Jews and the Lucky Country…writes Isi Leibler

August 19, 2015 by Isi Leibler
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I have just returned from Down Under, Australia, the country that nurtured me prior to my aliyah.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott with Isi Leibler

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott with Isi Leibler

It remains one of the most delightful countries in the world, providing an unparalleled quality of life. Indeed, Australians remain so laid back that many even now still tend to open their daily newspapers directly at the sports pages. Its 120,000 Jews comprise a model Diaspora Jewish community.

The purpose of my visit was to celebrate the marriage of a grandson to the charming granddaughter of the late Sir Zelman Cowan, a former Governor General who was recognized as a great Australian as well as being a proud Jew and passionate Zionist.

The Jewish community can trace its roots back to the 18th century when Jews were among the first convicts deported from England to Australia. Until World War II, it was a rapidly declining community which was reinvigorated by the influx of Jewish refugees and survivors fleeing Nazi persecution, to whom Australia provided a haven. In fact, the Australian Jewish community absorbed more Holocaust survivors proportionately than any other Jewish community, with the obvious exception of Israel.

The “Lucky Country” enabled many penniless and crushed Holocaust survivors to work hard and prosper. While a significant Jewish underclass still remains, former Jewish refugees comprise an extraordinarily high proportion of Australia’s most successful and wealthy businessmen, of whom a notable number have become commercial and industrial giants in the nation.

Jews have also played a major role in public life, providing two Governor Generals and several prominent cabinet ministers. Jews have been at the forefront of efforts to promote human rights, with my brother, Mark Leibler, the long-standing Zionist leader, having been appointed by the government to act as co-chairman of the prestigious Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal Peoples.

In recent years, the community was further strengthened by the immigration of Russian Jews and large numbers of financially independent South Africans, many of whom have since assumed important communal leadership roles.

Jewish cultural and religious life developed dramatically in the postwar era, with the immigrants creating an exemplary network of Jewish day schools, ranging from Chabad to Reform and catering for the majority of youngsters — undoubtedly the most successful communal day school structure in the Western Diaspora. Regrettably, the past few years saw a series of deeply distressing public scandals within the Chabad school network involving child abuse, which led to the conviction of a number of offenders.

It is said that Australian Jewry is, in a sense, somewhat “behind the times.” In these times, this has proven to be highly advantageous.

Anti-Semitism or anti-Israelism has certainly intensified, but aside from some pressure against Jewish students on campus, the situation is far removed from the growing intense hatred prevailing against Jews and Israel in Europe.

The Jewish community is united under the umbrella of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and its effective leadership is unequivocally Zionist. It has invested enormous efforts toward promoting the case for Israel and has not hesitated to confront governments it considers to be displaying bias or double standards by conforming to global politically correct anti-Israeli approaches. The Jewish passion for Israel in Australia was undoubtedly the most important factor contributing to the hitherto bipartisan orientation of the mainstream political parties

Australians long-standing friendship with Israel dates back to troops serving in Palestine in both world wars. The Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, the community’s Israel advocacy organization, the counterpart of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, operates at an extraordinarily high professional level and could serve as a model for other Jewish communities to emulate. The Australian Israel Chamber of Commerce is the most popular and efficient chamber in the country.

The present government would undoubtedly be classified as one of Israel’s closest allies. I had the opportunity of meeting Prime Minister Tony Abbott and conveyed our appreciation for his government’s steadfast support of Israel at all international forums. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has been equally supportive even though she seems to have been influenced by U.S. Secretary of State Kerry in relation to the Iranian agreement.

Australian governments have also supported broader Jewish concerns. In 1962, Australia became the first country at the United Nations to raise the issue of Soviet state-sponsored anti-Semitism and called for the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate. Successive governments subsequently made significant global contributions toward ameliorating the plight of Soviet Jews. The Australian Embassy in Moscow was regarded as a haven for refuseniks who were invited to receptions despite the tensions this created with the Soviet authorities. Australian governments also made major contributions to the global campaign to rescind the U.N. resolution equating Zionism with racism, and acted as intermediaries for Jewish leaders who sought to promote diplomatic relations between Israel and Asian countries.

Until now, with the solitary exception of Gough Whitlam’s anti-Israel stance during the Yom Kippur War, successive governments since the establishment of the State of Israel when Labor leader Dr. H. V. Evatt occupied the role of president at the United Nations General Assembly, were all supportive of Israel.

Regrettably, today, this bipartisanship has dramatically eroded. Although there are still strong forces within the Labor Party that support Israel, the national conference which took place a few weeks ago endorsed a highly negative resolution according moral equivalence to both parties and giving notice of intent to unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state.

