Australia’s Labor PM Rankles Jews With Tough Policy on Asylum Seekers

In the run-up to the September 7 election, critics are disturbed by the hard-line policies of both major parties.

SYDNEY – The Labor government’s new policy of banishing asylum seekers who arrive here by sea has left some Jews fuming, many of them survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants who also arrived here as boat people.

Like Israel, Australia holds asylum seekers, most of them from the Middle East, in detention centers. Australia’s centers are on the Pacific islands of Papua New Guinea and Nauru to the north and northeast.

Both countries’ leaders have pledged to “stop the infiltration problem,” as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it recently. Both have been criticized by human rights groups for violations of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, of which they are both signatories.

In 2011, MK Danny Danon (Likud) wrote to Jewish lawmaker Michael Danby, asking if Australia could accept African refugees who had sought asylum in Israel. Danby responded that Danon’s proposal was “quite unrealistic.”

“Asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia,” Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said on July 19 when he announced the policy ¬ which is rankling some prominent Jewish voters ahead of the upcoming federal election.

“I understand that this is a very hardline decision,” Rudd said. “But our responsibility as a government is to ensure that we have a robust system of border security and orderly migration, on the one hand, as well as fulfilling our legal and compassionate obligations under the refugees convention on the other.”

The new policy prompted Josh Bornstein, a prominent Jewish lawyer, to declare that he was abandoning his lifelong support for the Labor Party.

“I cannot stomach voting for a government that treats other human beings in this way,” Bornstein wrote in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper. “A line has been crossed.”

Bornstein, whose grandparents fled Poland in 1938, told Haaretz: “Rudd’s policy, like that of [Tony] Abbott’s, is brutal. It relies on abusing the human rights of one group of refugees to deter another group.”

Tony Abbott, the leader of the opposition Liberal Party, has campaigned on a similarly hard line, pledging to appoint a senior military commander to lead a task force to help the navy intercept boats and tighten border security.

To the polls next month

Rudd recently declared that the election would be held on September 7, sparing the nation’s 110,000-plus Jews a clash with Yom Kippur by changing the schedule set by Julia Gillard before she was dramatically deposed from the top job six week ago.

Since Rudd’s return to power in late June, Labor has enjoyed a bounce in public opinion, but a recent survey by Newspoll Market Research predicted that the conservative Liberal Party would win by 52 percent to 48 percent. If this happens, Attorney General Mark Dreyfus and Parliamentary Secretary for the Arts Michael Danby, two Jewish government MPs, will return to the opposition.

Labor indeed could find itself losing support if the sentiment expressed by award-winning Australian author Arnold Zable spreads. “I am deeply distressed and disturbed by the current hard-line policies of both major parties,” he told Haaretz. “The true measure of the moral level of society is how it treats its most vulnerable people,” said Zable, whose parents were Polish-born Jewish refugees.

Mark Leibler, national chairman of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, a privately funded lobby group, blasted the politicization of the issue in the “election campaign hothouse.”

“I fear that by appealing to the basest instincts in our society Australians are being led into a dangerous void, filled by fear – in some cases, xenophobic – and vilification,” Leibler wrote in Fairfax Media publications.

“Down this path lie vulnerable refugees fleeing persecution and, while deserving of our empathy, they are instead left degraded and dehumanized.”

Leibler, whose maternal grandparents died at Auschwitz, added: “As a person of Jewish faith, I have long understood what racism does to people …. To stay or go becomes a matter of life or death.”

Increasing criticism of Israel

Since 2008, some 1,000 asylum seekers have died at sea en route to Australia, according to the Department of Immigration. Last year, 17,202 refugees arrived on 278 boats, according to the Refugee Council of Australia.

Rudd’s dramatic shift was widely interpreted as an attempt to outflank Abbott, who pledges to “turn back the boats when it is safe to do so.”

“Abbott ignores the Torah’s teachings to welcome strangers because we were once strangers,” wrote Henry Herzog in a letter published in last week’s Australian Jewish News.

Rudd, 55, won office in 2007 pledging that support for Israel is “in my DNA.” But he has been censured by Jewish leaders over his increasingly critical stance on Israel, first as prime minister and then as foreign minister.

Although Labor defended Israel during its two recent wars with Hamas, bilateral relations nosedived in 2010 when Rudd expelled an alleged Israeli Mossad agent in response to the reported use of Australian passports in the assassination of a Hamas leader in Dubai.

The crisis prompted the PM to invite a clutch of Jewish leaders to his residence for a kosher dinner to mend fences. He was also accused of abandoning support for Israel at the United Nations last year while wooing votes from Arab states in a successful bid for a temporary seat on the Security Council.

Relations were further strained earlier this year following revelations that Melbourne-born Ben Zygier was Prisoner X, who is believed to have committed suicide in prison in 2010 after reportedly spilling secrets to Hezbollah.

Labor’s Danby, a staunch advocate for Israel in parliament, did not respond to requests for comment from Haaretz.

Labor’s mixed report card on Israel stands in contrast to the Liberal Party’s pledge of virtual unconditional support. Abbott, once dubbed the Mad Monk courtesy of a short stint at a seminary, aims to follow the lead of a close friend of Israel, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

“Israel is the one country on Earth that is most subject to an existential threat, and that is why Israel deserves a very high level of instinctive support from countries like Australia,” Abbott told Haaretz in an interview in London last December

But Leibler, the chairman of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, told Haaretz: “I am confident that Israel and the Jewish community will continue to enjoy bipartisan support on the fundamentals.”

Reuters