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The 'Jewish vote' will not be swayed over Labor's Middle East pangs

By Philip Mendes and Geoffrey Brahm Levey - posted Tuesday, 30 September 2003

Recent reports in both the Jewish and mainstream press have suggested a major rift between the Jewish community and the ALP over Middle East policy, with potentially serious political and electoral implications for Labor. According to this narrative, anti-Israel statements by Labor backbenchers Julia Irwin and Tanya Plibersek upset the Jewish community, some pro-ALP Jews responded by threatening to switch political and financial support to the Liberals, other Jewish ALP supporters established a Jewish Labor Forum to counter this anti-ALP backlash, and finally Labor leader Simon Crean has intervened with passionate public restatements of Labor's pro-Israel position to the Melbourne and, more recently, Sydney Jewish communities in order to repair the damage.

There was never much substance or significance to this supposed "rift." Many Jews no doubt took exception to Irwin's and Plibersek's remarks, and Simon Crean may well have acted sooner to clarify official ALP policy on the Middle East. It is also "conceivable that some Jews" - to use the Australian Jewish News's marvelously vague phrase - might have considered changing their voting preference over the episode. However, none of this warrants the importance commentators have ascribed to these events.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a major issue in Australian politics. The ALP leadership has far higher daily priorities to address: economic and budgetary management, health, education and welfare policy, family law debates, industrial relations, and events in nearby Indonesia to name a few. Except in rare circumstances, Israel-Palestine does not rate more than passing attention.


The Jewish vote is not uniform or correlated solely with positions on the Middle East. Nor is it particularly influential. The available evidence suggests that most Australian Jews follow their socioeconomic interests and vote conservative. Even without Prime Minister Howard's strong pro-Israel record, Jewish support for the coalition is unlikely to waver much. The same applies to the minority of Jews who vote ALP. Many of them are concerned about other issues, such as Aboriginal rights, support for asylum seekers, defending Medicare, etc. A minority of left-leaning Jews may even support the ALP taking a more critical position vis-à-vis Israel.

Exceptions, as always, prove the rule. The only parliamentary seat significantly affected by a Jewish vote is the inner city area of Melbourne Ports. Here, many swinging Jewish voters currently support the sitting MP Michael Danby precisely because he is Jewish and passionately pro-Israel. For this reason, they also are unlikely to change their vote simply because some other Labor MPs express contrary views.

The question of Jewish donations to the ALP also needs to be put in context. With few exceptions, the major Jewish donors appear to be motivated by personal business interests as much as by specifically Jewish concerns, and many donate to both sides of politics accordingly. None of the major figures has gone on record as threatening to withdraw from donating to Labor.

There is a perception that Jewish communal bodies have the capacity to exert disproportionate influence on Australian political debates around Middle East policy. Certainly, such bodies are generally better organised and more robust than their local Arab and Muslim counterparts. This presumably is why Simon Crean felt the need to reassure "the Jewish community." However, organisations do not vote in Australian elections, and the real political influence of such groups remains a matter of conjecture.

The ALP and the Jewish community share a long history of mutual support and engagement. While the degree of Jewish support for the ALP may have waned since the 1960s, this productive cooperation is likely to continue despite the recent, insubstantial tensions over Middle East policy.

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About the Authors

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).

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.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Philip Mendes
All articles by Geoffrey Brahm Levey
Related Links
Australian Labour Party
Geoffrey Brahm Levey's home page
Monash University
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