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Around the Jewish World Australian Jews Left Feuding After Ashrawi Gets an Award

November 14, 2003
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Palestinian activist Hanan Ashrawi received the 2003 Sydney Peace Prize earlier this month and departed Australia in a storm of turmoil.

The Jewish communities of Sydney and Melbourne were at odds after developing different strategies to oppose Ashrawi, whom some call an apologist for Palestinian terrorism. Meanwhile, reports of a “powerful Jewish lobby” appeared in the Australian media.

The Sydney-based Jewish Board of Deputies sought to take a subtle tack that still made clear to political and civic leaders that the Jewish community believed the Sydney Peace Foundation’s choice of Ashrawi was inappropriate.

“Our plan was simply to make the whole event as low-key as possible,” the president of the Board of Deputies, Stephen Rothman, told JTA.

But the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, or AIJAC, a Melbourne-based think tank, lobbied political leaders to reconsider the choice of Ashrawi. They didn’t believe it was appropriate for Bob Carr, the premier of New South Wales, to present the award, a $50,000 prize.

When the lord mayor of Sydney, Lucy Turnbull, instructed the municipal council to boycott the presentation, the media was awash with reports of a “Jewish lobby” attempting to control the situation.

The city of Sydney is a major sponsor of the prize. Ashrawi was chosen by members of the Sydney Peace Foundation, which is aligned with the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney.

Carr held his ground, saying he welcomed any opportunity for dialogue that may be of some help in settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I thought — maybe I was naive — that we’ve all got a role to play in bringing two warring peoples together,” he told reporters.

Until the incident, Carr’s record as a supporter of Israel was considered impeccable.

Remarks from the Jewish Community Council of Victoria that Carr was moving into “the camp of the appeasers” only added fuel to the fire.

Australia’s national newspapers and TV reported that prominent Jews were using political and financial muscle to prevent the prize from being awarded.

But Carr said Jewish pressure, including a phone call from shopping-center magnate Frank Lowy, was polite and not out of line.

Australian Jewish media also jumped into the arena, accusing the community’s national leadership umbrella organization, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, of being “deafeningly silent” in negotiating between the more subtle tack of Sydney’s Jewish leadership and the more public lobbying of the Melbourne group.

Previous recipients of the prize include South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mary Robinson, the former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Both Australian Prime Minister John Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told media that there are other Palestinians who deserve a peace award more than Ashrawi.

Ashrawi’s lecture in Sydney was attended by 1,500 people who gave her a standing ovation.

At the prize ceremony in the New South Wales parliament, Ashrawi said that she had encountered a degree of hatred in Australia “which I didn’t find even in my discussions with the Israelis. They would not dare to use the language and invective that was used here.”

But the real invective was to become a local matter. The rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney is still festering.

Rothman, of the Sydney Board of Deputies, wrote in the Australian Jewish News that the group’s “cleverly disguised strategy had been turned by AIJAC into a balagan” — a brouhaha.

The national chairman of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, Mark Leibler, wrote in the same paper that the council’s difference of opinion with Carr is “a difference between friends.”

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