SYDNEY, Australia (JTA) — The first Australian cultural festival opened in Israel.
G’day Shalom Salaam, highlighting a robust Australia-Israel relationship, launched Saturday night in Jerusalem with the opening of the Australian Film Festival featuring "Tackling Peace," a documentary about Israelis and Palestinians who came to Australia last year to compete in an international Australian Rules football tournament.
Among the highlights of the festival, an initiative of Australia Israel Cultural Exchange Chair Albert Dadon, is a two-day leadership forum featuring some 40 high-profile Australians. The forum is led by Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard, the highest-ranking member of the Labor government to visit Israel since the 2007 election.
Among the more than 30 Israelis attending the forum are Education Minister Gideon Saar, and Industry and Trade Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. The Australian delegation, which also includes former treasurer Peter Costello, will visit Ramallah and meet Palestinian leaders.
Cultural highlights of the six-day festival include a concert by piano prodigy David Helfgott — made famous by the Oscar-winning film "Shine" — and concerts by Australian jazz giants Paul Grabowsky and Joe Chindamo. Guillaume Brahimi, the critically acclaimed head chef at the Sydney Opera House, is flying in to take over the kitchens of the King David Hotel for a night.
More than 150 Australians had signed a petition urging Gillard to cancel her trip and slamming Israel’s human rights record. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s nephew, artist Van Thanh Rudd, was among the signers.
"We reject the oft-touted cliche that Israel is a democracy like Australia,” the petition said.
But Gillard, who will meet senior Israeli and Palestinian leaders, said her visit will highlight the strong Australia-Israel ties.
"I intend to reaffirm Australia’s ongoing support for Israel’s right to live in peace and security within defined borders," she said. "I will also reiterate that a just and lasting peace in the Middle East must be based on a two-state solution to the conflict."