In terms of steadfast support for Israeli policies, conservative Australian columnist Andrew Bolt is like a turbo-charged Charles Krauthammer, a souped-up William Safire, a Bill Kristol on steroids. Bolt’s absolute defense of Israel and blanket condemnation of its enemies has turned him into an admired local hero for much of Australia’s mostly right-leaning Jewish community.
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But now there’s been a falling out, and it has not been pretty. Bolt, one of Australia’s most influential columnists - whose views place him firmly in the arch-neo-conservative anti-Muslim camp - feels that Jewish leaders have betrayed him, “thrown him under a bus,” as he wrote, in his time of need. He, in turn, is suddenly being portrayed as insensitive, full of bluster, even vaguely anti-Semitic. And the altercation between the two sides provides a pertinent and in some way poignant example of how the worldview that underpins strong right-wing support for Israel can often run afoul of the sensitivities of even the most Israel-supporting Diaspora Jewish community.
At issue is a move by Australia’s conservative government to repeal a clause in the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) that makes it illegal to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” people based upon their race. The Jewish community is up in arms against the proposed change, claiming that it will open the way for racial vilification as well as Holocaust denial. Bolt not only supports the amendment - he is probably responsible for its existence in the first place.
In September, 2011, Bolt was found guilty by a Federal Court of having contravened the RDA. In what may have been described in America as a protest against affirmative action, Bolt had named and accused several “fair-skinned” Australians of mixed origins of having classified themselves as Aborigines in order to gain career advancement, scholarships and awards. Nine of them sued him and the court concurred, saying that Bolt could not invoke the law’s exemption for “fair comment” because his articles contained “errors of fact, distortions of the truth and inflammatory and provocative language.”
The columnist decried the decision against him as “a terrible blow to freedom of speech,” but decided not to appeal. More importantly, however, his good friend Tony Abbot, then leader of the conservative opposition, came to Bolt’s home immediately after the verdict, not only to comfort him but also to promise that the law would be changed. Now that Abbot is the prime minister, his attorney general, George Brandis, is making good on that pledge.
Along with other minorities, the Jewish community has been lobbying and protesting the law, a move that has dismayed and frustrated Bolt – and opened up old wounds. Referring to a recent attack against him by a Jewish Labor MP, Bolt wrote bitterly of how Jewish leaders had failed to speak up for him following his conviction three years earlier. In a March 16 blog in Melbourne’s Herald Sun, Bolt wrote, “Jewish community leaders know well what I have done for their community.” Then, swept away by his fury, perhaps, Bolt added a sentence that has jarred even his most ardent supporters. Referring to the opposition voiced by the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the community’s main representative body, to the proposed repeal, Bolt wrote: “Do they really wish to be seen as demanding restrictions on free speech largely for the benefit of their own highly articulate and influential community?”
This article, with its coded language that would be pounced upon by the likes of Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, was angrily rebuffed last week by Michael Gawenda, a former editor of The Age newspaper and one of Australia’s most esteemed journalists. Gawenda lambasted Bolt’s expectation that the Jewish community would “reward” him for his support for Israel. He then went on to condemn Bolt’s singling out of the Jews and his references to their “particular interests” and the influence of their Jewish lobby.
Bolt’s lament and his bewildered sense of betrayal by the Jews reminded me of Norman Podhoretz and his anguished efforts to understand “why are Jews liberal?" Confounded by the overwhelming Jewish support for “dangerous for Israel” Barack Obama in the 2008 elections, Podhoretz wrote of his dashed hope that “my fellow Jews would finally break free of the liberalism to which they have remained in thrall long past the point where it has served either their interests or their ideals.”
Australian Jews are much more uniformly Zionist and supportive of current Israeli policies than their American brethren– the center of gravity of the entire community is probably along AIPAC lines, if not rightward - but they have historically tended to vote for the left-wing Labor party. Despite their truly spectacular economic success, Australian Jews are still guided by the instincts of a minority that worries about its own rights and empathizes with the plight of others. While many of them protest the Abbot government’s harsh measures against illegal immigrants trying to land on Australia’s shores, Bolt, for example, is railing against the “colonization” of Australia by anti-Western Muslim hordes.
Like many American arch-conservatives, Bolt may have been surprised to learn that there is a fundamental psychological divergence between the Israelis with whom he identifies and the Australian Jews with whom he lives: Israelis, like white Australians, view themselves as majorities with ownership rights, albeit contested, to the land on which they live; Australian Jews, like other Diaspora communities, live with the ingrained apprehension and survival instincts borne of statistics, Jewish history and the open or veiled anti-Semitism that still surrounds them.
The common ground between the conservative right and most Diaspora Jews on the issue of Israel creates an illusion of ideological kinship that quickly erodes when domestic constitutional or social matters come up. Despite the fervent admiration of Evangelical Christians for Israel, for example, most American Jews are still deterred by their conservative positions on almost every other matter under the sun, from abortion to separation of church and state. Israel-adoring Christian Zionists, in turn, often find it difficult to hide their own resentment of East Coast liberal Jews whom they often view as purveyors of the evils of modern society.
Jewish Israelis, I suspect, would feel more comfortable with Bolt’s anti-Muslim view of the world and his campaigns against political correctness than they would with the pluralistic and multicultural beliefs of Australian Jews: they would certainly frown at the heavy Jewish involvement in the battle for the rights of illegal immigrants. Another issue, of course, is the dichotomy between the liberal views on many Diaspora Jews on domestic issues and the rights of their own minorities and their almost complete disregard for the rights of Palestinians who have lived under Israeli occupation in the West Bank for the past 47 years.
Australian Jews have been eager to laud and applaud Bolt’s “Israel good - Arabs bad” point of view but their support stops short, it seems, on the sandy shores of Australia itself. It is a clash of values and an internal contradiction that is casting ever-larger shadows in American Jewish communities as well.