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Howard's Liberties Medallion is a betrayal of Jewish liberalism

By Geoffrey Brahm Levey - posted Thursday, 10 June 2004

If pundits know one thing for certain about an upcoming American presidential election, it is American Jews will vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic candidate. This year many Republicans are hopeful President George W. Bush's staunch support for Israel will finally break this mould, but current indications are that Jews remain steadfast Democrats. The reason is that while Israel is an important concern for American Jews, it is not generally what guides their political allegiance. Rather, at least since the 1930s, this has been informed by a broad set of political commitments to state welfare, civil liberties and civil rights, or what in the United States goes by the name of (small-l) liberalism. One of the great institutional defenders of this liberalism has been the American Jewish Committee (AJC), an organisation established in 1906 with the aims of promoting less restrictive immigration policies and combating bigotry and intolerance.

Last Friday the AJC bestowed on our visiting Prime Minister John Howard its highest honour, the American Liberties Medallion. Previous recipients of the award include Martin Luther King, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Vaclav Havel, Natan Sharansky, and Elie Wiesel.

The citation for Howard's award reads: "in recognition of [his] longstanding commitment, as a member of the Australian Parliament for more than 30 years, and as prime minister since 1996, to championing democracy and human rights, and his unequalled friendship toward the United States and support of Israel." On Howard's support for the United States and Israel, there can be no question. However, Howard's record in and out of government stands against almost every significant domestic policy the AJC stands for (clearly outlined on its website).


On human rights, for example, the AJC advocates "the investigation and prosecution of those indicted for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes" and ratification of major human-rights instruments, including the International Conventions on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. As opposition leader in the late 1980s, Howard opposed the Hawke government's Nazi war criminal legislation, while last year his government sought to downgrade the work of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission by abolishing the dedicated posts of Race Discrimination Commissioner, Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Human Rights Commissioner and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner.

On immigration the AJC endorses the Jewish tradition in which "'strangers' are to be welcomed and valued". It supports "generous immigration policies regarding refugees who are fleeing persecution" and "efforts to reduce the flow of illegal immigration within the context of established civil liberties protections." The AJC expressly opposes mandatory detention, the "detention of aliens for an unspecified period of time," and "automatic bars to reentry". The Howard government incarcerates asylum seekers for unspecified periods of time, even though the overwhelming majority turn out to be bona fide refugees, even to the point of redefining the borders of Australia to escape human-rights obligations. Howard's mandatory-detention system grinds on as its wretched detainees - men, women, and especially children - go mad.

On public education, the AJC "believes that there must be a rededication to public education on the national, state, community, and family levels, so that the public schools can fulfill their promise as democratic institutions and launching pads of opportunity for all children". In particular, the AJC believes "that gaps in educational resources and opportunities between our nation's disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students must be narrowed." The Howard government has presided over an education policy that privileges already well resourced private schools and which has exponentially increased the gap between our nation's disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students.

Why then would the AJC, a bastion of Jewish and American liberalism, be moved to honour a politician so antithetical to its own political principles? Enter AIJAC - the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, with which the AJC entered into a partnership in 1997. By far the best resourced of Australian Jewish lobby groups, AIJAC is also an independent body, with no official status within the Australian Jewish community. Though claiming to be bipartisan in Australian politics, this means only that it is perforce willing to work with, and on, any government of the day. AIJAC national chairman, Mark Leibler, and executive director Colin Rubenstein both have close links to Howard and/or the Liberal party. Leibler, for example, was among a select few Howard invited to his private barbeque for the visiting US President last year. Rubenstein is a Liberal party activist and a member of the Howard government's Council for Multicultural Australia. He also unsuccessfully sought Liberal preselection for the federal seat of Bruce in 1990.

Working with AIJAC on issues of mutual concern, such as counter-terrorism and support for Israel, is one thing. Showering tributes on a politician whose policies are so clearly anathema to one's own, is quite another. Either the AJC has decided in recent years to place support for Israel and the US above its social justice convictions. Or else someone on their Asia-Pacific desk failed to ask the standard questions of their Australian bedmate. 

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About the Author

Dr Geoffrey Brahm Levey is a Senior Lecturer in Politics & International Relations at University of NSW. He is co-editor of Jews and Australian Politics to be published by Sussex Academic Press in 2004.

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American Jewish Committee
Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council
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