Secord reports on Israel visit

February 17, 2013 by J-Wire Staff
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NSW State Shadow Minister for Water Walt Secord has reported on his recent visit to Israel organised by the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies.

NSW MPs

NSW MPs

I am Labor’s Shadow Minister for Water and – more relevant to today’s talk on our recent parliamentary mission to Israel – the deputy chair of the NSW Parliamentary Friends of Israel.

As background, I worked for four years as a journalist at the Australian Jewish News from 1988 until 1991 – where the current NSW Jewish Board of Deputies executive director Vic Alhadeff was my deputy editor.

I attended this study tour to Israel as one of two Labor representatives. In a job that can be overwhelmed by discussion papers and briefings, I try to keep in mind that seeing things first-hand provides the greater insight.  That is why I try to see things for myself.

Yair Miller, Ian Sandler, Robert Borsak

Yair Miller, Ian Sandler, Robert Borsak   Photo: Kim Lewis

And that is why I support parliamentary study tours – and on behalf of the NSW Labor Party, I thank and congratulate the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies for organising this one.

For the record, NSW Jewish Board of Deputies member Yosi Tal and Board of Deputies Vice President Yaron Finkelstein were fantastic as hosts. Yosi organising the visit to Yair and Sandra Miller’s wedding was inspired and personal; and Yaron was a true “fixer” of problems for the delegation. It was their personal touches that made the study tour a special experience.

I also liked the multi-party nature of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies’ mission and enjoyed interacting with my non-Labor colleagues in a non-combative context. And I hope that you can continue this format for future tours.

This was my second visit to Israel in two years. Since 1995, I have been involved in organising or participating in a number of parliamentary study tours as an MP and as a political staffer. In terms of organisation and planning, this was one of the best.  It struck the right balance between expertise and on-the-street experience.

Too often, study tours want you to listen to a long line of speakers on the same subject – but there was no repetition in this tour and there was a genuine attempt to present different perspectives – including speakers from the Left side of Israeli politics. But we also acknowledge the difficulty in getting politicians for the tour as we were at the height of the Israeli general election – but the quality of speakers was outstanding.

David Clarke, Isabelle Shapiro, Professor Bettina Cass, Rev Fred Nile and Walt Secord

David Clarke, Isabelle Shapiro, Professor Bettina Cass, Rev Fred Nile and Walt Secord      Photo:  Kim Lewis

I also acknowledge the effort to provide Palestinian and Israeli Arab perspectives, such as meeting the Governor of Bethlehem and the Abu Gosh Israeli Arab education officials

As for myself, I always try to do my study tours in a sequence or with a theme and a specific purpose. Last year, I did a March of the Living inspired trip – culminating in a trip to Yad Vashem. I used to write about the March of the Living tours when I was a journalist at the Australian Jewish News.

My previous study tour in 2011-2012 started in Armenia as I wanted to learn more about the first genocide of the 20th anniversary and to visit their national genocide museum in Yerevan. The context here is of course Adolf Hitler’s infamous 1939 quote: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

After Armenia, I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland and then flew directly to Israel and toured Yad Vashem. I then visited Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan to see a contemporary context of genocide. Halabja was where Saddam Hussein in March 1988 unleashed chemical gas attacks on the Kurds killing 5,000 people.

As a person who has studied the Shoah, I believe that, as Nobel Prize winner and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi said: “Those who deny Auschwitz would be ready to remake it.”

So while visits such as these are often challenging, they are vital to promoting that which must never be forgotten.

This year – 2012-2013 – on my personal study, I visited the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Armenia, Georgia; Israel and the Palestinian Territories, including Bethlehem and the Aida refugee camp and the ancient ruins of Western Armenia; Turkey, Istanbul, Anzac Cove at Gallipoli and finally, Cairo, Egypt. Let me say that Israel was the centrepiece to my study tour.

But before I speak to that let me briefly discuss why I visited Turkey and Egypt. I visited Turkey for two reasons: Firstly, I wanted to continue my exploration of the Armenian Genocide. I visited ancient Armenian sites in Western Armenia – Kars, Van and Ani

And secondly, I also wanted to see Turkey within in the context of what the late-Harvard University Professor Samuel Huntington has described as the “Clash of Civilisations”. That is the interaction and conflict between Islam and the West..

I think Turkey is interesting in light of the recent activity of the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in regard to Israel and the Flotilla and the struggle in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and the rural areas between political Islam embodied by the debate on the “scarf” against the backdrop of Turkey’s secular tradition.

Incidentally, I was in Istanbul on the sixth anniversary of the assassination of Hrant Dink –the Armenian editor murdered by a Turkish nationalist because of his outspoken views on the Armenian Genocide and Turkey’s failure to recognise its past.

I have to admit to complex views on Turkey.  Turkey must face the Armenian Genocide and unreservedly acknowledge it, but we in the West have an interest in supporting democratic, secular Islamic States like Turkey and Indonesia.

