In Australia, a Zionist Tent of Many Colors

For many years, Israel advocacy in Australia meant toeing the same line of uncritical, unwavering support. Today, however, the black-or-white attitude is expanding to incorporate Jews from across the spectrum.

Dan Goldberg
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Dan Goldberg

SYDNEY, Australia -- As thousands of Australian Jews join communal celebrations for Israel’s 65th birthday this week, subtle shifts appear to be evolving within the Zionist camp Down Under, making way for more ambiguity in viewpoints that once leaned either strictly black or white.

A landmark survey recently found about 80 percent of Australian Jews identify as Zionists, but the narrower goalposts founded on the premise of Israel-right-or-wrong appear to have broadened to include more progressive, critical voices as well as more Orthodox Jews.

The critical question, however, surrounds the next generation, who some say are feeling alienated by leaders considered to be out of touch.

Although American journalist and political pundit Peter Beinart’s scathing diagnosis of Zionism in America was largely dismissed here, his hope to foster “a Zionism angry at what Israel risks becoming, and in love with what it still could be” appears to be gaining traction.

The New Israel Fund announced this week that four eminent Australian Jews had become the inaugural members of its advisory board: Justice Stephen Rothman, a former president of the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies; historian Mark Baker, the director of the Center for the Study of Jewish Civilization at Monash University in Melbourne; Robyne Schwarz, a past president of Jewish Care, Melbourne’s Jewry’s major welfare organization; and Justice Ronald Sackville.

“Many Jews want an authentic conversation about Israel which is not based on hasbara,” Dr. Baker told Haaretz, using the Hebrew word for public diplomacy on behalf of Israel. “It would be wrong of us to celebrate Israel's independence while not acknowledging the vibrant disagreements among us about the relationship between Israel as a Jewish and also a democratic state, between religious and secular culture, between the exercise of military power and the pursuit of diplomacy, between civil rights in Israel and the impact of the occupation.”

NIF Australia president Robin Margo, also a past president of the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies, said diversity within the Zionist movement in Australia is a strength. “It is Zionists with progressive views who have been most effective in the fight against the Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions campaign in Australia," he said. “But some older-style Zionist leaders have difficulty accepting that. They spend as much time denigrating communal leaders and organizations they disagree with as they do defending Israel.”

Danny Ben-Moshe, an academic at Deakin University, said the birth of NIF in Australia in 2011 is an indication of the future, despite the chorus of criticism from Jewish and Zionist leaders over some of NIF’s controversial grantees.

“Unless we as a community can have those sensitive discussions in a civil way, we will be out of touch with Israel and with each other and that will be bad for Israel, bad for Australian Jewry, and bad for the Israel-Diaspora relationship,” said Ben-Moshe, a co-editor of the 2008 book “Israel, the Diaspora and Jewish Identity.” “That's why we have to create a broad Zionist tent in Australia; the majority of the community still fit in the tent, but it’s getting smaller and splinter tents are emerging.”

Johnny Baker, president of Ameinu, the umbrella organization for progressive Zionist Jews, pointed to Orthodoxy’s increasing role.

“There is no doubt that over the years, the Orthodox community has assumed a far more prominent role in all matters communal and this has spilt over to the Zionist movement as well.

“It would have been unthinkable for Lubavitchers to play a mainstream role in the Zionist community some 15 years ago but now they appear to be actively involved and communal functions tend to cater for their religious needs.”

The increase in number and influence of the progressive and Orthodox forces within the Zionist movement does not, however, solve the problem of engaging the youth.
Liam Getreu, a former president of the Australasian Union of Jewish Students, said he received four invitations to “alternative” Yom Ha'atzmaut events this week.

The younger generation is “rejecting concerts and processions and demanding more comprehensive, complete and critical engagement,” said Getreu, who is now executive director of NIF. “We’re unwilling to accept the always uncritical line without argument – we read newspapers, we visit Israel, and we know the reality on the ground is far more complex than the picture their ‘Hasbara in Australia’ manual paints.”

Alex Fein, a blogger, accused Zionist leaders of being “out of touch” with younger Jews. “They occupy different universes in terms of how they relate to Judaism and Israel," she said.

But Philip Chester, president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, said it would be “burying our heads in the sand” to assume all Zionists unconditionally support Israel’s every actions.“Today’s generation, particularly the youth, do not remember a time when there was no Israel, nor when Israel faced existential threat," he said. “Their contemporary history includes the intifada of the early 2000s, delegitimization of the state, and a far more complex and nuanced relationship,” he said.

But that more complex relationship does not translate to lesser support, quantitatively or qualitatively, Chester added, pointing to the mass of youth who organized events for Gilad Shalit’s release in 2011 and joined the “Code Red” rallies in support of Israel as it was coming under intense rocket fire from Gaza in 2012.

Dr. Ron Weiser, who preceded Chester as ZFA president, added: “We need to demonstrate in a credible way that aligning with Israel is aligning with a moral force for good and something they can do openly without the need to hide such feelings," he said. “Israel is – both in idea and in practice – something any Jew can be proud of. If young Jews will be proud of Israel our continuity is assured.”

Rabbi Selwyn Franklin at the Walk for Israel in Sydney.Credit: Jonathan Davis
Philip Chester, president of the Zionist Federation of Australia: 'Assuming all Zionists unconditionally support Israel’s every action would be burying our heads in the sand.'Credit: Sav Schulman

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