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Demystifying Jewish support for Israel

By Philip Mendes - posted Wednesday, 10 May 2006


The recent contentious report by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt on the alleged power of the pro-Israel lobby in the US has once again focussed attention on the relationship between Diaspora Jews and the State of Israel.

Similar questions were also raised in Australia following the 2003 controversy over the awarding of the Sydney Peace Prize to the Palestinian intellectual Dr Hanan Ashrawi. Such debates have on occasions been utilised to imply that there is something conspiratorial or underhand about the level of Jewish support for Israel. In short, it has been suggested that the Jewish provision of unconditional ethnic solidarity with Israel is incompatible with participation in a universalistic democratic society.

My concern in responding to this charge is not to specifically debate or defend the actions of pro-Israel lobby groups, but rather to explain the fundamental basis of Jewish support for Israel. I will also argue that Jewish solidarity with Israel complements rather than contradicts Australian multiculturalism. That is, Jewish support for Israel largely mirrors the support that many Australian ethnic groups offer to their émigré homeland.

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This solidarity is reflected in both nationalist politics (for example, Australian Greeks holding rallies on the issue of Macedonia, or Australian Serbs and Croatians respectively voicing their opinions on the Balkans conflict or for that matter Australian Arabs supporting the Palestinians), and sporting loyalties (for example, Australian Pakistanis or Sri Lankans cheering visiting cricket teams).

It is also rare to hear members of ethnic groups publicly break ranks on issues of national significance. The obvious exception is that involving political refugees from non-democratic regimes such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or General Pinochet’s Chile or the Communist dictatorship in Vietnam. But protests against a specific regime are arguably different from protests against a core national belief.

Australian Jewish support for Israel largely incorporates this same perspective. To be sure, the one significant difference is that most Australian Jews were not born in Israel and or did not grow up in Israel. But this lack of organic connection with the alternative homeland seems to have increased rather than decreased the intensity of Jewish identification with Israel.

For example, a 1993 study found that 73 per cent of Australian Jews have visited Israel with 48 per cent doing so two or more times, most have close friends or immediate family living in Israel and 98 per cent feel a special connection with Israel.

In addition, Australian Jews have the highest per capita rate of aliyah (emigration to Israel) in the Western world. There is also the strong political influence of Zionist groups within Jewish communal structures, significant Zionist education in the Jewish day-school system, high participation rates in the Zionist youth movements, extensive Jewish fundraising and political advocacy on behalf of Israel and regular coverage of Israel-related stories within the weekly Australian Jewish News.

These figures reflect the fact that identification with Israel plays a fundamental role in Australian Jewish life and identity. The reasons for this are both historical and current. One factor is that Australia has a comparatively high number of Holocaust survivors or children of survivors. The establishment of Israel is regarded by Jews as both atonement by the international community for failing to prevent the Holocaust, and as an ongoing insurance policy that ensures Jews will always have a sanctuary from anti-Semitism.

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Another factor is the ongoing Arab and Palestinian campaign to de-legitimise Israel. Given the historical Jewish experience of powerlessness and genocide, many Jews genuinely fear that Israel is threatened by destruction. This may sound far-fetched given that Israel is by far the strongest military power in the Middle East, and safely allied with the world’s only superpower. But when regional countries such as Iran threaten to “nuke” the Jewish state analogies reasonable or otherwise are quickly drawn with the behaviour of the Nazis in the 1930s.

This is not to say that all Australian Jews support everything Israel says or does. On the contrary, the substantial political divisions within Israel particularly around policies towards the Palestinians are duplicated locally. Some Jews support the parties on the Israeli Right such as Likud, some Jews support groups on the Left such as Meretz, and probably the majority favour the centrist views of Kadima which is currently the ruling party in Israel. Often Australian Jews engage in vigorous debates around Israeli politics as was particularly the case over the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last year. But these debates tend to take place mostly in-house within the Australian Jewish News and other communal forums.

To the outside world, Australian Jews generally present a united voice in support of Israel. This approach reflects three factors.

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About the Author

Associate Professor Philip Mendes is the Director of the Social Inclusion and Social Policy Research Unit in the Department of Social Work at Monash University and is the co-author with Nick Dyrenfurth of Boycotting Israel is Wrong (New South Press), and the author of a chapter on The Australian Greens and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in the forthcoming Australia and Israel (Sussex Academic Press). Philip.Mendes@monash.edu

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