the Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration in Sydney.
“He made a promise there that if elected he will be the first serving Australian PM to visit Israel,” recalled Joachim Schneeweiss, who became president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry in 1976. “It was the sort of promise he made thinking it would enhance his chances [of election].”
Whitlam, who had visited Israel before and after the Six-Day War, never followed through on his promise.
A memorial service will be held November 5 in Sydney’s Town for Edward Gough Whitlam, who died on October 21 at age 98.
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