It was a balmy summer’s night in late February as a throng of Jewish guests gathered at a prestigious yacht club in one of Sydney’s most exclusive harbor-side suburbs.
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Prime Minister Tony Abbott – a one-time boxer and trainee Catholic priest – was billed to launch a book to celebrate the 120th anniversary of the Australian Jewish News.
Except Abbott, whose popularity had slumped in the polls, was stranded in cyclone-struck Queensland.
While Treasurer Joe Hockey formally launched the book, it was Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull who stole the show.
His off-the-cuff speech was vintage Turnbull: charismatic, witty, and, as always, audience appropriate – in this case, with lashings of Hebrew and Yiddish.
“As you all know it’s a standard blessing when somebody celebrates a birthday to say ‘Biz hundert un tsvantsik,’ which means for those whose Yiddish is not up to scratch, ‘May you live to 120’,” Turnbull said.
The audience lapped it up. He was holding court inside his own electorate of Wentworth, home to the largest Jewish population in Sydney. And he was speaking just down the road from his $50-million waterside mansion in Point Piper, a stone’s throw from shopping-mall mogul Frank Lowy and a coterie of Sydney Jewry’s A-list, many of whom Turnbull befriended.
“My birthday message to the Jewish News today is ‘Biz zvai hundert un fufzik – so that’s 250 years,” Turnbull quipped, before signing off with some Hebrew: “Kol Hakavod [congratulations] on this great achievement and I look forward to many, many more issues of the Australian Jewish News.”
The following morning the Sydney Morning Herald reported on the function, stating: “The event followed reports than Mr. Turnbull now has sufficient numbers to mount a challenge to Mr Abbott in the Liberal Party room.”
Fast forward seven months. On Monday night Turnbull, who claimed in 2013 that he may have Jewish roots, finally deposed his more conservative rival in a surprise coup.
The six-hour drama, beamed live from Canberra, delivered Australia’s fifth prime minister in five years, the revolving door in Parliament House stained from the bloodbaths of the political assassinations of recent Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard as well as the outgoing Liberal Tony Abbott.
Turnbull, 60, was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford before successful stints as a journalist, barrister, merchant banker and tech entrepreneur. He first won his seat for the Liberal Party in 2004, and is a progressive who supports gay marriage and an Australian republic.
His net worth was estimated by Business Review Weekly at $186 million in 2010. Now he has the keys to the prime minister’s residences at Kirribilli House in Sydney and The Lodge in Canberra, which some media outlets have noted may resemble a downgrade in his lavish lifestyle.
His first major task will be to name his ministers. Josh Frydenberg, the sole Jewish MP inside the government, was an Abbott loyalist and, as parliamentary secretary to the PM, had little choice but to back his former boss. But some have speculated he may not be sacrificed when Turnbull declares his new frontbench this weekend.
Ironically, this week’s political drama was played out as most of the nation’s 110,000-plus Jews were celebrating Rosh Hashanah.
“There was a real buzz and an air of excitement,” Central Synagogue’s Rabbi Levi Wolff told Haaretz. “He’s a very, very dear friend and someone who has a huge amount of support from the community. He really does have an understanding and knowledge of Judaism that probably the average congregant doesn’t have.
“In my shul, he’s referred to as Moishe Turnbull.”
But a senior Jewish leader, who declined to be named, told Haaretz: “The rabbi gave him a huge rap in shul, as our very own Jewish PM – it’s bullshit,” he said.
The source, an associate of Turnbull, added: “I don’t think it’s in his interests to play his Jewish roots up. I don’t think it’s a line that should be pushed. He wasn’t brought up Jewish and hasn’t established connections with Jews because of his roots.”
A practicing Catholic, Turnbull claimed in 2013 he may have Jewish roots. “My mother always used to say that her mother’s family was Jewish,” he told the Australian Jewish News. “There is no doubt that the strong traditions of family and the whole heimishe [homely] atmosphere of the Jewish community, which I’m sure some people don’t like, for me – as someone who is a good friend, but not part of it – I find very admirable.”
Turnbull last visited Israel in 2005, and has long admired Israel’s hi-tech innovation, dubbed Silicon Wadi, conceding that Australia was unlikely to catch up with Israel. “I don’t know that anyone can replicate the secret chicken soup of Israel,” he told the Australian BRW magazine in 2013.
“What the government can do is promote more innovative approaches; encourage its departments to be more innovative.”
Albert Dadon, the chair of a high-level dialogue group between Australia, Israel and Britain, said this week Turnbull was scheduled to lead the next trilateral meeting, due to be held in Israel in December.
Turnbull’s addresses at community functions since he entered federal politics in 2004 have been regular. Just last month he spoke at the annual plenum of the Zionist Federation of Australia.
“The best that you can say for the [Iranian nuclear] agreement is that it is better than the status quo because it does introduce some degree of oversight,” he was quoted as saying.
“I recognize and empathize with the anxiety in Israel, but the judgment’s been made by the P5+1 that continuing the sanctions indefinitely is not going to be successful; military intervention is not going to happen.”
Regardless of the coup, Jewish leaders will still have the ear of the PM. “Malcolm Turnbull is an exceptional friend of the Jewish community and a staunch supporter of Israel,” said the executive director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, Dr Colin Rubenstein. “We are thrilled that he visited Israel and had AIJAC/Rambam-organized meetings in 2005.”
Robert Goot, the president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, lauded Abbott’s unstinting support for Israel during his two-year tenure. “The State of Israel has been blessed with many friends among international leaders, none of them more sincere than Mr. Abbott.”