Zionist advocates in Australia keep faith with Israel – for now

Israel advocacy campaigns, seen recently in the context of the conflict in Gaza, are typically fought in Australia on two fronts: Jewish community mobilisation and media engagement. AAP/Nikki Short

Jewish communal and Zionist organisations in Australia have taken the unusual step of staging mock air-raid sirens to show solidarity with Israel amid its ongoing conflict with Hamas and to build support for Israel’s position in Australia.

On Sunday, a flash mob sounded an air-raid siren in Melbourne’s Federation Square and ducked for shelter. A rally in Melbourne several weeks earlier let off a 15-second siren to replicate the day-to-day experience of many Israelis avoiding Hamas rocket fire.

While staging air-raid sirens may be an unprecedented if dramatic activity for Jewish communal and Zionist organisations, their response to the Gaza conflict has been consistent with an established model of Israel advocacy in Australia dating back nearly 60 years.

Israel advocacy campaigns

Israel advocacy campaigns are typically fought in Australia on two fronts: Jewish community mobilisation and media engagement.

Thousands of Australian Jews gathered in parks, synagogues and halls in the wake of the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers in June and the start of fighting in Gaza soon after. The crowds carry Israeli and Australian flags and banners declaring “Stand with Israel”. The events are dubbed “solidarity marches”, and attendees are urged to show their support for Israel.

Meanwhile, Zionist leaders have offered Israel’s perspective in major Australian media outlets, providing commentary to newspapers across the country. Other grassroots public relations activities include, for example, a public speaking service organised by the Zionist Council of Victoria.

The campaign has been led by the Jewish Community Council of Victoria (JCCV), the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies (NSWJBD), Zionist councils in both states and their federal counterparts. This has been the case since 1956.

These advocacy activities are known by the Hebrew word hasbara, translated in English as “explanation”. Hasbara is being replicated in Jewish diasporas around the world. In France and Canada, Jewish organisations are campaigning vigorously to defend Israel and show wider non-Jewish communities that local Jews stand in solidarity with Israel.

A well-established model

In Australia, this model of advocacy dates back to the Suez Canal crisis in 1956 when Zionist organisations initiated some of the first rallies in support of Israel in Australia. These were clumsy first attempts at Israel advocacy.

Soon after the crisis, Isi Leibler, a young Jewish community leader, sought to create what he called a “public relations department”. Leibler argued the department was necessary to improve Israel’s relations in Australia – and that:

Jews had often fumbled the job of explaining Israel’s actions.

Leibler’s brother Mark is currently national chairman of the powerful lobby group, the Australia-Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC).

Public relations and advocacy for Israel in Australia was strengthened under this model with increased resources and funding. During the Six-Day War in 1967, news coverage in Australia was overwhelmingly pro-Israel. With Israel cast as David to the neighbouring Arab nations’ Goliath, the Australian public sentiment was with Israel.

A Gallup opinion poll in 1969 found that 46% of 2000 respondents said their sympathies “in the fighting around Israel” were with Israel. Only 3% were with the Arab nations.

Australian Jews were also easily mobilised in 1967. During that conflict tens of thousands marched in the streets of Sydney and Melbourne. Hundreds of young Jews lined up outside communal buildings ready to volunteer and fight for Israel. Unprecedented amounts of money were pledged for Israel from Jewish communities around the country.

Meanwhile, the Jewish community and Zionist leadership compelled Australian Jews to demonstrate unity with Israel, and to “do your duty”.

Israel advocacy today

While the messages and (for the most part) the methods of the Jewish community leadership in Australia have changed little since 1956, the local and international context has altered significantly. Israel is no longer as well-regarded by most of the international community as it was during the Six-Day War.

The Jewish community and Zionist organisations continue to campaign to improve Israel’s image in the Australian media. They rightly point out there are multiple narratives of suffering and trauma in this conflict. Yet when Israel’s missiles are fired into UN schools, killing children, it is clear this is one public relations campaign they will struggle to win.

Finally, the Australian Jewish diaspora is fragmenting. While the vast majority of Australian Jews still identify with Israel, a new generation of Jews born after 1967 relate to Israel in more complex ways. They will not line up in the hundreds to volunteer to fight for Israel, nor will they rally with the comparative intensity of 1967.

They may strongly defend Israel’s right to exist, but many young Jews also have qualms about many of the policies and actions the government pursues.

Many Australian Jews, and the leadership who claim to represent them, are keeping faith with Israel. It remains to be seen, however, whether a new generation will pursue Israel advocacy with the same vigour in the years and conflicts to come.