Down Under, Where the Debate on Migrants Stays Civil

In Australia, nobody would say the migrants carry disease.

SYDNEY, Australia - Most of the refugees come from battle-torn parts of Afghanistan. They pay thousands of dollars to greedy smugglers who load them onto rickety ships in Indonesia.

So far this year, 66 ships carrying 5,000 refugees have sailed for Australia. In the last week of June, 392 men, women and children left Indonesia. Two of their four ships sank. Eighteen bodies were recovered. Seventy-six people were declared missing. The Australian parliament was in an uproar. Prime Minister Julia Gillard, leader of the Labor Party, and Tony Abbott, leader of the Liberals, traded accusations. The leader of the Green Party wept. The media had a field day.

The debate is reaching its climax. Some say these people are refugees who, according to the United Nations, are entitled to asylum and a second chance in life. Other say they are nothing but infiltrators who, if handled too gently, will encourage thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of their countrymen to follow suit.

Parliament hasn't settled on a consistent policy. The government has appointed - what else? - a panel of experts, while the conservatives have announced they have no interest in the panel or its recommendations.

From their perspective, the people risking death at sea are infiltrators. But in Australia, no one dares say the destitute of the developing world carry disease. On this continent, once an importer of convicts from England, people are careful not to talk about criminals. The law is the law. No other rationale is needed. Most migrant workers entering Australia illegally do so by air; they use passports with three-month tourist visas and end up staying much longer.

But even in Australia, the facts don't always keep headline-seeking politicians from doing their thing. Australia, too, has its Danny Danons. It occurred to me that, exactly one year ago, Likud MK Danny Danon told the media he was in touch with the Canberra government seeking to resolve the Israeli refugee problem by moving the refugees to Australia.

In the meantime, parliament has gone on winter recess. The possibility that Australia could close its gates has sent the human smugglers' rates sharply higher. But the rickety ships keep sailing to the continent whose white pioneers never asked the indigenous people's permission to conquer their land.

So far away for some tolerance

Sydney's Central Synagogue is located in the heart of a neighborhood overlooking the stunning bays of Australia's - some would say the world's - most beautiful city. Some of the regular attendees, who tend to come to services Friday nights, park their shiny Mercedeses and BMWs around the corner.

The synagogue's rabbi, a Chabad emissary named Levi Wolff, jokes that all his congregants, without exception, go to synagogue on foot. The women ascend to the women's gallery using a Shabbat elevator. The refreshments, in honor of a girl celebrating her bat mitzvah, are strictly kosher.

At the end of the service, the bearded rabbi greets the guests who have flown in from three continents. Wolff doesn't forget to mention the grandfather, grandmother and other relatives on the mother's side, a convert to Judaism, who've come all the way from San Francisco. I mention to one family member, clearly touched by this Jewish ceremony, that I don't know many Jews who would feel comfortable sitting in a church at an event for a relative who had converted to Christianity.

Afterwards, the rabbi calls on the girl to give the speech she has meticulously prepared. Walking lightly down from the second floor, she stands next to the rabbi and quotes the Jewish sources that say her middle name, Shalom, is also one of the names of God. It's mentioned in the Talmud as being a woman's name.

Two days later we meet Wolff at the party honoring the bat mitzvah girl and her brother, who was recently called to the Torah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. As the party is in full swing, I hear the voice of Shimon Farkash, the Central Synagogue's cantor, trilling beautiful notes. I find him seated next to Wolff, surrounded by girls from Moriah College, a Jewish school in Sydney.

I count seven rabbis, all strictly Orthodox, singing with the girls. At the end of the party, I ask the Chabad rabbi if he knows that a woman's voice is erva - naked, meaning inappropriately erotic or indecent. I ask why he's following the Reform and Conservative practice of holding a bat mitzvah ceremony in the first place.

"Don't get me in trouble," he answers, perhaps in jest, perhaps not. "Other Chabad rabbis and I strictly observe all religious law, no matter how minute. But we find the path that is appropriate to our communities and allows members and their children to stay in the fold of the Jewish people."

It's a shame I had to go all the way to Australia to find a tolerant ultra-Orthodox rabbi.

Those evil leftists

Australia is preparing for elections in November 2013. The Liberal Party - the country's conservative party - lost the last elections, and now it's trying for a comeback by riding the loathing for anything that carries the faintest whiff of the left. They've prepared a 138-page document against the Greens, the party that champions civil rights in Australia.

This criticism includes horrors such as promoting legislation for same-sex marriage, forbidding the police from using Tasers when making arrests and dispersing demonstrations, legalizing medical marijuana, and imposing stricter environmental standards. The Liberals also warn that the Greens will work to water down anti-terrorism laws.