The Hardest Word

Newly-elected Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd formally apologized last week to tens of thousands of Aboriginals known as the 'stolen generation', who as children were forcibly removed from their families by the government until as recently as the early 1970s.

The apology was welcomed by Australian Jews who have historically supported the country's indigenous population. The Australian Jewish News endorsed the move which comes after 11 years of deliberations in Australia politics. "We are a people all too familiar with persecution and discrimination," the AJN published in response to the apology. Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence of the Great Synagogue in Sydney called on Jews to "acknowledge the wrong, to apologise for the damage caused" to the Aboriginal community.

"We've suffered 2000 years of persecution, and we understand what it is to be the underdog and to suffer disadvantage," said Mark Leibler, a prominent Melbourne Jew who co-chairs Aboriginal rights group Reconciliation Australia.

Rudd's apology acknowledged the "profound grief, suffering and loss" inflicted on the Aboriginal people but no Jewish leaders seem capable of considering similar sentiments towards the Palestinians.

They blame somebody else for the fact that the number of settlers rose by five percent in the West Bank in 2007. They remain mute when Israel's Interior Minister Meir Sheerit suggests destroying a Gaza neighbourhood. They look away when Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger urges Israel to move Gazans to the Sinai Peninsula.

New Republic editor Marty Peretz recently told Haaretz, "No occupation is kind or sweet. But bad things happen everywhere, all the time." Israel was therefore only acting with the best intentions when it announced last week plans to build 1120 apartments for Jews in East Jerusalem, a Palestinian area.

Many Australian Jews resist recognising the suffering of the Palestinians. "Pounding the enemy only makes the enemy want to pound you back", Forward editorialised in early February. The fact that Hamas has offered a long-term ceasefire to the Israelis is not mentioned. "Why doesn't our government jump at this proposal?" asked Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery. "Simple: to make such a deal, we must speak to Hamas. It is more important to boycott Hamas than to put an end to the suffering of Sderot."

The Zionist leadership in Australia and across the Diaspora prefers a state of war to a state of peace because they have not yet acquired the moral standing to take responsibility for Israeli actions. As Aboriginal leader Patrick Dodson said last week: "It takes courage to apologise. It takes courage to forgive."It was a far cry from the Anti-Defamation League's Abraham Foxman, who last year equivocated over using the term 'genocide' to describe the massacres perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire against the Armenians because he feared upsetting the Turks.

How much longer must we wait for the worldwide Jewish community to understand the dispossession and dislocation of 1948 and 1967? And when will the global Zionist leadership realise that Israeli policies in the occupied territories is leading to the country's destruction? America will not forever provide the moral, financial and military blanket for the Jewish state's behaviour. A recent survey by B'nai B'rith World Centre in Jerusalem found a majority of Israelis believed that Diaspora Jews had no right to publicly criticise the Israeli government. However, some Jews recognise that they have a special moral responsibility not to remain mute over Israeli crimes committed in their name and on which they may have some clear effect.

Such common sense suggestions are absent from the mainstream media debate. After the destruction of the wall between Gaza and Egypt, the Australian Jewish News meekly condoned Israel's suffocation of the Strip, saying Israel had "no options but to keep Gaza sealed off", shrugged its shoulders. Despite the stated Israeli aim of destroying support for Hamas in Gaza, the opposite has predicably happened, with recent polls indicating a rise in support for the Islamist organization.

Israel has become an object of uncritical adulation. The Rudd government is not likely to disappoint. It was a rare moment, after the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004, when Rudd expressed his condolences and stated that the PLO head was a "passionate, controversial leader of the Palestinian people. Whatever people thought of Arafat, there was wide consensus that he was a symbol for a secular Palestinian state." Since then, however, Rudd has rarely expressed any sympathy for the Palestinian cause.

Rudd, who has visited Israel twice and said in 2004 that he was "passionately pro-Israel", sadly believes that appealing to nearly 400,000 Australian Muslims, and becoming "passionately pro-Palestinian", is political suicide. The Zionist lobby may not have the clout of their American brethren, but they still are significantly intimidating to their perceived enemies.

Rudd's government will undoubtedly continue the historically bipartisan support for the Jewish state. John Howard was viewed by many of the country's more than 100,000 Jews as the best friend Israel has ever had in the Australian parliament.

Like many Jewish communities around the world, a leader's credentials on Israel are praised if they offer unconditional support. It is high time that the Jewish community offered true leadership and reflected on the moral significance of last week's apology to the victims of our crimes. The Palestinians deserve nothing less.

Antony Loewenstein is a Sydney-based journalist, author of My Israel Question and co-founder of Independent Australian Jewish Voices.