A crude hatchet job on the Australian Jewish Association

A strange piece appeared this week, suggesting the last article I authored for the Australian Jewish Association (AJA) could be potentially “dangerous, and threaten significant damage to inter-communal relations.” Written by Professor Philip Mendes, it went on to call my article “inflammatory and irresponsible’.

Mende’s article, ostensibly a response to my piece highlighting numerous concerning anti-Israel statements from the Labor party, descended instead into an attack on the AJA.

Unaccustomed to having my words described that way. I decided to debunk some of the claims.

Here are the articles so readers can make up their own mind……

https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/a-crude-hatchet-job-on-the-australian-labor-party/

https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/labor-pains-for-australias-jews/

Early on, Mendes attacks AJA for not being affiliated with one of the roof bodies. This conveniently ignores the fact that AJA arose in 2017, out of community frustration with some of those very institutions at the time.

On a personal note, I am about to commence my second term as a deputy on the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, which is an organisation that does much incredible work. Several deputies are also AJA members. Mende’s assertion that AJA is alienated from the Jewish mainstream couldn’t be further from the truth.

The Jewish community is a big tent and there is room for an array of opinions and organisations. Peak bodies and roof organisations are essential and do important work. However, on several occasions, community figures have privately told me they wish they were in a position to speak like AJA does.

Admittedly AJA’s relations with some other Jewish organisations were strained at first. This isn’t unusual when a new player enters the scene, and some see their personal fiefdoms under threat. AJA was a victim of a ‘BDS’ style campaign.

Venues would receive phone calls demanding they cancel AJA events, and speakers visiting Australia would be warned not to interact with AJA. Some of these speakers confided to AJA the names of people who had tried to silence them. It’s likely that there were others who complied with the boycott.

Hopefully these events are in the past. AJA frequently works with other groups and opens our hands in friendship to those that haven’t yet collaborated. The Jewish Community faces much larger enemies, and communal unity is badly needed. The glee with which some communal leaders rushed to share Mende’s divisive attack on a fellow communal organisation should lead to some soul searching. The energy expended attacking AJA should be diverted to fighting the important battles for our community. That said, in the time since I began working for AJA, I have noticed a marked improvement in relations with other community organisations.

One person who certainly recognised the importance of AJA was Isi Liebler, Australia’s greatest ever Jewish leader. Besides from agreeing to appear as an AJA speaker on multiple occasions, Isi provided valuable guidance to AJA committee members in its early days.

One thing Mendes does get right, is that AJA proudly supports Israeli control over the entire Land of Israel. This includes the Jewish heartland of Judea and Samaria with an undivided Jerusalem as its capital city. In fact, just last week in honour of Israeli Independence Day, AJA took out advertisements saying as much.

While Mendes implies this is something radical, it is in fact mainstream Israeli policy, something which both Prime Minister Naftali Bennet and Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu agree upon and has widespread support in the Israeli public. After the failed Gaza disengagement that brought endless wars and rockets, AJA will never apologise for not wanting to create another terror state. In all our meetings with politicians, AJA is vocal about the dangers of creating an Arab State of Palestine.

Mendes accuses AJA of ‘stereotyping’ the fact that the Palestinian Arab leadership are aligned with terrorist activities. Sadly, it’s just a simple fact the current Palestinian Arab Leadership are terrorists. From Iranian-backed Hamas who rule Gaza, and who’ve just been proscribed as such by Australia, to the Palestinian Authority in Judea/Samaria, who proudly pay terrorists extra for each Jew they murder. This includes the terrorists who butchered 3 Jews to death with axes, just days ago.

If AJA is far from the mainstream for not calling for another Arab State to be created in the centre of Israel, then we will wear that with pride. If other organisations are calling for a ‘State of Palestine’, that’s something for them to explain to their members.

Too often, commentators on the left seek to label those they disagree with as extremist or ‘far right’. The label is tossed around so often, it has become devoid of meaning. AJA does battle with the true ‘far right’ and they in turn target us. AJA is frequently subjected to Neo-Nazi abuse. AJA is a contributing member of the worldwide Combatting Antisemitism Movement (CAM) and proud of the work we do on Shoah commemoration, such as this year’s Yom HaShoah Zoom event with child Holocaust survivor, Eddy Boas.

Mendes claimed that AJA hosted our NSW Elections Small Parties Forum in 2022. In reality, it took place over 3 years ago in 2019. For some reason, he is surprised that several conservative parties were included in a small parties’ forum. The well-attended forum gave a voice to those excluded from other Jewish organisation’s debates and thus gave the Community a genuine chance to hear a range of opinions. Two of the speakers were elected to the NSW Upper House, and AJA enjoys excellent relations with both Mark Latham of One Nation and Rev Fred Nile of the Christian Democratic Party and briefs them on matters of interest to the Jewish Community and Israel. The event was the first Jewish one for some of the speakers, who were impressed by our community. I would consider that event a resounding success.

Other Jewish groups host people like climate ‘independent’ Zoe Daniels, who attributed Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem to ‘satisfying his wealthy Jewish donors’ and whose name sits on an outrageous petition slandering Israel. Many Jewish organisations have even invited candidates from the Greens, which AJA labels as Australia’s only significant antisemitic political party.

Of course, Mendes doesn’t mention all the events that AJA has held with Labor figures like Kimberly Kitching and Michael Danby. While Mendes accuses the AJA of cherry-picking to find anti-Israel voices in Labor (I didn’t, there were so many more, but I couldn’t fit any more in), he has himself cherrypicked a couple of AJA events he didn’t like, out of hundreds. AJA presents a broad range of perspectives to the community. In fact, our next speaker, on Wednesday 7 May, Professor Alan Johnson describes himself as a socialist. And no, AJA doesn’t endorse every word of every one of the more than 100 speakers in AJA’s Weekly Wednesday Night Speaker Series.

