Philip Mendes
Australian Jewish academic and policy commentator

The Jewish Council of Australia: how can they learn from the earlier JCCFAS?

In early 2024, a new left-wing Australian Jewish group called the Jewish Council was launched. The Council described itself as ‘a diverse coalition of Jewish academics, lawyers, writers and teachers. We are experts on antisemitism and racism. We were formed in response to the rise in racism and antisemitism in Australia. We are particularly concerned about the rise in neo-Nazi activities, fascism and far right extremism’. According to the Council, it was comprised of ‘academics, lawyers, teachers, writers and public policy experts’. They described their organisational structure as consisting of ‘Council members as well as an advisory committee. We are independent and are all volunteers. We are all proud Jewish people. We are made up of graduates of Jewish high schools, lifelong members of synagogues, and members of Jewish cultural institutions. Many of us are the descendants of Holocaust survivors, refugees and the survivors of pogroms’:

In short, the Council presented the case for a discrete progressive body claiming to represent Jews on the ideological Left, just as the small Australian Jewish Association claims to represent Jews on the ideological Right: The Council framed anti-Semitism as being solely a right-wing Global North phenomenon, which ignores the ethnic cleansing of nearly a million Jews from Arab and other Muslim-majority countries in the mid-20th century, and implied that progressives were allies of Jews against anti-Semitism. Although they didn’t specifically refer to the State of Israel in their founding statement, it quickly became evident that they were an anti-Zionist group that endorsed the Palestinian Arab nationalist agenda.

The Jewish Council are not the first Jewish anti-Zionist group formed in Australia. An earlier Jews against Zionism and Anti-Semitism (JAZA) group was formed by a small group of Marxists in 1979 to defend Melbourne-based Community radio station 3CR against well documented allegations of anti-Jewish racism. In their short history, JAZA became best known for advancing the blaming the victim argument that Zionists (read Jews) had actively collaborated with the Nazis to perpetrate the Holocaust:

Later, the Independent Australian Jewish Voices group was formed by journalist Antony Loewenstein and his collaborators Peter Slezak and Sara Dowse in 2007. Another group called the Committee for the Dismantling of Zionism was formed around the same time by the father and son combination of John Docker and Ned Curthoys. Both groups seem to have been short-lived (See my article, The strange phenomenon of Jewish anti-Zionism: Self-hating Jews or protectors of universalistic principles? Australian Journal of Jewish Studies, 23, 2009, 96 – 132).

It is important to clarify that anti-Zionism is no more a homogenous position than Zionism. There are progressive Zionists and genuinely internationalist anti-Zionists (some are Bundists, others orthodox Communists or liberals) who hold similar views in favour of the legitimacy of national rights for both Israelis and Palestinians. Where the universalist anti-Zionists differ from Zionists is that they would generally argue that with hindsight the creation of Israel as an exclusively Jewish nation state was not a good idea in the first place, and that today they would prefer to see the total territory combining Green Line Israel and the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip peacefully transformed from exclusively Jewish national rule to some form of bi-national or universal citizenship rights arrangement. But none of this means that they necessarily want to harm the civil or human rights of Israeli Jews, or have any tolerance for the October 7 Hamas death squad massacre or the broader ongoing campaign by Hamas and other reactionary Palestinian groups to destroy the state of Israel and ethnically cleanse or slaughter its Jewish population.

But other non-universalist anti-Zionist groups don’t view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a clash of two legitimate national claims. Rather, they frame Palestinian Arab nationalism as good, and Israeli Jewish nationalism as bad. They also essentialise Zionism and Zionists as an inherently evil population. I suspect this is the perspective of many of the supporters of the new Jewish Council, and would add that it is a viewpoint that is totally out of kilter with the opinions held by the great majority of left-wing Jews globally since 1948.

This leads me to the Council’s revelation that their name is based on their alleged ‘resonance’ with a historic, left-wing Australian Jewish organisation – the Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism’ (JCCFAS) which existed from 1942-1970:

I happen to know a bit about the JCCFAS. I first published a rough history of the JCCFAS in 1989 based on interviews conducted with a number of leading JCCFAS stalwarts – Norman and Evelyn Rothfield, Sam Goldbloom, Lou Jedwab, Eve Rosenberg and Isaac Gust – which won the Australian Jewish Historical Society’s Young Writers Essay Award. Since that time, I’ve published more than a dozen further journal articles and book chapters on the history of the JCCFAS. The JCCFAS celebrated many proud achievements, but equally made some dreadfully fatal errors. If the new Council wishes to be taken seriously as reputed ‘experts on racism and antisemitism’ rather than extremist cranks, they need to learn from both those achievements and errors.

The major achievement of the JCCFAS was their ongoing individual and community advocacy against anti-Semitism. The former involved recognizing Jewish lived experiences of discrimination in business, employment, factories and other workplaces, schools, housing, health services, public transport, and immigration, and targeting in response both the specific sources of racism and the broader government authorities or bodies responsible for policy and legislation.

To give one example of JCCFAS action, a former progressive Jewish academic from Monash University called Michael told me the following story many years ago:

He was subjected to anti-Semitic abuse by a senior teacher at a Caulfield primary school in the 1950s. His mother contacted the JCCFAS, and they asked their committee member, the  prominent left-wing activist Sam Goldbloom,, to address the problem. Goldbloom visited the school within a few days, and demanded an audience with the Principal. The abuse stopped immediately after that meeting.

