One of my earliest childhood memories is sitting in a packed to capacity Hamer Hall on Yon Ha’atzmaut. I still remember the thunderous cheers of the youth movements in the gallery, the marching of the flag parade, and the Israeli band playing halleluya and uf gozal.
And I remember trying so hard to sit still while my father who was President of the ZFA at the time – delivered his address.
These were defining moments of my Zionist identity.
As I grew older, my sense of what it meant to be a Zionist matured. I observed events in Israel through the same prism as many Diaspora Jews, living the tension between bystander and stakeholder.
I will never forget the horror of the first intifada. Or the hope and anticipation of Oslo.
The trauma of the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin Z”L. And the waves of terrorism that tore through so many families and communities.
But, for some of you sitting here today – particularly our youth movements and students – these historical events are just that: history. Flag parades and concerts in Hamer Hall are probably distant memories … if memories at all … Pages from an outdated version of “How to be a Good Zionist in the Diaspora”.
Since I was a child, our community has evolved, as has Israeli society, and I believe that we need to recognise and embrace these transformations.
If we don’t, our differences become our divisions, and our capacity to ensure the vision of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state will be sorely compromised.
In his first year in office, President Rivlin described this threat as Israeli society’s collective suppression of what he called the “new israeli order”.
The threat that President Rivlin was referring to was the changing demographics of Israeli society. He described the need for the “four tribes of Israel” – Chareidim, Orthodox, Secular and Arab Israelis – to work together on this developing Israeli mosaic.
The evolution of our community in Australia isn’t so much demographic, but we do have different tribes. And the problem with tribes, is that they are prone to tribalism.
We have our incredible youth movements, each representing their own distinct vision of Zionism.
We have people who identify as Zionists on each point of the political and religious spectrum: from the left to the right. The Ultra-Orthodox to Reform to Secular – and everything in between.
GEN17 confirmed what we all instinctively know – that regardless of their differences, the vast majority of Australian Jews care deeply for Israel.
Australian Jewry has so much to be proud of. Our love for Israel is forged into the DNA of our community.
We should take pride in the fact that over 500 kids attend programs in Israel every year.
We should take pride in the fact that we have a higher proportion of Shlichim across Australia than any other country in the Diaspora.
We should be proud that we have one of the highest Aliya rates in the western world.
We have deep and longstanding relationships with both of the main political parties in Australia, and fiercely advocate for issues that are important to Israel and the Jewish community.
But while the list of achievements is substantial; so are the challenges we face.
And top of that list is coming to terms with the disparate attitudes towards Israel held within our community, where Zionism clearly means different things to different people. The homogenous Zionist identity, the one track approach – they are things of the past.
If we suppress this new, more complex reality in the Zionist movement, as I believe we have been, we are at risk of losing a generation of genuine and passionately committed Jews from active involvement in the movement.
So – what does this mean for the Zionist movement? How do we prevent unproductive division within our community and indeed the Jewish world? How do we maintain the centrality of Israel for all Jews in our community?
Speaking just recently in the Knesset, President Rivlin said: “Complexity is not a plague … a lack of backbone. Complex people do not only vote for the centre. They vote for the right, and for the left. Our complexity is also what binds us together.”
So too, in Australia, our diversity reflects the strength of the Zionist movement.
We must ensure that each tribe has a place at the table because of our differences, not despite them. We must work together towards our common goals because our whole is greater than the sum of our parts.
We must step out of our fortresses and engage. If we refuse to talk to those with whom we disagree, we abandon any prospect of finding common ground.
Our ability to find that common ground as a movement is pivotal to the Federation’s ability to meet its obligations as the primary representative body of the Zionist Movement.
Whether we are engaging with the Australian Government or the Israeli Government, our credibility and influence depends on our ability to truly represent the plurality of views of our affiliates.
Over the last 6 months, I have met or spoken to almost every affiliate. Every affiliate expressed the same commitment to Jewish identity and the State of Israel. But each affiliate also understood those concepts differently.
There are diverse views but there is also clear consensus on many important issues, including our absolute commitment to Israel as a Jewish and democratic State, the need to advocate for and ensure religious equality in Israel and to oppose discrimination against minorities.
We are not only entitled to express our views on these issues to the Israeli Government but given that they go to the heart of the relationship between Israel and Jews in the Diaspora, we have a responsibility to do so.
At home, we will have a Federal election in the coming months and we have a responsibility to do all we can to fortify the bipartisan support of Israel that has endured in Australia for so long. We cannot be complacent.
I am looking forward to facing these challenges together with Ginette Searle, our fiercely committed and capable Executive Director and our new and continuing office bearers together with the Presidents of the State Zionist Councils.
I want to specifically welcome Phillip Chester back to the ZFA executive and thank him for his support and encouragement for me to take on this role.
And, finally, I want to mention the late Johnny Baker, who also inspired many of us here.
A week before he died, Johnny called me to his bedside and in his own unique way, told me that I had no choice but to put my hand up for this role.
His legacy of wisdom, commitment and compassion will be our guide, as we strive to do justice to the cause that we all believe in so deeply.