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Behind the Headlines the Jews of Australia

March 17, 1981
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— Australia’s 70,000 Jews are disturbed and angered by the approaches of some politicians of the left towards the Arab-Israeli situation and by anti-Semitic slurs from both the far right and far left but in a general sense the community appears to be meeting the negative political circumstances with high morale and effective rebuttal.

The outlook, however, is for a hardening of international pressure in Australia against Israel and consequently “further intensification” of anti-Semitism. This is the opinion of the president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Isi Leibler, of Melbourne.

“While the Jewish condition in Australia has deteriorated to some extent as was inevitable in the context of what is happening internationally,” the Belgian-born Leibler summarized, “the position here is still much better than in most Western countries.”

In an interview in Melbourne and in his 155-page report for 1979-80 to the Council on his two years as its president, Leibler, who is 46, lauded Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s government and former Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock. Fraser, whose Liberal (conservative) Party was re-elected last October, made a special trip to Washington last September to address the B’nai B’rith’s International convention.


The Fraser government, Liebler noted, was “willing to forego expediency and maintain a responsible and balanced policy in relation to the Middle East. “Referring to the United Nations General Assembly actions and the international women’s conference in Copenhagen last summer with its anti-Israel bias, Liebler observed: “It is a sad reflection on the state of the world that in all the votes Australia was in a minority of seven or in a minority of four.”

While “problems” exist with some leaders of Australia’s Labor Party with which a major part of Australia’s Jewry had long been associated, Liebler emphasized that the party is not unfriendly to Israel. One problem was Labor Party leader Bill Hayden’s visit to Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasir Arafat which caused “considerable distress.” But, Liebler noted, the visit was tempered by Hayden telling Arafat of his “unqualified support for the continued existence of Israel and his dissent from Arafat’s extremist views.”

Liebler noted that former Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, now a university professor, is critical both of the Fraser government and Australian Jews for defending Israel. Accord to Whitlam, the Jews are indulging in “crude political blackmail” while Fraser is “conforming to extremist Israeli policies.”

In this context, Liebler stressed, Hayden has “unequivocally disassociated himself” from Whitlam’s positions and “we have had no cause to question his (Hayden’s) integrity or sincere commitment to the continued existence of the State of Israel which is embodied in the Labor Party’s policy platform.”

“Jews should not regard Whitlam’s virulent anti-Israel outburst as being representative of Labor Party thinking, “Liebler cautioned. “On the other hand, we must not ignore the presence of a very vicious anti-Israel element within the Labor Party headed by Bill Hartley.” Liebler estimated that of the 78 Labor Party members in the Australian Parliament “as many as nine are to all intents and purposes committed to the PLO policies and in some cases affiliated with organizations such as the Australia-Libyan Friendship Society.”

“Fortunately,” Liebler noted,” the situation is more than counter-balanced by the large number” of friends of Israel in the Labor Party, “the most prominent of whom would be Bob Hawke” who last Sept. 21 was awarded an honorary fellowship by Tel Aviv University.

At the Foreign Ministry in Canberra, which is considered “even-handed” towards Israel, a Middle East specialist who asked not to be identified told this reporter that Australia’s “bible” with regard to the Arab-Israeli situation is the text of the UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 which also continue essentially to be the basis of the United States policy.


But the Mideast specialist in Canberra warned that while the Fraser government opposes the PLO, “it may shift if the PLO recognizes Israel’s right to exist.” Still, the specialist continued, the government does not go along with “loaded words like ‘self-determination'” for inhabitants of territories Israel administers and it takes quite a different “public” position than the Carter Administration did on Jewish settlements in the territories.

“Australia has never stated publicly that the settlements are illegal,” the specialist stressed. But he added, “Australia believes the settlements are illegal and an obstacle to peace.” This was the Carter Administration’s position. President Reagan has said the settlements are not illegal. Australia, the specialist stated, avoids the U.S. position that Jerusalem is a “unified city” because “negotiations are necessary” regarding East Jerusalem’s future. As a “middle power,” the specialist indicated, Australia doubtlessly will follow Washington’s lead on the Middle East, albeit with some deviations.

(Tomorrow: Part Three)

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