Australia, Israel and the politics of diaspora

Chanukah lights on Bondi Beach. AAP/Tracy Neary

Australia is home to a many diasporas: communities of migrants and their descendants who maintain a spiritual or material connection to their mythical or physical homelands, be it their place of birth or a location with deep spiritual and cultural significance.

With nearly one in four Australians born overseas, not to mention all those descended from migrants, many communities are shaped by their multiple, overlapping, and sometimes clashing attachments.

Whether those attachments are to Greece, Italy, China, India, Sri Lanka, Ireland or any of the dozens of countries from which Australians have migrated, they are complex, as new identities are carved out, accommodating new and old homes.

The fluidity of diaspora identity

In many cases, migrants and their children have arrived in Australia from a third country where their families may have lived for generations. Go to any international cricket match at the MCG, for example, and you will see groups of Indians supporting South Africa and New Zealand.

The ways in which migrants connect with their homelands are through communication with friends and relatives, participation in mutual aid and cultural societies, or by sending money back to family or local charities.

How far does their support for the homeland extend? Do they act as de facto defenders of the homeland in the countries in which they live, a kind of embassy whose institutions and individuals monitor public representations and debates relating to their identified homeland?

What responsibility does a society have when it is the home to two diasporas on opposite sides of a conflict overseas? What about when communities provide material support for groups in their homeland that are not allied to the country of residence, or that are hostile to that country? How does a government balance its foreign policy responsibilities with the needs and demands of its constituents?

Australian Jewry and Israel

One of the oldest of these diasporas in Australia is the local Jewish community. Sociologists and historians have long considered Jews to be one of the three “classical diasporas” (along with Greeks and Armenians), with their historic connections to the mythical Zion (and since 1948 to the state of Israel) and their dispersion around the world.

Australian Jews have long supported Israel. Described by filmmaker and academic Danny Ben-Moshe as “the most Zionist Diaspora Jewish community”, the level of attachment most Jews in this country feel towards Israel is significant.

Of course, not all Jews feel the connection. Many Jews feel ambivalent towards Israel, whereas others are hostile. The majority, however, can be said to have a special affection towards Israel, a sense that it is a homeland.

First cousins to Israel?

According to a recent survey carried out by Professor Andrew Markus of Monash University, nearly 80% of the 5100 respondents in Melbourne and Sydney identified as Zionist, which the survey defined as feeling “connected to the Jewish people, to Jewish history, culture and beliefs, the Hebrew language and the Jewish homeland, Israel.”

Or as Israeli scholar Professor Fania Oz-Salzberger put it in a 2009 op-ed in the Australian Jewish News, Australian Jews are “first cousins to us Israelis, while many other communities are second cousins at best.”

This relationship manifests itself through visits to Israel, the maintenance of family relations, and both moral and material support (although it’s difficult to assess the actual financial contribution that Australian Jewry makes to the state of Israel).

Connection to homeland

It’s a different relationship to that of other local diaspora communities. Without doubt, other diasporas share a spiritual connection to their homeland; there are often family connections, and it is normal to offer moral and material support.

But there is a crucial aspect that separates the Jewish community: although a vast majority have visited Israel, and many have lived there for at least one year, most Jews in Australia were not born there, nor were there parents or grandparents.

Most have their roots in Europe: Jewish communities in Poland, Germany, and Hungary long since destroyed by Nazism. Yet, for a variety of reasons, Jewish links to the small nation-state in the Middle East remain strong. There is the historic/religious/spiritual significance, the annual Passover invocation of a return to Jerusalem.

There is the security aspect: the notion that Israel protects Jews around the world from antisemitism, or another Holocaust. Finally, there is the continuity aspect: the idea that Israel acts as a safeguard against Jewish assimilation, and ensures the continuity of Jewish life and culture (although this last aspect is contentious with the growing power and militancy of Ultra-Orthodox sectors within Israeli society).

Israel as spiritual and emotional hinterland

All of these are part of a redemptive narrative in Jewish history connected to the Holocaust: Israel as the answer to the tragedy that European Jews inevitably met, powerless to defend themselves against the Nazi onslaught without the security offered by state mechanisms.

Israeli troops on exercises in the West Bank. Many Jewish Australians profess a deep connection to Israel. EPA/Jim Hollander

Indeed, in his recent speech on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day (published in the print edition of the Australian Jewish News, 27/1/12; an abridged version can be found on The Australian), federal Liberal MP for Kooyong Joshua Frydenberg argued the establishment of Israel “represents the hope, renewal, and revival of the Jewish people… It is Israel’s very existence as strong, vibrant, democratic nation that is the real proof that Hitler did not win.”

He continued, arguing: “Israel and its armed forces stand ready to give force to the prophetic words ‘never again’.”

Outside of Australia, this situation is similar, as reflected in a recent survey of British Jewry, although the United States is an exception, with lower levels of identification with and travel to Israel (see for example, Peter Beinart’s much-discussed essay claiming American Zionism is in a state of crisis).

In Australia, many in the Jewish community vividly remember the experience of war, trauma, expulsion, and resettlement. Although Australia is a secure home for Jews, relatively free of antisemitism, and certainly with no existential threat, an anxiety remains for many, giving Israel’s predominance in the Middle East added meaning.

Homelands in conflict

Questions arise when the homeland — be it Israel/Palestine, Northern Ireland, or Sri Lanka — becomes mired in ongoing conflict. What part do their diasporas play? How do they align themselves? And how do they continue to operate in democratic third countries, to which they may or may not also feel an attachment? What happens when those third countries back the other side?

And what happens when the homeland is not only caught in a cycle of violence externally, but is also being torn apart by internal conflict, such as the religious/secular divide in Israel?

One example of how these questions find no simple solution was during Israel’s 2009 incursion into Gaza, when then-Acting Prime Minister Julia Gillard backed Israel’s actions.

The Australian government’s response was certainly heartening for the majority within the Jewish community that supported Israel, but an affront to the Palestinian community.

Galvanising the diaspora

There are, of course, no easy answers. Australia’s population is diverse: there are many layers of attachment and allegiance, and as transnational communication is made easier, cosmopolitan identities proliferate even further, and well-established attachments to place and space are maintained more readily.

The old adage that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter is also relevant here. This pertains to almost all conflicts around the world, and is certainly reflected in the way diasporas conceive of, and relate to, conflict in their homeland.

What Australian Jewry’s response to the Palestinian-Israel crisis shows is that the further a homeland sinks into a cycle of violence, the more diasporas are galvanised in defence of their homeland, usually with little discernible impact on the conflict.