This article was first published in mid-2015 in Australia and Israel: A Diasporic, Political and Cultural Relationship, edited by Shahar Burla and me. Since then, new activist organisations and online spaces have sprung up and websites and blogs launched. The Independent Jewish Council of Australia and Jews Against Fascism are two recent examples, albeit with opposing agendas. Their objective in each case has been publicly to canvass alternative ideas and views not being expressed by the established communal leadership. This website Plus61J also emerged in 2015. It too has successfully expanded the traditional paradigm of information and debate, exemplified by the Australian Jewish News, to broaden the conversation relating to Israel and the Australian Jewish community. While new groups and websites are formed, others are disbanded. One of the organisations and one of the websites named in this article are no longer active – such is the fluidity of the age in which we live – their purpose apparently seeming to have been served. But the central thesis of this article remains true today. Australian Jews are continuing to rewrite the rules of engagement on Israel and political and cultural debate in general. No longer will they allow the peak communal and Zionist groups to speak in their name. We should expect many more groups, websites and news sources to emerge from within Australian Jewry in 2017 and beyond.
For over sixty years, Australian Jews have engaged and identified with the State of Israel through the mediation of the established leadership – the major Jewish community and Zionist organisations in Australia.1 These organisations have co-ordinated major annual fundraisers, organised Israel volunteer programs, held information events and forums, and rallied during times of crisis in Israel. This article considers the ways in which this relationship is evolving. In particular it explores how Australian Jews are sidestepping these established institutions as well as the mainstay of Jewish community media in Australia, the Australian Jewish News, to create new spaces and outlets for local Jewish connections with, and discussion about, Israel. It argues that the traditional model of centralised mobilisation is eroding in place of a direct and unmediated dynamic between Australian Jewry and Israel. This new model of engagement is innovative and smaller in scale. It does not rely on large repositories of information and organisation. The model eschews the traditional ‘top-down’ model of old, in which leaders determine and drive activity. In its place is a flatter, fluid and peer-directed exchange, where action is not directed by a handful of leaders but by the broad base of its members.
My interest in this subject owes much to the rich body of contemporary research and academic literature devoted to Jewish diaspora–Israel relations.2 The vast bulk of this research has been conducted in the United States. Some of this literature has suggested that American Jews, particularly younger generations, are becoming increasingly disengaged with Israel.3 While this chapter argues that the same process is some way off occurring in Australia, as Australian Jewry remains deeply connected with Israel’s political, cultural and social life, that connection is increasingly being fostered through new means and methods. In years to come Australian Jews will be able to engage with Israel in multiple ways. They will no longer be limited to traditional models including the established Zionist and community councils, but will engage through their own direct channels of communication and expression. They will be able to support philanthropic models that assist specific Israeli causes and organisations of their preference, and they will be able to enter forums and discussions that are not mediated by organised community leadership and established media. Regardless of the form this new engagement takes, the evidence presented here points towards the continuation of a strong and vibrant diasporic relationship between Australian Jews and Israel in years to come.
The end of mass mobilisation and the emergence of the non-establishment
To understand the emergence of this new model of engagement it is necessary to be familiar with the broader context of social change in Jewish diasporas throughout the world in recent decades. The United States, home to the largest Jewish diaspora, has witnessed major shifts in the contours of its Jewish communal life. These changes have given rise to two distinct phenomena: the end of mass mobilisation (by established institutions) and the emergence of non-establishment Jewish community activity and expression.4 Many of these social changes have been replicated in Jewish diasporas around the world; they have had an enormous impact on how Jews in the diaspora interact and engage with Israel. The end of the twentieth century marked the start of this shift. In 1999 the prolific researcher of Jewish community life, Daniel Elazar, warned that world Jewry was at a turning point. The civil institutions that Jewish people had built were almost all facing difficulties. They were not able to generate the vision that would motivate Jewish activity in the future.5 More than a decade later, and it appears Elazar was correct: the institutional and organised centres of Jewish diasporas, once the strongholds of Jewish life, are losing their ability to attract and mobilise Jews. From the United States and across Europe, Jewish communal institutions, foundational synagogues and established community bodies are confronting the reality that they are struggling to appeal to younger generations of diasporic Jews.6
What explains this turn away from traditional institutions? Among the many important contemporary trends that can be noted in Jewish diasporic identity and identification is the emergence of a ‘network society’. Networks, Shlomo Fischer and Suzanne Last Stone argue, are opposed to top-down, common structured, centralised bureaucratic organisations and institutions.7 Networks are flat, decentralised, often without true collective action and leadership, with initiative that can come from anywhere.8 The global rise of the ‘network society’ undermines decades of the ‘top down approach’ favoured by established Jewish institutions (from synagogues to Zionist organisations). Fischer and Last Stone draw on the theories of eminent Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells, primarily his idea of the ‘network society’, to posit that young people who grew up online with social media will not be interested in joining traditional one-size-fits-all, large, highly-structured and hierarchical Jewish organisations (such as federations). Instead, they will be interested in projects based on shared interests and mutual quests for meaning.9
This shift in Jewish identity and thinking has been explored in several Jewish diaspora contexts. Jonathan Boyd, a leading researcher of British Jewry and head of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, argues that for a new generation of young Jews in Britain, the Internet has meant, for those ‘feeling coerced, bored or alienated by the offerings of the mainstream’ [institutions]’, that ‘more and more committed young Jews are simply bypassing it and setting up their own (organisations)’. Boyd cites the arrival of Limmud, Grassroots Jews, Wandering Jews, Moishe House, and Jeneration as examples of new initiatives that have appeared in the British Jewish community landscape in recent years. The Net Generation Jews, as Boyd calls them, feel more empowered than previous generations to redefine the shape and contours of Jewish life. Across Europe the picture is much the same, as a new generation of young Jews are revitalising Jewish communal life. They are introducing new ways of expressing Judaism that are inclusive, open and accessible, and reach people who were previously unaffiliated with the established communities.10 In doing so they are bypassing established, central Jewish institutions, to create innovative solutions that improve the lives of thousands of disaffected Jews.
