SYDNEY – Many Australian Jews were skeptical and wary of Ariel Sharon throughout most of his long and controversial career. Those who met him personally, however, in Israel or during his visit to Australia in June, 1967, were immediately won over by his personal charm and by the perception that he understood the importance of Israel for Diaspora Jewry.
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Nevertheless, many Jewish leaders here were concerned when Sharon was elected prime minister in 2001, given the fact that he was notoriously dubbed “the Bulldozer” and had become persona non grata in certain parts of the world. Among the leaders was Mark Leibler, chairman of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) and life chairman of the United Israel Appeal of Australia.
“There were many of us who wondered what does this mean, how could this happen,” Leibler told Haaretz in the wake of Sharon’s death on Saturday.
The 2001 election divided the Australian Jewish leadership, recalled Dr. Ron Weiser, who as president of the Zionist Federation of Australia led three delegations to Sharon’s office.
“Many in the Jewish and non-Jewish leadership in Australia misunderstood what he stood for and didn’t have a clear understanding of the nuances of the Kahan Commission into [the massacre at] Sabra and Chatila,” Weiser said. Sharon was found “indirectly responsible” for the massacre of Palestinian refugees by Christian militia, and forced to stand down as defense minister following publication of the commission’s findings in 1983.
“Some people just regarded him as a war criminal,” Weiser said, adding that “large sections” of Australian Jewry began to “disengage” from Israel then. “But the disengagement from Gaza healed the Jewish community vis-a-vis the morality of Israel’s position,” he added. “It unified the community once again.”
For Leibler, however, the signing of the Oslo Accords was a more controversial moment for Jewish leaders here than Sharon’s election or the disengagement from Gaza. “For the Australian Jewish community, Oslo was a much more shattering event,” he said. “The mainstream leadership had to take a deep breath.”
Both Leibler and Weiser hailed as one of Sharon’s legacies the Masa program, a joint partnership between the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency that the former premier officially launched in 2005. Masa (Hebrew for "journey") offers grants of up to $10,000 to enable 18- to 30-year-olds to spend up to one year living in Israel.
“His flagship program was Masa,” said Leibler, who first met Sharon in 1988. “He was absolutely concerned that every young Jew should have the opportunity of spending a year in Israel.
“He considered himself prime minister and leader of the Jewish people, and was very conscious of Diaspora concerns,” added Leibler, who was chair of the world board of trustees of Keren Hayesod between 2005 and 2009. “He said ‘I’m Jewish first and Israeli second’ and I think he meant it.”
Weiser, a board member of the Jewish Agency, added: “He was invested in Masa and … didn’t hesitate to tell us there was only one answer: aliyah. He specifically said about the Kotel (the Western Wall): We need to be more like the Arabs. Anytime he met (Palestinian leader Yasser) Arafat or his people, they said Jerusalem is not just a Palestinian issue, it’s an issue for the Arab world. That’s what his attitude to Jerusalem and the Kotel was – it’s not just an Israeli issue, but an issue for the whole Jewish world.”
Dr. Colin Rubenstein, AIJAC’s executive director, met Sharon on several occasions, but the speech the Israeli leader gave in December 2003 at the Herzilya conference was most memorable.
“He unequivocally committed Israel to the road map and a two-state outcome, surprising supporters and disarming critics,” Rubenstein recalled. “Most tellingly, he laid out the possibility of a Gaza withdrawal, which really had heads pinging. It was a powerful moment for me.”
Robert Goot, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, defended Sharon’s controversial reputation this week.
Any “final judgment” concerning Sharon’s role in Sabra and Chatila “must await the release of crucial documents which remain classified,” Goot said in a statement, adding that the prime minister was also wrongly accused of sparking the second intifada in 2000 when he visited the Temple Mount. "Multiple Palestinian sources have since confirmed that PLO leader Yasser Arafat … had issued orders two months before Sharon’s visit, for a return to violence and the commencement of another intifada.”
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop represented Australia at the funeral service in Israel on Monday, a move criticized beforehand by George Browning, president of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network.
“She is in danger of conveying a message that what is ‘good’ for a sovereign nation, achieved at the expense of another people, has the blessing of the Australian people,” Browning said in a statement. “Recent surveys have shown that more than 60 percent of Australian people believe the Palestinian people and their cause for equal human rights and freedom is just, and should be supported by Australians.”
Tanya Plibersek, the foreign affairs spokesperson for the opposition Labor Party, issued a statement on Monday saying that Sharon will be remembered as “a giant in the history of Israel,” who made a “courageous shift in his politics in favor of a two-state solution.”
In 2002, Plibersek enraged Australian Jews when she said in Parliament: “I can think of a rogue state which consistently ignores UN resolutions whose ruler is a war criminal – it is called Israel and the war criminal is Ariel Sharon.” She subsequently apologized, saying she had “spoken injudiciously,” and has since established closer ties with the Jewish community.
A previous report erroneously stated that Sharon had not visited Australia. He was, in fact, sent on tour of Diaspora communities, including those in Australia, after the Six Day War.