Stuck Between a Rock and a Holy Place: The Impact of Australia’s Decision to Hold Election Day on Yom Kippur

The Australian government’s decision to hold the next federal election on Yom Kippur has riled some within the country’s small but influential Jewish community. How will hearts, minds and therefore ballots be affected?

For the first time on record, Australians will go to the polls to elect their national government on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. Given that voting in Australia is compulsory, what issues, both small and large, practical and emotional, are at play? Here are some points to ponder:

1. No one’s right to vote is being trampled on

Jewish Australians who want to vote — and thereby avoid a maximum fine of 50 Australian dollars ($52) plus court costs — can do so either by voting early at special booths or by post. Some of the Jewish community’s most prominent leaders have said that it really isn’t a big deal, and that it’s no different to the predicament faced by all observant Jews every Saturday election day. Perhaps the outcry from some quarters is just plain old whinging. It could also be that most of those Jews upset by the timing of election day would vote for the opposition Liberal Party anyway, using Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s decision as just another excuse to bash the incumbent Australia Labor as a party of shadowy, anti-Israel trade union bosses.

2. Symbolism matters

While only the most paranoid of alarmists would accuse Labor of anti-Semitism, there is more than a whiff of cultural tone-deafness in the air. Despite the alternatives to voting on Election Day itself, Gillard’s decision will no doubt come across as insulting to many Jewish Australians. “Why on this one day of all days? Surely there was another Saturday available before November 30, the latest possible date allowed under Australian law?”

It may be that the mainstream Jewish Australian leadership is more peeved than it is letting on, and is simply loathe to rock the boat in a country where Jews comprise just half a percent of the population. Jewish frustrations at the decision may not be rational in the sense that their voting rights have not been compromised, yet this Yom Kippur will be awash with electioneering while Jews are fasting and contemplating life, death, and meaning. This could exacerbate a communal feeling of alienation. Also, is it naïve or misplaced to expect the country’s first female prime minister to show particular sensitivity toward minorities?

3. Electoral calculation?

A more sinister reading of the decision could cite geographic-electoral considerations. Cases in point are urban Sydney and Melbourne electorates with high percentages of Jews. Wentworth, incorporating the affluent suburbs of Vaucluse, Rose Bay and Dover Heights, is considered one of the opposition’s safest seats, as is Bradfield on the North Shore. Depressed Jewish turnout in these electorates would hurt the Liberal Party candidates more than their Labor competitors. The Opposition’s only Jewish member of parliament, Joshua Frydenberg, representing the similarly wealthy and Jewish-heavy Melbourne seat of Kooyong, has warned that the decision disenfranchises Jewish voters. Is he just scoring political points, or does he indeed have a valid point?

Interestingly, urban lower-income electorates with high Muslim populations are largely Labor-held swing seats, meaning Labor has to fight hard to retain them. This leads us to a hypothetical question: Would Labor hold an election on Eid al-Fatir or other major Muslim holidays, and if not, why? The Leftist inclination to accommodate Muslim Australians is not a figment of partisan imagination.

4. Stuck between a rock and a holy place

Michael Danby, one of Labor’s two Jewish federal parliamentarians, stands to be the single person most adversely affected by the election date decision. In 2010, Danby won first place in his Melbourne Ports seat by less than 400 votes, with Jews constituting around 13 percent of the electorate. He has has ruled out campaigning on Election Day on account of his observance of Yom Kippur, a decision that could hamper his last-minute efforts among non-Jewish voters.

Combined with a lower Jewish voter turnout, or his co-religionist constituents’ decision to vote for other parties, there is a high possibility that Danby could come in second behind his Liberal competitor. Having said this, due to the preferential voting system utilised in Australian politics, Danby is unlikely to lose his seat if the Greens, which came third in Melbourne Ports in 2010, renew their preference deal with Labor. Irrespectively, Danby is certainly going to be a busy and anxious man over the next six months, torn between political interests and his Jewish identity, and is already calling for “special arrangements” to make it easier for Jews to vote early.

5. Riches and retribution

Aside from the level of Jewish voter turnout, there are other figures to watch. Six of the top ten richest Australians are Jewish, and it will be interesting to see whether they and other wealthy Jews react. While political donations are not nearly as consequential in Australia as they are in the United States, major donors could think twice about giving to Labor, and those who already lean toward the Liberal Party could amplify their contributions as a response to the perceived slight by the Gillard government. This could be compounded by Australia’s abstention in last year’s United Nations General Assembly vote on Palestinian statehood, which proved controversial among the country’s Jews and political conservatives.

6. Sport as holy cow

Perhaps the best explanation for the timing of election is to be found in Australia’s national religion. The weekends of September and October are jam-packed with both rugby and Australian Football League finals, which command mammoth followings and generate massive revenue. September 14, the date of the election, falls just before the onset of this finals season.
God forbid the calendar of the nation’s true religion was to be disrupted, or the legions of fans miss a minute of their beloved game.

This goes to the heart of mainstream Australian culture, where stadiums are cathedrals and sports stars are saints. Like it or loathe it, to the vast majority of “real” Australians, avoiding upsetting the religious sensitivities of minorities falls a distant second to drinking beer and watching the footy. “Yom what? Eid who?” On the other hand, for some — especially residents of the Middle East – this religion-lite culture may sound refreshing, an obsession with balls not bombs, and sporting trophies not temple mounts.

7. Civil protest and a multicultural Australia

If a critical mass of Jewish Australians feel so strongly about the government’s decision, then a boycott of the elections could be spearheaded, in which tens of thousands of Jewish eligible voters refused to participate, choosing rather to be brought before court and monetarily penalized. Jews could make a stand, not only for the sanctity of their own holiest day, but so too of all of the country’s minority religions. Yet, this multiculturalist approach could make planning elections logistical nightmares. If one had to factor in holy days such as Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights; Vesak, the celebration of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death; as well as other major Jewish and Islamic holidays, where would it end?

Whatever opinion one holds, Prime Minister Gillard has certainly set a precedent, adding another twist in what will certainly be a torturous re-election campaign for her beleaguered government.

Judd Yadid is a Tel Aviv-based writer and researcher.

Bloomberg / Haaretz Archive