AJA meets a wide array of politicians and candidates in order to best advance the interests of the Jewish Community. AJA has been variously attacked for meeting with Climate ‘Independent’ Allegra Spender and with One Nation leader, Pauline Hanson. Just this week AJA congratulated One Nation on the election of its first Jewish Member of Parliament, an intelligent young woman in South Australia. Shockingly, I believe AJA was the only Jewish organisation who bothered. Since it smashes too many of their stereotypes, some would prefer to ignore reality and pretend her election never happened.

When it comes to Israel, AJA has hosted guest speakers like Mohammad Darawashe, director of the Givat Haviva Center, which has a “vision for a shared society is anchored in principles of mutual respect, trust, pluralism, and intrinsic equality between citizens.” Mohammad was even a leadership fellow with the radical New Israel Fund (NIF), but sure AJA is some extremist conservative group.

Shortly after, AJA was privileged to hear from Anan Kheir and Shadi Abu Faris from the Druze Heritage Centre.

AJA has particularly strong ties across the Muslim Community. One of my first public responsibilities for AJA was to take up an invitation to be the Jewish representative at a Bosnian event to commemorate the genocide committed against Bosnian Muslims. As the grandson of Holocaust survivors, I was touched to be presented with a book by a survivor of the Srebrenica Massacre. Co-operation has continued with that community.

AJA has a good relationship with the United Arab Emirates Embassy, His Excellency Abdulla Al Subousi, has addressed AJA. AJA are strong supporters of the Abraham Accords, initiated by Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu. When peace is genuine, it is something truly beautiful.

I’ve been impressed by how outspoken AJA has been on behalf of the Muslim Uighurs facing horrific persecution by China. I am passionate about this, since I have a close friend from that community. AJA President Dr David Adler has addressed Uighur rallies, and they in turn have addressed AJA. The AJA Uighur event was even targeted by Chinese Zoom bombers, but that’s a story for another day.

AJA was the only Jewish group in Australia to make a submission into the Parliamentary Inquiry into banning Uighur forced labour. I’m proud that on this issue, AJA has been the loudest voice in the Jewish community, giving voice to the voiceless, and living the message of Never Again.

AJA President Dr David Adler’s personal friendship with Imam Mohammad Tawhidi is an inspiring example of what is possible in intercommunal harmony, and it’s just one of many.

Another is the friendship Dr Adler has formed in a short space of time with the new Ukrainian Ambassador to Australia, Vasyl Myroshnychenko. AJA organised three community events with him in the last week, including a national Zoom session, a Shabbat Dinner with communal, political and media leaders, and an address to the Jewish Community kindly hosted by Caulfield Shule.

These were his first events with the Jewish Community, and I am proud that AJA was able to amplify Ukraine’s voice in these terrible times.

Let’s turn to the issue I originally wrote about, growing anti-Israel extremism in the Labor Party. In attempting to downplay the vicious anti-Israel attacks from Labor luminaries like former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd and former Foreign Ministers Bob Carr and Gareth Evans, Mendes is really grasping for straws when he brings in Simon Crean and Kim Beazley. Seriously, I haven’t heard them significantly involved in the Arab-Israeli debate for 2 decades. To imply that they could offset the terrible damage that the Labor trifecta led by Bob Carr continue to do is misleading.

Mendes brings up Marrickville Council. It’s great that Anthony Albanese spoke up in 2011. It’s shameful that he stayed silent in 2022. When multiple people contacted him to comment on the Sydney Festival boycott, he was missing in action for our community. Voters won’t have the Albanese of 2011 on their ballot paper, it will be the Albanese of 2022.

While Mendes acknowledges senior Labor figure Tony Burke as an anti-Israel voice, he dismisses the others as “relatively obscure backbenchers”, which downplays the threat.

The speakers themselves may disagree with Mendes’s labelling. Sue Lines has been Deputy President of the Senate since 2016, while Anne Urquhart has been Chief Labor Whip in the Senate since that same year.

AJA is going to continue calling out antisemitism and anti-Israel threats, whether in Labor, the Greens or anywhere else. AJA will also raise its voice when the Holocaust is trivialised, such as by a recent Coalition candidate.

AJA offers Australian Jews the opportunity to apply for membership and many have. However, AJA doesn’t push it heavily, recognising that many of the strongest supporters have been put off joining communal organisations and deterred from organised communal activity. AJA provides services to the whole community, like the Weekly Zoom Speaker Series regardless of membership.

The membership has experienced strong growth lately, but an even better measure of AJA support is the growing number choosing to opt-in and subscribe to the AJA free email list, which now numbers several thousand. AJA Facebook is nearing 20 thousand followers, which is an unheard-of feat for an Australian Jewish organisation. AJA YouTube is nearing 1000 subscribers, while AJA is also active on Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn. AJA’s weekly Zoom events regularly attract 200 attendees, but this is deceptive as many more watch through Facebook Live and YouTube. As Dr Adler says, “Australian Jews are voting with their clicks.”

I’ve quickly come to see that most high-level interaction is done behind the scenes. AJA enjoys warm relations across the Jewish and wider community, including with many associated with the left, who reach out to offer congratulations and thank AJA for its work. I certainly have never felt alienated in my role.

AJA is going to continue to do the important work it does. Academics and those on the left who either feel threatened by AJA or oppose the achievements AJA is accruing are going to continue to criticise AJA and that’s fine too.

About the Author
Robert is Director of Public Affairs with the Australian Jewish Association (AJA). His background is in law and he has experience in legal education and politics. Robert is passionate about Zionism, Australian politics, and international affairs.
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