The release of My Israel Question in August 2006, at the height of Israel’s war against Hezbollah, was always guaranteed to generate divergent opinions. It had become sadly predictable that challenging the Jewish state’s actions and morality resulted in hateful correspondence.
I distinctly remember receiving numerous phone calls from a prominent Australian Jewish comedian a few months before the book’s release and was harangued over my allegedly distasteful and ignorant views. He clearly believed that he had the right to call a stranger and issue abuse. Such behaviour is common; barely a week goes by when I don’t receive a bile-filled email from a fellow Jew, keen to lecture me on Palestinian “terror” and Israeli nobility.
Australian Jews are a diverse bunch, however. With the looming federal election, poll watchers were intrigued to discover that Malcolm Turnbull’s seat Wentworth had surpassed Melbourne Ports as containing the greatest number of Jews in the country. Although Labor MP Michael Danby had previously guessed that 30 per cent of his electorate was Jewish, the census found only 15 per cent. Wentworth had 17 per cent. Melbourne remains the unofficial capital, with roughly 46 per cent of the country’s Jews.
The 2006 Census figures brought some other surprising results for the Australian Jewish community: 88,832 people nominated Judaism as their religion, though the real figure is generally thought to be 15-20 per cent higher. Jewish leaders have long argued that there are around 120,000 Jews in Australia. By contrast, the census found 340,000 Muslims.
Jewish George Newhouse is challenging Turnbull for his seat. The Mayor of Waverley, co-founder of the Jewish Labor Forum and self-described human rights lawyer, Newhouse represents the star Labor recruit. Unfortunately, his dedication to human rights has not been evident when discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict, a sadly common trait among Jews.
During a recent speech in Sydney to commemorate last year’s abduction of three Israeli soldiers, Newhouse claimed that when peace comes to Israel, “it will be because Israel’s neighbours finally realise that the path of terrorism gets them nowhere”. Not a word about Israeli abductions of the elected members of the Palestinian parliament or the 10,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails arrested without due process. This is not to mention the vastly larger scale of Israeli terror against Lebanese and Palestinian civilians.
“It's hard for others to understand how we can feel a connectedness with the people of Israel, thousands of mile away”, Newhouse argued. However, universalising human rights to include Palestinians, as well as Israelis, is evidently a step too far for even progressive Jews.
Age journalist David Bernstein has said that he thought Melbourne Jews needed help. “It’s a community [thanks to the Holocaust] that in some ways is sick … They are neurotic and should be treated with sympathy.” However, it seems clear that this attitude serves as cover for Jews who use the Holocaust as protection against any criticism of the Jewish state. Today, it is perhaps not Australian Jews but the Palestinian victims of an illegal, brutal military occupation that deserve sympathy.
Israel is a superpower with nuclear weapons, unchallenged military might in the Middle East and unparalleled levels of support by the United States. Despite these facts, many Australian Jews portray Israel as one step away from annihilation, facing a daily “threat” from Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria.
Playing the victim has never been so dishonest. Indeed, many polls around the world show that sympathy for Israel has diminished over the last 20 years. Jews often claim that Israel is constantly striving for peace. However, relentless expansion of settlements in the West Bank, for example, is a strange way to show such a commitment.
Although community leaders assert that the majority of Jews support the Jewish state unconditionally, there are cracks appearing in this façade. Increasingly many self-identifying Jews cannot support the ongoing injustice towards Palestinians, including the daily expansion of illegal settlements across occupied territory.
Take the launch of Independent Australian Jewish Voices (IAJV), a group that I co-founded. Our aim was to publicly challenge Israeli government policy, inform the general public that Jews do not speak with one voice and challenge the Zionist lobby’s domination of the debate.