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The fractured triangle: Australian Jews, Israel and the Left

By Philip Mendes - posted Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Historically, Jews were regarded as a “people of the Left”. This reflected the Left’s support for Jewish political rights including the establishment of the State of Israel. However, in more recent decades, Jews and the Left have appeared to sit on opposite sides of the fence concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Put simply, most Jews today appear to solidly support Israel, and most of the Left - particularly the ideological Left - has shifted to a pro-Palestinian position.

In reality, the relationship is far more complex. Both the Jewish community and the Left hold a diversity of views on the Middle East ranging from moderate to extremist positions. There is actually considerable common ground between many Jews and much of the Left in support of a two-state position.

To be sure, Australian Jews provide overwhelming support for the State of Israel. Identification with Israel plays a key role in Australian Jewish life and identity. Yet Australian Jews do not necessarily hold hawkish or hardline opinions. A recent study by Victoria University academic Danny Ben-Moshe found that while most young Jews have a strong commitment to Israel their support is not unconditional and many are critical of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians.


The study’s findings seem to confirm the old adage that every two Jews hold three different opinions. Some Jews support the parties on the Israeli right, such as Likud, which favour a Greater Israel based on permanent annexation of most of the West Bank. Some Jews support left-wing parties, such as Meretz, which recommend the dismantling of most of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank in return for peace.

The neo-conservative Australia Israel Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) aggressively attacks any criticisms of Israeli policies in the public sphere, but conversely the left-wing Australian Jewish Democratic Society (AJDS) vigorously advocates an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

Most Australian Jews probably concur with the position of the elected leadership bodies - the Executive Council of the Australian Jewry and the state and territory Jewish Community Councils - in favour of the two-state solution endorsed by the current centrist Israeli government. Some Jews support this proposed solution on an informed and principled basis. Others are more ambivalent, and would be reluctant to concede that any two-state solution would require Israel to cede most of the territory of the West Bank including the dismantling of most of the existing Jewish settlements.

The political Left is also divided on Israel/Palestine. One perspective - that held by the Australian Labor Party (ALP) leadership, a significant number of ALP MPs from all factions, and some social democratic intellectuals and trade union leaders - is balanced in terms of supporting moderates and condemning extremists and violence on both sides.

A second perspective - that held by the Australian Greens, some of the ALP and trade union Left, Christian aid organisations, and probably a majority of Left intellectuals - supports a two-state solution in principle, but in practice holds Israel principally or even solely responsible for the continuing violence and terror in the Middle East.

This perspective holds that if only Israel ends the occupation and withdraws from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israeli-Palestinian peace and reconciliation will be the inevitable outcome. In general, adherents of this view at least recognise that not all Israelis are the same, and understand the difference between particular Israeli government policies and the Israeli people per se.


A third perspective - held mainly, but no longer exclusively, by the far Left sects - regards Israel as a racist and colonialist state which has no right to exist. This perspective reflects what may be called a position of anti-Zionist fundamentalism that is akin to religious fanaticism. Adherents hold to a viewpoint opposing Israel’s existence specifically and Jewish national rights more broadly which is beyond rational debate, and unconnected to contemporary or historical reality.

The above analysis would suggest that most groups on the Left - as reflected in the first two perspectives - and many Jews would be able to identify significant common ground in favour of a two-state solution. Yet in reality the public engagement between Jews and the Left over Israel often appears to be characterised by intense conflict rather than dialogue. It seems to resemble a football match in which everyone has to take sides and wear their colours. The respective cheersquads - hardliners in the Jewish community and the anti-Zionist fundamentalists on the Left - lead the loud cheers of the masses. And the moderates in the Jewish community and the Left too often fall in behind their aggressive leaders, or else lapse into silence.

A good example of this polarisation was the recent debate over the Australian Parliament’s motion celebrating and commending the achievements of the State of Israel over 60 years. The motion recognised the democratic tradition shared by Australia and Israel as reflected in a common commitment to civil and human rights and cultural diversity, and pledged Australia’s friendship, commitment and enduring support to the people of Israel.

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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 the co-author with Nick Dyrenfurth of Boycotting Israel is Wrong (New South Press), and the author of a chapter on The Australian Greens and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in the forthcoming Australia and Israel (Sussex Academic Press).

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