Israel's Insensitivity to Australian Jewry

Beneath the surface, there is increasing distrust of Israel among Australian Jews, and for good reason.

shahar burla
Shahar Burla
shahar burla
Shahar Burla

A few hours after the launch of Operation Pillar of Defense, open competition for the pocket of the Australian Jewish donor began among semi-governmental organizations involved in fostering Israel-Diaspora relations, such as the Jewish Agency, the United Israel Appeal and the Jewish National Fund.

“Israel needs your help now more than ever,” wrote the UIA representative in Australia in an email to members of the community, “because hundreds of shelters still need renovation.” JNF Israel chairman Effi Shtezler announced the establishment of “an international emergency fund” for the children of the south who didn’t have the option of moving to a safe place, and asked for economic help from Australian Jews.

This week it took nearly 24 hours for media outlets of the Jewish community in Australia to release vague stories about the ABC Australian television network’s investigative report that revealed the Australian identity of Prisoner X. The reports in the Jewish press mentioned the findings of the investigative report in general terms and noted that there had been no official response from within the community or from the Israeli Embassy. It was obvious that consternation prevailed in the establishment of the Jewish community, and it was clear that the bodies responsible for the connection between Israel and the Australian diaspora would remain silent on this matter.

In terms of total donations, numbers of immigrants to Israel and per capita visits to Israel, Australia is arguably the most Zionist Jewish community in the Diaspora. This status seemingly survived the Maccabiah Games disaster in 1997 that left four Australian competitors dead as well as the crises involving forged passports that adversely affected the Jewish community on several levels, and threatened to undermine its warm relations with Israel.

Certain elements in Israel have seen these numbers as evidence of the Australians’ supposed naivete, and they continue to treat the community’s support for Israel as something to be taken for granted. Thus, following the eruption of the affair involving forged passports – belonging to Australian Jews – linked to the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in January 2010, the official agencies made do with ironing things out with the Australian government through diplomatic channels. The culmination of that affair was the expulsion of an Israeli diplomat, but the semi-governmental organizations did not engage in any direct dialogue with the community itself.

Forging passports of community members, with or without their knowledge, poses a dilemma. In the eyes of the general population and of the Australian government, the Jewish community is becoming suspected of dual loyalty, or even disloyalty. In a multi-cultural society like Australia, which is grappling with questions of identity, immigration and absorption of refugees, there is great sensitivity with regard to the civic discourse in general and to improper use of passports in particular. Israel’s ignoring of the Australian Jewish community’s distress testifies to a lack of understanding of this basic, sensitive issue.

While this insensitivity has yet to be translated into fewer donations to Israel, discontent Down Under is growing, particularly among young secular Jews who find it increasingly harder to identify with Israel. Such is the case on local campuses where, despite the abundant Jewish presence, it is nearly impossible to see pro-Israeli responses to concerted anti-Israel activism.

A considerable part of this lack of trust can be attributed to Israel’s inability to conduct a sincere dialogue with the Diaspora during and after crises. In particular, the lack of trust reflects a growing sense among the younger generation of the Australian Diaspora that Israel sees Australian Jewry as a resource that can be used for its own needs, without any accountability or mutual responsibility. In addition, the sense is that Israel prefers to maintain its relations in the Diaspora with the establishment leadership, with whom it feels comfortable, and hardly comes in contact with most members of the community, who do not necessarily see the establishment as representing them.

Beyond its obligation to sort out the Zygier affair vis-a-vis the Australian government and his family, Israel must start a dialogue now with different elements in the Jewish community, and not only the establishment. This dialogue need not necessarily shed light on the specific affair but rather should look towards the future, especially so that the young Jews in the Diaspora will understand that the State of Israel is also aware of their needs and their sensitive civic situation, and is not taking them for granted.

Dr. Burla is a researcher on political science and Diaspora studies.

The East Melbourne Synagogue.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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