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Australian politics and the Jewish community

By Philip Mendes - posted Wednesday, 1 June 2005


Historically Jews have been involved in Australian politics at both an individual and collective level.

Jews have been individually active in a range of Australian political parties and social movements, including the environment movement; feminism, gay and lesbian rights; anti-war activism; trade unions; Aboriginal rights; and refugee issues. The perennial question is to what extent these Jews represent specifically Jewish concerns and values, or just themselves.

Collectively, Jews have impacted both as groups of voters (although in serious numbers only in the federal seats of Wentworth and Melbourne Ports) and through representative roof bodies and organisations such as the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ), the state Jewish Boards of Deputies and Community Councils, the Zionist movement, private think tanks such as the Australia-Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) and some radical or leftist groups. Again, the extent of representativeness is contentious.

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Within electoral politics, Jewish involvement in the Australian Labor Party (ALP) seems to have been more prominent than within the Liberal Party. Since World War II, eight of the nine Jewish members of the Federal Parliament have represented the ALP. These include such prominent figures as Senator Sam Cohen who was Shadow Minister for Education when he died prematurely in 1969, Whitlam Government Ministers Dr Moss Cass and Joe Berinson, Hawke Government Minister Barry Cohen and the current member for Melbourne Ports, Michael Danby. A number of Jews have also been prominent in New South Wales State Labor politics.

It has often been said that Jews and the Labor Party enjoy a special relationship since Dr Evatt supported the creation of the State of Israel and Arthur Calwell supported post-war Jewish immigration. Consequently a clear majority of Jewish voters favoured the ALP from the late 1940s until about the late 1960s. Nevertheless, tensions have often existed and have sometimes tested the loyalties of Jewish Labor parliamentarians.

For example in October 1962 Senator Sam Cohen - former President of the left-wing Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism - was lambasted by the Jewish community for opposing a motion condemning Soviet anti-Semitism while former ECAJ President and Labor MP Syd Einfeld was praised for supporting the motion.

In recent decades Jewish support for Labor has declined, although the recently formed Jewish Labor Forum in NSW may succeed in revitalising this relationship. The pro-Palestinian positions of some important Labor figures who are mainly, but not exclusively, associated with the Left faction have created considerable tensions in the party.

These tensions were utilised by the Liberal Party during the recent federal election campaign in the seat of Melbourne Ports in an attempt to embarrass the sitting Labor MP Michael Danby. These tactics enjoyed some success despite his unchallengeable pro-Israel credentials - the Liberals won a clear majority of the Jewish vote in Melbourne Ports. Danby, however, retains a significant following in the Jewish community and this personal vote almost certainly reduced the gap in Melbourne Ports between Jewish support for the two major parties, and hence helped him home in a tight contest.

In contrast, Jewish parliamentary representation in the Liberal Party has been relatively sparse with the notable exception of two Ministers, Senator Peter Baume at the federal level, and Walter Jona in the Victorian Parliament. This is surprising given that all available (albeit limited) data on Jewish voting patterns suggests that a clear majority of Jews have voted Liberal for the past three decades. This right-wing shift arguably reflects a number of factors including the growth in Jewish religious orthodoxy, the high attendance at Jewish day schools and the generally affluent socio-economic status of Australian Jews.

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My own take on this is as follows: Most Jews agree with conservative views on matters of economics and taxation and the Australian-US alliance. But their main political priorities are not universalistic - that is, they are focused on specific Jewish concerns such as Israel and anti-Semitism - and they are generally not interested in traditional conservative concerns such as the monarchy, abortion, the traditional family and so on.

Jews also tend to be surprisingly liberal on social issues. They don’t share socially conservative views on drugs, feminism, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, refugees or Aborigines. In many cases those same Jews who support Ariel Sharon and denounce Arab terrorism are passionate supporters of asylum seekers and are supportive of an apology to the Stolen Generation. This comes through particularly in letters to the Australian Jewish News. A large number of Jews vote Liberal without being committed conservatives.

Nevertheless, there is evidence that an increasing number of Jews are joining the Liberal Party and participating as activists, paid staffers and organisers. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before more Jews enter Parliament on the Liberal ticket.

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Article edited by Tanvi Mehta.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This is an edited version of a presentation to an Australian Jewish Historical Society forum on Jews and Australian Politics held on May 26, 2005 in Melbourne.



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About the Author

Associate Professor Philip Mendes is the Director of the Social Inclusion and Social Policy Research Unit in the Department of Social Work at Monash University, and is most recently the author of Jews and the Left: The rise and fall of a political alliance to be published in April 2014, and is also co-authoring a critique of the BDS movement to be published in late 2014): Philip.Mendes@monash.edu

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