However, these findings speak mostly to the younger generation in the Jewish diasporas (particularly those age cohorts who grew up with the Internet). It is possible to see the erosion of the mobilisation model more broadly among other generations of Jews too. In addition to the rise of the ‘network society’ and the decline of centralised, institutionalised authorities, a desire for more individualised expressions of identity has also emerged. And with this, the desire for new Jewish organisations and groups that reflect individual over collective values.
In their important sociological study of American Jews titled The Jew Within, Steven M. Cohen and Arnold Eisen argue that the importance of the public sphere, ‘the organisational life which previously nourished and moulded Jewish identity in this country, whether focussed on philanthropy, social causes, support for Israel, or the fight against anti-Semitism’ has severely diminished.11 According to this landmark research, American Jews individually define the selves they are and the selves they want to be. The ‘sovereign self’ has become the principle authority for American Jews; they now perform the labour of fashioning his or her own selves, pulling together elements from the various Jewish and non-Jewish repertoires available, rather than stepping into an ‘inescapable framework’ of identity (familial, communal, traditional).12 In many instances Jews have begun to develop their own specific forms of Jewish communal activity and expression. As the organised American Jewish community of old has begun to falter, the recent period has witnessed a substantial rise in a variety of phenomena that could be classified as ‘non-establishment’. By this Cohen refers to a diversity of projects, organisations, and communities that have been forged across the United States in recent decades. These include independent minyanim, social justice projects, cultural events, learning initiatives, and online initiatives.
What are the consequences of this development for the diasporic-Israel nexus? Building on Cohen and Eisen’s breakthrough study, Sasson argues that the ‘mass mobilisation model’ that organised the practices of American Jews relative to Israel since the founding of the state has declined.13 While Sasson does not accept it has led to a mass disengagement or disaffiliation with Israel, he agrees that a new ‘direct engagement’ model (whereby American Jews now relate to Israel directly) has arrived.
In this new model Jews advocate their own political views in relation to Israel; they fund favoured causes, visit frequently, live there part-time, or consume Israeli news and entertainment. Sasson points out that the need for organisations which mediate between diaspora and homeland has diminished. The information-rich environment created by the Internet ensures that American Jews who wish to donate to a cause in Israel have easy access to information about an increasingly wide range of philanthropic choices that reflect their particular interests, values and commitments.
We have now observed Jewish community life and identity in transition. The evolution described here has had a significant impact on how Jews think about and relate to Israel. In the course of the chapter that follows, I show how this phenomena is not restricted to America or Britain. Rather, it has been replicated in Jewish diasporas across the world, including Australia. I chart these changes in Jewish communal activity and expression and focus on three thematic areas: activism, philanthropy/forums, and information.
Inner West Jewish Community and Friends Peace Alliance and localised Jewish activism
When the State of Israel is brought into Australian political debate, the established leadership of the Australian Jewish diaspora have inevitably been at the centre of that response. They have lobbied, mobilised and acted in accordance with the long-standing function of hasbara. Yet in 2010, when a council in the inner western suburbs of Sydney signalled its support for the international boycott campaign against Israel known as BDS, it was a disparate group of local Jews, most of whom were unaffiliated with mainstream or established Jewish communal organisations and activities, who allied together to fight the motion. Their activism was testament to the evolving nature of Australian Jewish community activity and Australian Jewish relations with Israel more broadly. Not only did this episode represent a shift towards non-established Jewish organisations taking a role in public debate in Australia, but it also revealed the emergence of an avowedly pluralist Jewish group connecting with their Jewish identity and the State of Israel. I will now address the case study of this group, known as the Inner West Jewish Community and Friends Peace Alliance (iwJAFA) and their response to the BDS campaign.
On 14 December 2010, Marrickville City Council in Sydney’s inner west expressed its support for the international boycott and protest movement against the State of Israel known as BDS. The council’s motion resolved that Council:
- Support the principles of the BDS global campaign and report back on any links the council has with organisations or companies that support or profit from the Israeli military occupation of Palestine with a view to the Council divesting from such links and imposing a boycott on any future such links or goods purchases.
- Boycott all goods made in Israel and any sporting, academic, government or cultural exchanges.
