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Labouring in Vain? The ALP, The Jewish Community, and Israel

May 22, 2014 – 12:13 pm22 Comments

By Dashiel Lawrence:

laborSomewhere in Israel stands a small JNF forest named in recognition of former ally and friend of the Jewish state, Bob Carr. The forest was bestowed in Carr’s honour back in 1996; that seems like an eternity ago. His recent comments about the influence of Australia’s pro-Israel lobby make it hard to believe the former NSW Premier and foreign affairs minister was once deeply sympathetic to Zionism and Israel.

Carr’s distancing from Israel and Australian Jewish communal leadership speaks to the ALP’s increasingly vexed relationship with Israel and the Jewish community itself.

In November 2012, then Prime Minister Julia Gillard was forced to withdraw Australia’s support for Israel in a United Nations vote after being opposed by the majority of her cabinet. At the time Gillard was warned she would be rolled by caucus if she did not back down.

Upon departing the Prime Minister’s office in 2010, Kevin Rudd left a mixed record on Israel. The expulsion of an Israeli diplomat following the Mossad Passport fiasco surprised many.

30 years ago Australians Muslims constituted only a very small proportion of the population. Today the country is home to over half a million Australians who identify with Islam. Most are concentrated in Labor’s heartland – the Sydney’s western electorates of Blaxland, Watson, Fowler and Parramatta.

At the 2010 Federal Election, Lebanese Muslim Association president Samier Dandan warned the ALP not to take their vote for granted. No doubt many are now heading his call.

Australian Muslims, like Australian Jews, are not a homogenous entity. Some were born in Lebanon, Turkey and Pakistan. Most were born in Australia. They maintain diverse social, religious and political identities.

However it’s likely they would be more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than not. Israel has been at war with most of the Muslim majority states that surround it. It is likely this has and will continue to colour the way Muslims in Australia view the Jewish state and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In years to come, will they press Labor for a more sympathetic stand towards the Palestinian cause? It’s almost inevitable.

For their part, the Australian Jewish community has long identified with Israel. In comparative terms they now stand as a well-established, resourced and socially mobile community.

There is little doubt these factors, together with the effective work of the pro-Israel lobby, contributed to the friendly relations Australia has historically maintained with Israel.

In recent time Michael Danby has been a fierce advocate for Jewish communal interests and those of the State of Israel with the Labor Party. He has acted as a key mediator between the ALP and the Jewish community. However he cannot represent Melbourne Ports forever. And when he departs it is unlikely the Jewish community will find a similar advocate within Labor’s ranks.

Of the ten richest Australians that featured on the 2012 BRW rich list, five were Jews. One of the richest is Frank Lowy. A prominent supporter of Israeli and Jewish diaspora causes, he has a well-established friendship with former Prime Minister John Howard and connections to both major parties.

However times are changing.

Australian Jewry is hardly an electoral force. It accounts for a very small proportion of the country’s population. Only the electorates of Melbourne Ports and Wentworth carry something that could approximate a ‘Jewish vote’.

In 30 years the electoral influence of Muslim Australians will have significantly increased. There is likely to be one if not more Australian Muslims sitting atop the BRW rich list. They may not necessarily identify with the Palestinian cause – but they will not be friends of Israel either. Frank Lowy will be gone. Michael Danby will have retired.

Australia’s demographics and electorates are evolving. The ALP’s relationship with Israel and the Jewish community is only set to become more complicated.

The JNF’s Bob Carr Forest will soon be an obscure reminder of a very distant time.

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