Malcolm Fraser: A Beacon of Light for the Jewish Community as Prime Minister

March 22, 2015 by Suzanne Rutland
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In recent years, the late Honourable Malcolm Fraser’s harsh criticisms of Israeli government policies have created great controversy within the Jewish community.

Malcolm Fraser

Malcolm Fraser

Yet, this was not the case. Indeed, the late Mr Fraser’s positions in terms of multiculturalism, Soviet Jewry and Israel while he was prime minster were very much to the benefit of both the Australian Jewish community and world Jewry, and were very much appreciated at the time. In regard to both Soviet Jewry and Israel, his approach was the antithesis of his predecessor, Gough Whitlam.

It is difficult to know to what extent Fraser was influenced by the Jewish background of his mother, Una Wolf, whose father was Jewish. In an interview about this life, Fraser claimed that he did not know his paternal grandfather. He said that one cannot be influenced by someone whom one has never met. Regardless of this, throughout his prime ministership Fraser pursued ‘liberal’ policies, with a small ‘l’.

The obituary to Fraser entitled ‘Malcolm Fraser: A Look Back’ noted that ‘as a minister in the Gorton government, he became the first federal politician to use the word “multiculturalism” — an historic break from the Anglocentric past of his own party’ Under his leadership as prime minister, from 1975-1981, he further reinforced multiculturalism introduced by Whitlam. Australian Jewry benefitted from Fraser’s liberal approach to multiculturalism, in terms of ethnic radio and federal support for the Jewish day school system.

For most of his prime ministership, Fraser was also a strong supporter of Israel, and in October 1981 agreed to participate in the Sinai Peacekeeping Force. In a media statement in November 1981, he stated:

“There is a limit to what Australia as a middle power can do. We must avoid unrealistic views of what we can achieve.
“But to say that there are limits is in no way to say that we could not make a valuable contribution in conjunction with other countries which share our interests and our concern for peace in the region.”

When Israel fully withdrew from the Sinai in April 1982, concerns were expressed about the consolidation of peace between Israel and Egypt. During the parliamentary debates on Australian participation in the Sinai peace-keeping forces, there was a great deal of tension, but Fraser remained firm in his commitment to Australian troops serving there. They remained from 1982 until 1986, when the Hawke government decided to withdraw them.

Like many others, Fraser’s journey towards disillusionment with Israel came with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in June 1982. After the Israeli army pushed through to West Beirut under Ariel Sharon, Fraser described this action as ‘short sighted and foolish’. When a Jewish delegation met with him, he reassured them that of his continuing support for Israel and that he had just spoken as ‘a concerned friend’.

Above all, however, it was in his support for the Soviet Jewry campaign, that Fraser’s contribution was the most significant. During the years 1978-1980, he insisted on full embassy support for Isi Leibler, when he visited Moscow three times as the director of Jetset, which had been selected for the second time as Australia’s official Olympic Games travel agency. Fraser maintained this support despite strong objections from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and the Australian ambassador in Moscow, Murray Bourchier.

After Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan, the United States decided to boycott the Moscow Olympic Games and Fraser came out in support of the boycott. Isi Leibler wrote a private letter to him, explaining why he had to oppose the boycott publicly, because this was the official policy at the time of the refuseniks and the Jewish world, but that privately he fully supported Fraser’s position.

In response to Leibler’s confidential letter in support of an Olympic boycott, Fraser invited him to a private dinner at the Lodge when they discussed various issues, relating both to Soviet Jewry and the Arab/Israeli conflict. Fraser promised Isi Leibler that for his next trip to Moscow, he would ensure he was provided with full support from the Embassy, and he proved as good as his word, despite Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock’s strong objections.

As correspondence in the National Archives of Australia reveals, Fraser instructed Peacock to send a telex to Bourchier, instructing him to provide Leibler with an embassy car for his visits to his friends, including dissidents activists or refuseniks and ‘to facilitate in any way you can any appointment which Leibler might wish to have during his visit’ (A1838, item 69/1/3/6/19). What is more, he permitted confidential and important material provided by the refuseniks to be secreted out with the diplomatic bag. When Bourchier cabled his opposition to this, he was informed that this was the prime minister’s express instructions.

In recognition of Fraser’s outstanding efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry, he was awarded a Humanitarian Medal by International B’nai B’rith in Washington in September 1980, an honour that had previously been bestowed on four American presidents, nobel prize winners and Israelis. In their media announcement, they stated they had chosen Fraser:

Dr Suzanne Rutland

Dr Suzanne Rutland

For his sustained opposition to discrimination on the basis of race, color or creed. His commitment to providing in Australia a refuge for the dispossessed from many parts of the world, and his contribution to the cause of freedom and peace.

The announcement stressed that the Australian Prime Minister has become “one of the outstanding leaders in the world in defending basic rights that we in the United States take for granted”.