- Write to the local state and federal ministers (Carmel Tebbutt and Anthony Albanese) informing them of Council’s position and seeking their support at the State and Federal level for the global BDS movement.14
The declaration of in principle support by the Marrickville City Council for the BDS campaign was the first from any level of government (or mainstream political party) in Australia. It caused a tremendous controversy within the Australian Jewish diaspora and in the general political sphere of Australia, such that NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell threatened to use the Local Government Act to move against the council or sack it if it pursued the boycott.15
In response to the council’s action, a unique form of grassroots activism emerged within the small Jewish community of Sydney’s inner western suburbs. In the wake of Marrickville Council’s December meeting, a meeting was arranged at the Newtown Synagogue (located in a neighboring suburb to Marrickville) to bring members of Marrickville and the surrounding Local Government area together to formulate an ‘appropriate response’ to the motion.16 The meeting included around 70 local Jewish residents, traders and non-Jewish community members. The meeting’s attendees were largely unknown to one another; however, in under a few days, a group emerged that committed itself to the rescission of Marrickville’s Council’s motion and the establishment of an action group to carry the campaign forward. Out of that action group, iwJAFA emerged.
In the months that followed iwJAFA became the focal point of a localised campaign to overturn the council’s motion and rescind support for BDS. The group developed a focussed lobbying campaign that involved members of the group engaging with Marrickville’s councillors through one-on-one conversations, attending council meetings and promoting alternative perspectives to the BDS movement.17 Uri Windt, a member of iwJAFA, later noted in a review of their campaign: ‘There is something very powerful about peer-to-peer dialogue . . . they [group members]spoke as stakeholders with an authentic voice and legitimate right to engage Councillors on its decision’.18 Although dialogue and one-to-one lobbying was a central plank in iwJAFA’s campaign, the group used other tactics including commissioning a professional market research survey of 500 residents to poll local opinion on the motion. The survey revealed 76 per cent of locals were opposed to taking sides in foreign conflicts, results which were used in discussions with the councillors.19 The group also compiled an online and paper petition of Marrickville residents and business owners who opposed the motion, which was also later used as evidence of the community’s disapproval of the BDS motion.20
A meeting of Marrickville Council on BDS
At the heart of iwJAFA’s campaign was its expression of support for a two-state solution and the national aspirations of both Palestinians and Israelis. The group advocated a distinctly pluralist position, one that reflected the diverse views of its mostly Jewish membership. In the spirit of this pro-peace, pluralistic stance, they proposed to Marrickville City Council that an alternative model of peace promotion be considered. The group also proposed initiatives that sustained social, economic and cultural links between Israeli and Palestinian society. Comet ME, a renewable energy initiative in the Middle East bringing electricity to vulnerable Palestinian communities living off the grid in the Palestinian Occupied Territories was one such example. This initiative gained the support of the Leichhardt Council when Leichhardt Friends of Hebron (a community-based human rights organisation) and the Inner West Chavurah jointly moved for the project to be supported by that council in 2007.
Group members of iwJAFA were linked by their shared support for a two-state solution and ‘meaningful self-determination for Palestinians’. As leading group organiser Uri Windt stated: ‘It’s not about being anti-Palestinian, but if you want peace you have to create peace there and peace here’.21 So, iwJAFA focused their expression of support on peace efforts between Israelis and Palestinians – rather than the sole expression of solidarity with State of Israel.
After several months of meetings with councillors, and public activism that included petitions and canvassing residents, iwJAFA was ultimately successful in its bid to have Marrickville Council rescind its motion. By April 2011, less than six months after the council’s motion was first passed, the council voted overwhelmingly against its original statement. Although BDS was a campaign of global significance, iwJAFAhad paid particular attention to the local aspect of the issue. In the petition iwJAFA argued that the Israel boycott had the “potential to sow the seeds of disharmony and import the tragic divisions of the Middle East into the local community.”22 This was a deliberate choice according to Windt, who notes: ‘while the pro-BDS petition presented to Councillors included national and international BDS supporters (including Julian Burnside, Naomi Klein and John Pilger), the group stuck to its local approach’.23
The ultimate resolution on BDS by Marrickville Council
The activities of iwJAFA and their campaign against Marrickville Council’s motion reflect a shift towards new Jewish political activity and the emergence of smaller, localised initiatives from within the Australian Jewish diaspora. A number of the original group were part of the Inner West Chavurah and Newtown Shul.24 And many of the members of the iwJAFA were unaffiliated with Jewish communal life, synagogues or cultural groups. The group’s diversity was reflected in its commitment to be a ‘secular, non-party political local voice for Jewish people in the Inner West.’25 Group members all emphasised iwJAFA’s proud connection to their local community. Members had specifically chosen to live in the inner western suburbs of Sydney for its multicultural character, its progressive identity and because it was not considered a traditional Jewish suburb. Some, if not most, were part of mixed Jewish families and many maintained alternative expressions and practices of Jewishness. In particular they had chosen not to live mainstream Jewish lives in the popular Jewish suburbs of eastern Sydney, and/or not to attend large established synagogues.
