Nick Dyrenfurth
About Nick Dyrenfurth

Nick Dyrenfurth is a Melbourne-based author or editor of six books on Australian politics and history, including Boycotting Israel is Wrong: the Progressive Path to Peace between Israel and the Palestinians (2015, with Philip Mendes), Mateship: A Very Australian History (2015), A Little History of the Australian Labor Party (2011, with Frank Bongiorno), Heroes and Villains: the rise and fall of the early Australian Labor Party (2011), All That’s Left: what Labor should stand for (2010, co-edited with Tim Soutphommasane), and Confusion: the making of the Australian two-party system (2009, co-edited with Paul Strangio). Nick is also a leading media commentator, having written for The Age, The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald, Australian Financial Review, The Daily Telegraph, The Canberra Times, The Saturday Paper, and The Monthly, and frequently appears on television and radio stations. Nick is a former advisor and speechwriter to the Hon. Bill Shorten, Leader of the Federal Opposition. He is the current federal secretary of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History and an adjunct research fellow in the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University, where he attained a doctorate in Australian history.

Shahar Burla and Dashiel Lawrence (eds), Australia and Israel: A Diasporic, Cultural and Political Relationship (Sussex Academic Press, Eastbourne, United Kingdom and Chicago, United States, 2015)

Reviewed by Nick Dyrenfurth

This book is a welcome and stimulating contribution to understanding the mostly cordial but, as the editors insist, ‘ambiguous’ relationship that exists between Australia and Israel.

Despite the key role played by Labor Minister for External Affairs H.V. Evatt in bringing about the decision to partition Mandate Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, and the influence of Australian Jews at the time in shaping his thinking, Australia and Israel have always been odd bedfellows.  The geographical differences are vast and obvious, and the strategic, economic and cultural interests of the two countries diverge on a geographically-determined basis, notwithstanding the shared American alliance. And yet, given the nature of the Australian-Jewish population – its strong contribution to several facets of public life since World War Two, deeply-felt Zionism and frequent travel between the two nations – the connections between Australia and Israel demand a closer and more rigorous exploration. This collection, featuring contributions from a range of Jewish and non-Jewish scholars, mostly achieves that aim.

It begins with a useful introduction to the relationship, although reference to existing literature on the subject is largely absent. (The collections New Under the

Sun: Jewish Australians on Religion, Politics and Culture {2006} and Immigration and Nation Building: Australia and Israel Compared {2010} sprang to mind). Thereafter the book is organised into three parts – ‘Australia-Israel Diasporic Relationship’, ‘Political and Cultural Relationship’ and ‘Australia, Israel and the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Scheme’ – followed by a thoughtful conclusion by Fania Oz-Salzberger. The breadth of subjects considered includes the illegal use of Australian passports by Mossad in 2010, the mysterious death of dual-national Ben Zygier, and party political chapters such as an exploration of the shifting attitudes of the Australian Labor Party in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the views of the Australian Greens on the same conflict.

The most illuminating chapters are those which move outside the familiar orbit of debates around Israel and the Middle East. For example, Dominic Skinner and Stephanie Galaitsi explore Australia’s and Israel’s shared challenge of water management, and there is an interesting discussion of Hebrew language studies and Israel education in Australian Jewish schools by Zehavit Gross and Suzanne D. Rutland.

The respective chapter contributions of the two editors, Shahar Burla and Dashiel Lawrence, reveal that, increasingly, there is no neat diaspora consensus on matters relating to Israel. As should be the case. The Netanyahu government is criticised by many Australians for its West Bank settlement policies and foreign policy adventurism, Reform and Masorti Jews raise the issue of denominational discrimination, and many Jewish individuals and groups are bypassing traditional communal-mediated links with Israel. As Lawrence puts it, we are seeing an ‘Australian Jewish relationship with Israel … characterised by a dynamic that is more direct, plural and personal than in the past (p. 28).’

The weakest chapter to my mind is the co-contribution dealing with the Academic Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. In it we have a situation where two authors co-wrote a chapter despite having different positions on the movement. If two points of view were wanted, why not two separate short chapters? More importantly, BDS is presented in far too benign terms. There is no examination of the serious flaws of BDS, such as the fact that its key leaders argue for the destruction of the State of Israel, nor do the authors of this chapter engage with the public goals of the movement, which implicitly and explicitly endorse a ‘one-state’ or binational solution to the conflict. Nor are the frequent, well-documented cases of anti-semitism and academic McCarthyism perpetrated by BDS supporters explored. English expression throughout the chapter is particularly obscure, with philosophical abstractionism that turns a blind-eye to the on-the-ground realities of both Israelis and Palestinians. There is a failure to understand why the overwhelmingly majority of Jews believe BDS crosses a red line.

I noted some other minor imperfections. The absence of a chapter on the conservative side of politics is regrettable. Conservative Australian attitudes towards Israel and Jewish identity have evolved over time. Likewise a fruitful study of the linkages, similarities and differences between the two nations’ union movements might have yielded a rich harvest. There are some copy editing mistakes that should not have appeared in the final product of an academic text and the costly hardback format may restrict its audience. The front-cover image of protesting Sydney Jews does not do justice to the book’s complex themes.

These quibbles aside, Australia and Israel will deservedly occupy a valued place in the literature of both countries and should spark lively debates..

The book can be ordered here.

For a review by Ron Porat, Lecturer in Israel Studies and Middle Eastern History at Monash University, seeOut of Israel: Ausraelis re-invent the diasporic identity– The Conversation 10.08.15
And for a discussion of the book’s themes by the authors, see Australia and Israel: an ambiguous relationship invites fresh examination – The Conversation 06.08.15

This +61J review may be republished if acknowledged thus: “This review first appeared on and is reprinted with permission.”

Nick Dyrenfurth
Posted by Nick Dyrenfurth 2 years ago