Australian Jews are traditionally, cohesively and sometimes annoyingly the most pro-Israel Jewish community in the world.
Per capita, Australian Jews are the biggest donors to Zionist causes. They have the best and most extensive Jewish education system. Their children come to Israel on gap year/army service/aliyah in proportionately greater numbers than any other Jewish Diaspora.
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The Australian Jewish devotion to Israel is so intense that dissent is often disdained, critics are shunned and straying from the dogma of total support for whatever Israeli government happens to be in power is likely to be labeled as heresy. Australian Jews are “non-practicing Orthodox” in their religious beliefs, as historian Suzanne Rutland described them, but their adulation for Israel is as dogmatic and unyielding as the strictest of ultra-Orthodox sects.
The unseemly extradition process of Malka Leifer, the former principal of a Melbourne ultra-Orthodox school and alleged sexual predator, is putting their love to a test, however. It has become a cause célèbre in Australia and, as such, a source of deep concern and embarrassment for Australian Jews.
Like most other vibrant Jewish communities that still exist outside of Israel, Australian Jews have long lived with the knowledge that their love affair with Israel is mostly one-sided, only more so. “Tyranny of Distance,” the phrase coined in Geoffrey Blaney’s landmark 1966 book of the same name, which depicts the influence of Australia’s geographical isolation on its social and cultural development, rendered the community far, far away from the hearts and minds of Israeli leaders – with the exception of those who tapped Australian Jewish billionaires for generous political contributions. But their relative isolation also strengthened and united the Jewish community behind their common causes of community care and ardent support for Israel.
Modern communications, and especially the advent of the internet and social media, have relieved the “tyranny” about which Blaney wrote over half a century ago. Australian Jews found it harder to continue living in ignorant bliss and to keep on idealizing Israel as a paragon of virtue. Nonetheless, Australian Jewish support remained steadfast and strong, weathering two intifadas, continued occupation, the deterioration of Israeli democracy and the ongoing Israeli indifference to their plight. Almost.
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The Maccabiah disaster
The 1997 Maccabiah Bridge disaster, in which four Australian Jews were killed, was not so easily surmounted. Australian Jews were appalled at the cost-cutting chicanery that led Maccabiah Game organizers to grant the tender for building the bridge to inexperienced contractors who hadn’t built a bridge in their lives.
They were disgusted by the official negligence that had allowed the water of the Yarkon River, which flows under the bridge, to turn into a cesspool of toxic bacteria. They were gobsmacked by the initial refusal of Maccabi World Union leaders to accept responsibility. And they were mortified by what often appeared as the Israeli government’s foot-dragging reluctance to deal with the aftermath of the tragedy.
Australian Jews did move on, but the Maccabiah incident remained indelibly etched in their collective hearts, not only as a portrait of Israel’s unseemly negligence but of its indifference to their concerns as well.
Similar sentiments, albeit on a lesser scale, were sparked during the 2004 New Zealand passport scandal in which it emerged, allegedly, that the Mossad had been using Sydney as its base of operations and, more egregiously, following the 2010 death in custody of Ben Zygier, a scion of a prominent Melbourne family who had volunteered to serve in the Israeli army, was recruited by the Mossad and hanged himself while being detained for security breaches, where he was known as “Prisoner X.”
The Malka Leifer affair, which reached another ludicrous pinnacle this week when psychiatrists “forgot” they had been summoned to give the court an evaluation of her mental state, is, however, a second crisis of Maccabiah proportions. The seemingly interminable five-year saga of the Australian request to extradite Leifer, a woman accused on 74 counts of rape and sexual assault against her female students at a Melbourne ultra-Orthodox school, has once again exposed Australian Jews to indifferent Israeli leadership, lethargic bureaucracy, intolerably long court proceedings and, most injuriously, to the seedy underbelly of Israeli politics, where expediency meets corruption to undermine the rule of law.
Leifer escaped to Israel in 2008, hours before the testimonies of some of her victims were made public. In 2014, Australia requested her extradition, launching a process that has taken five years, has required at least 50 separate court sessions and remains unresolved today, after the psychiatrists conveniently “forgot” to show up for their testimony this week.
There are solid ground to believe, however, that it wasn’t so much their forgetfulness that made them miss their court date as it was their fear of retribution by Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, which remains strong despite the fact that the police have recommended that he be indicted for alleged illegal interference in this very same affair.
Litzman is alleged to have pressured state psychiatrists to diagnose Leifer as mentally unfit to stand trial and, consequently, be barred from being extradited. Although his exact motives have yet to be ascertained, it is widely thought that Litzman was responding to pressure from ultra-Orthodox circles in Melbourne and elsewhere who are ostensibly demanding that Leifer be tried in Israel rather than abandon her to a “court of goyim,” as they term it, in Australia. In reality, it is another manifestation of the atrocious leniency that ultra-Orthodox ordinarily display towards cases of sexual molestation in their midst and their aversion to washing their dirty laundry in public.
Australian Jews were flummoxed by the political intervention in Leifer’s favor. They are aghast that Litzman remains at his Health Ministry post. And they were – and are – astonished and heartbroken that Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet colleagues have kept their silence about the affair for fear of antagonizing Litzman or his United Torah Judaism ultra-Orthodox party, which is a mainstay of any right-wing coalition. An Israel that puts personal and political gain over doing what is manifestly moral and legal is not the Israel they’ve been exhorting themselves and others to love and cherish.
To use a sports term alien to most Australians, if the Maccabiah was strike one against Israel, the Leifer affair is strike two. It won’t end Australian Jews’ love affair with Israel, but it weakens its foundations and brings it one step closer to an irrevocable breach. And if there is a silver lining in the dark clouds created by the Leifer scandal, it can be found in the fact that most Israelis, of all political persuasions outside the ultra-Orthodox, are as ashamed of their country’s handling of the extradition request as Australians are outraged by it.
If it’s any consolation – and it probably isn’t – Australian Jews can also take comfort in the fact that they are not being singled out: American Jewry is also suffering from years of Israeli indifference and neglect, which have now deteriorated into mutual antagonism and alienation.
American Jews, on the other hand, have emerged in recent years as a vocal opposition to Israeli government policies. Australian Jews have blindly supported any and all Israeli policies and have defended Israel when other Jewish communities remained silent. If the outrageous Leifer case is their reward, perhaps it’s time for Australian Jews to reconsider their hitherto blind loyalties.