To them, the Council’s motion came as a shock. It was an arm of representative government (one that represented their multicultural and diverse local community) choosing to take a partisan position on an issue that had deep resonance with their Jewish identity. The group felt disappointed and frustrated that the Council had neither consulted with nor considered the views of this diverse community, including Jewish residents. Indeed, they felt many councillors were completely unaware that there was a semblance of a Jewish community in Marrickville and its surrounding areas. While the majority of iwJAFA members did not play an active role in mainstream Jewish communal activity, be it through communal or Zionist organisations or synagogue congregations, they felt the BDS campaign represented a clear threat to their Jewish identity. As Janet Kossy, a group member and Leichhardt resident, describes:
One of the things that we had to explain to our councillors and really you have to explain to people because it’s peculiar to Jews, I think, is that even for people who . . . like me, who’s never been to Israel, who’s an atheist non-believer big time and have been virtually all my life, Israel is not just another country. It’s the place where half of the Jews in the world live. It’s my ethnic group, my cultural group. And therefore even people like me have a kind of emotional tie to Israel that is very real. So I think all the Jews in the area (in Marrickville and the Inner West) and many of them would be variations on this, did feel like it was an attack.26
What made iwJAFA’s campaign particularly unique was the leadership taken by local Jews to the exclusion of a top-down approach from the established leadership in Sydney, namely the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies. IwJAFA was not a Zionist organisation, nor was it a recognised communal Jewish body. Besides engaging in dialogue with the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies President Yair Miller, it maintained little connection with the established leadership throughout the campaign process.
Instead iwJAFA’s members saw the group as providing a platform for local Jewish community members in the Inner West to come together to discuss Jewish matters of local and global significance. The group did not ignore the role played by communal leadership; instead it regarded itself as ‘adding to and gaining from’27 the ‘larger collective experience’.28 Further, iwJAFA believed it had the capacity to challenge Marrickville Council and their support for the BDS on its own terms, without the involvement of a centralised authority. As Gael Kennedy remarks:
I remember someone proposed that we get the Board of Deputies involved. And I really remember clearly there was a feeling of our group that we weren’t a member of the Board of Deputies as a group. We’d always felt ourselves to be non-mainstream and we felt that we had the capacity and we had an approach that was different. And we wanted to work on that ourselves.29
The group’s approach was indeed different to that of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies. It used local connections with councillors, businesses and residents – almost all of whom were non-Jewish – to argue the problematic nature of BDS, to explain the deeply polarising nature of the campaign, to highlight the perspective of Jews living and working in the Inner West and, finally, to offer alternative initiatives (to BDS) that could assist Palestinians rather than engage in a divisive political action. Unlike the Board of Deputies, iwJAFA did not take a partisan involvement in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Instead, the group acknowledged the conflict was extremely complex ‘with many different narratives and truths that are also intricately linked to both regional and global tensions’.30
The case study of iwJAFA and their 2011 campaign against Marrickvile Council’s BDS motion reveals much about the evolving nature of the Australian Jewish diaspora, and its relationship with Israel. Not only did the campaign show the emergence of a distinctly plural Jewish group, but it pointed towards Jewish political activity operating outside of the established leadership paradigm – in this case, the NSW Board of Jewish Deputies. The group’s membership contained diverse attachments to Jewish political, cultural and religious practices. Members had sought out alternative and plural expressions of Jewish identity and others specifically identified as non-mainstream. However, the group could be united on the overarching value of, and engagement with, their Jewish identity. They regarded the council’s motion to be not only an attack on the State of Israel, but a much deeper denial of Jewish cultural identity, national aspirations and national self-determination.31
Philanthropy and Forums
New Israel Fund Australia Foundation
Zionist organisations (particularly the Jewish National Fund, United Israel Appeal and Magen David Adom) have played the dominant role in Jewish communal life in Australia. Their annual galas feature prominently in communal newspapers, the JNF’s blue fundraising boxes sit pride of place in the homes of Jews around the country and the advertising campaigns have called upon Australian Jews to ‘do your duty’ by supporting Israel. These organisations have effectively mobilised Australian Jewry financially, drawing hundreds of millions of dollars for their annual appeals as well as ongoing donations and emergency appeals established in response to war and crisis in Israel. However, in recent years a new organisation has emerged in Australia to provide Jews with an alternative avenue of engagement with Israel.
In 1979 an American-based organisation was established to actualise the vision of Israel’s Founders – a Jewish and democratic state that, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, ‘ensures complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex’.32 Called the New Israel Fund (NIF), the organisation has since provided more than USD$200 million to more than 800 civil society organisations and become an established part of the American Jewish diaspora’s Zionist framework (albeit on the margins). In 2011 an affiliate of this US-based organisation, NIF Australia Foundation, was formed with a similar vision in mind.
