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The Jewish firestorm

By Larry Stillman - posted Thursday, 15 March 2007

The firestorm which appears to be now sweeping through Australia's small, but influential Jewish community over the issue of representation, and the “right” to speak out about Israeli politics may perplex many people outside the community, as it may infuriate or please some within. It is much more than a comic characterisation of “two Jews; three opinions”, but something that involves perceptions of authoritative representation, and the right to different forms of identity in a democracy.

It is also a case study in the power of the Internet in that hundreds of individuals (well over 430 as of March 14), through signing an online petition from “Independent Australian Jewish Voices”, appear to have touched some very raw nerves in the community and caught some big time power players completely off guard.

I would argue that this is a another example of an unpleasant feature of Jewish life in Australia that happens with regular frequency, and it can be explained as a result of unresolved issue of what the “Jewish community” actually is and does, and how it treats dissenters from so-called “official” positions.


In the 1940s, there were furious debates over the legitimacy of Zionism with, on the one hand, elderly former Governor General Sir Isaac Isaacs pleading a non-Zionist, British identity the one hand, and the young Zionist jurist Julius Stone on the other. Isaacs died before the establishment of the State of Israel, but he reflected the concerns of a number of others about the dangers of virulent separatist nationalism.

After the 1967 War, when critiques of Israeli triumphalism were made in the Jewish Herald newspaper by Paul Bram, advertisers withdrew, and the paper was closed down, leaving the press monopoly to the Jewish News.

Today, to its credit, many critics of Israeli policies, including myself, do get our letters printed in that publication, but by and large, it puts forward fairly conservative positions on Israel and lampoons critics as, for example, “pampered self-styled radicals” in a recent editorial, even though the same issue contains a colour supplement devoted to consumerism and lifestyle!

Additionally, from the 1950s onwards, the Jewish left, represented antecedents of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society as well as a number of anti-Zionist socialists were constantly anathematised by the mainstream community leadership. Until recently, in fact, the AJDS was prevented from being a constituent member of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria.

While it can be argued that there is a “survivor” mentality in the community because of the large proportion of Holocaust survivors, with a resultant defensiveness about the issue of Israel, there are a number of other factors to be considered to explain the zealousness of the response to the petition from “Independent Australian Jewish Voices”.

These include:


An unresolved problem of exactly what constitutes the Jewish “community” and resultantly, the legitimacy of its leadership as representing all interests and points of view. One the one hand, there is a low degree of direct involvement in any communal structures by around 40 per cent of the Jewish population, but on the other, these structures present themselves as representative and they have entrenched, vocal, and well-resourced spokespeople. It is seen as bad form to speak out on issues covered by these organisations, particularly on the Israel-Palestine question.

One the other hand, as a well-settled group of Australians, to what degree are Jews still “different” and why should it be that largely affluent people require or need separate structures and institutions? Is such a tribal mentality really necessary?

It can be suggested that many Australian-born Jews have absolutely no interest in the agendas led by such organisations. Their Jewish affiliation is confined to family and perhaps ritual and for many, an attachment to Israel (including visits or family there). They are secure, and their social and welfare needs are served by mainstream rather than purely Jewish institutions.

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About the Author

Larry Stillman lived abroad from 1976-1989 and travels regularly for his work at Monash. He has degrees from the University of Melbourne, Hebrew University, and Harvard, as well as a PhD from Monash University. He works as a Senior Research Fellow in the Faculty of IT at Monash as well as with the Oxfam Australia-Monash University Partnership.

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