The JCCFAS also mounted wider community campaigns in the media, trade unions, churches and political parties and movements to combat anti-Semitic arguments and ideas:

Additionally, the JCCFAS – which included a diverse group of Zionists, non-Zionists and anti-Zionists in its ranks – was consistently pro-Israel, and actively lobbied the Australian Left, particularly in the 1947-48 period, to support Israel’s establishment and survival: Their pro-Israel viewpoint reflected the overwhelming global support provided by Left groups and movements (both social democratic and Communist) to Israel in that period:

The JCCFAS also strongly supported Israel during their 1956 and 1967 wars with Arab countries.

In contrast, the JCCFAS fatally failed to name and combat the horrendous manifestations of Soviet anti-Semitism in the last years of Stalin’s rule. Between 1948 and 1953, Stalin implemented a vicious anti-Jewish campaign. The remnants of Yiddish culture in Moscow were eradicated, the leaders of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were murdered, and virtually all prominent Jewish artists, scientists, and intellectuals were purged. The structural violence against Jews in the Soviet Bloc countries culminated in the Czech Slansky show trial of 1952 which placed 11 prominent Czechoslovakian Jewish Communists at the centre of an international conspiracy designed to undermine the Communist countries, and the Doctors Plot of 1953 when six prominent Jewish doctors in Moscow were arrested and accused of plotting to kill Stalin and other Soviet leaders.

It appears that at the time of Stalin’s death, he was on the verge of implementing a plan to deport a large proportion of the Russian Jewish population to Siberia. There has been some conjecture as to whether these events were widely known in the West until Khruschchev’s secret speech in February 1956. However, they were regularly reported in the capitalist press at the time, and many Jewish Communists later admitted they had strong suspicions, but were reluctant to break Party solidarity:

From 1948 till Khrushchev’s anti-Stalin revelations of 1956, the JCCFAS erroneously insisted that anti-Semitism and communism were a contradiction in terms, and that any suggestions to the contrary reflected either temporary aberrations arising from the continuing existence in Eastern Europe of popular pre-communist prejudices, or alternatively manifestations of Cold War propaganda. As reflected in its name, the JCCFAS believed that fascist or right-wing regimes presented the principal or sole threat to Jewish well-being and security.

The JCCFAS, therefore, responded to the Slansky Trial and the Doctors Plot by denying that any anti-Jewish manifestations per se were involved. Instead, the Council maintained that these events reflected hostility to Zionism, and the polarisation of the Cold War. One of the JCCFAS stalwarts that I interviewed in 1988 told me that his greatest regret from this period was that they had been ‘conned’ by the Soviets into believing they were friends of the Jews. In fact, they were forced to accept over time that the Soviets were enemies of the Jewish people.

If the JCCFAS still existed in 2024, I am absolutely sure that they would have learnt the lessons from their fatal trust in the Soviet leaders. In particular, they would highlight that the cynical use of the term ‘Zionist’ by some Palestinian nationalists as a codeword for Jew:

does not miraculously transform ultra-right blaming the victim xenophobic anti-Semitism into something progressive.

On the ground, a modern JCCFAS would conduct major grassroots consultations with Jewish academics and students to document their current lived experiences of anti-Semitic harassment, bullying, defamation and threats that are clearly intended to exclude Jews from university life and participation. At the macro-level, they would critically examine the ideological links between groups that promote anti-Jewish discrimination, and wider anti-Semitic beliefs and movements within the Global North and also Global South Arab and North African countries where large Jewish populations were ethnically cleansed in the second half of the 20th century. Additionally, they would seek to partner with genuinely progressive allies in the Australian Arab and Muslim communities in order to debunk and isolate racist cohorts within those populations.

Even an anti-Zionist body can arguably act to combat anti-Semitism if they follow the evidence, and acknowledge that most of the principal sources of contemporary anti-Semitism are groups that claim to be anti-Zionist and/or progressive. Of course, the far Right remains a threat to the well-being and safety of Jews everywhere as evidenced by anti-Semitic violence in the USA and Europe. But it is mostly not neo-Nazis who are doxing Jewish artists and businesses, or violently invading Jewish neighbourhoods, or making online threats to the safety of Jewish academics, or espousing conspiracy theories that Jews conspire to control Australian politics and the media. Rather, it is groups of Islamic religious fundamentalists, ultra-nationalist Palestinian community organisations, and some so-called progressives from leading Australian universities.

So the ethical choice facing the Jewish Council is straightforward. Will they align with the forces for justice or injustice? Will they display a core anti-racist solidarity with the voices of Jewish victims of anti-Semitism who are experiencing the same threats that the JCCFAS protected Michael from in the 1950s? And if so, what are the strategies they will use to re-educate those sections of the Left who currently fail to call out manifestations of anti-Semitism, and indeed how will they inoculate future generations of the Left against anti-Jewish racism? Or alternatively will they duplicate the JCCFAS’s tragic apology for Stalinist anti-Semitism, and provide a cowardly Jewish alibi for those bigots who want to turn Australian Jews into second class citizens?

 (Professor Philip Mendes is the author of Jews and the Left: the rise and fall of a political alliance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014): His most recent publication on the JCCFAS is “ASIO and the Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism” in Phillip Deery and Sheila Fitzpatrick (eds.) Russians in Cold War Australia. Lexington Books, Lanham: USA, pp.107-132: He is a long-term member of the National Tertiary Education Union)

About the Author
Professor Philip Mendes is the author or co-author of 13 books including Jews and the Left: The rise and fall of a political alliance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), and Boycotting Israel is Wrong (New South Press, 2015). His most recent critique of the Australian BDS movement has just appeared in Robert A. Kenedy et al (Eds.) Israel and the Diaspora: Jewish connectivity in a changing world. Springer Nature Switzerland, pp.221-238.