The organisation’s beginnings can be charted to 2010 when NIF’s President, Naomi Chazan, was forced to cancel a planned trip to Australia due to opposition from Zionist organisations.33 Robin Margo, a longtime Jewish community leader in NSW, says it was the opposition expressed by Zionist leadership to Chazan’s visit, together with his consultations with former US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk (a supporter of the NIF), that motivated him to investigate the possibility of an Australian equivalent to the NIF. An initial formation committee was established, comprised of those with similar social justice values, who (according to Margo) shared the feeling that the conversation about Israel in the Australian Jewish community was being ‘too tightly controlled by right-wing zealots’.34
The formation committee expressed the view that existing Jewish organisations were not speaking out on moral issues relating to Israel and some Israeli government policies (such as policies relating to the occupied territories, religious pluralism and removing discrimination against Israeli Arabs).35 Thus a new Israel-orientated organisation was needed with a distinctly different purpose to the foundational Zionist institutions. Among those initially engaged in the idea of such an organisation was Liam Getreu, the former head of the Australian Zionist Youth Council (AZYC). Getreu felt that until the arrival of the organisation he could not find a natural home in the existing communal structure in Australia that reflected his values. He and many of his peers were seeking an organisation acting in line with their desires to contribute directly to helping Israelis make Israel a better country.36
Since being established in 2011, NIF Australia Foundation has sought to develop a model of engagement with Israel that extends beyond fundraising. Getreu, now the organisation’s Executive Director, explains that NIF Australia Foundation wishes to provide an outlet for a different connection to Israel: ‘we wanted a real link with Israelis, rather than just us pontificating in the diaspora’.37 The organisation has chosen to focus its attention on engaging and educating Australian Jews about the ‘progressive and democratic camp’ in Israel while also raising funds for the organisations that carry out that work. It supports more than 100 organisations that ‘strengthen and safeguard civil and human rights; address economic injustice; foster tolerance and religious pluralism; challenge discrimination against Israel’s Bedouin and Arab citizens; counter disadvantage faced by women; tackle environmental issues.’38 Getreu says that includes funding a diverse array of Jewish Israeli grantees – some of whom he does not agree with ideologically. On the other extreme, they assist Arab Israelis who do not share the NIF Australia Foundation’s vision for the state as a Jewish democratic state. However, the organisation’s test for support is ‘how can we make sure that Israel is pluralist, is tolerant, is inclusive, is democratic, is loving of its neighbour, informed by Jewish values, but not dictated by Jewish (religious) law.’39
This approach is without precedent within the Australian Jewish community and Zionist framework. What philosophically sets the NIF Australia Foundation apart from established Israel-orientated organisations in Australia is what Getreu describes as the recognition of ‘dual narratives’, the view that: There are two peoples who are sharing this land. How can we make sure that we’re recognising everyone’s right for self-determination? And how can we also make sure that we’re creating a continued engagement with Israelis and Palestinians who are working to create, to make this piece of land as friendly and as inclusive as it can be, within whatever political structure that’s occurring. 40
The NIF Australia Foundation’s commitment has growing appeal within the Australian Jewish diaspora, especially to those who have long contributed towards Zionist organisation fundraisers and who support the long-term flowering of a Jewish state of Israel. Irving Wallach, a former executive member of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies and now NIF Australia Foundation President, gave voice to this in 2012: ’I think there’s a big constituency who want to support Israel but don’t want to support some of the anti-democratic legislation that’s coming in of late, but want Israel to prosper in a moral sense’.41
In the three years since it began operating in Australia, the organisation has steadily built an audience, Facebook presence, supporters and donors. It now has a small but growing profile among Australian Jews. In 2013, funding for the previous financial year had risen up to $150,000 and the organisation began extending its activities to encompass a younger demographic of supporters, including holding events for those in their 20s and 30s with over 150 attendees at forums.42 The engagement of young Australian Jews is something the organisation seeks to capitalise on. NIF Australia Foundation advisory council member Robyn Schwartz has said the organisation’s importance and relevance will grow as young Jews increasingly express the view that they ‘wish to engage with Israel in new and more fulfilling ways.’43
However, as with its American affiliate organisation, NIF Australia Foundation has come under attack from critics who argue the organisation funds initiatives that undermine the State’s existence.44 These allegations are rejected by Getreu and Margo. In Margo’s view, leaders of Zionist organisations in Australia have regarded and continue to regard NIF Australia as a rival, particularly but not only insofar as younger members of Jewish communities are concerned. He says he has heard a leading member of ECAJ refer to NIF Australia as ‘the competition’.45 Margo says NIF Australia Foundation does not seek to compete with, duplicate or replace the roles of state or federal elected representative bodies.46
The challenge for the NIF Australia Foundation has and continues to be building awareness and support for its programme across Australian Jewry. It remains to be seen if a new generation of Australian Jews will embrace the organisation’s ideological vision for the State of Israel. While it is undoubtedly attractive to a politically and socially progressive element of the Australian Jewish diaspora, one that remains committed to equality in Israel, it stands alongside established Zionist organisations that have successfully compelled Australian Jews to support their annual and emergency appeals for many decades. Indeed, many of NIF Australia’s supporters also continue to support mainstream Zionist fundraisers.
Nevertheless, NIF Australia stands as another example of how the diasporic model of engagement with Israel is evolving in new, diverse and meaningful ways.
