New head of the Zionist Federation of Australia wants to build up local leadership, ‘reclaim Zionism’

Alon Cassuto, who stepped into his role in January, is taking charge of one of the Australian Jewish community's most influential groups as it faces unprecedented challenges

Alon Cassuto stepped into his role as chief executive of the Zionist Federation of Australia during one of the most tumultuous periods in the roughly 200-year history of the country’s formal Jewish community — just a few weeks after the Oct. 7 terror attacks, and as anti-Israel and antisemitic acts, speech and demonstrations were raging across the continent.

Protests against Israel began almost immediately after the massacres, including a particularly infamous assembly outside the Sydney Opera House, where the Israeli flag had been projected as a sign of support after Oct. 7. A pro-Palestinian crowd gathered, menacingly chanting “Where are the Jews?” (initially reported as “Gas the Jews,” until a clearer audio recording emerged) and “Fuck the Jews.” 

In October and November 2023 alone, there was a 738% increase in reported antisemitic incidents compared to the same time the previous year, including graffiti of swastikas and epithets like “gas the Jews” and “bring Hitler back/ finish the job,” social media posts with antisemitic sentiments, assaults and threats of death and/or rape against Jews, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry reported

In the subsequent months, anti-Israel and anti-Jewish demonstrations continued to assemble in the streets — including earlier this morning, as protesters blocked traffic around Melbourne — and students reported feeling unsafe on their campuses. In February, a group published the contact details of about 600 Jewish creatives in a WhatsApp group chat, resulting in threats against at least one of the members’ children. 

In response to this growing problem, Cassuto told eJewishPhilanthropy recently that he is calling for strong leadership from the Australian federal and local governments, as well as security forces, to condemn antisemitism and assert that they wouldn’t let Jews feel threatened or unsafe. He is also advocating for building and strengthening ties to other communities in Australia and to bolstering the Jewish community’s resilience — through Jewish schools and youth movements, trips to Israel with Birthright and Masa and social circles where Jews connect deeply with what it means to be Jewish, “with their people in their tribe and feel welcomed and supported.”

As he takes the reins of the umbrella organization, which represents 20 affiliated groups from a broad array of backgrounds, Cassuto said the Australian Jewish community needs to build “phenomenal leaders, who know what their Jewish identity means, what Israel means to them but also how to build movements, build strategies and execute impacts wherever they go… [who can teach the world] that we’re not Jews who are trembling: We are Jews who stand proud.”

Cassuto, 39, said that from the research the community has done, only an “extreme minority” of Australians hold anti-Israel or antisemitic beliefs, while most Australians just want to avoid the discussion about the conflict in Gaza entirely. “They’re saying, ‘we’ve had enough of the war with its background noise — we don’t want to import that friction here,’” he said.

Australian Jews watched the country’s population of roughly 800,000 Muslims for gestures toward interfaith reconciliation, but none came; instead extreme progressives allied with a radicalized Arab and Islamist community, Cassuto said, and have said things like, “‘Zionists can go to hell” and “Oct. 7 was legitimate resistance.” 

Cassuto, who was born and raised in Jerusalem and has been involved in Jewish organizations for most of this life, worked for years as a consultant to nonprofits before applying for the CEO position in September. In January, he succeeded Ginette Searle, who had served in the role for over a decade.

Because the Zionist Federation represents a broad tent politically and religiously, there’s “room for a lot of different views and nuance.”

“We should be able to hold two truths at once,” he said. “That Israel is fighting a just war against a brutal terrorist organization that doesn’t care about its own people, let alone the safety and security of Israelis, and [that] there’s a huge amount of suffering in Gaza,” Cassuto said. He believes a person can be “deeply passionate and dedicated to building a thriving Jewish community that’s deeply connected to Israel and at the same time, to have compassion for what people are experiencing in Gaza, which is horrific,” he said.

Cassuto said he wants to take back the word Zionist for the Jewish community. “It’s on us to reclaim Zionism, to bring Zionism into the spotlight for what it truly is, which is a beautiful and successful rebirth of self-determination,” he said. “For some reason, ‘Jewish’ is an OK word and ‘Zionist’ is not. A vast majority of Jews do believe in the tenets of Zionism — Jewish self-determination and the right to live freely in the State of Israel, which is a reality, not an aspiration.” 

Though it has had a number of issues with the State of Israel over the years — notably over the handling of the 1997 Maccabiah bridge collapse, which killed four and injured more than 60 Australian delegates, and more recently the Malka Leifer case, in which members of the Israeli government allegedly worked to fight an extradition order for the later-convicted rapist — Australian Jewry has historically been one of the most avowedly Zionist Jewish communities around the world.

According to Cassuto, the “vast majority of Jews in Australia” feel intimately connected to Israel and 90% of Australian Jews support Israel’s efforts against Hamas. When Israel is attacked, he continued, a “significant majority… feel as if they are experiencing the attack themselves,” making the intellectual distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism irrelevant because “it doesn’t really matter to the people who represent our community and have been under attack.”

Some 400 young Australians travel to Israel each year for different educational programs, and hundreds more older Australians on various missions and delegations. The community also brings roughly 20 shlichim (emissaries) to serve in local Jewish youth movements, and as a result, Cassuto says, “we have one of the most Zionist, passionate, deeply connected communities anywhere in the world…I think that’s because of the investment this community has made in its organizations and institutions, in its relationship with Israel,” he said. “We are the beneficiaries of that.”

Although the Jewish community is relatively small — according to the Australian 2021 census, there are about 100,000 Jews in the country — it makes a “disproportionate impact within Australian society,” Cassuto said.

As example, he said, consider Sir John Monash: A Jewish Australian military officer and civil engineer, dubbed “the best general on the western front in Europe” during World War I, and a proud Zionist, who founded the federation that Cassuto now helms nearly a century ago. 

“When he died, a few short years after he founded the ZFA, 200,000 people lined the streets for his funeral. He was an Australian legend — universities and hospitals have been named after him,” Cassuto said. When Monash gave an opening speech as founding president of the ZFA, Cassuto added, he spoke about “how much it meant to him to have both an aspiration for Jewish self-determination as well as being a Jew who deeply contributes to Australian society. Those two truths still hold today.” 

Cassuto said that Australian Jews still hold multiple identities, emotional commitments and connections to multiple places.” In his case, he said, he’s “super proud” to be a Zionist Australian and Israeli and Italian.

Even before Oct. 7, roughly two-thirds of university students reported experiencing antisemitism in the past 12 months, but 85% of those students said they didn’t complain because they didn’t feel like it would make a difference. 

However, Cassuto says he’s also seen a “reawakening” of Jewish identity and connection in the Australian Jewish community, with a recent 70% increase in membership of Jewish campus groups. “[They] recognized that both Israel and Jewish identity is actually quite a core part of who they are,” he said, and that it falls to “strong leadership to be able to channel these reawakened members of our community and make sure that we sustain them, as well as making it safe to be a proud Jew and a proud Zionist.”