In federal parliament, there are “friendship” groups for almost everything, from AUKUS to arthritis, and for many countries.
Three groups are particularly relevant at the moment – Friends of Palestine, Friends of Israel and a relatively new group, Friends of International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Back in the day Anthony Albanese was co-founder, with former Liberal MP Joe Hockey – later treasurer – of the Friends of Palestine group.
In his 2015 tribute on Hockey’s retirement from parliament, Albanese recalled travelling to the Middle East with Joe and his father Richard, who’d been born in Bethlehem. Albanese was struck by “the humiliation” Palestinians endured, their poverty and lack of rights. He also noted the “lack of rights” of very young Israelis, standing on Jerusalem street corners “with guns bigger than they were”.
The take-out for Albanese was that “you cannot have security in those circumstances, where essentially Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Ramallah are really just suburbs of the one place”.
This week Albanese told caucus, “I’ve been an advocate for the rights of Palestinians my entire political life. [But] you deliver on that by working constructively with the Palestinian Authority and the governments that can make a difference.”
Today’s chairs of the Parliamentary Friends of Palestine are Labor’s Maria Vambakinou, the Nationals’ chief whip, Mark Coulton and the Greens’ Janet Rice.
Coulton’s journey to the Palestinian cause is a long story. When he was a boy, George Browning – subsequently Anglican bishop of Canberra and Goulburn – was vicar in Warialda, in northern NSW, where Coulton hails from.
Many years later Browning, a strong advocate for the Palestinians, pressed their case with Coulton. Coulton was in a delegation that visited the West Bank, guest of the Palestinian Authority, where he saw first-hand similar scenes to those that moved Albanese.
“It’s easy to dismiss the supporters of Palestine as just being on the left,” Coulton tells The Conversation. “My position hasn’t been talked about because it doesn’t fit the narrative of ‘crazy left’. I’m not a radical. I’m clearly not antisemitic. I come from a conservative part of Australia”. Indeed he’s been surprised by some of the positive feedback from his Parkes electorate.
Coulton says his colleagues have respected his stand although it does leaves him “a shag on a rock” in the Coalition. During the debate on the bipartisan parliamentary notion condemning the Hamas attack Queensland Liberal Luke Howarth called for the Parliamentary Friends of Palestine to be disbanded.
Friends of Palestine hosted in partnership with the United Nations a packed event in Parliament House this week at which Francesca Albanese, the UN special rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories, spoke.
The friends of Israel is co-chaired by Labor’s Deb O'Neill and the Liberals’ David Fawcett. Neither is Jewish. Like Coulton, O'Neill has a back story to her special interest in Israel. Her childhood home had few books – when she was nine, she asked her mother for money to buy something at a local bookstall. She chose Our Lady’s Fool, about Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest (later canonised) who volunteered to die in place of a fellow prisoner in Auschwitz.
O'Neill says she had “a whole lot of questions” for her mother, who didn’t have the answers. O'Neill read more, and over the years became deeply committed to the “vision implemented with the state of Israel”. “I have a feeling of sympatico, as a Catholic, for the Jewish people, and their right to have a homeland,” she says. Equally, she supports a Palestinian homeland.
Friends of Israel distributes information, meets visiting dignitaries and keeps in touch with the Israeli ambassador.
Unlike the long-standing friends of Palestine and Israel groups, the “Parliamentary Friends of International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance” (IHRA) was only formed late last year. It’s committed to promoting education about the Holocaust and, in particular, persuading Australian universities to adopt an international definition of antisemitism.
The definition, from the IHRA, an inter-governmental organisation, says, “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
The definition doesn’t preclude criticism of Israel in the way any other country might be criticised.
The friendship group is co-chaired by two Jewish MPs: Labor’s Josh Burns and the Liberals’ Julian Leeser, as well as Independent Allegra Spender. Spender is not Jewish but her Sydney electorate of Wentworth has the highest proportion of Jews of any seat.
As soon as it began the group wrote to all Australian universities urging the adoption of the definition. Only six have signed up – Monash, Melbourne, Wollongong, Macquarie, Sunshine Coast and La Trobe (although it hasn’t adopted the examples that come with the definition).
Deakin University hasn’t formally adopted the definition but says it has given it to staff for use when assessing any antisemitic incidents.
Some other institutions, such as the Australian National University, believe they have adequate anti-discrimination provisions in place already or don’t want to single out a specific cohort.
Spender says that in her discussions with students before the current crisis, “I was horrified to hear from young people their experiences of antisemitism, particularly at universities. Students were trying to hide their Jewish identity.” She heard, too, from high school students facing antisemitism – they talked of removing their blazers and jumpers.
A July report prepared for the Zionist Federation and the Australasian Union of Jewish Students found: “Antisemitism in a university setting has been experienced by many of the Jewish students surveyed. Almost two thirds (64%) reported at least one incident of antisemitism during their time at university. The majority (88%) of these students had encountered antisemitism within their last twelve months of university.”
Spender says many Jewish students feel universities are unresponsive to their complaints. She admits she’s disappointed with the small number of universities agreeing to sign up to the definition, although “it’s a start”. She hopes the Israel/Gaza crisis might prompt more institutions – which are being contacted again by the friendship group – to get on board.
“I expect universities will think harder because this is [now] a much more of a potent issue on campus,” she says, adding she’d also like to see tertiary bodies endorse a matching definition of Islamophobia.