EUREKA STREET: “Israel’s emotional pull on Australian Jews” by Philip Mendes 26Feb13 February 26, 2013

by Philip Mendes    -   Eureka Street    -    26 February 2013

35112Over the past few weeks the tragedy of young Israeli-Australian Ben Zygier has dominated the airwaves. Given that I am friendly with and wish to respect the privacy of the Zygier family I will write more about the general issues rather than the specifics of that case. Specifically I would like to address the issue of divided loyalties which has been raised by a number of commentators in an ill-informed and contentious way.

It has often been argued that Australian Jews have a particularly close identification with the State of Israel. For example, a 2009 study by the Monash University Centre for Jewish Civilisation found that 80 per cent of Australian Jews regarded themselves as Zionists, 76 per cent felt a special fear if Israel was perceived to be in danger, 74 per cent had relatives living in Israel, and 86 per cent had visited Israel.

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

This Zionist identity is politically and religiously diverse. For example, the Zionist youth movements vary from the secular left Hashomer Hatzair whose adherents seek to live on collectivist kibbutzim which favour peace and reconciliation with the Palestinians, to Bnei Akiva on the religious right whose graduates often aspire to live on settlements in the occupied West Bank.

The reasons for this intense connection with Israel 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 an atonement by the international community for failing to prevent the Holocaust, and an ongoing insurance policy that ensures Jews will always have a sanctuary from anti-Semitism.

Another factor is the ongoing Arab campaign to delegitimise Israel. Given the historical Jewish experience of powerlessness and genocide, many Jews genuinely fear that Israel is threatened by destruction.

This Jewish support for Israel is hardly unique in our multicultural society. It mirrors the support many Australian ethnic groups offer to their émigré homeland.

This is seen in nationalist politics (Australian Greeks holding rallies on the issue of Macedonia, Australian Serbs and Croatians voicing their opinions on the Balkans, Australian Arabs supporting the Palestinians) and sporting loyalties (Australian Pakistanis or Sri Lankans cheering visiting cricket teams). Most recently, there has been the case of some Australian Arabs volunteering to fight (and a few being tragically killed) in the Syrian Civil War.

Some Australians may shake their heads in bewilderment at these expressions of dual loyalties. Australia is by any measure one of the best countries in the world to live in. It is quiet, affluent, tolerant and peaceful with virtually no political or ethnic/religious-related violence. Thousands of refugees are literally dying to come here.

Yet perhaps this sedateness and geographical isolation explains why some Australians of ethnic background, who were born in Australia and may not have even visited the homelands of their parents, feel intense identifications with events elsewhere. Sometimes home can be in two places, both where you live and where your heart is.

Even though most Australian Jews hail from Europe, not Israel, experiences of historical oppression and a collective culture of education and learning have propelled Jews to be disproportionately involved in political and ideological activities and debates. They feel an intense connection with the robust and existential political events around the future of Israel which contrast so sharply with the laidback nature of Australian life.

For most Australians who emigrate to Israel there is no sense of divided loyalties. Australia and Israel have a long history of friendship, and there is little prospect of conflict between them. Jews do not make aliyah because they are rejecting Australia, but rather because they feel a more emotional connection with Israel.

And there are many success stories. A couple of the most prominent international spokespersons for the Israeli Government in recent years have been Australians. My own aunt and uncle departed Melbourne in 1974, and successfully integrated into Israeli life, bringing up their children and grandchildren.

Equally, many Jewish immigrants to Israel quietly return to Australia after a few years, worn down not only by the difficulties of adjusting to a new language and culture, but also by the special demands of living in a semi-permanent war zone.

I do suspect that some Australians, Jewish and otherwise, may bring from their childhoods in tranquil Australia a special degree of idealism and innocence to their involvement in alternative homelands and conflicts. And it is perhaps this, rather than spy-catcher conspiracy theories, which best explains what happened not only to Zygier, but also to other young Australians who have recently died in conflicts in the Middle East.

Associate Professor Philip Mendes is the Director of the Social Inclusion and Social Policy Research Policy Unit in the Department of Social Work at Monash University, and also holds an Honorary Appointment in the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation.


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