In 2009, Alex Fein, a young Melbourne Jewish woman, began anonymously publishing a web blog under the title The Sensible Jew. The product of a Zionist youth movement, an active congregant of a Modern Orthodox synagogue and a self-described ‘staunch Zionist’, Fein’s path through Melbourne’s Jewish community life could be regarded as mainstream. However, by the late 2000s she became increasingly concerned about the direction of mainstream communal Jewish life – its leadership, its structure, and the issues that dominated community discussions and debates.
In turning to the Australian Jewish News (AJN), Fein found a distinct lack of discussion and debate on local issues affecting Australian Jewry. Instead, she saw a ‘mawkish’ representation of the Holocaust and its memory, combined with an unnecessary focus on the domestic and international politics of Israel. Fein believed this was increasingly to the detriment of other important local Jewish issues, such as growing assimilation and inter-marriage, the rise in Jewish day school fees, and increasing financial inequality across the Melbourne Jewish communities.47
Fein considered many of the statements from communal and Zionist leaders unrepresentative at the time (and still unrepresentative) of, and out of touch with, the attitudes of her generation, and as not reflective of the diversity of Jews in Melbourne. With the assistance of another anonymous writer, Fein launched her blog. Several weeks after its launch, the blog received thousands of hits across Australia and around the word. Its readership skyrocketed even further several weeks later when it was the subject of national media coverage, including a story in Fairfax Media.48 In response to this coverage, the AJN was surprisingly supportive and published the following generous editorial about the blog and the rise of new media:
What is also emerging is a desire for the community to debate each issue affecting our community – and Israel – on its merits, rather than for the discussion to start from a predetermined ideological position . . . We might have it wrong. But our sense is that our community, emboldened by new media, is beginning to move more towards the centre in outlook. For now, it is merely a ripple, but we’ll be watching keenly to see whether it becomes a wave. 49
Over time the blog sparked others into action; among them, Anthony Frosh. Frosh felt there was an obvious need for more voices in Jewish community discussions and debates. Frosh regarded the AJN as increasingly out of touch with the needs of the broader Australian Jewish diaspora. He believed it was only serving part of its readership and Australian Jews were lacking in genuinely local, engaging and relevant content about local Jewish life. Frosh saw other Jews increasingly accessing stories about Israel through the Internet, including Israeli newspapers with English language services. They did not need a weekly, out-of-date newspaper that was mediated through the eyes of established Australian Jewry. The AJN’s emphasis on published syndicated news from Israel no longer made sense. As Frosh describes:
It was having less and less local content and more and more syndicated content [ . . ] published syndicated content that people read on the Internet a week ago. So it would be articles from the Jerusalem Post that people read online nearly a week before and then it turns up in the Jewish News. It’s like, what’s the point of this? If I wanted to read this I could read it online.
Frosh shared Fein’s concerns that the paper had become increasingly narrow in its political and religious coverage and was only servicing particular Jewish communities. This was reflected in the paper’s commentary pages which contained a specific religious and ideological worldview. Frosh argues the paper had begun to lose touch with younger readers:
I mean the joke about the Jewish News is it’s a publication that your spouses’ parents buy and you read it there, you know and no one under 60 actually is a subscriber and so on. And most people who read it aren’t reading it anymore.
Frosh believes the arrival of The Sensible Jew had opened up a space for a greater diversity of voices to engage in local issues relevant to Jewish communities around Australia. With the assistance of his partner Rachel Sacks-Davis and a group of Jewish friends, Frosh established Galus Australis in 2010. From its very beginning, Galus Australis aimed to be a site of diverse opinions and perspectives.
According to Frosh a core feature of the blog was pluralism: Being pluralistic was a key value of ours, being politically and religiously pluralistic. And really to seek diversity. So when I thought that we were getting too much content from the right or too much content from the left, I would then go to actively seek out content from the other side.
The pursuit of pluralism, especially on matters relating to Zionism, is a policy the website continues to pursue five years later. Galus asserts it does not subscribe to any particular viewpoint and is committed to robust and challenging debate. It calls for contributions from a range of viewpoints and welcomes submissions from across the religious and political spectrum.50 This cross-section has also included articles written by members of the established leadership, many of whom have engaged in discussions outside the domain of their organisation’s activities.
In the four years of its operation, Galus covered a range of stories and included perspectives that would be missing from the pages of AJN’s commentary section. The blog’s stories often aroused heated debate. The comments section in particular has featured differing viewpoints and perspectives. While Israel remains a feature of the website’s content, Fein (who did not participate in the launch of Galus but has since taken over as its editor) believes Galus looks to focus upon Jewish communities in Australia, their issues and priorities, rather than devote time to discussing the domestic politics of Israel or the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. As she says:
Even as a staunch Zionist there’s a limit to what Australian Jews can do. And we’ve got a hell of a lot of problems here and unless we all plan on making Aliyah, then we’ve really got to face up to the issues that confront us here. And thank God we’ve got something like Galus that provides a platform for discussion of what’s going on in Australia.
It is a view seconded by Frosh who argues that it is ‘easy to be inundated with people [wanting to write about Israel]. People do have strong opinions’.51 As such, the blog remains focussed on engaging with Israel through posts that discuss the diaspora’s relationship with Israel.
