From Sex-abuse Scandals to Nazi Hunting: Aussie Jews Bid Farewell to 2012

Dan Goldberg
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Dan Goldberg

Australia may be on the outer edge of the Diaspora, but it still made headlines in 2012 that went global. Sometimes, however, the real story got lost in the fog of statements, silence, spin and legal mumble-jumble. Here, we get past all that:

1)  Robert Magid, the publisher of the only Jewish newspaper in Australia, wrote a provocative op-ed in the Australian Jewish News in August suggesting that Jews curb their compassion toward boat people who sneak into Australia illegally. Magid, himself a refugee from China, argued that unlike Jews in the Holocaust, most boat people did not face the risk of certain death and accused them of "destination shopping." He then went on to suggest Muslim asylum-seekers could in fact increase the risk of terrorism in Australia.

Unsurprisingly, the article provoked a storm of protest from Jewish leftists, human rights advocates, and progressives as well as from one Modern Orthodox rabbi. But not one major Jewish powerbroker took him to task. Why? Perhaps because of his powerful post as publisher, perhaps because of the sensitivity of this hot-button issue in Australia, or perhaps - as Magid believes - because most Australian Jews agree with him but "don't have the guts" to say so. Regardless of what you think of his thesis on boat people, his analysis of the views of most Australian Jews may not be far from the truth.

2)  Australia's Labor government, a strong supporter of Israel, has been rebuked of late by Jewish and Zionist groups for daring to criticize the Israeli government and its policies. True, Australia abstained from the UN vote on recognizing Palestine as a non-member observer state - against the wishes of Prime Minister Julia Gillard - and then hauled the Israeli ambassador over the coals following Benjamin Netanyahu's bellicose reaction. And yes, last week Australia condemned as "especially provocative" Israel's announcement of yet more new settlements, further irking local leaders. It's been a political goldmine for the opposition Liberal Party, which appears to be driving a wedge between Labor and the Jews ahead of the federal election in 2013.

Of course, it's convenient for them to forget an inconvenient truth: The Liberal government of John Howard - lauded by many as the most pro-Israel in history - dismissed an Israeli diplomat in 2004 under suspicious circumstances that remain shrouded in mystery to this day. Either the Liberals have short memories or, more likely, they prefer not to let facts get in the way of making cheap political hay.

3)  In 2012, the child sex-abuse scandals of yesteryear came home to roost. Three major cases will go to trial in 2013 - all of them dating back a decade or more ago. Two of the cases involve Yeshivah College in Melbourne, a Chabad-run boys' school that will likely be dragged through the mud even though it apologized "unreservedly" to the victims in August. But in the words of one critic it was a "lawyer-drafted piece of propaganda" that was a "non-apology apology" because it didn't include an admission of guilt.

Memo to college officials: In a no-win situation like this, compassion, empathy and sympathy for the victims may be a wiser strategy than legal claptrap. The alleged abuse was heinous; the alleged cover-up horrific. As for the third case, leaders of the as-yet unnamed mainstream Jewish organization are no doubt praying that the court-imposed gag order preventing the publication of its identity remains intact. Memo to them: Don't be deluded.

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A photo from 'The Mascot,' in which Alex Kurzem (the child in the center) details his extraordinary tale of survival during the Holocaust.Credit: Courtesy
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Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard.Credit: Reuters
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Yeshivah College in Melbourne, Australia, where the alleged cases of child sexual abuse took place in the 1980s and early 1990s. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

4)  The pursuit of alleged Nazi war criminals living in Australia is all but over, courtesy of an apparent legal technicality that allowed Karoly (Charles) Zentai to escape extradition to his native Hungary, where he would have faced a murder charge. He vehemently denied the allegations against him in the case that has dragged on for seven years.

When the 91-year-old West Australian eventually dies in Perth, so too will the quest for the truth about whether he was in fact one of the murderers of Peter Balasz, an 18-year-old Jew who was beaten to death and dumped in the River Danube in 1944. Australia's record on Nazi war criminals? Of almost 1,000 suspects not one single conviction. And in a bitter twist of irony, Australia, home to the largest Holocaust survivor community pro rata outside of Israel, was also a home and haven for suspected Nazis.

5)  On the subject of Nazis, the veracity of the story of Alex Kurzem (told in the book and documentary "The Mascot"), who was paraded as "the Reich's youngest Nazi," came under increasing scrutiny in 2012 as the Melbournian continued to defend his remarkable story: that as a Jewish boy who witnessed the massacre of his family, he was then adopted by Latvian SS guards who made him into their poster boy. Kurzem's survival story became a bestseller for Penguin, which published his biography in 2007, a blockbuster for ABC in Australia and CBS in America, which broadcast a feature and documentary in 2003 and 2009, respectively, and a killer yarn for some of the finest news agencies in the world - from the BBC to the New York Times to Associated Press - which all ran the unbelievable story.

And that's precisely how two American investigators who have amassed a dossier of documents that cast doubt on Kurzem's story see it - unbelievable. Although the Claims Conference continues to give Kurzem reparations, it says it is conducting an investigation into his story. And while he has repeatedly pledged to take a DNA test that he vows will quash all doubts, he has not yet done so and now says his Swiss lawyers will not let him talk to the media.

Let's see what 2013's got in store for us.

A koala at Wildlife World in Sydney, awaiting 2013.Credit: Reuters