Recent reports in both the Jewish and mainstream press have suggested a major
rift between the Jewish community and the ALP over Middle East policy, with potentially
serious political and electoral implications for Labor. According to this narrative, anti-Israel statements by Labor backbenchers Julia Irwin and Tanya Plibersek upset
the Jewish community, some pro-ALP Jews responded by threatening to switch political and financial support to the Liberals, other Jewish ALP supporters established
a Jewish Labor Forum to counter this anti-ALP backlash, and finally Labor leader Simon Crean has intervened with passionate public restatements of Labor's pro-Israel position to the Melbourne and, more
recently, Sydney Jewish communities in order to repair the damage.
There was never much substance or significance to this supposed "rift." Many Jews no doubt took exception to Irwin's and Plibersek's remarks, and Simon
Crean may well have acted sooner to clarify official ALP policy on the Middle
East. It is also "conceivable that some Jews" - to use the Australian
Jewish News's marvelously vague phrase - might have considered changing
their voting preference over the episode. However, none of this warrants the importance
commentators have ascribed to these events.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a major issue in Australian politics.
The ALP leadership has far higher daily priorities to address: economic and budgetary
management, health, education and welfare policy, family law debates, industrial
relations, and events in nearby Indonesia to name a few. Except in rare circumstances,
Israel-Palestine does not rate more than passing attention.
The Jewish vote is not uniform or correlated solely with positions on the Middle
East. Nor is it particularly influential. The available evidence suggests that
most Australian Jews follow their socioeconomic interests and vote conservative.
Even without Prime Minister Howard's strong pro-Israel record, Jewish support
for the coalition is unlikely to waver much. The same applies to the minority
of Jews who vote ALP. Many of them are concerned about other issues, such as Aboriginal
rights, support for asylum seekers, defending Medicare, etc. A minority of left-leaning
Jews may even support the ALP taking a more critical position vis-à-vis
Exceptions, as always, prove the rule. The only parliamentary seat significantly
affected by a Jewish vote is the inner city area of Melbourne Ports. Here, many
swinging Jewish voters currently support the sitting MP Michael Danby precisely
because he is Jewish and passionately pro-Israel. For this reason, they also are
unlikely to change their vote simply because some other Labor MPs express contrary
The question of Jewish donations to the ALP also needs to be put in context.
With few exceptions, the major Jewish donors appear to be motivated by personal
business interests as much as by specifically Jewish concerns, and many donate
to both sides of politics accordingly. None of the major figures has gone on record
as threatening to withdraw from donating to Labor.
There is a perception that Jewish communal bodies have the capacity to exert
disproportionate influence on Australian political debates around Middle East
policy. Certainly, such bodies are generally better organised and more robust
than their local Arab and Muslim counterparts. This presumably is why Simon Crean
felt the need to reassure "the Jewish community." However, organisations
do not vote in Australian elections, and the real political influence of such
groups remains a matter of conjecture.
The ALP and the Jewish community share a long history of mutual support and
engagement. While the degree of Jewish support for the ALP may have waned since
the 1960s, this productive cooperation is likely to continue despite the recent,
insubstantial tensions over Middle East policy.
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