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Israel's emotional pull on Australian Jews

  • 26 February 2013

Over the past few weeks the tragedy of young Israeli-Australian Ben Zygier has dominated the airwaves. Given that I am friendly with and wish to respect the privacy of the Zygier family I will write more about the general issues rather than the specifics of that case. Specifically I would like to address the issue of divided loyalties which has been raised by a number of commentators in an ill-informed and contentious way.

It has often been argued that Australian Jews have a particularly close identification with the State of Israel. For example, a 2009 study by the Monash University Centre for Jewish Civilisation found that 80 per cent of Australian Jews regarded themselves as Zionists, 76 per cent felt a special fear if Israel was perceived to be in danger, 74 per cent had relatives living in Israel, and 86 per cent had visited Israel.

Australian Jews have the highest per capita rate of aliyah (emigration to Israel) in the Western world. There is a strong political influence of Zionist groups within Jewish communal structures, significant Zionist education in the Jewish day-school system, high participation rates in Zionist youth movements, extensive Jewish fundraising and advocacy on behalf of Israel, and regular coverage of Israel-related stories in the weekly Australian Jewish News.

This Zionist identity is politically and religiously diverse. For example, the Zionist youth movements vary from the secular left Hashomer Hatzair whose adherents seek to live on collectivist kibbutzim which favour peace and reconciliation with the Palestinians, to Bnei Akiva on the religious right whose graduates often aspire to live on settlements in the occupied West Bank.

The reasons for this intense connection with Israel are both historical and current. One factor is that Australia has a comparatively high number of Holocaust survivors or children of survivors. The establishment of Israel is regarded by Jews as both an atonement by the international community for failing to prevent the Holocaust, and an ongoing insurance policy that ensures Jews will always have a sanctuary from anti-Semitism.

Another factor is the ongoing Arab campaign to delegitimise Israel. Given the historical Jewish experience of powerlessness and genocide, many Jews genuinely fear that Israel is threatened by destruction.

This Jewish support for Israel is hardly unique in our multicultural society. It mirrors the support many Australian ethnic groups offer to their émigré homeland.

This is seen in nationalist politics (Australian Greeks holding rallies on the issue of Macedonia, Australian