By Dr. Ron Weiser AM
Israel is 70 years young.
Her existence is a miracle, her growth and development have defied any reasonable predictions, and her achievements are amazing. The vibrancy and diversity of Israeli life are a marvel.
Israel’s democracy and rule of law, morality and ethical principles, remain her compass through troubled waters.
And all of this even more to be admired against a background of the struggle to survive in a hostile neighbourhood.
Israel, even on a bad day, even when criticism is justified, proves again and again, that she sometimes slowly and sometimes more quickly, arrives at the appropriate destination.
It has been an interesting phenomenon, that small fringe elements of our own community have been insisting that the communal leadership is out of touch and that not only does Australian Jewry’s relationship with Israel need to change, but also, and here is their key point – that Israel herself needs to change, in order to remain a central part of the Jewish identity of the next generation.
By change however, they mean something quite different than the founders of the 3rd Jewish Commonwealth.
When David Ben Gurion and his colleagues signed the Israeli Declaration of Independence they were very clear and very careful with their language.
Following a preamble about the biblical and historical connection of the Jewish People to Eretz Yisrael, came the declaration:
“Accordingly, we members of the People’s Council, representatives of the Jewish community of Eretz Yisrael and of the Zionist movement, are here assembled on the day of the termination of the British mandate over Eretz Yisrael and, by virtue of our natural and historic right and on the basis of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz Yisrael, to be known as the State of Israel.”
And then further on:
“The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations”.
The signatories to the Declaration of Independence unanimously and unambiguously stated that the purpose of the State of Israel was for it to be, the Jewish State.
Afterwards, and only then, did they come to describe how the Jewish State would be run – with equality and justice for all her citizens.
In effect these fringe groups are attempting to reverse the order within the Declaration, or to remove the Jewish State paragraph altogether.
They overlook the entire essence of the Zionist enterprise.
When discussing these matters, I prefer to quote views of the people that the fringe elements would have you believe they are in tune with.
In case anyone is in doubt where we stand 70 years after the Declaration, one should listen to the words of Tzipi Livni who last week said:
“Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. At the same time, equality is a Jewish and democratic value and being a Jewish state with equal rights to all the citizens means that the Israeli Arabs have equal rights as citizens, although their national aspirations will not be fulfilled in Israel.”
In other words, 70 years later, our aims remain the same – Israel is the nation state of only one people.
The Gen 17 survey is a wonderful and important contribution to our understanding of Australia Jewry. Like any survey, one needs to be careful not to draw absolute truths from it.
But the trends, especially from a survey such as this which attracted a very significant number of responses, tell us a lot.
Amongst the many graphs and statistics contained therein, two in particular stand out in the context of our relationship with Israel.
The first is that Australian Jews overwhelmingly describe themselves as Zionists. Well okay, we sort of expected that.
But get this, the age group that had the highest self-description as being Zionist are – drum roll – the 18 to 29 year olds!
Supposedly the age group some would have us believe are the most alienated from Israel.
And by almost fully 10 percentage points higher than the 60 to 89 age brackets. Quite amazing.
On the statement “I feel a sense of responsibility to ensure that the State of Israel continues to exist” in itself a very heavy question, the Gen 17 survey analysts wrote: “This proposition obtained the highest level of positive response across the survey. Concern about threats to Israel’s continuing existence is the issue that unifies the Jewish community more than any other.”
For the avoidance of doubt, fully 82% of the 18 to 29 age bracket strongly agreed or tended to agree with this as compared to 88% overall.
Yes, there is a trend here which goes across the age groups, but it is not clear at all what the causes are. Are they simply generally naturally age related, or perhaps the younger generation seeing Israel as much stronger than their grandparents did and less in need of a personal responsibility from themselves directly?
Whatever the reasons, that 82% of young Australian Jewish adults feel a responsibility for Israel’s survival is simply remarkable.
Many factors have gone into producing a generation that responds as it does.
One outstanding marker of Australian Jewry is the unparalleled efforts and successes in sending our students to Israel. And this may be a major factor in what distinguishes us from the USA.
The very important Year 10 Israel school programs in Melbourne are highly successful and longstanding in the schools that take part in them, but do not have community wide penetration. The Y2i Year 10 Israel programs project in Sydney has very wide penetration but has not yet been around long enough to have influenced the Gen 17 survey. Doubtless it will in the future.
The major player in the Israel programs area is the Zionist Federation of Australia (ZFA). Via various agencies in Australia the ZFA sends on average fully 300 post high school students per year on long term Israel programs (5 months to a year) and another 300 or so on short terms programs.
That’s each year.
We are approaching or even exceeding about 50% of the available market – and again, that’s each year.
If you want to talk about interest in going to Israel amongst young adults, for example, for this June/July Birthright cohort there are 470 applicants for 120 places.
Of course, we cannot be complacent. Dialogue about Israel has been an ever changing and evolving dynamic as times have changed and Israel’s reality has altered.
Israel/Diaspora relations and the balances between the two are constantly maturing and the two-way free flow of opinions are important.
Modalities to express criticism are desirable and necessary. None of that is in doubt.
The challenge as we look to the future is to ensure that the Jewish People both inside and outside of Israel will continue to unite around the concept of the Jewish State, rather than trying to invalidate it.
To stay true to the Israeli Declaration of Independence and its core aim – how to be the best Jewish State possible.
Dr Ron Weiser AM
Dr. Ron Weiser AM is the Zionist Federation of Australia Public Affairs Chairman and the Hon Life President of the Zionist Council of NSW.