Australian Jews Offer to Pay to Keep Sydney Consulate Open

Australian Jews have offered to put their money where their mouths are.

Outraged by the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s decision to close the Israeli Consulate here as a cost-cutting measure, Sydney Jews have told the Israeli government they are ready to foot the bill to keep the consulate open.

Israel recently announced it would shut consulates in five cities — Sydney; Montreal; Marseilles, France; Rio de Janeiro; and Minsk, Belarus — to save an estimated $8.5 million.

But following pressure from Montreal’s Jewish community, Israel’s consul general there, Shlomo Avital, announced this week that Montreal’s consulate would remain open. The Israeli government has said it is now reconsidering all of the closures.

After the decision to close the consulate was announced, Sydney’s Jewish leaders launched a campaign, with widespread community support, to reverse the decision.

“We sent submissions to Israel on behalf of more than 50 communal organizations,” the president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, Ron Weiser, told JTA. “Now we have told Israel if money is the problem, we have the solution.”

Sydney is home some 40,000 Jews.

Zvi Gabai, the Israeli Foreign Ministry deputy director for Asia and the Pacific, visited Sydney and met with Jewish leaders to explain why the consulate was closing.

“We were getting mixed messages. He was telling us that it was closing, and yet we were advised that the offer to self-fund was to be considered,” Weiser said

The closures were planned to be of a temporary nature, with the consulates scheduled to re-open when the Israeli economy recovered, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said.

“There is already a pool of five donors who have committed to raise the funds, and they are all very keen to keep the consulate open,” Weiser said. “They have told me if the” Zionist Federation “gets the agreement, they will get the money.”

Weiser estimated that it would cost $270,000 per year to keep the consulate open. The consulate’s premises — it occupies one floor of an office building — were donated to the State of Israel by one of Sydney’s leading Jewish families.

“I have been bombarded by every section of the community with requests and even demands that the Consulate remain open. But we are suffering enormous budgetary restraints,” Israel’s consul general in Sydney, Efraim Ben Matityahu, told JTA.

With Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres now returned from the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, a decision on the fate of the Sydney consulate is expected soon.

“I would be absolutely delighted should they reverse the decision. The consulate has played an extremely important part in the processing of information, which has made Australia one of the most supportive Jewish communities in the world,” said Stephen Rothmann, president of Sydney’s Board of Jewish Deputies.

Weiser said that Knesset member Motti Zandberg, who assisted the Australian Jewish community in settling the 1997 Maccabiah bridge disaster, is petitioning legislators to keep the consulate open.

The consulate remains open for now, though some services previously offered there have been transferred to the Israeli Embassy in Canberra.

Currently, the consulate is slated to close by the end of September. Ben Matityahu would then continue working as consul from his home until the end of the year, when all consular services in Sydney would cease.

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