In Australia, Misguided Focus on Israel Takes Attention from Local Issues

by Manny Waks

It is overdue that we examine the role of advocacy for Israel in our community organisations, particularly those that nominally are not designated a specific role to represent Israel’s interests. Of course support for Israel is critical, both at the community and individual level, and never more so than in the face of hostility to Israel throughout the world. This does not, however, preclude a careful assessment of the work undertaken by groups whose principal mission is to represent the domestic interests of the Australian Jewish community.

There are a plethora of dedicated pro-Israel organisations, including the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, the Zionist Federation of Australia (ZFA), and the Women’s International Zionist Organisation (Australia). This raises the question as to why other organisations, largely established to cater to the community needs of Australian Jews, so often pivot their focus to include issues already capably within the hands of pro-Zionist groups.

It was indeed curious that there was no discernible difference in the recent Rosh Hashanah messages to the Jewish community from the presidents of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) and the ZFA, respectively, despite their distinctive roles in our community. Both concentrated their comments on Israel, but in the case of the ECAJ, this was at the expense of local issues that are intended to be its primary focus. The centrality of Israel in the workings of the ECAJ and other mainstream “peak bodies”, such as the Jewish Community Council of Victoria and the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, is misplaced and a waste of critical and limited community resources. Local issues, some of which include aged care, social welfare, education, abuse, alcohol/drugs and social entrepreneurship, deserve the attention of groups whose imprimatur is to support the community needs of Australian Jews.

Another example of this skewed representation of local interests occurred when the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission (ADC) decided to invite Israel Defence Forces Brigadier General Gal Hirsch to make the prestigious Gandel Oration, its centerpiece annual fundraiser and publicity event. Previous speakers have included University of Southern California Shoah Foundation Executive Director Stephen Smith, human rights scholar Professor Anne Bayefsky, human rights lawyer Irwin Cotler, Ambassador Martin Indyk, and former prime ministers Bob Hawke and Malcolm Fraser. The ADC’s mission is clear, and though peripherally concerned with the demonisation of Israel as a means to defame Australian Jews, General Hirsch did not appear to be credentialed as an expert on matters that would advance the mission of the ADC, despite the disingenuous title of the evening’s oration, “‘Human Rights, International Law and the IDF”.

As should have been expected, given even a cursory examination of the General’s military record and utterances, he spoke mostly about his experience in the Israeli military as well as pleading with the audience and their families to make aliyah and to join the Israeli military. Clearly this is irrelevant to the ADC’s mission to combat antisemitism and racism.

Like the ECAJ, the ADC does admirable work, and I was once proud to head this organisation. Nevertheless, there are a multitude of effective Jewish organisations addressing issues related to Israel. The ECAJ, the ADC, and all of the other organisations whose primary mission does not relate to Israel should shift their resources and energies towards Australian-related issues. This will be of benefit to the Australian Jewish community, the organisations themselves, and their constituencies.

No doubt, some within these organisations will argue that Australian Jews are staunchly Zionist and so expect a natural focus towards Israel. This is facile, for no one recommends any movement away from the vigorous support of Israel already maintained by pro-Zionist groups. True, fundraising in a difficult economic environment is enhanced by a pro-Israel focus, but apart from the diminishment of community interests, the inappropriate attention to Zionist causes continues to alienate many younger Jews who question the centrality of Israel but nevertheless wish to work for Jewish renewal and continuity in their Australian community. Disaffection with Jewish identity amongst the young has reached a crisis point, and the attitude of the ECAJ (and others) continues to prove counterproductive.

Anyone who attends mainstream Jewish community events should be discouraged at the predominance of older and middle aged participants and office bearers, and the dearth of younger persons in attendance and in representative positions. Time is of the essence here. We cannot continue to alienate younger Jews who want to identify with our community, and at the same time disenfranchise those whose needs should be met by locally focused groups. Perhaps a wider debate on these important issues will produce a meaningful consensus for a way forward.

Manny Waks is a former Vice President of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Immediate Past President of the ACT Jewish Community and founding President of the Capital Jewish Forum.