Galus Australis is not the only blog and online space to have emerged. Since the mid-2000s a number of blogs written by and for Australians Jews have been established.52 Almost all of these spaces have engaged to varying degrees with news and opinion about events in Israel and the diaspora’s relationship with Israel.53 The blogs have not reflected the same ideological position; many have been avowedly pro-Israel and Zionist and others have included perspectives that are significantly more critical of Israel. These sites have included a diversity of Australian Jews, including those from religious and secular backgrounds, and younger and older generations. Unlike Galus, these websites have not pursued the same pluralist line but instead have sought to be an online voice for a particular perspective. Each has sought to mark out their own specific voice, which they believe is not being heard through the AJN. While they do not share the same points of view on Israel or Zionism, they represent different demographics and seek to address different audiences.
Furthermore, they can be linked by their desire to have an independent voice that is not aligned with a particular organisational view and is not being catered for in the pages of the AJN. While their readership may be small and their influence minimal, they represent the kind of Jewish expression and activity that typifies the ‘network society’. They demonstrate how elements of the Australian Jewish diaspora are now bypassing traditional centres of information and organisation to create their own spaces of expression.
For much of the 20th century it was the norm for Australian Jewish community and Zionist organisations (what I term the ‘established leadership’) to mediate between Australian Jewry and Israel. These organisations coordinated annual fundraisers, organised Israel volunteer programs, held information events and forums and mobilised rallies during times of conflict and war. In the process they raised tens of millions of dollars, lobbied adeptly on behalf of Israel and ensured Zionism sat at the apex of Jewish consciousness in Australia. All the while, news and information about Israel has invariably been filtered through established Jewish communal media sources, such as the Australian Jewish News or The Australian Jewish Herald. These outlets have declined.54 They are slowly being replaced by new spaces of engagement, such as online access to the Israeli English language news websites and locally produced Australian weblogs. The established leadership is finding that it is not the only Jewish organisation prepared to raise money for Israel or engage in political activity where Israel is concerned.
This article has explored in three forms (activism, philanthropy, and information) how Australian Jewish community activity and expression is evolving. It is too soon to argue that this innovative, emerging model of engagement has usurped the established and traditional one. However, it is also clear that the rules of engagement with Israel are being rewritten for a new century. In years to come we can expect the Australian Jewish relationship with Israel to be characterised by a dynamic that is more direct, plural and personal than in the past.
- The established leadership, a group I identify as the leading Jewish community and Zionist organisations that have sat at the apex of Australian Jewish communal life since the post-war period. They include the peak Jewish communal bodies the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) and their state roof counterparts the Jewish Communal Council of Victoria (JCCV) and the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies (NSW JBD). The established leadership also includes leading Zionist organisations the Zionist Federation of Australia (their state based counterparts, Zionist Council of Victoria and the Zionist Council of NSW) and the peak fundraising bodies the United Israel Appeal (UIA), the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and Magen David Adom (MDA). These organisations have ensured Israel and Zionism have filtered through almost all aspects of Jewish communal life in Australia – from synagogues to Jewish day schools, and social, cultural, and sporting organisations.
- There have been many contributions to this topic in recent years, of most influence on this study: Jasmin Habib, Israel, Diaspora, and the Routes of National Belonging (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2004); Caryn Aviv and David Shneer, New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora (New York: New York University Press, 2005); Shaul Kellner, Tours that Bind : Diaspora, Pilgrimage, and Israeli Birthright Tourism (New York: New York University Press, 2013). Eliezer Ben-Rafael, Judit Bokser Liwerant, Yosef Gorny, eds., Reconsidering Israel–Diaspora Relations (Leiden: Brill, 2014).
- Steven M Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman, Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and Their Alienation from Israel, Jewish Identity Project, ReBoot available at http://www.acbp.net/pdf/pdfs-research-and-publications/Beyond_Distancing.pdf.
- The notion of the end of mass mobilisation is described in Theodore Sasson, The New American Zionism (New York: New York University Press, 2014). The idea of the Jewish non-establishment is developed Jack Wertheimer ed., The New Jewish Leaders: reshaping the American Jewish landscape (Waltham, Mass.: Brandeis University Press, 2011).
- Daniel J. Elazar, “A Reinvented Jewish Polity in a Globalized World,” in Beyond Survival and Philanthropy: American Jewry and Israel, eds. Allon Gal and Alfred Gottschalk (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 2000), 228.
- Anna Greenberg, “Grande soy vanilla latte with cinnamon, no foam . . . Jewish identity and community in a time of unlimited choices,” (New York: Reboot, 2006) Available at http://www.acbp.net/About/PDF/Latte%20Report% 202006.pdf.; Cohen, S.2 8 lefttt b and l – xx 2 06/03/2015 11:13 Page 28 M., & Kelman, A. Y. (2005). Cultural events & Jewish identities: Young adult Jews in New York (New York: National Foundation for Jewish Culture, 2005), Available at http://www.bjpa.org/ Publications/ details.cfm? PublicationID=113.
- Shlomo Fischer and Suzanne Last Stone, Jewish Identity and Identification: New Patterns, Meanings, and Networks (Jerusalem: The Jewish People Policy Institute, 2012), 8.
