Synagogues in Australia were abuzz yesterday over controversial comments made by Israel's ambassador to Canberra in an interview with Haaretz last week.
"I can't tell you how sensitive these things are here," said a senior member of Sydney's Jewish community, referring to Ambassador Naftali Tamir's description of Asians as having "yellow skin" and "slanted eyes." The source added that the comments were the hot topic at both the synagogues he attended over the Simhat Torah holiday, which falls a day later in locales outside of Israel.
Tamir, who was on his way back to Australia from Israel when the report broke, was intercepted at a stop-off in Asia and recalled to Israel to "clarify" the matter with his superiors at the Foreign Ministry.
"If the article is accurate, this is a grave and unacceptable remark," said the ministry in a statement on Friday, adding that it will not return to business as usual if an internal examination confirms that the ambassador did indeed make the comments attributed to him.
The key concern of the Jewish community, the source in Sydney explained, was that the broad coverage of the comments in the Australian press would fuel those who charge that Israel is a racist state and that the Australian government is erring in its overtly pro-Israel position. He added that while the comments were considered offensive and embarrassing, the community would "rally around [the ambassador]," while distancing itself from the sentiments.
Grahame Leonard, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the community's umbrella organization, told Haaretz yesterday that the community holds Tamir "in the highest regard," and praised his "outstanding" representation of Israel during the recent Lebanon war. Leonard added: "As far as the reported remarks are concerned, we understand the Foreign Ministry is checking into those and we'd prefer to make no comment until we hear the official report."
The Australian government refused to comment following an inquiry from Haaretz, but today's Sydney Morning Herald quoted opposition foreign affairs spokesman, Kevin Rudd, as saying: "If accurate, these comments are completely unacceptable."
In the interview with Tamir, which appeared in Haaretz on Friday, he said Israel should utilize its strong links with Australia to enhance its position with Asian countries. He described Israel and Australia as "sisters" in Asia and added: "We are in Asia without the characteristics of Asians. We don't have yellow skin and slanted eyes. Asia is basically the yellow race. Australia and Israel are not - we are basically the white race."