The elements combining to bring this about include a strengthened anti-Israeli Left, and the impact on Arab voters – there are now more than 500,000 Muslims resident in Australia – on right-wing electorates, and the machinations of the former Foreign Minister Bob Carr and his acolytes, who have attempted to whip up anger against the purported “domineering” Jewish lobby.

Effectively this means that should the current liberal (conservative) government be defeated, a Labor-led Australian government would be no less hostile to Israel than European governments.

Despite its truly spectacular achievements, Australian Jewry is currently confronting the same challenges as other Diaspora communities. It may be blessed by being a decade or so behind the times compared to other Jewish communities, but assimilation and intermarriage are already beginning to take a toll and anti-Semitism fanned by Muslim immigrants and the political Left has grown considerably over the past decade. In addition, the escalating cost of Jewish education is becoming prohibitive for all but the affluent, with the vast majority of children in Jewish day schools being subsidized by independent fundraising.

Yet despite this, Australian Jewry remains a jewel in the crown of the Diaspora and provides an outstanding Jewish lifestyle. It is the most Zionist Jewish community in the world with over 15,000 Australian expatriates — 10% of the community — now settled in Israel. Indeed, the present government together with Canada represent the most loyal and supportive friends of Israel.

So overall, for Jews, Australia remains the lucky country although many of its best youngsters will continue to make aliyah, thus further strengthening links between Israel and Australia and ensuring that the centrality of Israel remains at the core of Jewish identity.

Much as I miss Australia and have many fond memories of my life there, not for a moment have I had cause to regret that, together with the majority of my family, we made aliyah over 15 years ago.

Isi Leibler lives in Jerusalem. He is a former president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry.


3 Responses to “Jews and the Lucky Country…writes Isi Leibler”
  1. Charlotte Frajman says:

    Governors General

  2. Denise Musgrave says:

    Thank you Mr Liebler for your accurate summation of life in Australia.
    I agree that our political parties now present our community with a very clear choice between a Government who understands the importance of supporting Israel and not swayed by international pressure for the Palestinians to gain statehood unilaterally and without any requirement on their part to commit to living peaceably with Israel and a prospective government who is devoid of this understanding and commitment.
    I am, however, disappointed that our government has not come out strongly against the P5+1 deal with Iran. It is a no-brainer! How could any democratic country agree with such a deal?
    I enjoy your blogs Mr Liebler and I am a strong advocate for Israel and the Jewish people.
    I wish you a long and healthy life!

  3. Liat Nagar says:

    Isi, I realise your comments come from the perspective of Australian Jews, however, it needs to be realised that when speaking of Australian society and life in this country, the whole needs to be considered and factored in. Your generalisations as to laid-back Australians immediately turning to the sports pages of their newspapers, are stereotypes. That stereotypes often have some foundation in fact is true. However, they also depart from the truth through lazy assumption and lack of particularity.

    The fact is many Australians are hurting due to society having to serve the economy, rather than the economy serving society. The rich and corporate power, together with a coalition Liberal government without vision or humane care informing their decision-making, increasing unemployment (you need to see real figures, not statistics influenced by the framework within which they’re tallied), enormous costs in relation to housing, both for buyers and renters, as well as high food and utility costs, and high personal tax impositions … all of this is creating instability and anger in all cities and regional areas. This is the Australia I live in – the one you have reported simply adds to a tired old stereotype that Israelis already have ingrained in their mentality about life in the ‘Lucky Country’. I came across this often when living in Israel between 2004 and 2007. The Lucky Country was only lucky due to the big holes that were dug for years across the continent, enabling riches on the back of mining – this, as you may or may not know, is now in decline. So much of the advancement of this country has been achieved through sheer hard work and the successful absorption of migrants with all the skills and creativity they brought with them. Not very many people have made gains without hard work, resting on their laurels through luck. We are lucky we do not have war on our doorstep continually, however, we have fought in many wars, contributing our men and women to their causes. Our Achilles heel is the fierce, ungovernable natural world – fire and flood. It’s this we fight to survive time and time again, often with heavy loss. Please, let us put aside this ridiculous notion of ease and lack of needing to care for anything except sport.

    I am always vigilant, and outspoken, in regard to anti-Semitism in this country (and it has increased), in the form of biassed, ill-informed comment or reportage by media, or groups political and other. It is indeed unfortunate that the Labor Party is currently undergoing change in its support and stand for Israel. It puts many Australian Jewish voters between a rock and a hard place, because voting for a government in Australia must take the whole into account, not only allegiance or otherwise to Israel. It would create nothing but a damaging scenario for millions of Australians if this present coalition government were returned to office. You say there are 120,000 Jewish Australians (I thought there were many more than that), however, there are 23 million Australians overall, and all of them need to be considered when speaking of government.

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