Broadening the context of Australia’s ‘Zionist lobby’

The comments from right-wing Zionist organisations in response to claims by Bob Carr that they exercise undue political influence actually tell us a great deal about their lobbying work. EPA/Abir Sultan

Former foreign minister Bob Carr’s recently released memoir, Diary of a Foreign Minister, discussed in-depth the influence of Melbourne branches of the so-called “Zionist lobby” over policymaking.

Late last week, one member organisation of that lobby, the Zionist Federation of Australia, published a response to Carr’s claims, written by Jack Chrapot, a member of the executive of the Zionist Council of Victoria. The piece began with a comparison to the current Jewish festival of Passover:

This year, we have a new Pharaoh for possible discussion at our Seder nights in the form of failed former foreign minister Bob Carr.

Also last week, Mark Leibler, the national chairman of the Australia-Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), was asked on ABC TV’s Lateline whether he was able to raise concerns with Julia Gillard while she was prime minister. He replied:

If I wanted to raise concerns, I would have been able to raise them with her, as I was able to raise them with Kevin Rudd, with John Howard, with Paul Keating, with Bob Hawke and even with Malcolm Fraser. No different.

So while the various responses from these organisations has been to deny the influence of a right-wing Zionist lobby, such statements demonstrate otherwise. These comments can tell us a great deal about the lobbying work of these right-wing Zionist organisations.

When they claim to speak in the interests of all Zionists in Australia, they are actually trying to cover their partisan character. And a profound problem exists when they are presented as representing anything other than their own interests.

The AIJAC claims to be the “premier public affairs organisation for the Australian Jewish community”. They say that they “represent the interests of the Australian Jewish community”. But it is clear from even a brief glance at the Jewish community that they do not represent the interests of the whole community.

The characterisation of Australian Jews as being one community is itself a misnomer, given the breadth of opinion, history and political perspective among Jews in Australia.

The divides between different forms of Zionism are extensive. A key issue currently dividing Zionists in Australia is the question of whether or not settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are illegal.

Further questions surround the future status of Palestinian refugees, the purpose of the wall and the checkpoints, where responsibility lies for the continuation of the everyday violence of the conflict, and what a final agreement would look like. At stake in these discussions is whether there is the genuine desire for compromise, dialogue and peace.

Even the claim that the AIJAC might represent all Jews who are Zionists — which, while being the majority of Jews in Australia, certainly does not describe all – would still be false. As just one example of many, the recent growth of support in Australia for liberal Zionist organisations such as the New Israel Fund, which raises money to build Israeli civil society and rights-based organisations, demonstrates that there is no consensus on what Israel’s future should look like.

So, when those who lobby politicians from a Zionist perspective do so only from a right-wing approach, they don’t present a full range of views from the Jewish community. But, as one influential community member described it to me this week:

Just because they’re doing something bad doesn’t mean they’re doing something wrong.

It is well established that lobbying goes on in the halls of federal parliament. Other well-organised and successful lobby groups, such as the mining lobby, are proud of their record and conduct lobbying quite publicly. The problem, then, is much larger than this one lobby group of Zionist organisations. The problem is that politicians listen to lobbyists, and that those with money and ties to power have more influence than those without.

In his Lateline interview, Leibler replied to a question regarding his role as “intermediary” between the Australian and Israeli governments by saying:

I mean, there are excellent relations between the Prime Minister of Australia, both the current one and the former one, and the Prime Minister of Israel. They don’t need any intermediaries.

This point is crucial if we are to understand the history of Australian governmental support for the Israeli state’s actions against Palestinians. Both countries have – as historians such as Patrick Wolfe and Lorenzo Veracini have written – similar histories of relations between the Indigenous peoples and the settlers who founded the modern states on those lands.

Given this shared history, it is not surprising that there would be an affinity between the governments.

There is no doubt that there are Zionist lobbyists in Australia, and that the loudest Zionist lobbyists in Canberra are from the extreme right-wing. They are incredibly effective, using face-to-face lobbying, emails and free trips to Israel for politicians and student and union leaders. As just one example of many, Victorian opposition leader Daniel Andrews has publicly confirmed that:

I made a commitment to Colin Rubenstein, AIJAC’s executive director, that I would go to Israel before the year’s end.

But focusing just on these lobbying activities cannot give us the full picture. And a focus on the story of the perceived dangerous influence of Jews with money cannot be divorced from a much longer, insidious, history of such stories in the west.

Instead, the ongoing lack of imagination, intellectual engagement and will for actual change by Australia’s policymakers – as well as the dominance of right-wing voices and policies – needs to be understood as key to shaping successive Australian governments’ policies towards Israel/Palestine.