I would like to take this opportunity to note and express my support for Australia-Israel Jewish Affairs Council’s efforts to encourage Asian journalists in the region to visit Israel.

As for Egypt, I have to admit that my visit was for what I describe as almost selfish reasons.

It was a depressing visit. I hope I am wrong, but I fear that it will be very difficult to travel there in about a year.  I also fear for its Christian community there and for their future. If events continue to worsen there, I believe that there is a case for Australia to consider giving Coptic Christians in Egypt recognition as refugees.

On my tour to the Jewish and Christian sites in Cairo, I asked how many people usually take the tour and the guide said about 60 people a tour.  There were only two of us on that one tour.

Tourism is the third largest contributor to the national economy there. The current events and unrest are having an important impact on Egypt, which will only worsen the situation. I was there two days before the second anniversary of the events of Tahrir Square.

Some brief thoughts on Egypt. If Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi loses the next election, he must willingly hand over power to a new Government. I believe that the true test of a post-conflict society is the secondelection; the second government or the changing of administrations.

I also visited Coptic Christian sites and Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo.  I was excited to visit Ben Ezra Synagogue as it was where the famous Rabbi Moses Maimonides worshipped when he lived in Cairo –which leads us happily back to the subject of Israel.  Many moments will stay with me for life.

The light plane flight to the Israel-Lebanon border was one. You see the security concerns and geography in stark terms:  Israel at its narrowest. I think it is about 14 kilometres at one point.

 The emotional meeting with former Melbourne resident, Arnold Roth – the father of a victim of terrorism was unsettling, but worthwhile.  It put a face to terror and its impact, but also showed someone rebuilding their lives – after unbelievable tragedy.  There were personal highlights too, such as taking my parliamentary colleague Luke Foley, who is a proud Catholic to his first Shabbat meal. It was at the Tel Aviv home of IDF reserve spokesperson and Australian expatriate, Guy Spigelman who attended Macquarie University. They actually knew each other from student politics. We shared Shabbat meal with Guy’s wife, children and his parents, Dr Mark and Rachel Spigelman.

 Other highlights included: Gate-crashing the wedding of NSW Jewish Board of Deputies president, Yair Miller and his wife, Sandra in Jerusalem;

Witnessing my parliamentary colleague and National Party MP, Rick Colless locate the World War I grave of a family member at Be’ersheva Commonwealth War Cemetery; and going out on the Sea of Galilee with Paul Steiner who is the son-in-law of Josie and Ian Lacey of Bellevue Hill.

It turns out that Paul Steiner is the president of the Israeli Greywater Association so we took the opportunity to talk about recycling water policy and my parliamentary duties as the Shadow Minister for Water.

As a general observation, the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies tour added more layers of appreciation to the complexities of the region. The Erez Checkpoint operated by the IDF between Israel and Gaza showed the complexities of balancing security concerns of Israel. One thousand trucks a day go through the facility. They balance the day-to-day operational needs of Gaza residents and business people such as medical support, including transferring people to Israeli hospitals for cancer treatment.

 As well as the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies portion, I added on several days to explore Israel myself. Last year, I visited the Gadot Observation Point near the Golan, Masada, Tiberias, Sderot, Gush Etzion, the Dead Sea, Ramallah, Nazareth, Jerusalem, East Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Eilat and Jordan.

 This year, I visited the Baha’i Temple in Haifa and travelled to Kibbutz Kadarim and got taken on to the Sea of Galilee by motorboat.

 To get a real first-hand experience, I caught an Egged bus from the roadside at Kibbutz Kadarim to Akko and then Tel Aviv.  I sat with IDF soldiers going home for Shabbat. They helped me when I got to Akko.  They were puzzled by why a Sydney man with a Canadian accent would bother to take public transport rather than get a driver. But, as I said, some things should be experienced first-hand. It can really shift your view on matters. I guess this raises the question of whether this trip has shifted my view on any matters in relation to Israel.

 Well, I still wholeheartedly support a two-State solution for Israelis and the Palestinians. But I am a realist. Right now, Israel does not have a realistic or practical partner in peace.  Fatah in the West Bank is struggling and its leadership are unable to even go to Gaza. Hamas in Gaza does not recognise Israel’s right to exist.  Egypt is in internal conflict and is sending mixed messages. It still has shaky peace with Israel, but it is a “negative” or cold war type of peace.  Syria is in crisis and is a failed State. This affects Israel and the whole region.  So this calls for realism, and for clear support of Israel’s right to defend herself.  But I hope for many things. I hope I am proven wrong about my urgency to see Egypt. For example, who would have imagined that Sadat would have ever made peace with Israel?  And for the record, you do not make peace with your friends; you make peace with your enemies.  I hope that shifts in Palestinian leadership allow a two-State solution to once again be a real, not theoretical, ambition.

 In conclusion, I hope that my parliamentary colleagues will seize future opportunities offered by the Board of Deputies to study these things first hand.  I, for one, am grateful for the insights and experiences gained. Thank you.

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