- Dov Maimon, “The Cultural Dimension of Jewish European Identity,” Jewish People Policy Institute accessed December 11, 2014, http://jppi.org.il/news/147/58/The-Cultural-Dimension-of-Jewish-EuropeanIdentity/
- Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen, The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 2.
- Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen, The Jew within: Self, Family, and Community in America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 2.
- Theodore Sasson, The New American Zionism (New York : NYU Press, 2013).
- “Business Paper Council meeting,” Marrickville City Council, accessed November 13, 2013, http://www.marrickville.nsw.gov.au/ BridgeDownload/ COUNCIL+MEETING+14+DECEMBER+2010+BUSINESS+PAPER.PDF?s =1463730247,docID=81554.10.
- Alice Coote, “Council’s boycott of Israel defeated,” The Daily Telegraph, April 20, 2011, 3.
- Gareth Narunsky, “Grassroots response to council’s Israel boycott,” Australian Jewish News, February 4, 2011, 4.
- Gael Kennedy and Janet Kossy, “Beyond the boycott battle,” Australian Jewish News, May 13, 2011, 28.
- Report to May 2011 Executive NSW Jewish Board of Deputies: Marrickville Council BDS Campaign prepared April 24, 2011.
- Gael Kennedy and Janet Kossy, “Councils can help Mid-East peace,” Sydney Morning Herald, April 19, 2011, 9.
- ”Marrickville Council: Please Don’t Divide the Community Petition,” prepared April 4, 2011.
- Joshua Hamerman, “Australian Jews say councils likely done with Israel boycott calls,” Jerusalem Post, accessed November 26, 2013, http://www.jpost.com/Jewish-World/Jewish-News/Australian-JewsCouncils-likely-done-with-Israel-boycotts.
- ”Marrickville Council: Please Don’t Divide the Community Petition,”prepared April 4, 2011.
- Report to May 2011 Executive NSW Jewish Board of Deputies: Marrickville Council BDS Campaign prepared April 24, 2011.
- Australian Jewish News, “Beyond the boycott battle,” May 13, 2011, 28
- “iwJAFA: The Inner West Jewish Community and Friends Peace Alliance, Inc” information sheet.
- Uri Windt, Gael Kennedy and Janet Kossy, interview with author, November 14, 2014.
- Report to May 2011 Executive NSW Jewish Board of Deputies: Marrickville righttt 2 9 b and l – xx 2 06/03/2015 11:13 Page 29 Council BDS Campaign prepared April 24, 2011.
- Uri Windt, Gael Kennedy and Janet Kossy, interview with author, November 14, 2014.
- Gael Kennedy and Janet Kossy, “Councils can help Mid-East peace,” The Sydney Morning Herald, April 19, 2011, 9.
- Uri Windt, Gael Kennedy and Janet Kossy, interview with author, November 14, 2014.
- “FAQs,” New Israel Fund accessed July 14, 2014, http://www.nif.org/about/faqs.
- A former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, an avowed Zionist, whose family had been in Israel for three generations.
- Robin Margo, email to author, July 5, 2014.
- Liam Getreu, ‘Filling in the black hole’ Australian Jewish News, June 3, 2011, 25.
- Liam Getreu, interview with author, November 15, 2013.
- “Our Focus Areas,” New Israel Fund Australia Foundation, accessed June 11, 2014, http://www.nif.org.au/focus_areas.
- Liam Getreu, interview with author, November 15, 2013.
- “Outspoken pundits on NIF’s invite list,” Australian Jewish News accessed May 29, 2014, http://www.jewishnews.net.au/outspoken-pundits-on-nifsinvite-list/34630.
- “Our Progress in 2013,” NIF Australia Foundation (Sydney: NIF Australia Foundation), 2.
- Ibid., 10.
- “NIF Australia’s launch provokes war of words,” Jewish Chronicle Online, accessed December 2, 2014, http://www.thejc.com/news/worldnews/49541/nif-australias-launch-provokes-war-words.
- Robin Margo, email to author, July 5, 2014.
- Alex Fein, interview with author, January 14, 2014.
- “Blog takes on the ‘swill’ who speak for Jews,” accessed January 11, 2014,
- “Editorial,” Galus Australis, accessed January 14, 2014, http://galusaustralis.com/about/.
- Anthony Frosh, interview with author, January 9, 2014.
- These include: AJN Watch, www.ajnwatch.blogspot.com; Jews Down Under, jewsdownunder.com/; Jewgle Perth, www.jewgleperth.com; Oz Torah, www.oztorah.com/; Daphne Anson, www. daphneanson.blogspot.com/, among many others.
- The Australian Jewish News is the only printed publication today. While it was previously published in Sydney and Melbourne, in recent years these have merged into a single national publication. It is believed that very few young Jews buy copies or maintain annual subscriptions.
And see Nick Dyrenfurth’s review of Australia and Israel: A Diasporic, Political and Cultural Relationship Edited by Shahar Burla and Dashiel Lawrence (Brighton, Chicago and Toronto: Sussex Academic Press, 2015): Australia and Israel – an ‘ambiguous’ relationship September 2, 2015