As it happened, there was a meeting of Commonwealth heads in India scheduled for around the same time. However, Fraser had to receive this award in person. Once again, he ignored the advice of his foreign affairs advisers, who strongly opposed his going. He flew to Washington with a retinue of staff and senior public servants, including the Head of DFAT, Peter Henderson, and representatives of Treasury, Trade and Industry and Commerce. They remained behind to meet with their American equivalents, while Fraser flew on to India.

Malcolm Fraser: Born May 21, 1930, Toorak, Melbourne.   Died March 20, 2015, Melbourne. 22nd Prime Minister of Australia 1975 – 1983.

Well-known Australian Jewish historian, Suzanne D. Rutland, OAM, is Professor in the Department of Hebrew, Biblical & Jewish Studies, University of Sydney. She is co-author with Sam Lipski of a newly released book, “Let my People Go:” The Untold Story of Australia and Soviet Jews, 1959-1989, published by Hybrid Publishers.


10 Responses to “Malcolm Fraser: A Beacon of Light for the Jewish Community as Prime Minister”
  1. Schneur Naji says:

    Fraser like many believe that if only Israel will “compromise” and acquiesce to a Palestinian state peace will reign.
    This thinking is erroneous
    In truth until the Arabs formally recognize Israel as the Jewish state in their midst there will be no chance of peace and no Palestinian state.
    Abbas and his group and their supporter need to cut with the past and repudiate violence.
    The Jihadist call for the annihilation of Israel is real and Israel has no option but to take all steps to defend itself including pre-emptive strikes at nuclear Iranian sites if necessary.

  2. Lynne Newington says:

    Yes, and thanks to the reference of TheConversation’s contributor Gary Luke today I learnt of his interesting Geneology [Malcolm Fraser EX PM] written by Marie Fraser in 2002 that leads to his mothers Jewishness.

    • Leon Poddebsky says:

      The answers to the following questions would be enlightening:
      1. was the fact of Malcolm Fraser’s Jewish ancestor made public before or after he turned on Israel?
      2. was he subjected to slurs and innuendo about his Jewish forbear as a result of the fact being publicised?
      3. is there any evidence to support the hypothesis that Malcolm Fraser’s consequent embarrassment triggered a mighty effort to neutralise his taunters by his turning on Israel?

      • Ian Grinblat says:

        As I recall, there was no secrecy about Fraser’s Jewish roots although it was a bit confused. Many anti-Israel lefties attributed Fraser’s pro-American, pro-Israeli stances to the fact that “his mother is Jewish”

  3. Hilary Rubinstein says:

    As is to be expected, a most interesting piece by Suzanne.
    I think Fraser is, all in all, overrated as a prime minister – against advice and urging he failed to cut taxes and he didn’t let the dollar float, although admittedly he inherited a very bad situation from Whitlam, who spent like crazy.
    With regard to Jewish matters, he was good in part, like the proverbial curate’s egg. Much of that can perhaps be attributed to the legendarily charismatic personality of Isi Leibler. Subsequently, of course, Fraser became dreadfully and unaccountably hostile towards Israel, even giving an interview to a woman who, as this pro-Israel Australian blog briefly indicates, flirts with some very dodgy theories

  4. Leon Poddebsky says:

    Perhaps Professor Rutland or another historian could post a sequel containing information about some matters that have not been treated here.
    What did Mr Fraser say or do in relation to the refusal by the Palestine Liberation Organisation to recognise Jewish national rights in any part of The Land of Israel?
    What did Mr Fraser say or do about the continual murderous attacks on Israeli civilians and citizen soldiers, including the continual shelling of Northern Israel?
    Did Mr Fraser ever acknowledge a causal relationship between PLO aggression and Israel’s campaign to neutralise the PLO’s murderous activity?
    This campaign did indeed achieve that result; Arafat and his forces were exiled to Tunisia.
    Did Mr Fraser ever acknowledge that?
    Why are United Nations forces called “peacekeeping forces,” given that at the first sign of trouble, they pack their bags and depart for safer regions?
    Are the above questions “provocative?”
    If so, do they therefore not need to be answered?

    • Lynne Newington says:

      You’re worrying about past PM Australa’s Malcolm Fraser where I would’ve been more concerned about your own past president Jesuit educated Shimon Perez who was willing to sell you out to Rome.

      • Leon Poddebsky says:


        I’m not worrying.
        Professor Rutland’s article was a result of academic research, and in that spirit I asked some questions which the Professor’s article did not deal with.
        These matters are of academic interest now.
        As for Mr Shimon Peres, he has a brilliant record of achievement for his country in a number of spheres as far as I know.
        The people / voters of Israel have over the years declared in a democratic fashion whether they accepted his views / policies.

        • Lynne Newington says:

          Yes one wonders sometimes how they manage to keep up with all the many views, policies, radicals and outside interferences.
          A little indirectly off topic, I was quietly pondering on how it would’ve been back in Bibical times when you were blamed for other “government” decisions when reading of vindictive Obama, radical anti-Jewish radical groups and them calling on Obama to punish Israel for re-electing Benjamin Netanyahu who won’t be duped into giving anything away.

          • Leon Poddebsky says:

            Netanyahu has already given away plenty, and how much closer has that brought peace?

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