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How Australian Jews see Israel

By Religion7 min read

The Australian Jewish community has traditionally been a very strong supporter of Israel. The support has been mostly dominated by the political Right, despite (or perhaps because of) the great physical distance that separates the two countries. But there may be changes in the wind, as we see a combination of converging factors.

To explain the situation, we must first understand some history and context of the unique Australian Jewish community.

While Jews arrived in Australia with the First Fleet in 1788, the roots of the community were established in the immigration wave in the late nineteenth century and then with a huge post-Holocaust immigration surge of some 30,000 people—which doubled the population. Even now, over 30% of the Jewish community are either Holocaust survivors or their descendants. But why Australia? Two reasons: First, our government welcomed European immigrants of all ethnicities—Jews, Greeks, Italians and many more. Second, many Holocaust survivors were quite comfortable with the idea of getting as far away from Europe as possible.

This immigrant middle-class repaid their adopted country’s hospitality in droves, establishing businesses and prospering all around. With a strong education ethic (“education is the one thing no-one can take away from you”), they contributed to the construction of one of the strongest Jewish day school systems in the world, with participation rates above 50% in Melbourne, and very high in Sydney as well. Viewing the state of Israel as the primary barrier to another Holocaust, they were strong Israel supporters both financially, through major organizations like UIA (the Australian equivalent of UJA) and JNF, and politically, by establishing strong links to a government that continues to increase its support.

In 1967, when Israel was under attack from all sides, the Sydney community collectively agreed that all local organizations should suspend fundraising and contribute to Israel, in an unsurpassed gesture of unity and solidarity. This led to the following year’s formation of a Federation-style Jewish Communal Appeal that continues to be the backbone of all fundraising and community planning in Sydney.

The effect of the Holocaust and the community of survivors on the Australian Jewish community cannot be underestimated. Australia has been a refuge for more Holocaust survivors per capita than any other country besides Israel. However, there are several trends that, when taken together, may be indicators of a potential shift in this phenomenon.

The Gen08 community survey undertaken by Monash University was one of the largest and most comprehensive of any Diaspora Jewish community. Their initial report on Jewish continuity segmented the Jewish community into “core”, “middle”, and “periphery” categories, noting that the middle is where “Jewish identity is challenged but traditional beliefs and linkages remain”—where much of the effort towards strengthening Jewish value transmission should be directed. But it also noted that GenXs and GenYs are disenfranchised with current leadership, and that “the current mix of institutions will not satisfy future need.”

Seven decades after the war, only 10-15% of Holocaust survivors are still living with us. As pointed out by a representative of the third-generation, Ariella Leski, at the recent Holocaust memorial event, “We have inherited a past which is not part of our lived experiences, yet which forms much of our Jewish identity”. This almost reflects a dissonance in the Jewish identity of 2Gs and 3Gs, as they balance respect for their parents’ and grandparents’ experience with the need to define their own identity. This corresponds with the generational shift from guilt-based Judaism (“did my family all perish so that you could marry out?”) to incentive-based Judaism.

The mantra “never again” has very different meanings to survivors and their children. This was particularly evident when at last year’s Holocaust memorial event, a segment was devoted to the fight by Jewish groups against genocide taking place now in parts of Africa. Survivors in the audience took offence at “their Holocaust” being hijacked and demeaned by comparisons to others. Yet, it’s equally clear that the universalist message of Jews fighting against intolerance wherever it occurs is one that resonates strongly with the 3Gs. The 3Gs did not grow up knowing war and adversity, and they did not see Israel under fire fighting for survival in its early statehood. Indeed, they are more likely to have been brought up consuming the narrative of Israel as the aggressor, which regularly fills the Left-dominated media.

These 2Gs and 3Gs are forming their own congregations and communities and talking about Jewish issues important to them through online social media. The Jewish social change movement that has been dominant in the U.S. for over a hundred years is only now seriously taking root in Australia, with particularly appeal to this same demographic. Organizations like the New Israel Fund and Jewish Aid Australia, which works with refugee and disadvantaged (non-Jewish) communities, are the “hot” charities at the moment.

And combined with all these trends is the intergenerational wealth transfer currently taking place, which has been estimated at 41 trillion dollars in the U.S. alone. As this wealth is transferred, the 2Gs and 3Gs find themselves responsible for very significant family philanthropy. While their parents or grandparents (often the ones who created the wealth) were one-eyed “Israel right or wrong” supporters of UIA and JNF, the next generations don’t share these loyalties.

JNF in Australia made a clear statement last year of generational transition in leadership, as well as a shift to project-based funding for water infrastructure and similar projects, especially in the growing Negev and Arava regions. This was clearly a move aimed to engage the younger, “green” market. JewishCare, the largest social welfare organization in Melbourne, is also making shifts in both its positioning and how it raises funds from the community, in an effort to appeal to the next generation. Clearly the major existing organizations recognize what is going on and are not taking it lying down.

This confluence of change has the potential to shift the Australian Jewish community away from its traditional strong support of Israel. Other Jewish communities in the world have also seen these changes—the generational shift from immigrant to 2G and 3G, the rise of Jewish social justice, and the transfer of wealth. What is significant is that all three are happening in the same generation and, with the internet as an accelerant in the rapid sharing of ideas, it could lead to a relatively rapid tectonic shift. This poses both a risk and a challenge to the establishment.

A look at the changes currently happening in the Australian Jewish community compared with how similar changes have happened in other communities around the world, and the possible impact on our relationship with Israel.

This was also posted at [Daily Beast].

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